Is the conflict in the Congo too complex for Americans to care about – even though they’re connected to it?

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Rebel fighters, eastern DR Congo. Jonny Hogg/Flickr

Recently, I gave a presentation at a church in Dover, New Hampshire entitled, “Uncommon Insight, Empathy to Inclusion.” While I believed the congregation would have found the story of my family’s escape from the civil war in the Congo compelling, I wanted to focus instead on our adjustment and integration into American life, largely through the development of relationships with people willing to help us. To journey back to what felt like a distant past was exhausting and, frankly, seemed wasteful, since I am a very different person today than I was then.

Why else did I not want to retell my Congo experience? Mainly because my intent could be misinterpreted. When I do retell this story, it’s not to seek sympathy for me personally. Nor is it to boast about my own triumph of survival. In short, I don’t retell this story for me. I retell it for the millions of Congolese people who are voiceless and seeking an advocate to guide them to a better life. Additionally, the more my life in America continued to prosper, the less often the atrocities I experienced and my lucky escape were top of mind. The reality of my present fogs the reality of the past, which is still a daily reality for millions of people all over the world. Nevertheless, I am reminded of this terrible reality every time I read or watch the news. And this energizes me. It increases my desire to retell my story and advocate for those in need anyway I can. And so I came to the conclusion that I could not deliver an effective presentation about empathy and inclusion without first telling my audience, literally and figuratively, where I was coming from.

Me and my brothers the first few days in New Hampshire after resettlement from a Refugee camp in Benin.

I started telling my story right after I moved to the states as a healing process and therapy. Eighteen years later I am still telling the same story. My hope of course was that while I was telling my story, things would get better in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And that the tragic war-torn story of Congolese people, like my own Congo story, would become past tense. My hope was not realized. The atrocities in the Congo continued. Which made the urgency of shining a light on it all the more crucial.

Sharing my story at a school in Pittsburgh, PA.

In the last few weeks some mainstream media have covered some of the atrocities, protests and censorship that are happening today in the Congo. The term of the current president, Joseph Kabila, ended in December 2016, but he refuses to give up his power. He is assassinating and arresting his opponents; basically anyone who speaks against him. Kabila assumed power in 2001, after the former president, his father, was assassinated by his bodyguard.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a long history of atrocity and genocide. According to the UN, 6 million people have died there from war-related causes since 1996. The country is blessed and cursed with an abundance of natural resources, including coltan, uranium, diamond, cobalt, copper, gold and zinc. More than 60 percent of the world’s coltan comes from the Congo. This is where the American connection comes in. Coltan is the raw material that goes into making the computer chips and LCD screens in our televisions, iPhones, PlayStations and satellites. And the raw uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima – credible sources say it came from a mine in what was then the Belgian Congo. In fact, many western governments and corporations have played a role in the outcome of Congolese conflicts in order to secure their interests and exploit its natural resources.

Terrorist groups are increasingly forming part of the criminal networks that acquire and smuggle minerals in the DRC. Photo/Institute for Security Studies

⇒Read more about Congo’s Minerals and the conflict

In the early 1870s, Belgium’s King Leopold II claimed the Congo as his prize possession. And he carried out massive atrocities to plunder the natural resources to which he thought he was entitled. Belgium’s control of the region lasted until the late 1950s. In 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo won its independence. America gave its support in order to secure its mining interests. But the country’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was viewed as a threat to western countries. That led to his assassination with the help of the CIA. Mobutu, commander of the armed forces, became a great ally of America. He became president in 1965 after Lumumba was ousted.

President Mobutu and President Richard Nixon. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the Congo never benefited from the wealth of its own natural resources. But while profiting tremendously themselves, western corporations made Mobutu a billionaire. Mobutu was compared to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. He had several wives and real estate all over the world. He appointed his sons to high government positions. And he was a great ally of the United States – until the mid 1990s when he turned his back on the American government and American mining companies.

During this time, my father worked for Mobutu’s administration. Mobutu was paranoid and did not trust anyone. He knew the influence western government had on his government officials. He did not want what he did to Lumumba to happen to him. He appointed Mahele Bokungu Lieko, a popular general whom many people respected, as chief of staff. My father was the senior advisor to the chief of staff. My father was a behind-the-scenes guy with no public presence. The Congolese people were sick and tired of Mobutu and were ready for a new leader. Western governments found a new puppet to manipulate. Laurent Kabila (father of current President Joseph Kabila) was a businessman in Eastern Congo with whom many foreign businesses made deals. He was never interested in politics until a perfect opportunity came his way. The American strategists who studied the area knew how to remove Mobutu from power and planned a coup, which involved neighboring countries, including Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. All involved had something to gain if the coup succeeded. Significantly, U.S. mining companies had the money to finance the coup. Laurent Kabila signed over certain mining deals to US companies and lowered taxes. Some of the companies were so sure of their plan to overthrow Mobutu that they paid portions of the mining contracts upfront through secure overseas accounts. Bill Clinton’s administration played a huge role in this through lobbying groups of the mining companies.

My father in the Congo in 1995.

⇒Read more on Rwanda’s involvement in overthrowing Mobutu

Mobutu was overthrown in 1997. Millions died in the war. Some of the bids made by mining companies for contracts were successful. Neighboring countries that helped Laurent Kabila take power were unsure of his ability to honor their portion of the deal. Since they already had rebel troops in the Congo, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Kabila also started to explore options with other companies who were offering better deals. A South African mining company came into the picture. American companies were not too happy about Kabila’s approach. They lost trust in him and strategized ways to decentralize power, so they could deal directly with local government/rebel groups in territories where the mining companies were located. They also collaborated with rebel leaders who were backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Suddenly countries like Rwanda and Uganda started exporting large quantities of minerals which could not be found within their borders.

Laurent Kabila and his rebel soldiers in 1996. Image Corninne Dufka/Reuters.

⇒Read the influence of western government and corporations in the Congo 

Kabila went back to ex-Mobutu employees to try to gain approval and rebuild the country. He was afraid of losing power and started executing anyone he felt was a threat. My father thought it was a great opportunity to help rebuild Congo when Kabila’s administration reached out to him. But it ended up being a trap that led to my father’s assassination in 1997. Kabila lost control of the country. People took the law into their own hands. Kabila did nothing to stop the Congolese people from massacring thousands of Rwandans and Burundians who were living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after fleeing their own genocides. Public executions of former Mobutu workers, Rwandans and Burundians became commonplace. I witnessed many of these myself. The Congolese people felt this was the only way they could even the score for all the problems Mobutu caused and for all the killings done by Rwandan, Burundian and Ugandan rebels in the eastern side of Congo.

Vengeance eventually overtook people Kabila trusted. His own bodyguard turned against him and executed him in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, was appointed the next Congolese president. Joseph played it safe, making amends for all the wrongs his father committed against his former allies. Mining companies, predominantly American and Israeli, won bids to extract tons of raw minerals. The raw minerals—used in popular consumer products like iPads, iPhones, video game systems, flat TVs and so on—are in high demand. But many western corporations are exploiting the Congolese people by providing substantial financial gain to government officials. Neighboring countries like Rwanda are also benefiting by smuggling the raw minerals into their countries and exporting them out.

Laurent Kabila’s funeral ceremony in 2001. The Economist

⇒Additional Reading on Kabila’s family

Every administration since 1960 has been lobbied by favorite western mining companies seeking to gain a stronger foothold in the Congo. In May of 2016, when the Panama Papers came out, it was revealed that the Clinton Foundation had a direct connection to Congolese government officials. Specifically, to President Kabila’s private company, which had donated substantially to the foundation. Another article that year claimed that the State Department had lobbied the Congolese government to give a contract to one mining company over another. That same western company donated a substantial amount of money to the Clinton Foundation.

⇒Read more about Clinton’s involvement in Congo

Me, left in the rear, at Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda with Congolese refugees in 2015.

I did not want this article to be a history paper. I wanted to highlight the influences behind the Congo political upheaval that has led to 6 million deaths since 1996. Congolese refugees are amongst the largest groups of displaced people in the world. The U.S. government made a commitment back in 2014 to resettle 50,000 Congolese. That is a small fraction of the people who are displaced. The solution is not resettlement. The solution is to shine a light on the U.S. Congress which is being manipulated by companies lobbying to gain a bigger stake in the Congo without regard to the havoc being experienced by the Congolese people. As Americans, we are tied to this conflict, to this atrocity. Companies you buy your electronics from depend on the raw materials extracted from the mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is time to rise up and advocate for the lives of those who are caught in this destructive cycle which has been going on for the last 25 years. At this point, it looks like the conflict is not going to stop soon – particularly if we do not bring awareness and put pressure in our government to end the worst genocide and holocaust of our time

Deo Mwano is an innovative multi-cultural leader in education, technology, leadership and social justice. He holds his BA in International Relations and History, and MBA in Strategic Leadership. Deo has many years of experience working with K-University level students, with a focus on Discipline Expertise and Action Expertise. He lives in Manchester with his wife, and their two sons and daughter.