Congo's Tragedy and Western Complicity

by Rahul Mahajan

Empire Notes, January 24, 2006


The latest issue of the Lancet, the well-known British medical journal, contains a shocking report on mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between April and July 2004, a multinational team of researchers carried out an exhaustive survey of 19,500 households in randomly selected clusters, leaving out the roughly 10% of the country where violence was too great.

They conclude that excess mortality in Congo, a nation of 64 million people, is 38,000 per month -- this excess measured with respect to the baseline of sub-Saharan Africa's already staggeringly high crude mortality rate of 1.5 per 1000 per month. This dwarfs the sanctions on Iraq, where the excess mortality was 5-10,000 per month and was also calculated with respect to a baseline of much lower mortality.

Ever since the overthrow of Mobutu's kleptocratic regime in 1997, Congo has been wracked by violence. Starting in 1998, it was the site of what is sometimes called Africa's First World War, a civil war that involved eight other nations -- Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Namibia, Chad, Sudan, and Libya -- as well as numerous indigenous armed groups. That war officially ended in 2002, with an estimated death toll of 3.3 million.

Although the continuing violence is at a much lower level than before, it is still the cause of most of this excess mortality. Excess mortality in the eastern provinces, where violence was concentrated and where it continues, was about three times that in the western. Over half of these deaths are due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and easily treated respiratory infections.

At 450,000 excess dead per year, this constitutes one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world. Unfortunately, it gets virtually no attention -- unlike the all-important "war on Christmas," which garnered 58 spots on Fox News in the course of a single week.

Part of the reason activists haven't really talked about Congo is that there are no easy solutions to offer. With the sanctions on Iraq, the remedy was very simple -- remove the sanctions and allow Iraqis to use their oil revenues to rebuild the country -- but here it's hard to know what to say.

The West has benefited from the plunder carried out by Uganda and Rwanda in eastern Congo. The mining of coltan, an ore that provides tantalum, a key element in so-called "pinhead capacitors" used in cell phones, was a major source of profits to those armies and a major reason for their continued operations -- of course, they received mere pennies for every dollar the cell-phone makers made.

Human Rights Watch has chronicled and denounced the links between the international mining conglomerate Anglo American and the brutal Nationalist and Integrationist Front, an armed group that controls much of the gold mining in the Ituri district.

The West is, of course, also responsible for the brutal history of Congo that led up to this. Belgium essentially turned the entire country into a massive slavery and forced labor plantation, killing an estimated 10 million in the process. After independence, Belgium and the United States collaborated in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a leader who held out genuine hope to the people of Congo, and his replacement by the tyrannical and corrupt Mobutu.

After doing so much to create Congo's problems, the West has no interest in trying to fix them. There is no imperialist imperative to control the country; why should there be when resources flow freely without requiring any trouble on the part of the West? The UN peacekeeping force was recently increased to 16,700, or one person per 60 square miles, but in 2004 the UN was only able to raise half of the funds allocated for them. Nobody is pushing to get control there any more than they were in Liberia or than they are in Darfur.

The left has been very reticent to try to address such questions, out of fear that any call for humanitarian intervention will serve imperialist ends. This abdication is not only morally questionable, it is strategically unsound; indeed, the absence of a sensible way to deal with such problems helps to feed the kind of human rights imperialism that the left is (rightly) so afraid of.

The international community must devise a way of dealing with such problems, and the left must be involved in that devising. Any such method must in turn obey the twin principles of not increasing Western influence and holding the West at least financially if not morally accountable for what it has done. Easier said than done, but right now nobody is even saying it.

Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes. His latest book, "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond," covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies. He can be reached at

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