Congo: Elections and the Battle for Mineral Resources

Social Education, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Congo: Elections and the Battle for Mineral Resources


Twenty million voters cast ballots July 30, 2006, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's first free election since 1960. A runoff election three months later, between transitional president Joseph Kabila and transitional vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, gave Kabila a mandate to lead the war-torn nation for five more years. The elections, in which 33 candidates vied for the presidency, were generally peaceful, although the runoff was hampered by rioting. (1) The international community pinned hopes on these elections, originally scheduled for June 2005, as a way to stabilize Africa's third largest nation. The DR Congo or DRC, as the country is commonly known, has been besieged by fighting since 1996. The stability of this nation--which is as large as Western Europe, has more than 60 million inhabitants, and is bordered by nine countries--is critical for maintaining stability in Central Africa.

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When the DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960, it appeared to have a bright future. After more than a hundred years of European exploitation, it seemed that, at last, Congo's mineral wealth might go to benefit its own citizens. After the country's first free elections, Patrice Lumumba became prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu became president. But Lumumba's African nationalism and anti-imperialist stance alarmed Belgium and the United States, which backed Joseph Mobutu, the head of the army, in a revolt against Lumumba. (2) In 1961, six months after the 35-year-old Lumumba had taken office, he was assassinated--a murder that many blamed on the CIA and Belgium. In 2002, the Belgian government officially expressed regrets, which the BBC and other international media reported as an apology, over Lumumba's killing. (3)

In 1965, Mobutu overthrew President Kasavubu and installed himself as president. He established a one-party system and ruled repressively for more than 30 years, during which time he amassed a personal fortune that was estimated at $4 billion. (4) He renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko and declared that all Congolese must adopt African names. He also renamed the country Zaire and would occasionally hold elections in which he was the only candidate.

First and Second Congo Wars

Fighting flared up in the DRC in 1996. Some analysts say that the fighting in Congo was sparked by the massive flow of refugees fleeing the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. When Tutsis in Rwanda overthrew the extremist Hutu government that had sponsored the genocide, Hutu militia members and other genocide perpetrators poured into the DRC to escape reprisal. Rwanda then invaded Congo as it chased after perpetrators. Mobutu tried to push out the invading Rwandan Tutsis, but was toppled in 1997 by rebel leader Laurent Kabila (father of the current president), who gathered support across ethnic lines from Congo's majority poor. He was backed at the time by Rwanda and Uganda. Mobutu died the same year of prostate cancer in Morocco.

Rwanda later stopped backing Kabila when he turned against Tutsis in Congo. Tutsis, as well as Hutus, are among the more than zoo ethnic groups in Congo. The principal groups are Mongo, Luba, and Kongo. Hundreds of languages are also spoken in Congo, with French, Lingala, Swahili, Kikongo, and Tshiluba being the official languages. French is used as the language of government; Lingala is the language of the capital city (and the Equateur Province in the north; during Mobutu's time it was also the language of the armed forces); Swahili is mainly the language of the eastern region. In spite of ethnic and linguistic differences, regional divisions have had a greater impact, with leaders gathering support from specific regions, encompassing varying ethnic groups.

However, many analysts say these rivalries are not the root causes of the conflict, but rather that it is a "resource war" over Congo's enormous mineral wealth--in particular, coltan. …

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