Congo’s colonial ghost haunts its present

By Khaled Diab

As we approach the 50th anniversary of independence, how successful has 's post-colonial experience been?

28 April 2010

Preparations are under way in the for celebrations to mark 50 years of independence in June. The Congolese government has reportedly set aside $2 million for the festivities. Guests of honour will include a high-level Belgian delegation, headed by King Albert II, who will be on his first official visit to the former colony.

With these festivities in the air, how has the first half-century of independence been for the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

While it's difficult to sum up the past 50 years, one thing that can be said with some confidence is that they have been troubled – from the western-backed murder of independence leader Patrice Lumumba, through the long and repressive Mobutu dictatorship, to the Second Congo War, known as 's World War, not only because of its being the deadliest conflict since the second world war but also because it involved seven foreign countries.

Today, a stability of sorts has descended upon the country with its elected dictator, Joseph Kabila, although fighting continues in a number of provinces of this vast country, particularly in the east.

Despite its enormous mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, largely due to the uncontrolled plundering of its resources. With a per-capita GDP of around $100 per year, it comes close to the bottom of the well-being league, though its human development index is constantly rising.

In fact, Congo is a classic example of the fragile African state. So, what lies behind this fragility?

A key factor is a failure of leadership on a monumental scale. Political corruption, coupled with weak state institutions, has ensured that the main function of Congolese politics, like in many other African countries, is to serve the private ends of the ruling elite.

“The political class in Congo is shit,” Joseph Nzau, a 55-year-old Congolese professional based in Brussels, told me in no uncertain terms. “Politicians don't have the common good in mind. They want to enrich themselves first and their clans second.”

Whereas political corruption may skim some of the cream off the top of the pie in countries with effective governance, in places like the DRC, it gobbles up the lion's share of the cake, as attested to by the vast fortunes Mobutu and his cronies accumulated or squandered.

But should Congo's political class cop the entire blame? Well, there are certainly other factors at play. The DRC is about the size of western Europe, but the country has a population that is smaller than Germany's and yet is divided into some 250 ethnic groups speaking an equivalent number of languages. Governing such a huge and diverse land mass, with a relatively low population density, not to mention poor infrastructure and a state that is weaker than probably even the smallest European states, is no easy matter.

Much as apologists for Europe's colonial legacy and those afflicted with selective amnesia would like to believe, the reality is that Congo's colonial experience, as in so many other post-colonial states, has caused deep and lasting scars, and very much handicaps the modern state. “The situation of Congo today is a consequence of Belgian colonisation,” Nzau says, expressing a common Congolese perception.

But this link between European and the current turmoil in much of sub-Saharan Africa is not just a case of Africans looking for someone else to blame, as is so often claimed. In fact, the same link was explicitly made in last year's European Report on Development. “The scramble for Africa … is a natural candidate for the historical origin of the fragility plaguing many sub-Saharan African countries,” the report stated.

But why should such a relatively short sojourn have such a profound impact? In the case of Congo, part of the reason is that there was a centuries'-long prelude. Prior to direct rule, most of central Africa was depopulated as a consequence of the European slave trade to the west and, to a lesser extent, the Arab slave trade to the east. This, for example, helped accelerate the eventual collapse of the once-powerful indigenous kingdom of Kongo (which had different borders to the contemporary DRC).

The ruler, Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, an early convert to Christianity, wrote regularly to the king of Portugal to complain about the effects of the slave trade on his subjects:

“Each day the traders are kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for mass.”

Undoubtedly, the worst chapter in Congo's history was when the country became the personal property of King Leopold II, who wanted a domain to match his ego. The king infamously described as “petit pays, petits gens” (“small country, small people”) due to his subjects' lack of appetite for empire – unsurprising given that they had been ruled for centuries by foreign powers, including the Spanish, the Habsburgs, the French and the Dutch.

Jealous that he did not preside over an empire like his cousin, Queen Victoria, across the Channel, Leopold spent years in search of a land that he could transform into his personal fiefdom. With the help of the dodgy Welsh-born American explorer and journalist Henry Stanley (born John Rowlands), Leopold set his sights on a part of Africa unclaimed by the other European powers which he eventually gave the name . During his private rule, an estimated 2-15 million Congolese died through forced labour and other forms of exploitation.

International outrage and one of the first major human rights campaigns in modern history led to the Belgian government taking Congo off Leopold's hands and annexing it. Although the worst human rights abuses ended, the main priority of the Belgian Congo, despite Belgium's earlier reluctance to enter the colonial game, remained the exploitation of the country's mineral wealth for the benefit of the Belgian economy.

During the period of direct rule, the European institutions and structures that were brought in took little account of local culture and conditions. After independence, rather than reform the state, local leaders simply took it over, alienating themselves from the population.

The 50th anniversary of independence should give Belgians and Congolese pause for thought. In the coming half-century, the Congolese need to overcome the legacy of the past and take command of their future. For their part, Belgians need to recognise that their colonial legacy is not just an issue for historians but that it helped create the current mess.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 21 April 2010. Read the full discussion here.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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7 thoughts on “Congo’s colonial ghost haunts its present

  • Pingback: The ties that bind Congo and Belgium - The Chronikler

  • Chris, I really wanted to mention the Africa Museum’s centenial and your comments about how the museuem has evolved from a colonial-era beast to take a more objective post-colonial view.

  • Good job, and with the famed European Report on Development ref’d to boot. Still think you should have mentioned the Africa Museum’s 100th anniversary this weekend, cos it’s contents are something of a microcosm of colonial-post-colonia ruminations going on in this country.

  • Stef Craps

    I was actually responding to your friend Jean-Luc’s comment about the missed opportunity to celebrate how the Congolese were “set free” in 1909. Almost everyone agrees nowadays that there was something absolutely rotten in the Congo Free State, but, as Ludo De Witte points out in the article that I linked to, the myth that the Belgian Congo (1909-1960) was a model colony is proving much harder to dispel.

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  • KhaledDiab

    Jean-Luc, I do mention the transition from the ‘Free’ State to the Belgian Congo, admittedly only in passing. But although it was an improvement on what went before, in many ways, it was a continuity of what went before but under new management.

    Indeed, Stef, ‘free’ was an ugly euphemism. The Congo Free State was far less free than the DRC today is democratic. Thanks for the link, by the way.Jean-Luc, I do mention the transition from the ‘Free’ State to the Belgian Congo, admittedly only in passing. But although it was an improvement on what went before, in many ways, it was a continuity of what went before but under new management.

    Indeed, Stef, ‘free’ was an ugly euphemism. The Congo Free State was far less free than the DRC today is democratic. Thanks for the link, by the way.

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  • Jean-Luc Delsaute

    Good article Khaled, but it would have been worth mentioning that last year (2009) was also the 100 anniversary of the creation of the Belgian Congo, meaning that Congolese people were set free from the “Free” State of Congo, and stopped being the private property of Leopold II, a significant date in our common history…, any celebration for this? In Congo? in belgium?…

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