and quiet flows the blood…

23 02 2009

 

This was my draft of the editorial on the bloodshed and conflicts in and around the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the Economic and Political Weekly. The final edit was published in the EPW dated 21 February, 2009, Vol XLIV No 8.

[Why is the world, including India, silent about the neocolonial plunder of the Congo?]

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One of the greatest genocides of colonialism was the halving of the population of Congo during the 23 year rule by Belgium’s King Leopold from 1885 to 1908. Historians estimate that anything between eight to 22 million people were killed when Congo was the private farm of this one man. In 1908, control over Congo was shifted from Leopold’s person to the Belgian State but the colonial plunder continued till it was granted independence in 1960. But within 10 weeks of winning independence from Belgium, Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was deposed in a coup backed by Belgium and the United States and murdered. 

A century has flowed by since the end of Leopold’s Congo but the flow of blood has not ceased. The Great Lakes region of Africa – eastern parts of the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and also Tanzania and Kenya – has seen some of the most violent conflicts of the past decade or so. Conservative estimates for violent deaths in the DRC alone total about 5.4 million people, while in neighbouring Rwanda close to a million more died during the infamous Tutsi genocide. No war, since the end of World War II, has claimed as many lives. 

After a few years of relative quiet, recent reports indicate a renewing of conflicts  leading to fears of a return to the levels of violence which marked the previous decade. The mainstream media’s portrayal of the violence  as  some primordial ethnic-tribal strife fits well with the older colonial prejudice about the colonised people as uncivilised and unfit to rule themselves. Such media coverage hides the real causes of this violence and create a sense of despair at finding a solution. But like the genocide in Leopold’s Congo, the present killings too have an easy to identify cause – the loot of African resources by the developed world. 

In the early years of colonialism, the Great Lakes area gave ivory, timber and rubber to Europe. Copper, tin, zinc, diamonds, gold, uranium and cobalt, among others soon joined the list of resources plundered from this region. Coltan today completes that list. This link between natural resources, the multinational corporations (MNCs), the industrialised countries and these killings are well documented. There are comprehensive United Nations (UN) and international non-government organisations (INGOs) reports which lay bare this nexus and list companies and countries involved. Moreover, the UN Security Council has passed at least three resolutions calling for a halt to the “illegal” trade in Congo’s  minerals by Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. 

The story is simple. The armies of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda and the rebel militias are extracting the minerals which lie inside the territory of the DRC. The UN reports specifically indicts a list of companies which have traded illegally in these minerals, it names Citibank  and some foreign embassy staff for their role in facilitating this trade. Most of the companies listed are European, with a fair sprinkling of Asian and African companies. Two of these are Indian. The governments of the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France and the US have directly supported and shored up the different dictators and militias. Instead of stopping arms sales and imports of minerals from these countries, these western powers have actively encouraged them, both through their own devices and through World Bank loans. 

Coltan is a new and good example of this nexus. A full 80% of the world’s coltan, essential in the manufacture of cellphones and other electronic goods, is found in the DRC and none in Rwanda. Yet most of it is exported through Rwanda! This illegal extraction and export is based, according to the UN, on the control of militias armed and financed by the Rwandan government, the MNCs and the western powers. And rather than taking action to stop this plunder, the US incorporated Rwanda as one of its official allies in the “War on Terror” and till date there has been no action against Rwanda’s export of a commodity – coltan – which is not found in its own territory. 

Unfortunately, we in India do not anymore have the luxury of condemning the vileness only of American and European neo-colonialism in Africa. India is actively seeking to partner Rwanda in business and its president, Paul Kagame, was the chief guest at the India Africa Partnership Summit organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry last month. India’s imports from Rwanda, almost all “minerals”, have increased 16 times in the past one year alone while exports to that country have gone up 59 percent. Given the known complicity of the Rwandan regime in illegal trade which is directly fuelling the killings in Congo, it is important to know whether India’s increased trade is linked to the bloodshed we see. The issue is not only about Rwanda alone. As India expands its trade with Africa it needs to take care that it does not become complicit in the killings and conflicts which have mired colonial and neo-colonial powers in that continent. 

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be a concern with the Government of India. Apart from a question of ethics, this is also a violation of our legacy as a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement. While the amorality of the Congress-led Government’s foreign and trade policy can be understood in terms of its shift towards neoliberalism, what is really saddening is the deathly silence of India’s once vibrant left and still raucous civil society. It is high time that India’s press, academia and progressive movements do not anymore ignore the human consequences of India’s growing economic footprint. 

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