News & Politics

Congo's Ghosts

War-torn Congo continues to suffer while Bush brings 'God's gift of freedom' to Iraq.
"Freedom is God's gift to every person in every nation," President Bush said recently, explaining what he claimed to be the ultimate goal of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The president will have to excuse history professor Didier Gondola for not buying it. "Double talk," he calls Bush's pronouncement. "It is so hypocritical, because it is not in American interests to have democracy everywhere. In Iraq, there was a government holding valuable resources the U.S. could not control. So the U.S. took action. In Congo, the U.S. controls the government and the resources, so it doesn't really matter that millions of Congolese are dying."

At least 3.3 million people, in fact, have died in Congo over the course of the past four and a half years of a brutal civil war. Gondola, a native Congolese and the author of "The History of Congo" (Greenwood Press, 2002), still has family in Congo. He despairs that no one is sounding the alarm about the devastation of his homeland. "The real tragedy of the whole war is that it has attracted so little international attention," he says. "The death toll is higher than any conflict since World War II, and people don't seem to care."

The ignored tragedy of Congo highlights the disconnect between the freedom-soaked rhetoric of President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld et al. and the profit-based reality that governs too much of U.S. foreign policy. The chief reason that there is no significant U.S. intervention to stop the nightmare in Congo is because the current state of chaos provides a perfect setting for exploitation of a land that is rich in natural resources like diamonds, copper, timber and gold.

Adam Hochschild, author of "King Leopold's Ghost," an account of Congo's colonial-era occupation by King Leopold II of Belgium, explained the situation in a recent New York Times essay. "The [Congo's] Balkanization and war suit the amazing variety of corporations -- large and small, American, African and European -- that profit from the river of mineral wealth without having to worry about high taxes, and that prefer a cash-in-suitcases economy to a highly regulated one," Hochschild wrote.

One of the most valuable of the Congo minerals is coltan, an essential component for the manufacture of electronic devices like cell phones and computer chips. Western corporations like American Mineral Fields and Bechtel, Inc. have strongholds in Congo. Less directly but no less harmfully, technology companies purchase minerals that find their way to our PCs from shady origins in war-torn regions of Congo.

Blood-Stained Cell Phones

As Gondola points out, we in the U.S. often enjoy our luxuries at the expense of suffering people in developing countries. He calls out the most visible and wealthy figure in high tech as an example of how international business-as-usual is destroying his homeland. "It is such a paradox that the same time that Bill Gates is giving money to vaccinate children, he is helping fuel the war in Congo, contributing to the deaths of millions of people," Gondola says. "People need to know that the laptop you use or the cell phone you carry is tainted with blood from the Congo."

Gondola points out that Congo is one of several African countries, including oil-rich Nigeria and Angola, whose residents suffer while abundant natural resources are extracted for profit by foreign interests. "We see a pattern developing in Africa: In resource-rich countries, people starve because of corruption and theft of the resources. In poorer African countries, people are actually doing better," he says.

But shouldn't even the powerful engine of international greed be slowed by the image of millions dying? Shouldn't basic human compassion move the U.S. and other international powers to intervene for the good? If the country affected was Canada or Czechoslovakia, maybe it would. But Congo is in Africa. And tragedy in Africa does not resonate here.

"There is just no question that Congo has the worst, bloodiest, nastiest conflict in the world, but the amount of attention it has received is negligible," says Scott Pegg, an activist and researcher in African issues. "It reminds me of the early 1990s when the world's attention was riveted on Bosnia but the most deadly conflict in the world -- by far -- was taking place almost unnoticed in Angola.

"Honestly, I really don't think you can explain some of this discrepancy outside of racism. Blond-haired, blue-eyed refugees from Kosovo make good TV in a western media market," Pegg says. "I remember Bono asking: If one-third of Paris or Berlin was HIV-positive, would we stand by and do nothing?"

Gondola says that the prevailing image of Africa as the "dark continent," a perception burnished by the disastrous U.S intervention in Somalia in 1993, is used to justify inaction. "The idea is that tribes have been killing each other for centuries, that they don't know better, and there is nothing we can do about it," he says. "But when there is ethnic conflict in Europe, it is considered an anomaly."

Gondola reflects again on President Bush's pronouncement of U.S. values triumphing in Iraq. "If the U.S. rhetoric is that we want democracy in Congo, let's do it," he says. "But that is not going to happen. It is clear that the real objective of U.S. government and corporations is short-term maximization of profit."

Fran Quigley is a contributing editor of Nuvo.