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Congo Still Fights to Control Its Own Resources 64 Years After Its Independence

Author and analyst Vijay Prashad discusses how poverty and resource exploitation still ravage the country to this day.

On what would have been assassinated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba’s 99th birthday, we speak with author and analyst Vijay Prashad, who has just published a lengthy article on Lumumba and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s ongoing struggle for control over its own resources. Sunday marked the 64th anniversary of Lumumba’s historic speech marking his country’s independence from Belgium, in which he delivered a blistering critique of colonialism. Lumumba’s rise to become the first elected prime minister of Congo came after decades of brutal violence under Belgian rule and the extraction of vast wealth in rubber, ivory and other commodities from the country. Lumumba was assassinated soon after taking office in a plot involving the CIA and Belgium, leading to decades of dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, wars, poverty and resource exploitation that continues to ravage the country to this day. “The issue of control over resources is fundamental,” says Prashad, director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. “The Congolese have never been able to put forward a national project around how to unite the people. … This has always been suborned by external intervention.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

It was 64 years ago this past Sunday that Congo declared independence from brutal Belgian rule that began in 1885 when King Leopold of Belgium created a, quote, “personal colony” and forced millions of Congolese people to extract rubber, ivory and diamonds. Belgium then took official control of the colony and continued the extreme resource extraction.

In 1960, Congo gained independence and elected Patrice Lumumba, a progressive Pan-Africanist, as prime minister. This is an excerpt of Patrice Lumumba’s historic speech, June 30th, 1960.

PRIME MINISTER PATRICE LUMUMBA: [translated] We have seen our land seized in the name of ostensibly just laws, which gave recognition only to the right of might. We have not forgotten that the law was never the same for the white and Black, that it was lenient for the ones and cruel and inhuman to the others. We’ve experienced the atrocious sufferings, being persecuted for political convictions and religious beliefs, and exiled from our native land. Our lot was worse than death itself.

We have not forgotten that in the cities the mansions were for the whites, and the tumbled-down huts for the Blacks, that the Black was not admitted into the cinemas, restaurants, shops, set aside for Europeans, that a Black traveled in the holds under the feet of the whites in their luxury cabins.

Who will ever forget the shootings, which killed so many of our brothers, or the cells into which we were mercilessly thrown, those who no longer wished to submit to the regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation, used by the colonialists as a tool of their domination?

AMY GOODMAN: Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, speaking 64 years ago this past Sunday as he declared independence from Belgium. He was assassinated soon after in a plot involving the CIA. The U.S. installed and supported Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled tyrannically for more than 30 years, plundering the nation. Yes, even as formal colonialism ended, violent resource extraction continues to ravage the Democratic Republic of Congo, now focused on mining cobalt, lithium and more.

For more, we are joined by Vijay Prashad, director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, where his new in-depth article is headlined “The Congolese Fight for Their Own Wealth.” It looks at how the Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast mineral wealth contrasts with its extreme poverty caused by exploitation and conflict.

Thanks so much for staying with us, Vijay. Just why don’t you lay out your piece?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Amy, today is actually Patrice Lumumba’s birthday. He would have been 99 years old. It’s important for people to recall that he was assassinated by Belgian intelligence, U.S. intelligence and British intelligence, in collusion with the Congolese military, when he was only 35 years old.

What he said in that landmark speech in 1960, when the Congo attained its independence, was that all tribal rivalries should be muted, and the Congo needs to use its immense resource wealth, untapped reserves now valued at about $24 trillion — it’s one of the richest countries in the world — use that resource wealth for the good of the people of the Congo.

Patrice Lumumba was a ally of Kwame Nkrumah, who in 1965, five years after the murder of Mr. Lumumba, published a book called Neo-Colonialism, where Kwame Nkrumah laid out the argument that Africa was not going to be allowed to develop, because the West, which had colonized the continent after the Berlin Conference of 1884 — I mean, not after it, but they divided up the continent in Berlin in 1884. Nkrumah argued that, “Look, we’re not going to be allowed to develop our own resources, because they think they have patrimony over it.” Indeed, it’s so interesting to look at this specifically.

People may not know that the nuclear material, the uranium, used in the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the mine of Shinkolobwe. And that mine’s control was actually part of the debate and dispute in 1960. The CIA worried that if Patrice Lumumba was allowed to remain in power, he might hand over the uranium to the Soviet Union. He had to be, therefore, couped.

This question of who controls resources in a place as rich as the Democratic Republic of the Congo is central, whether it was rubber during the time of the Belgians and King Leopold II, in particular, or now coltan, cobalt and other very, very lucrative minerals and metals. The issue of control over resources is fundamental. And governments are overthrown, indeed; the state in the DRC, the state institutions, not permitted to grow to become mature state institutions at all. I was at the border town between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mpondwe. In Mpondwe, you can see trucks just drive across the border, nobody paying octroi duty, customs duty, bribes being put here and there.

And here’s the nub of it, Amy. People say that, “Well, this has to do with corruption.” Corruption isn’t a particular problem. It isn’t the explanation for the problem in the DRC. Corruption is the symptom of a deeper problem, which is the prevention of the Congolese to control their own wealth. Equally, people sometimes say, “Well, there are tribal wars,” and so on. This is a fundamentally inaccurate statement. There are 400 different ethnic communities in the Congo, 200-plus languages spoken there. There’s a great deal of difference. The question is, the Congolese have never been able to put forward a national project around how to unite the people into a proper country and so on. This has always been suborned by external intervention. And that’s really what we argue, that the Congolese need to control their own wealth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Vijay, you mentioned Nkrumah. In 1958, two years before Congo’s independence, Kwame Nkrumah convened the All-African Peoples’ Conference, and it really represented the generation of revolutionary leaders who attended: Amílcar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau, Frantz Fanon from Algeria, Nasser from Egypt, Sékou Touré from Guinea, and also Lumumba. Could you talk about that conference and its impact on the independence movements throughout Africa?

VIJAY PRASHAD: You know, it’s very important that we reflect on Kwame Nkrumah for a minute, because just a few days ago Kwame Nkrumah’s eldest son, Dr. Francis Nkrumah, died in Accra, Ghana. Dr. Francis Nkrumah was 89 years old, an extraordinary pediatrician, highly respected scientist and so on.

Kwame Nkrumah is a much underrated figure in the African story. I mean, he is the person who, through the struggle in the Gold Coast, what was then the British colony of the Gold Coast, was able to establish the possibility of African freedom from colonial power. And at the same time, Mr. Nkrumah argued, this wasn’t just a question of national independence, but Pan-Africanism had to be central. The Pan-African consciousness had to produce African unity. The countries had to operate together. If they didn’t stand together, they would hang independently. That was Dr. Nkrumah’s very specific and important intervention into the debate about decolonization.

And when he brought together these figures to the conference in Accra, it was a Pan-African conference. He counseled Patrice Lumumba when Mr. Lumumba was coming near power with the Mouvement National Congolais. It was Dr. Nkrumah who sent advisers in, sent people to assist and help the Congolese develop their political institutions and so on. Nkrumah did the same to others.

Very interesting, in 1965, when he published his book Neo-Colonialism, the Central Intelligence Agency of the U.S. government reviewed the book. It’s a considerable review, a real book review. And then they sent that review to all agencies of the U.S. government. You know, I often say that the coup against Mr. Nkrumah in 1966 is the only coup that was related to a negative book review, a book review done by the CIA.

But, really, what was threatening about Mr. Nkrumah was the fact that he had this African unity agenda, that it was under his leadership and direction that the Organization of African Unity was created in 1963. And the coup against Patrice Lumumba was, in a sense, a coup not only because of the resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the political allyship that Patrice Lumumba had with Nkrumah. They were together going to imagine the possibilities of African unity, English-speaking Ghana, French-speaking DRC. They would have had a captivating impact on the African continent. Coup number one against Lumumba in 1960, coup number two against Nkrumah in 1966, and the continent then is, in a way, recolonized. That, in fact, I think, is the relationship. And that meeting in Accra, where he brings together revolutionaries from across the continent, is really a significant touchstone of the importance of African unity for people like Lumumba and people like Nkrumah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, there’s a lot of focus on the Congo’s mineral wealth, but it also has an immense agricultural wealth, enough arable land to feed the entire continent. And yet its people remain among the poorest in the world?

VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, it’s a scandal, you know, just the statistics, just the fact that the Congo has over 50% of the population in poverty, you know, one in six people in the Democratic Republic of Congo in extreme poverty, unable to find food to eat. It is an extraordinary country. People who have visited the Democratic Republic of Congo will say it is extraordinary in the sense of its immense wealth, its forests, its lands and so on. It’s like 60 times the size of Belgium, which colonized the DRC. It’s an extraordinary country.

But it has never been permitted, even now, to develop its own project. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia together produced a project to develop an electric car battery. But the government of Joe Biden intervened, subordinated the two of them to something called the Lobito project, or the Lobito Corridor project, that said that, “No, you can’t do this alone. Zambia and the DRC can’t do this alone. The United States must be there as a trustee, as overseer.” I mean, that ridiculous, racist policy continues ’til now. The Lobito Corridor project isn’t a neutral project of development. It’s a project to prevent countries like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo from creating their own electric battery industry.

You know, in a sense, there’s an idea that these countries should only produce raw materials; they can’t produce industry. And that has to be, I think, deeply contested. It’s not just some right-wing people who have that view. This is the view of the Biden administration. This is the view of neoliberals around the world. They don’t want to allow Africa to industrialize. And that’s a very important legacy of Lumumba and Nkrumah, this demand and fight that we must be able to produce our own commodity chain; we can’t just be, in a sense, the sluice for raw materials.

AMY GOODMAN: Vijay, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Again, Patrice Lumumba would have been 99 years old today. Vijay Prashad is director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, where his new in-depth article is headlined “The Congolese Fight for Their Own Wealth.”

Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a director of development. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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