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The Congo from Leopold to Kabila

A People’s History

By Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja
16-minute read
Audio available
The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

The Congo from Leopold to Kabila (2002) is the history of the Congolese democratic movement in the twentieth century. The history begins with Belgian colonial rule, working its way through Mobutu’s reign of terror, before looking at the Congo Wars and concluding with the prolific unrest still rampant at the turn of the century. This survey illuminates how exploitative external interests and internal weaknesses have hampered the Congolese democratic movement and proposes how it might still advance.

  • Curious minds interested in Congolese history and its democracy movement
  • Students of colonial and postcolonial history
  • Africans and non-Africans seeking African history as told from an insider perspective

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a Congolese scholar-activist who specializes in African politics. He is a consultant in public policy, governance and conflict-related issues. He was James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College and Professor of African Studies at Howard University. His publications include Conflict in the Horn of Africa, and he was co-editor of The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World.

Nzongola-Ntalaja also served as a delegate to the Sovereign National Conference of Zaire and was later Deputy President of the National Electoral Commission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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The Congo from Leopold to Kabila

A People’s History

By Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja
Synopsis

The Congo from Leopold to Kabila (2002) is the history of the Congolese democratic movement in the twentieth century. The history begins with Belgian colonial rule, working its way through Mobutu’s reign of terror, before looking at the Congo Wars and concluding with the prolific unrest still rampant at the turn of the century. This survey illuminates how exploitative external interests and internal weaknesses have hampered the Congolese democratic movement and proposes how it might still advance.

Key idea 1 of 10

After King Leopold II’s reign of terror, the Congo became a colony that fueled Belgian economic development.

In the middle of Africa lies the massive territory today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It originally comprised numerous African kingdoms and the majority of its 250 different ethnic groups spoke varieties of Bantu languages.

During the “Scramble for Africa” that began in the nineteenth century, the major European powers sought to colonize and control swathes of Africa for profit. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the Congo for his own personal territory. Leopold’s cover was a humanitarian mission aimed at the region’s inhabitants – but there was nothing humanitarian about it.

Instead, what emerged was an inhumane system with the sole purpose of filling Leopold’s personal coffers. And there was much to exploit in this resource-rich region. Leopold’s new “subjects” in the Congo Free State were coerced into extracting rubber and minerals.

It is estimated that 10 million people were murdered as part of this exploitation. Gruesomely, mutilation and rape were used routinely and systematically as punishment when extraction quotas were not met or when slaves refused to work.

The rest of the world slowly became aware of the horrors that were taking place. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness was, for instance, famously set there.

The Congo Reform Association (CRA), founded in the UK in 1904, aimed to instigate an international movement protesting Leopold’s rule and succeeded in winning over the US Government. International diplomatic pressure finally forced Leopold to hand over his personal fiefdom to the Belgium parliament in 1908.

Although this hand over of control was theoretically a step forward, Belgian’s rule was still colonial in nature; Belgian economic growth was fueled by the brutal oppression of Congolese people and the stripping of the region’s natural resources. Beyond rubber, mineral resources such as copper, gold, diamonds and uranium were plundered. Timber was also highly sought after, as were agricultural products such as coffee, tea and cotton.

The legacy of external colonial interests in the Congo’s natural resources is still felt to this day. In fact, it may explain why democracy has struggled to gain a foothold ever since.

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