Anyone who wants to understand the Congo should read two books, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild and and Michela Wrong's In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Together, they explain why the last 100 years of bloody tyranny has laid the groundwork for possibly 100 more.
I would also heartily recommend both books to anyone studying Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which is too seldom seen as an historic account as well as a literary novel.
Hochschild gives us the first half of the century in a grim story told within the larger picture of a worldof developed nations gone mad for colonies. King Leopold of Belgium, a man whose inferiority complex knows no bottom and whose greed no limits, jumps into the feeding frenzy for colonies and comes up gripping the very heart of Africa, the vast area that would later become the Belgian Congo, then Zaire, and today is the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the setting for my novel, Heart of Diamonds.
It's easy to focus on the horrors of Leopold's Congo, but there is much more to the story than endless accounts of sadistic whippings and dismemberments, as bestial as they might be. Hochschild tells us, too, how Leopold was able to pull off this massive decades-long crime through manipulation of the media, well-placed bribes and partnerships, and first subversion and then repression of his critics. The holocaust he visited on Congo--as many as 8 million indigenous people were killed--could have been the template for Adolph Hitler's.
This book also gives us a detailed look at the little clerk who eventually brought Leopold's rule of terror to an end. He was Edmund Morel, a Liverpool shipping agent was stumbled on evidence of Leopold's crimes and devoted the rest of his life to exposing them as one of the world's first investigative journalists. Hochschild also gives us a look at black American journalist George Washington Williams, who wrote the first indictment of Leopold in 1890. Valerie Grey, the protagonist of Heart of Diamonds, is a TV journalist whose dedication to getting out the truth about what she found in the DRC matches that of these men.
Another powerful theme is how quickly the world turned its back. Less than a century later, thousands of visitors to the extravagent monuments Leopold built see no sign that they are drenched in the blood of millions of Africans. When the colonial era ended, Belgium walked away from the Congo, leaving it with no Congolese engineers, army officers, doctors, or even bureaucrats--of 5,000 civil service positions, only three were filled by Africans.
Michela Wrong picks up the contemporary story of the Congo with In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Her portrayl of Mobutu Sese Seko and how he lost the country to Laurent Kabila brings the story almost up to the present.
She paints a remarkably nuanced portrait of Mobutu, exposing not just his brutality but his cunning; his charm as well as his lust for power. Wrong witnessed Mobutu's last days and tells us how he ultimately lost control of the nation he ruled for over thirty years.
Mobutu didn't rise to office on his good looks and winning personality--he was essentially put there by the CIA. He also didn't retain power simply because he was good at exercising it; France, Belgium, and the United States, not to mention the World Bank, kept him there with military support and an endless stream of dollars. The tale of how he played the First World like a violin is fascinating. Mobutu's nationalization of foreign-owned assets and his machinations with the White House sparked several plot elements in Heart of Diamonds.
Wrong gives us a highly readable account of Mobutu's demise. "The Leopard" as he was known, spent most of last years in the Xanadu he constructed in Gbadolite in the middle of the equatorial forest, leaving the country's affairs to a network of cronies and relatives who plundered the nation in his name. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 set the stage for his downfall as Mobutu sided with the Hutus. When he ordered the Tutsi refugees who had fled into Zaire to leave under pain of death in 1996, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi joined forces to drive Mobutu from office.
That conflict continues today, with a multitude of factions terrorizing the eastern provinces of the DRC.
Wrong also explains how Laurent Kabila picked up where Mobutu left off as ruler and manipulating despot. Unfortuantely for the reader, her account was published before Kabila's own assassination in 2001.
Paired with Adam Hochschild's well-researched history, King Leopold's Ghost, Michela Wrong's book gives the reader a better understanding of this deeply troubled nation.
For more thoughts on the state of human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, read all my contributions to “Bloggers Unite for Human Rights”
Rape - A Weapon Of Terror
Toys of Destruction
Human Rights Criminal On The Loose
Human Rights – Major Theme In Heart of Diamonds
Children of the Congo – Soldiers Still
God Is Love
Eager To Learn
Is America A Human Rights Weakling?