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Conflict, Exploitation and the Epitome of Human Suffering

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in the heart of Africa, is a country fraught with conflict and humanitarian crises. Under the colonial rule of Belgium, the country was a crucible of human suffering. In its post-independence era, Congo was burdened with unstable leadership, authoritarian regimes and secessionist movements. Towards the beginning of the 21st century, Congo was embroiled in multiple civil conflicts that have lasted till today. Currently, it is trapped in a web of exploitation from conglomerates that need cobalt and copper to run their businesses. It is also stuck in a cycle of violence between the government and M23 rebels, killing civilians in the crossfire. This article will focus on the historical and present-day context of Congolese suffering and how economic and political greed have impacted the nation and people’s growth.

Congo Free State and Belgian Congo

It is essential to be aware of the DRC’s history to understand the extent of suffering and abuse the country has endured at the hands of economic greed. The DRC was a Belgian colony ruled in two phases. They were ruled first by King Leopold III. He founded the Congo Free State. Under his rule from 1885 to 1908, between five to ten million Congolese people died due to exploitation, sickness, torture and various forms of human rights abuses. 

The economy of the Congo Free State depended on and monopolised the ivory and rubber trade. Most, if not all, Congolese people were enslaved to collect these two materials. He initially monopolised the ivory trade, and after an increase in the price of rubber, he enslaved most Congolese natives to extract the material. According to Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, rubber extraction was extremely difficult for the labourers. They had to slash the rubber plant and lather the rubber latex on their skin. They then had to peel the rubber off their skin once it hardened, which was painful as it would take their hair with it. 

Moreover, they had to adhere to rubber quotas enforced by the Force Publique, Leopold’s private army. The punishment for not meeting the rubber quota was death. As proof of the killing, soldiers had to chop off the hands of those they had killed. Consequently, chopped-off hands became concessions for villages unable to meet the rubber quota. On occasion, villages would go to war with other villages to get their hands if they had been given a rubber quota that was too hard to meet.

The Congo Free State also was rife with cases of cannibalism. Officially, cannibalism was outlawed. However, authorities did little to stop the practice, and some soldiers of the Force Publique even engaged in it themselves. In some cases, the Force Publique gave King Leopold’s allies children and older women, and they were then either expressly or implicitly allowed to kill them for consumption.  

The natives also suffered under child colonies, where King Leopold would send orphaned Congolese boys to train in Christian mission camps, where they were kept in slave-like conditions. The majority of the boys would not make it out alive. 

More human rights abuses that the Congolese had to suffer included famine, imprisonment and hostage-taking. The brutality of the Congo Free State eventually became news, thanks to the Congo Reform Association, founded by British citizens in the early 20th century. The group conducted a publicity campaign exposing the state of life in Congo. The news of the abuses in the State then brought pressure to end King Leopold’s complete sovereignty over the region. 

The international pressure then culminated in the Belgian parliament abolishing the Congo Free State and adopting it as a colony known as Belgian Congo, beginning the second phase of the rule of Congo. 

Belgian Congo was an improvement in terms of human rights abuses. The government abolished policies of rubber quotas and their punishments. However, this does not mean Congo became a utopia under the Belgian parliament. Despite conditions being improved compared to those under King Leopold, according to Jules Marchel in the book Lord Leverhume’s Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo, the Belgian government did not put in effort to invest in the healthcare or general education of the natives. The motive behind the colonisation of Congo was still economic, albeit less pronounced. 

The Belgian government faced resistance throughout their colonial rule. Many rebellions began in 1919, and multiple anti-European religious groups were founded in the 1920s. Unrest increased during the World Wars, and due to the suppression of political reformers, it was not until 1958 that the first Congolese national party, the Congo National Movement (CNM), was founded by Patrice Lumumba, who would go on to be the first Prime Minister of Congo. The Belgians initially resisted the idea of an independent Congo and even clashed violently with reformers. However, in 1960, there was a sudden policy change, and Belgium began making arrangements for Congolese independence. Congo officially became an independent republic on June 30, 1960, becoming the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1964, but was named Zaire until 1997. 

Congo crisis and political instability

The sudden departure of Belgium from Congo’s leadership left a power vacuum in the country. It led to chaos as there was no formal transfer of power. This led to the start of the Congo crisis. Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the CNM party, was elected as the country's Prime Minister, but he faced heavy opposition from secessionist movements in the Katanga and South Kasai provinces. The lack of unity in the country led to a blatant grab for power that had to be bated by the ruling government. 

Chief of Army Staff Joseph Mobutu ousted Patrice Lumumba, and Congo was then under a caretaker government. The nation was further destabilised after Lumumba was assassinated in 1961. Secessionist movements gained traction. After more conflict and government changes within the country, a civilian government under Cyrill Adoula emerged. Adoula’s government was unsuccessful in its attempt to destabilise the nation and bring peace. Then again, after a few years, the nation was led by Joseph Kasa-Vubu. In 1965, Joseph Mobutu once again overthrew the government with a coup and established his regime in the country. This was the beginning of the end of the Congo crisis, a time in freshly independent Congo marred by violence, human rights abuses and a legacy of political instability. 

Foreign intervention played a crucial role in keeping Mobutu in power. He was a staunch ally of the USA as a leader who was against communism and was believed to be someone who would help beat the ‘red scare’ in Africa. Even though Mobutu’s leadership was a time of severe political repression, it can be considered a relatively peaceful time in the DRC’s history. 

Regional conflicts and civil wars

In 1996, after the Rwandan genocide, the Rwandan government was majority Tutsi-led. This led to many Hutu-militias fleeing to eastern Zaire and using the refugee camps they set up as bases to fight against the Rwandan government and Tutsis native to eastern Zaire. 

Congruently, Rwandan and Ugandan forces invaded Zaire and attempted to overthrow Mobutu’s government. In 1997, Laurent-Désiré Kabila succeeded with the help of this foreign support and Mobutu and was exiled to Morocco, ending the first Congo civil war.

Kabila’s regime did not last very long. Ethnic tensions spiralled, and disillusionment with his premiership sparked the second civil war in the country. In 2003, another conflict began with rebel groups and forces from Rwanda and Uganda. This exacerbated violence and instability in a country that was still recovering from its first civil war. The conflict was the second-deadliest conflict at the time, after World War II. After his assassination in 2001, Laurent-Désiré was succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila. 

The second civil war officially ended in 2003, and a transitional government with Kabila was set up. In 2006, elections were held again, and Kabila won, formally making him the country's leader. 

Continued conflict and 21st-century exploitation 

Mutiny continued within Congo, most notably Laurent Nkunda, who defected and founded the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) in 2009. After clashes, the government and the CNDP signed a peace treaty. However, in 2012, Bosco Ntaganda, believing that the government violated the treaty's provisions, revolted and founded the March 23 (M23) rebels.

The conflict between the M23 rebels and the government persists to this day. Its effects are dire on the population, with multiple civilian deaths and displacement

Most significantly, the country is facing a harrowing sexual violence crisis as a result of conflict. A study in the US shows that more than 400,000 women are subject to sexual violence in Congo every year. The country faces some of the highest sexual violence rates in the world. 

In 2015, protests erupted over Kabila’s regime and in 2018, new elections were held. Félix Tshisekedi won in 2018 and was just reinstated as President in 2024, making him the current President of the DRC. 

Fighting between M23 and the government has caused significant harm to civilian life. The fighting has displaced millions who are living in extreme poverty and are subject to hunger, disease and violence (physical and sexual). 

Peace in the DRC 

The problems for the people of Congo extend beyond the boundaries of conflict.

Economically, they are still being exploited by companies that use the mines in the country for cobalt and copper. These materials are essential for lithium-ion batteries in phones, laptops and electric vehicles.  

Congo holds the world’s largest reserve of cobalt and the seventh-largest reserve of copper. People are then forcefully displaced to make room for mines for the copper and cobalt in the country. They are also employed in inhuman conditions. Moreover, child labour is rampant in mines. 

With the external conflict, economic hardship and lack of human rights, can a Congolese individual live in peace? 

Historically, the DRC has been used as the world’s economic cow for ivory and rubber in the 19th century and cobalt and copper in the 21st century. The rights guaranteed to humans by virtue of being human do not seem to apply to people in Congo. 

How is it possible that the political and economic situation of the DRC has remained the same since the establishment of the Congo Free State and after its independence? 

In hindsight, it is essential to understand that despite the abuses under King Leopold being the driving factor behind the lack of political and economic development in Congo, the role of governments in post-independence Congo cannot be denied. The governments of Mobutu, Kasa-Vub, and those after them have not done anything to bolster peace in the country or even bring a semblance of growth in healthcare, education, or any infrastructure. Now more than ever, it is clear that it is vital to act in the interests of the Congolese people alone, instead of political parties, to ensure some semblance of humanity left in a country that has been neglected by the world and its politicians countless times before.


Edited by: Vidhi Dujodwala


Image Sources: Voice of America, Blackpast, Britannica, The Guardian, The New York Public Library,

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