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DR Congo: King Leopold's legacy

Martina Schwikowski
June 29, 2020

60 years after independence, traces of the system of exploitation and violence that Leopold II and colonial-era Belgium created still remain in DR Congo. The propensity for violence is inherited, experts say.

A vandalised statue of Leopold II of Belgium
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Roosens

The mighty Congo River winds its way through more than 4,000 kilometers of rainforest in central Africa. The lifeline of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is symbolic of the lush wealth of nature that ought to determine the fortunes of this gigantic country. Gold, uranium, copper and diamonds are buried deep within the earth. But it was the exploitation of ivory and rubber that first plunged the country and its people into an excruciating spiral of greed and violence.

Self-enrichment as a domination tool

More than a century of looting and terror began in 1885 when King Leopold II and Belgium were granted then then-barely developed Congo Basin at the Berlin Conference. The "Congo Free State" served solely to enrich the monarch. Congolese labor oiled this machine. Anyone who resisted or stood in their way was brutally punished — photographs and reports of hands chopped off bear testimony to the stories.

This is how it largely remained, until Congo was given independence on 30 June 1960. Yet, even 60 years later —with the exception of a small elite —many children are still born into bitter poverty.

A black and white photograph of Leopold II of Belgium
King Leopold II of Belgium left behind a dark legacy in DR Congo which is still keenly felt today

Read more: Dark past, brighter future? The Congolese diaspora in Belgium

The horrors of Leopold's rubber plantations were barely a memory when Mobutu Sese Seko established a new system of exploitation — only this time fueled by the almost boundless copper deposits in Katanga Province. The eccentric ruler, who renamed the country Zaire in 1971, enriched himself and his minions on a grand scale — on the backs of the population.

But how could this be considered a legacy of the colonial era? "The Belgian colonial administration made every effort to ensure that no political and academic class developed," Gesine Ames, an Africa expert at the Ecumenical Network for Central Africa (ÖNZ), told DW. Mobutu took advantage of this power vacuum and clung on to power for over 30 years.

Two men hold the severed hands of their countrymen who were murdered by rubber sentries in 1904 in DR.
Two men hold the severed hands of their countrymen who were murdered by rubber sentries in 1904. The men standing on either side are missionaries who documented many such atrocities in DR Congo during the colonial eraImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Everett Collection

Spiral of Violence

Like the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, the change of power in the 1990s went hand in hand with war and chaos — Mobutu's successors also used violence and oppression to maintain their power. The conflict in eastern Congo continues to smolder today and frequently erupts, with mass rape and killings running like a red thread through DR Congo's history. Can this also be attributed to the legacy of colonial masters?

"The spiral of violence continues in the generations that were born after the colonial period," explains Ames. "In the eastern regions, subsequent generations experienced and internalized much violence. Because there are no government programs to deal with the violence and trauma, the violence is perpetuated and those affected receive little help."

Psychologists are very hard to come by in this region, she says. "This kind of processing of violent experiences is not at all known. The need for psychological support is enormous."

Read more: DRC: Fighting against the stigma of rape

Violence begets violence

To break this cycle of violence, understanding how to properly handle this kind of trauma is crucial. Thomas Elbert, a psychology professor at the University of Konstanz who studied the psychological impact of war and torture, is fully aware of this.

"The research is entirely clear: Violence leads to violence," Elbert told DW. "We can assume that excessive violence by colonial powers increased the willingness by those affected to use violence and aggression." Once this process is in motion, it is very difficult to stop.

UN peacekeepers patrol a conflict-torn territory in DR Congo
Decades after independence, violence remains rife in DR Congo, with international peacekeepers still maintaining a presence in many regionsImage: AFP/S. Tounsi

A key to unlocking this cycle lies in the early years of human development, according to Elbert. If the mother is exposed to severe violence during pregnancy, her unborn child receives other signals. The child prepares for violence and reacts differently to stimuli that emit aggression. This in turn lowers the threshold for harming others. 

Based on studies of former child soldiers in eastern Congo, Elbert highlighted systematic changes in the so-called epigenetics — not the gene itself but its activity — of children who are exposed to extreme violence. "In this form, they carry the legacy of violence and chaos and can in part pass it along to their offspring," explains Elbert. 

The course for independence

Elbert believes that many factors contribute to a higher willingness to use violence in DR Congo. What is more certain to him is that when the monopoly on violence lies with the state, and the violence is not contained, it can spread even further in cycles. This is what happened in DR Congo. This vicious cycle can therefore only be broken through the appropriate psychotherapy.

"That is possible only if you help people out of their traumatic experiences and they learn to understand their willingness to use violence better," says Elbert. 

Members of the Muluba Solidarty Movement ride in on bikes in DR Congo in 1959 prior to independence
A meeting between the head of the Muluba Solidarity Movement, Barthélémy Mujanayi and politician Albert Kalonji, in 1959 just before independenceImage: Paul Almasy/akg-images/picture-alliance

Another factor lies within the lack of transition from colonial administration to a non-corrupt, peace-oriented government. The birth of the independent DR Congo is also crucial to understanding the situation today, according to Gesine Ames of the ÖNZ. The Belgian colonial administration, acting in its own interest, had promoted policy in the country that was based on patronage and particular interests.

"The Congo, therefore, had an extremely difficult start to independence and after 1960 was still a country that could not really act independently," says Ames. Belgium exploited existing divisions and conflicts became bloodier.

Only one person during this time embodied the hope for a peaceful, self-determined future: As the first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba endeavored to unite the DR Congo. But this was swiftly dashed when Lumumba was murdered in 1961.

Eastern Congo's legacy of war