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Congolese Elections and the Opportunity for the International Community to do the Right Thing

posted by Mitu Gulati

The Congo held elections yesterday; elections that the ruling party has kept finding excuses to postpone over the past two years.  International pressure though, forced them to be held (albeit in an incomplete fashion).  Now, the question is whether the vote counts will be done with some modicum or propriety and whether the current kleptocrats will nevertheless find some way to hold on to power in this resource rich nation with a tragic history.  The latest reports are telling us that there is already chaos and that the internet has been shut down (from the Washington Post, see here).

My interest in the Congo was spurred by a question about its sovereign debt (of course). My Duke colleague and frequent co author, Joseph Blocher, who has worked in Africa and knows my obsession with sovereign debt–and particularly the question of what is to be done about the sovereign debts incurred by despotic leaders (the “Odious Debts” problem)--got me hooked on the history of the Congo some years ago by telling me the story of the debt of the Congo Free State from the late 1800s. The debt was incurred by, and proceeds subsequently stolen by, one of the worst despots in history–King Leopold of Belgium.  He issued bonds in the millions of francs in the name of the Congo Free State and then, in 1908, when the international community forced him out because of the genocide he had engineered, the debts he had incurred in the name of his vassal state were put by the international community on to the backs of the Congolese people. When it comes to the Congo, the rest of the world has so much to be ashamed about (there is a super episode from the BBC’s The Foreign Desk here). But maybe we will do the right thing this time?

Drawing from work that Joseph and I have been doing on the Congo and the infamous 1908 forced transfer of sovereignty (here), here are some thoughts on the parallels between the events of today and of a century ago.

The scene in the Congo today is, sadly, is familiar. An unaccountable leader treats Congo as personal property, enriching himself as untold millions of Congolese labor to extract resources needed for the world’s latest technological boom. What will the international community do?

Today, the despot holding power is Joseph Kabila, the resource is coltan (used in cell phones), and the international response remains uncertain. Kabila has agreed to hold elections and step down, but he and his henchmen seem to keep finding excuses to postpone the transfer of power. 

In 1908, the leader was King Leopold, the resource was rubber (made valuable by the development of vulcanization), and the international response was extraordinary: On November 15, 1908, in response to intense pressure, Belgium bought the Congo Free State from its own king.

Today, as the world is understandably focused on the present and the future of the Congo, we should not forget the lessons of its past.

Congo has not had a peaceful transfer of power since it became independent from Belgium in 1960. Congo’s independence leader and first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was murdered later that year with complicity of Belgium and the United States, paving the way for decades of oppression under Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. His son Joseph took office eight days later and has ruled ever since.

After years of delay, Congolese voters went to the polls yesterday to elect Kabila’s successor. They were supposed to do so a week ago, but on December 20, the electoral commission announced that it was “technically unable” to organize the elections on time, raising fears that Kabila—already two years past the end of his term—will not permit the elections to proceed.   

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege (winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, he is also known as “Doctor Miracle”) called on the United States and other world powers to apply pressure against Kabila.

Nearly 110 years ago, the international community heard a similar call and, remarkably for that time period, heeded it. In what has been called the century’s first international human rights movement, heroes like E.D. Morel, George Washington Williams, and Roger Casement—joined by prominent allies like Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle—brought light to the horror that King Leopold II was inflicting on the Congo Free State. And horror is the appropriate word. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was inspired by his time in the Congo, including its famous last lines: “The horror! The horror!” (When Marlon Brando delivers the iconic lines in Apocalypse Now, the setting has been shifted to Vietnam.)

Anyone who has read Adam Hochchild’s extraordinary book, King Leopold’s Ghost, or is even passingly familiar with the history of the Congo, has a sense of the tragedy. Millions of Congolese lost their lives to the greed, cruelty and ultimately indifference of King Leopold and his minions.

And although it is uncomfortable to admit, the United States played an important role in enabling Leopold’s oppression. The United States was the first Western nation to recognize King Leopold’s personal sovereignty over the Congo, thus helping to bring the “Congo Free State” (neither free nor really a state) into being.

What brought it to an end was not international sanctions, nor military intervention, nor secession—the tools often invoked in response to human rights crises today. Instead, it was a remarkable groundswell of public sentiment in the US and Europe that King Leopold’s sovereign control had to be taken away—albeit at a price.  

The result was the “Belgian Solution,” which was seen by many as the best of the bad options available.  It brought Leopold’s terrors to an end, and the Belgians did not inflict mass atrocities like the German genocide of the Hereros. But the Congo was still a colony, was still exploited, and—adding insult—effectively footed the bill for the purchase from Leopold.  

At that time, even the human rights leaders like Morel were unable to see a role for the Congolese in determining their own future. But, beginning just a decade later, the principle of self-determination would start to become a part of international law and practice, giving “the people” more control over their own futures.

To be clear, there is no 2019 equivalent of the Belgian solution. The rightful owners and rulers of the Congo are the Congolese themselves, not the distant Western powers whose complicity helped put in motion more than a century of exploitation and oppression.

Mr. Kabila and his henchmen seem to be doing what they can to avoid free and fair elections, even hiring lobbyists to clean up his image abroad (multiple press reports mention Rudy Giuliani and a recent shindig at the fancy Hay-Adams hotel, across from the White House), just as Leopold did (Leopold’s lobbyist had the added distinction of nearly being shot by Wyatt Earp). But the history of the Congo shows that—even in the face of oppression and retrenchment—committed international pressure and creative solutions can make a difference.


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