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The battle for Congo’s resources goes on

Published Apr 20, 2007 9:34 PM

Hundreds of people lost their lives in two days of fighting in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the end of March. The fighting, which also destroyed a large swath of downtown Kinshasa, was between bodyguards of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the loser in last year’s presidential election, and the government.

Two weeks later, Bemba, together with his family, took a private jet for “medical treatment in Portugal,” while most of his bodyguards managed to cross the Congo River and ask for asylum in Congo-Brazzaville.

While Congo is one of the richest countries in Africa, its people are among the poorest. The World Bank estimated the average yearly income in 2005 at $120, less than $.40 a day.

From the time King Leopold II of Belgium claimed Congo as his personal property in 1885, its mineral riches were the source of wealth for Belgian and French capitalists until Mobutu Sese-Seko took power from the anti-imperialist Patrice Lumumba in 1960. During Mobuto’s reign the U.S. got a big share of this wealth along with France.

Currently Western geologists estimate that Congo has over $300 billion worth of mineral resources that could be exploited in the next 25 years, if a reasonable amount of political stability can be achieved. It also has the hydroelectric potential to light Africa from the Cape to Cairo and enough land and water to feed the whole continent.

But Congo’s potential economic and human development cannot be achieved by a state whose sole purpose is satisfying the neocolonial demands of big European and U.S. companies who want the biggest profits at the lowest cost. Part of their costs is a smidgen of wealth dropped to their agents on the ground in Congo. Such states invest nothing in roads, education, health care, electricity, sanitation or any other service generally provided by governments elsewhere.

Jean-Pierre Bemba began his political career, according to Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s “The Congo from Leopold to Kabila,” in 1998 as a leader in the Mouvement de libération du Congo after the fall of Mobutu. His father had been one of Mobutu’s “barons” and was extremely wealthy. The MLC was sponsored by Uganda at that time as part of its strategy for controlling eastern Congo and thereby putting pressure on Laurent Kabila, the current president’s father, who had gained control of Kinshasa in 1997.

Nzongola-Ntalaja points out, “The ‘parochial interests’ of the United States and other major powers include maintaining access to the strategic resources of the Congo, selling weapons of war, and, in the particular U.S. case, supporting allies such as Uganda and Rwanda, which may ensure this access ... .” (p. 233)

The MLC took an active role in the years of fighting in Congo from 1998 to 2002, which cost 4 million lives.

When the international and domestic pressure for stability grew, Bemba and the MLC did take part in the election process and were Joseph Kabila’s main opponents in the elections held in the fall of 2006.

They wanted a big role in the government and to maintain their “security” forces outside of government control. They had stockpiled 20 tons of arms in Gbadolite and Gemena, two major cities in Bemba’s home province Equitateur. (www.digitalcongo.net/article/42339). When their plan didn’t succeed, they resorted to armed struggle.

The U.S. appeared to be well aware of what Bemba was doing. The spokesman for the State Department, Sean McCormack, in his daily briefing March 22 indicated that the U.S. was intent on defusing the tension, talking to the U.N. “peace” keepers and both sides “to keep the process moving forward.”

Radio Okapi, according to the Kinshasa paper Le Potentiel, reported April 12—the day after Bemba left for Portugal—that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had issued a long statement on Africa, which included significant support for the results of the elections in Congo.

The U.S. didn’t want to disrupt the arrangements they were in the process of establishing in Congo with the new government, but they were not prepared to discard Bemba, an old, established asset.

Even though Bemba tried to overturn the results of an election widely recognized as democratic, killing hundreds of people and destroying wide swaths of downtown Kinshasa in the process, there was hardly a peep out of the press in the U.S.

But in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe’s popular land reform is challenging the rule of Western interests, the death of one anti-government protester at the hands of the cops drew immediate and widespread condemnation as an “attack on democracy.”