The wider historical context of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade

This story originally appeared in Pambazuka News 302, May 3, 2007. The original is at

Trade in African slaves underpinned the British economy in the 18th
century: the rich and powerful, the monarchy and the Church. So why
was an enterprise that was so economically important ended so
abruptly in the first decade of the 19th century? Hakim Adi explains…

In March 2007 large-scale commemorative events were organised to mark
the bi-centenary of the parliamentary act to abolish the trans-
Atlantic slave trade.

This unprecedented commemoration of a historical event, in which the
British government itself is playing a leading role, was difficult to

There has been a frenzy in the British media. We have seen government
publications (allegedly designed to enlighten the public); meetings
and exhibitions; a debate in parliament; an apology from London’s
mayor; the issuing of postage stamps; a service in Westminster Abbey;
and release of the film Amazing Grace which promotes the well-
established myth that abolition was largely due to the efforts of the
Hull-based MP William Wilberforce.

It would be hoped that owing to the vast amount of information that
is being disseminated, everyone would be now disabused of such
erroneous views; and would be able to place both the so-called
abolition and the centuries of trafficking of human flesh from Africa
in historical perspective. The commemorative events certainly provide
the opportunity for broad and in depth discussion of Britain’s
history and the crimes against humanity committed over many centuries.

But are we any clearer about what went on 1807? More importantly, do
we know why parliament decided to make illegal an enterprise which
had underpinned Britain’s economy throughout the 18th century, when
Britain was the world’s leading slave trading power?

After all, Britain was involved in the trafficking of kidnapped and
enslaved Africans from the mid-16th century, when this enterprise was
pioneered by John Hawkins and Elizabeth Tudor, until the early 1930s,
when legislation was still being passed outlawing slavery in
Britain’s African colonies.

In the 18th century Britain, as the world’s leading slave trading
power, transported about half of all enslaved Africans not only to
its own colonies but also those of other major powers such as France
and Spain. British ships transported at least 3,500,000 Africans
across the Atlantic.

In total, this entire ‘trade’ led to the forced removal of some
15,000,000 Africans, transported to the colonies of the European
powers and the Americas. Many millions more were killed in the
process of enslavement and transportation. Historians now estimate
that Africa’s population actually declined over a period of four
centuries, or remained stagnant until the early 20th century.

In 1713 the British government was militarily victorious against its
rivals in Europe. By the Treaty of Utrecht (the same treaty by which
Britain lays claim to Gibraltar), it gained the lucrative contract to
supply Spain’s American colonies with enslaved Africans.

The government promptly sold the contract for £7.3m to the South Sea
company, whose first governor happened to also be the chancellor of
the exchequer.

Indeed the trafficking of Africans was the business of the rich and
powerful from the outset. The monarchy was a zealous supporter and
beneficiary, as was the Church of England. The slave trade was
Britain’s trade in the 18th century. The British Prime Minister
William Pitt declared that 80 per cent of all British foreign trade
was associated with it. It contributed to the development of banking
and insurance, shipbuilding and several manufacturing industries.
Most of the inhabitants of Manchester were engaged in producing goods
to be exchanged for enslaved Africans. Their trafficking led to the
development of major ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool. Today it
is difficult to find any major stately home, or cultural or financial
institution which is not connected with the profits generated by this
trade and the luxury items associated with it such as sugar, tobacco
and coffee.

It might be wondered therefore why an enterprise that was so
economically important to the rich and powerful in Britain in the
18th century should have been so abruptly ended in the first decade
of the 19th century.

The answer requires the abolition of various myths and disinformation
peddled since that time. One such myth is that abolition was largely
the work of one man – William Wilberforce; and that it was carried
out largely for humanitarian reasons. And there is another myth: that
abolition was the work of an enlightened parliament, finally
acknowledging the barbarism and inhumanity of the kidnapping,
enslavement and trafficking of other human beings.

However, on the contrary, it is a matter of historical fact that the
struggle to end the enslavement and trafficking of Africans was first
initiated and pursued primarily by Africans themselves.

Historians now speak of centuries’ long wars of resistance in the
Caribbean; of the maroons; of day to day large and small-scale
liberation struggles.

But such resistance also took place throughout the American
continent, wherever enslaved Africans were to be found. There were
also significant acts of resistance within Africa itself, and on many
ships engaged in the human trafficking, most famously on the Amistad.

Such acts of resistance also took place in Britain, where enslaved
Africans who liberated themselves were subjects of court cases
contesting the legality of slavery throughout the 18th century.

It was as a result of this self-liberation of Africans that drew some
leading abolitionists, such as Granville Sharp, into the abolitionist
movement in the late 18th century. While the resistance acts of
Africans culminated in the famous legal judgement of 1772 which
declared that it was illegal for self-liberated Africans to be re-
enslaved in Britain and taken out of the country against their will.
Africans in Britain had organised their own liberation. But they were
assisted by the ordinary people of London and other towns and cities.

African resistance to enslavement and kidnapping contributed to
growing public support and opposition to slave trafficking in Britain
and elsewhere.

In Britain, a popular movement opposing the trade began in the 1780s.
It soon became a broad mass movement of enormous proportions,
possibly the biggest. It was certainly one of the first mass
political movements in Britain’s history, although it is conveniently
ignored in most historical accounts.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people eventually took
part in this movement which involved the petitioning of parliament
and the boycotting of slave-produced sugar. This abolitionist
movement coincided with a more general concern with and struggle for
the ‘Rights of Man’. Its more advanced elements consciously promoted
the view that the rights of Africans were indeed part of that
struggle. Therefore what was required was a struggle for and defence
of the rights of all.

Africans themselves played a leading role in this movement as
lecturers, propagandists and activists. The most notable was Olaudah
Equiano, formerly enslaved, whose autobiography became a bestseller.
But we should not forget the writing of others, for example Phyllis
Wheatley, Ottobah Cugoano and James Gronniosaw.

Africans in London, including Equiano and Cugoano, formed their own
organisation, the ‘Sons of Africa’, which campaigned for abolition.
It worked with both the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
and the wider mass abolitionist campaign.

But African resistance in the Caribbean and elsewhere was an even
more important factor in the abolitionist struggle, since it had the
tendency to make slavery both less profitable and more dangerous for
the slave owners.

Uprisings by enslaved Africans threatened not just the profits of
individual owners but the control of entire colonies and the fate of
Europe’s economies.

The most important of these liberation struggles, the revolution in
St Domingue, the largest and most prosperous French colony in the
Caribbean, broke out in 1791 not long after the revolution in France.
Revolutionary St Domingue therefore became the first country to
effectively abolish the enslavement of Africans.

In Britain, the popular mass abolitionist movement coincided with
wider demands for political change, at a time when the vast majority
were denied the vote. It also coincided with crucial economic
changes; the industrial revolution; the emergence of new social
forces with the workers on one side and industrial capitalists on the
other, attempting to consolidate their economic and political
domination of the country. The industrialists were sometimes at odds
with the economic and political power exercised by those who owed
their position to the slave-based economies of the Caribbean.

Mass petitioning of parliament, the only means open to the
disenfranchised, against the trade was often strong in manufacturing
towns such as Manchester, where perhaps a third of the entire
population signed. This was viewed with alarm by the ruling class.

The Prime Minister of the time, William Pitt, recognised that popular
sentiment might be used to persuade parliament to abolish Britain’s
exports of enslaved Africans to its main economic rival, France. It
was Pitt who first encouraged Wilberforce to bring an abolition bill
before parliament. Wilberforce’s bill was first introduced in 1791.
It was defeated, as were several similar bills during the next 15 years.

But during this period several significant changes took place. First,
the French Revolution of 1789. Britain’s declaration of war against
revolutionary France in 1793 allowed the suppression of the political
activity of the people at home, effectively limiting the popular
abolitionist campaign and driving it underground.

The revolutionaries in St Domingue successfully defended their
revolution against the French army then against invasions by both
Spain and Britain. It is worth remembering that this war was pursued
by Pitt and supported by Wilberforce, who clearly did not belief that
Africans should liberate themselves.

In 1804 St Domingue declared its independence and was renamed Haiti.
The revolution in Haiti contributed to, and occurred alongside, other
major insurrections across the Caribbean, in Jamaica, Grenada, St
Vincent and elsewhere, which severely threatened the entire colonial

Even those Africans forcibly recruited into Britain’s West India
regiment in Dominica mutinied. Toussaint L’Ouverture and some of the
other leaders of the Haitian revolution became nationally known
figures in Britain. Abolition came to be viewed by some both as a
means to press home a naval and economic advantage over France and
its allies, and a means to limit the numbers of Africans imported
into British colonies; thereby preventing the likelihood of further
revolutions and maintain the slave system.

It was with these aims in mind that parliament passed the Foreign
Slave Act in 1806, banning the export of enslaved Africans to
Britain’s economic rivals, a measure that effectively ended around 60
per cent of Britain’s trafficking, but which is now hardly
remembered, and certainly not commemorated.

There is no doubt that for many in parliament and outside, the demand
for abolition was based largely on economic motives. Prime Minister
Pitt, and others had been concerned about competition from St
Domingue and other Caribbean colonies even before 1791. They had
unsuccessfully sought agreement from both France and Holland to
prohibit the trafficking of Africans.

Others were more concerned about what they saw as the subsidies given
to slave owners and sugar producers in the Caribbean; and government
support for economies and a trade that was declining in importance by
the end of the 18th century, not least because there was over-
production of sugar.

Others in Britain became more interested in developing direct trade
links with India, Brazil and other Spanish American colonies. The
trafficking of Africans to Britain’s colonies was no longer so
important and was seen as by some as being an impediment to important
trading links elsewhere.

These economic motives for abolition have long been associated with
the names of Eric Williams and C.L.R. James. Many attempts have been
made to discredit them. In fact very similar views were expressed by
British historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most
importantly economic justifications for an end to ‘the trade’ were
strongly advanced in the period preceding the Abolition Act.

What is significant is that this explanation for abolition is hardly
ever discussed. It has been largely absent from many of the
commemorative events so far and even from the government’s own
publication which, it is claimed, is designed to educate the public.

Simply stated, this explanation means that the parliamentary act was
passed not for humanitarian reasons but because it was in the
interests of the rich and their representatives in parliament to do
so. And it should be added that it was the actions of people, and
most importantly of the enslaved themselves, in the Caribbean,
Britain and elsewhere that made enslavement and trafficking
increasing inefficient, unprofitable and dangerous.

In 1807 therefore, parliament was persuaded to pass the Abolition
Act; partly on the basis of such economic concerns, partly on the
basis that limiting the importation of enslaved Africans would likely
limit future revolutions and preserve slavery throughout the
Caribbean colonies. Partly it seems, because it was seen as a way of
diverting attention away from an unpopular war against France and its
allies, and persuading the people that such a war was being fought in
the interests of abolition.

Of course after the 1806 act it is arguable that most of ‘the trade’
had ended already. Even some of the major established Caribbean
planters were in favour of abolition since this worked against the
interests of their commercial rivals, both foreigners and those who
had acquired newly captured territory in the Caribbean from Britain’s
enemies. They reasoned that this might be especially advantageous if
abolition could be forced upon other countries as a consequence of
Britain’s military and naval supremacy. Other representatives of the
rising bourgeoisie supported the measure as a means to limit the
economic and political power of those who had hitherto retarded the
development of industrial capitalism and ‘free trade’.

The 1807 Act was subsequently used as the representatives of the rich
envisaged, not least as a means by which the Royal Naval might
interfere in international shipping across the atlantic.

Yet it did not end British citizens’ involvement in the trafficking
of Africans nor slavery itself. Following other major insurrections
in the Caribbean and similar economic and political considerations,
slavery itself was only later made illegal in 1834. But it continued
in some areas of the British empire for another century. The
trafficking of Africans in general increased during the 19th century.
Many British slavers sailed under foreign flags of convenience.

The 1807 Act did not end Britain’s dependence on slave produced goods
such as cotton, the mainstay of the industrial revolution. Even that
so-called ‘legitimate commerce’ subsequently developed with Africa,
such as the extraction of palm oil, was largely produced with slave
labour. The act increased rather than diminished Britain’s
interference in Africa which culminated in the so-called ‘scramble’
for Africa at the end of the 19th century: the invasion of the
continent and imposition of colonial rule.

It is sobering to reflect that Britain’s first colony in Africa was
Sierra Leone. This was the region from where the first enslaved
Africans had been kidnapped in the 16th century. It was established
allegedly as a haven for liberated Africans in 1807, and has now been
under Britain’s domination for the last 200 years Much of this time,
it has been occupied by British troops, while its shores are still
patrolled by the Royal Navy.

Today the government is demanding that even its basic utilities, such
as water, should be privatised for the benefit of British
multinationals. Centuries of interference by British governments have
produced a country that manages to be one of the world’s poorest –
and at the same time the world’s leading producer of diamonds.

The trafficking of Africans over many centuries was one of the
greatest crimes against humanity. The current commemorative events,
which are organised for a variety of purposes, at least provide the
opportunity for widespread discussion.

What is vital is that the myths are shattered and disinformation
combated. We must ensure that appropriate and adequate reparations
are made for slavery, colonialism and all crimes against humanity.
People themselves must draw the appropriate lessons from history, one
of the most important being that it is people that make and change
history; and that therefore, we are our own liberators.

* Hakim Adi is reader in the history of Africa and the African
diaspora at Middlesex University, London, UK.

Rwanda’s Secret War: U.S.-backed destabilization of Central Africa

This story originally appeared in Z Magazine Online, February 2005 Volume 18 Number 2
The original is at

On November 26, 2004, television stations in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), began broadcasting alerts that a Rwandan invasion was underway. This followed days of repeated threats by President Paul Kagame to attack Hutu rebels based in the eastern DRC. Belgian and U.S. military sources in Kinshasa said that at least five battalions (1,500-3,000 troops) had penetrated the provinces of North and South Kivu from 5 different points. “This is a sizeable advance force for the Rwandan army,” said one military source in Kinshasa.

With Rwanda’s government continuing to deny their invasion, some 6,000 Rwandan troops had reportedly penetrated eastern DRC by December 4, making this tiny Rwanda’s third major invasion of its huge neighbor to the west.

According to the DRC government, troops of the Armed Forces for the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) had clashed with Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) at numerous locations by early December. The Monitor newspaper in Uganda reported December 6 that RDF troops passing illegally through Ugandan frontier areas had also clashed with Ugandan soldiers. The Monitor reported thousands of Congolese refu- gees fleeing into Uganda.

According to IRIN, news network of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, thousands of Congolese civilians were fleeing North Kivu province as of December 6, with civilians claiming executions and massacres as RDF troops burned and looted everything in their path. NGO staff in the region are bracing for the flood of tens of thousands of internally displaced persons.

These claims were echoed by Rwandan guerrilla groups based in the DRC. “According to our sources five Rwandan battalions are already in the DRC ready to create chaos,” reported Jean-Marie Higiro, former leader of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). “Kagame’s regime maintains its sponsorship to rebel DRC forces. Under all kinds of tricks, Kagame’s regime is able to continue to pull the strings in the DRC.”

He rejected claims that the Rwandan military is acting in self-defense. “Rwanda and its proxy armies in the DRC maintain an absolute cordon sanitaire at the Rwandan-Congolese border,” Higiro says. “How can Hutu rebels break through this cordon sanitaire and strike Rwanda, then retreat into the DRC without being intercepted?”

Higiro alleges that powerful interests in Washington had, as early as 1989, delineated the now-apparent Tutsi strategy of annexation of the eastern DRC and that there is a very powerful Tutsi lobby in Washington, DC.

Rwanda’s latest bid to annex the DRC’s Kivu provinces was called the “Third War of Occupation of Eastern Congo” by Congolese students who took to the streets of Kisangani in protest on December 4. Despite Rwanda’s official denials of aggression, Rwandan leaders had issued unambiguous warnings in recent days. “You have to make war to have peace,” Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame told United Nations Observer’s Mission In Congo (MONUC) peacekeeping forces on November 23. “We are preparing to return our forces to the DRC,” Rwanda’s regional cooperation minister, Protais Mitali, said on the 25th, according to Reuters. “We cannot watch as these extremist forces advance onto our territory.”

Reuters correspondent David Lewis in Kinshasa reported on November 26 that the Congolese army told the United Nations that its soldiers had clashed with Rwandan troops inside the DRC, although UN peacekeepers found no signs of any fighting, according to Lewis’s UN sources. Lewis also reported that clashes had taken place earlier in the week.

In Kinshasa, long-time Mobutu opposition party leader Etienne Tshisekedi from the Union for Democracy and Social Progress issued a communiqué warning that if Rwanda had again invaded the DRC, then the Congolese people must demonstrate against the UN Mission. May and June 2004 saw major demonstrations across the DRC where MONUC vehicles and homes rented by MONUC personnel were destroyed in protest of MONUCs perceived failure to defend the city of Goma from the invading forces of pro-Rwandan rebel groups in Congo. There are no U.S. military with the MONUC force in DRC.

Rwandan and Ugandan guerrilla groups continue to maintain a destabilizing presence in the eastern DRC, including the ex-Force Armee Rwandais (ex-FAR, the former Rwandan army), Interahamwe (the militia largely responsible for the 1994 genocide), Allied Democratic Forces for Uganda (ADF), and the People’s Redemption Army (PRA). The DRC government and international community have failed to implement the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process called for by international peace accords.

Rwanda has repeatedly threatened to invade the DRC to attack Hutu rebels accused of genocide—Interahamwe and ex-FAR. The “genocidiares” fled Rwanda in 1994 and established themselves in Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire (as DRC was then known) with the help of the French intervention force Operation Tourquoise and support from Zaire’s 32-year dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. Rwanda also claimed that it must defend the Banyamulenge—Congolese Tutsis—from the ongoing genocide.

MONUC entered the DRC in 1999 after peace agreements signed in Lusaka, Zambia.

Subsequent peace accords in Sun City, South Africa and negotiations with rebels and militias in the eastern DRC ushered in a peace process under a transitional power-sharing government, implementing a joint UN/DRC program of DDR, and the promise of elections in 2005.

The disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program has largely been an empty promise. The DRC was formally cited at the UN Security Council on November 23 for its lack of cooperation in the arrest of people accused of taking part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In a UN press statement, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Hassan Bubacar Jallow from Gambia, told the Security Council that 14 indicted people were still at large and “the bulk of the fugitives continued to be based in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” The press release stated that the U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Danforth, called n the DRC and Kenya to arrest fugitives accused of inciting conflicts in the Great Lakes region on the border of DRC and Rwanda.

Impunity for government soldiers and guerrillas alike remains endemic in the eastern DRC provinces of Orientale, Equateur, and the Kivus. According to a recent alert by Survivor’s Rights International, reports from isolated areas across the country indicate that populations continue to suffer wholesale extortion, racketeering, theft, rape, and other violence.

Rights groups accused all sides of exploiting ethnic conflict in the region. “Relations between the Banyamulenge and other Congolese groups have been strained and are frequently manipulated by politicians in both Rwanda and the DRC,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a June 2004 report, “War Crimes in Bukavu.” “The past six years of war have contributed to hostility against them as they are increasingly identified as ‘Rwandan’ by other Congolese. Rwanda has often justified its presence in DRC in part as an effort to protect the Banyamulenge people, though this was challenged in 2002 when they attacked the Banya- mulenge homelands killing scores of Banyamulenge civilians, shooting some of them from Rwandan helicopters.”

In a bold article that caught major international press on December 4, BBC journalist Robert Walker, who overflew the North Kivu region in a MONUC helicopter, reported that “President Kabila is getting away with a crime” because the DRC government was fabricating reports of war and Rwandan involvement in eastern DRC. However, by December 20, 2004, UNICEF was reporting “millions displaced by recent fighting.”

Central Africa’s Ongoing Genocide

Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, launching a four-year campaign of guerrilla warfare. Open support for Rwanda’s then-Hutu-led government from French paratroopers failed to prevent the RPA victory of August 1994, following the coordinated genocide of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Tutsis by hard-line Hutus (FAR) and affiliated Interahamwe (Hutu) militias from April to July.

Critics such as Wayne Madsen, author of Genocide and Covert Operations in Africa 1993-1999, assert that Kagame and the RPA orchestrated the April 6, 1994 assassination of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi—shooting down their plane on its approach to Kigali airport with SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles taken from Iraq by France in 1991, then delivered by the U.S. military to Uganda, the base for RPA guerrilla operations against Rwanda prior to 1994.

Evidence was provided at a special hearing held by then Congressperson Cynthia McKinney at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on April 6, 2001, the seventh anniversary of the assassinations. Journalist Charles Onana of Cameroon, author of The Secrets of the Rwandan Genocide, also aired claims of RPA involvement in the incident and was sued for defamation by Paul Kagame. A Paris court found in favor of Onana. Defense attorneys working at the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR) maintain that the standard figure of 800,000 Tutsis killed in the 1994 genocide is grossly inflated. At least three major films continue to circulate in the U.S., all furthering the pro-RPA and pro-Tutsi perspective of the Hutu genocide.

Paul Kagame, who was trained by the U.S. military at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has been a regular visitor at Harvard University, the James Baker III Institute in Houston, Texas, the White House, and the Pentagon. U.S., European, and South African military interests have continued to support various factions in Central Africa, arming militias and rebel groups through proxy armies from Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in south Sudan. France’s presence in Central Africa is based out of Gabon, the major point of French miltary penetration on the continent.

Terror continued in Rwanda under the new RPA government of Paul Kagame, with Amnesty International documenting a pattern of assassinations, arbitrary imprisonment, and “disappearances.” Nearly all political opponents—Tutsi or Hutu—have been labeled “genocidiares” and Amnesty International has protested that some trials and executions of accused genocidiare collaborators have been tainted and politically-motivated.

The first Rwandan invasion of its huge neighbor to the west occurred in 1996. According to the influential “Africa Confidential” newsletter, Major Gen. Paul Kagame visited the Pentagon in August 1996, conferring with Washington prior to launching a grand plan to unseat Mobutu Sese Seko. While the U.S. public was consumed with the 1996 presidential elections, Rwanda was preparing its war against Zaire. It began with the shelling of Hutu refugee camps in eastern Congo with Katusha missiles, killing non-combatants.

RPA joined with the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and the guerrilla army of Laurent Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL) in the “war of liberation” that subsequently ended long reign of President Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo (Zaire). Sources in the DRC quickly add that U.S. military personnel were seen advising the joint UPDF/RPA invasion which swiftly moved across the vast forested territory of Zaire.

Mobutu’s generals were reportedly contacted in advance by high-level U.S. officials in the region; most of those who agreed to support the U.S. invasion remain in high posts in the DRC today; other of Mobutu’s highest military were sacrificed one way or another.

Wayne Madsen reported that the U.S. established major communications and listening stations in Uganda’s Ruwenzori Mountains. Witnesses interviewed in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, support this claim. Communications equipment was also seen on Idjwe Island in Lake Kivu, on the DRC-Rwanda frontier.

Recent interviews with survivors across the country document crimes against humanity and acts of genocide committed against Congolese civilians by all sides in the ensuing war. “In May 1997, hundreds of unarmed Hutu refugees were massacred in the town of Mbandaka by soldiers of Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL), operating under apparent Rwandan Army (RPA) command,” wrote Human Rights Watch in June 1998. In an October 1997 report (“What Kabila is Hiding: Civilian Killings and Impunity in Congo”), Human Rights Watch concluded that “Rwandan troops had a role in some of the killings of Rwandan Hutu refugees on Zairean territory.”

Thousands of Hutu refugees were slaughtered in Mbandaka in May 1997, on the day that the AFDL arrived there. One eyewitness told this reporter: “We ran down to the beach [port] because we heard the shooting. I saw two people shot but there were bodies all lined up on the beach. The soldiers were also throwing dead bodies in the [Congo] river. There were a lot of Tutsi soldiers, but we couldn’t distinguish. I saw soldiers question one woman. The woman was not able to talk in [Congolese] Lingala. He said, ‘Yes, you are among the Rwandais Hutus. Turn, face the river, pray to your God, because you are about to meet your God.’ Then he shot her in the back with an automatic weapon.”

“U.S. special forces were involved,” asserted one DRC army captain interviewed recently in Kinshasa. The AFDL forces included UPDF, RPA, and U.S. military advisers, he claimed.

Colonel James Kabarebe, now Chief of Staff of the Rwanda Defense Forces, is said to have led the campaign to annihilate fleeing Hutu refugees. Kabarebe has been sited in UN reports for massive violations in Ituri. “Kabarebe was reportedly the biggest advocate of Rwandan support to [ethnic] militias,” wrote UN investigators in the MONUC “Special Report on Events in Ituri,” January 2002-December 2003. Rwanda armed, trained, and advised militias in Ituri, as it had in North and South Kivu provinces, the report found. The Ugandan military was similarly cited for atrocities.

The RPA joined with the UPDF to invade DRC again in 1998 after ADFL leader, Laurent Kabila, rejected U.S. and Bechtel Corporation plans for the newly liberated country and annulled mining contracts signed with some powerful Western companies before he had taken power—including America Mineral Fields, based in Hope, Arkansas and said to be linked to then-President Clinton through “Friend of Bill” investors. Kabila also ejected the Rwandan and Ugandan military allies that brought him to power.

The Congolese people call it the “war of aggression,” but it was dubbed “Africa’s First World War” by the western press, as it involved six regional nations, as well as arms and advisers from western countries. Troops from Rwanda and Uganda (now backing anti-Kabila rebels), as well as Zimbabwe (allied with the DRC government) worked with commercial agents to pilfer DRC’s ivory, diamonds, gold, timber, cobalt, and other natural resources. Foreign agents moved these plundered resources onto the international market, as militia groups raked in local profits.

At least 3.5 million people died due to warfare in the DRC, according to the International Rescue Committee report on the region. From 1999-2001, through networks of Rwandan military and commercial agents, Rwandan interests aligned with the state earned at least $240 million in the sale of coltan (columbo-tantalite)—a precious ore essential to Sony playstations, laptop computers, and cell phones. In December 2000 alone the main RPA-supported rebel group in the DRC earned some $600,000 in coltan sales. Coltan moved through criminal syndicates to U.S., Swiss, Belgian, and German clients. Rwandan syndicates continue to dominate the coltan trade out of eastern DRC, local sources claim.

Friends of the Earth and the UK-based group Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) filed a formal complaint with the U.S. State Department on August 4, 2004 against three U.S. companies accused by the UN Panel of Experts of fueling war. The UN panel’s three-year investigation implicated Cabot Corporation (Boston), Eagle Wings Resources International, and George Forrest’s OM Group (Ohio) in collaboration with various rebel groups trafficking in coltan from DRC. Current deputy director of the U.S. Treasury Department, Samuel Bodman, was CEO and chair of Cabot from 1997-2001.

It is important to note that the conflict in Central Africa revolves not around “governments” so much as militarized power blocks and multinational corporate alignments which are transnational. Thus while powerful U.S. government interests may back the Kagame and Museveni regimes in support of destabilization of Central Africa and the annexation of the Kivu and Orientale provinces, other powerful interests—such as the International Rescue Committee —maintain a constant international media presence that appears to be in conflict with that agenda, but which nevertheless exists as a major lobby in support of or defense of certain interests at the expense of certain others. Notable personalities on the IRC’s Boards of Directors and Overseers include Morton Abramowitz, Tom Brokaw, and Henry Kissinger.

An Unraveling Peace Process

The DRC frontier with Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi has remained the locus of instability and guerrilla warfare since at least 1994—long before the first Rwandan invasion of Congo in 1996—and the rising insecurity and terrorism has all but annihilated the local civilian population. North and South Kivu provinces continue to suffer from widespread violence and killings in the Goma and Bukavu areas are rampant. The Ituri region of Orinetale Province, bordering on Uganda, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, is cited as one of the bloodiest corners of the world by numerous human rights agencies. The UN Security Council’s “Special Report on Ituri,” outlines the history of conflict in Ituri, the role of Ugandan and Rwandan government forces in arming factions, bombing villages, massacring and torturing civilians, and provoking and, at times, abetting, acts of genocide.

Given the rising insecurity in Ituri in recent months, with assassinations and nightly shootings, the population in Bunia increasingly sees MONUC as a hostile and aggressive force of foreign military occupation. Said one Bunia resident formerly employed by MONUC: “Public opinion is that MONUC has done nothing. People thought that MONUC came here to bring peace, but to their surprise people find that MONUC is like a spectator in a football match. People are dying in their presence. People are being terrorized in their presence. People are being killed in there presence and MONUC is doing nothing.”

“Firing incidents occur daily,” admitted one public information officer for MONUC. “I don’t think there is any area except maybe in Bunia [town] where the human rights situation is improving.”

Reports of MONUC personnel buying and transporting contraband goods—leopard and okapi skins, gold, ivory—are also widespread; one western photojournalist witnessed Belgian troops openly purchasing ivory; troops are immune to customs search and seizure.

Arms continue to flow into the region. Uganda’s government newspaper the New Vision reported on November 23 that arms shipments reportedly destined for the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), a regional militia aligned with Rwanda, were seized by the Armed Forces of the Congolese People (FAPC), a rival Congolese militia in control of the lucrative Ituri Province customs posts in northeastern DRC.

“According to local sources, local government officials have delivered firearms to civilians in Masisi, North Kivu, long the site of conflict between different political and military groups,” wrote Human Rights Watch on November 19. “Other shipments have been delivered to Ituri, another persistently troubled area in northeastern Congo. UN sources reported that some 300 Congolese high school students, refugees in neighboring Rwanda, abruptly left their schools and are said to be undergoing military training.”

According to recent reports from northern Ituri, the FAPC has reportedly executed child soldiers seeking to enter the DDR process and attacked the families and looted the homes of reintegrated ex-child soldiers. The UPC and the Force for National Liberation, another militia, continue to extort a weekly war tax from citizens, persecute those who refuse to comply, and terrorize the citizenry.

“All armed groups in Ituri have integrated children into their ranks,” wrote MONUC investigators. MONUC conservatively estimated “at least 40 percent of each militia force are children below the age of 18, with a significant minority below the age of 15.” The MONUC investigation found that Ugandan and Rwandan military were frequently training children abducted and forcibly or willingly recruited into DRC militias. MONUC documented cases where hundreds of children were taken by road or plane to Uganda or Rwanda for military training.

The UPC and the Force for National Liberation continue to extort a weekly war tax from citizens, persecute those who refuse to comply, and terrorize the citizenry. Said one witness, “The UPC is collecting money. They say, ‘Either you pay 100 francs Congolese or we come at night.’ Then when they come they cut off your hand or violate women.”

“Sexual violence is a national epidemic in DR Congo,” wrote Survivors Rights International (SRI) in a December 5, 2004 alert, “involving all military factions, both current and past military forces involved in the internal affairs of the DRC, and it appears to be sanctioned by all levels of military command.

SRI also reported that the presence of hundreds of internally displaced girls and women currently resident in Mbandaka has spawned commerce in prostitution and survival sex involving both Armed Forces of Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) and MONUC troops. “FARDC further prey on female sex workers by forcing sexual relations, raping those who refuse, and universally robbing desperate females of their livelihood,” SRI wrote.

Forgotten Resource Wars

Rwanda and Uganda continue to benefit from high-level military arrangements with the United States. Entebbe, Uganda is a forward base for U.S. Air Force operations in Central Africa. According to the Global Policy watchdog, there are 11 U.S. servicepeople permanently stationed in Entebbe. Sources in Uganda and the DRC confirm that weapons move freely through Entebbe airport from U.S. interests. The BBC reported March 23, 2004 that U.S. General Charles Wald confirmed that the U.S. is directly involved in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. “I have met with [Uganda’s] President Museveni,’ Wald reported on the BBC. “I have heard personally that he is very pleased with the support we are giving him…. Its not just moral support…. But many things need to be kept a bit more private.”

In July 2004, members of the DRC military flew to Tampa, Florida to participate in an unfolding U.S. “anti-terrorism” military program called Golden Spear.

The Canadian mining firms Barrick Gold and Heritage Oil & Gas arrived with the Ugandan and Rwandan military during the “war of aggression” to exploit mining opportunities in the north. Barrick principals include former Canadian premier Brian Mulroney and former U.S. president George H.W. Bush. Heritage has secured contracts for the vast oil reserves of Semliki basin, beneath Lake Albert, on both the Congolese and Ugandan sides of the border. Heritage is reportedly tapping the Semliki petroleum reserves from the Ugandan side, where a huge pipeline to Mombasa, Kenya, worth billions of dollars, is now in the works.

According to a petroleum futures report (Africafront), Heritage Oil was poised to exploit the northern Lake Albert basin, southern Lake Albert basin, River Semliki basin, and Lake George and Lake Albert basin areas in partnership with the Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB) of China. Heritage is currently exploiting petroleum in neighboring war-torn Congo-Brazzaville in partnership with ZPEB. Notably, ZPEB is the petroleum firm currently operating behind the genocide of indigenous Anuak people in southeastern Ethiopia (see the December 12, 2004 report by Genocide Watch: “Operation Sunny Mountain”).

Ashanti Goldfields has reportedly secured a contract for the vast gold reserves at Mongwalu, north of Bunia. Ashanti has ties to South Africa and the British Crown and some sources in Bunia report that the Ashanti interest in nearby Mongwalu is guarded by Nepalese Gurkhas, possibly of the Gurkha Security Group based in Britain. The Clintonite multinational America Mineral Fields in May 2004 changed its name to Adastra Minerals and the corporation has multi-billion dollar copper and cobalt mining projects underway, in partnership with the Kabila government, in Katanga province. Elsewhere in DRC, major foreign mining and logging contracts are underway.

Meanwhile the death toll in Congo’s war has easily exceeded five million people.

Harry Kreisler in conversation with Wamba dia Wamba

This interview was conducted in 2004 by Harry Kreisler, as part of the University of California’s Conversations with History series. You can see the original pages here.


Professor Wamba, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in the DRC, Congo, in Bas-Congo at a place called

Looking back, how did your traditions and your family influence
the way you thought about the world?

I was raised in mission schools at a Swedish mission. My father was
Christian, and my mother also. They both went to school. In fact, my mother taught me to write and read the first time. There was a lot of respect of moral principles. But also within that context, there was still the lineage community. In fact, the first name I was given was by my mother’s uncle, who was the head of the lineage. So the community ties were very strong, and at the same time, Christian-related moral values.

So very early there was a tension or a dilemma for somebody growing up between modernity, what the West had to offer, but also a traditional way of life. Was that hard or was that easy to navigate?

At our level, in our generation, it wasn’t too difficult, but I think in the generation of my father it must have been very difficult, because they had to give up certain taboos, certain rituals that had to be made, and to internalize the Christian values into the traditional culture. But my father was very successful. He was a leader in the lineage, but also a leader in the Christian church. He actually became a minister of the church.

And you were born in what year?

In 1942.

So your formative years as a young man were probably at the time of Congolese independence. The prelude to independence, the struggle for national liberation, how did those events affect you as a young man?

I was in the Bas-Congo, which at the time was the area of an important political organization called ABAKO, Alliance of the Bas-Congo people, which initially was organizing and defending the culture and the
language. Later on it developed into a political party.

I come also from the part where you had long tradition of prophetism, religious prophetism, people who initially were praying in the bush, hiding from the authorities. And through this tradition came Simon Kimbangu who spent his training years not so far from my father’s village. So you have the excitement of Simon Kimbangu’s demands for certain autonomy in terms of culture, in terms of contact with God. He was actually saying that we don’t need intermediaries to be in touch with God.

So that tradition, added to the political tradition, made us become politically aware, and we knew that the demand was for independence. In fact, the slogan was "What do we want? Independence!" It was being said all [the time] in all our classes. Kasavubu, who was the president of ABAKO, was seen as almost a king. Yes, so there was that tradition.

What was it like to be drawn into that as [a young man]? What age were you then, in your twenties?

Yes, eighteen, twenties, yes.

So the excitement of the national liberation must have really gotten to you as a young person.

But also, since the schools were Swedish schools, most of the teachers we had were very old-style Belgians, saying to class, "How did you get yourselves to be pushed around by little Belgium?" So we were ready to demand self-determination.

We always spent time meeting, and I was into this program of "world journal." Every day we had to put what sorts of news was coming from Kinshasa, what kind of actions the ABAKO was taking and so on. From ’57, for example, to ’60, in our area, people were paying taxes to ABAKO, not to the government. When the colonial government wanted to start political reform of the colonization after the uprising in Kinshasa on January 4, 1959, they put up the slogan that we are not going to vote in favor of those reforms. We want independence right now, immediate independence.

So we were all, without necessarily having the official status of making the propaganda, but as students we were spreading the message of ABAKO everywhere, in our families as well as in [families at] lower schools, because by then we were in secondary school.

You're suggesting that even in this earlier period, there was this
dilemma of whether the parts of the Congo would stay together, whether the Congo would be one or whether it would break apart.

Yes. When it became clear that the other parties were not necessarily following, because we were told that some of the people in the other areas of the country didn’t want immediate independence, people started saying, "Well, just independence for our province. We must have independence. If they don’t want it, we want it now." There was that sense, yes.

When did you take your first steps into politics? We should tell our audience that you have a dual-track career -- on the one hand you're a distinguished academic, the head of the Social Science Association in Africa; but on the other hand, you've entered politics and statecraft. Did you have to go away to college before you entered politics?

At school I was in the leadership of student organizations, and in the leadership of [what you might call] debate clubs, which prepared me to get involved when the ABAKO youth started, to get involved in that. But the political decisions came when there was a split in the ABAKO after
the political roundtable conference in Brussels.

There was a split, and [for] the first time, we were now asked to make an evaluation and decide which side one is on. I was on the side of a gentleman called Daniel Kanza, who was the vice president of the ABAKO, and who was in our opinion the most dynamic of the leadership of the ABAKO, and who was excluded from the Party simply because they thought that he, having very educated children, would monopolize the power and that [they themselves] would not be able to have positions. So they invented stories like that he went to Belgium to ask the king to marry his daughter, who was then completing university studies, and that he had sold the land to Belgium. Because of the level of consciousness in the area, those were accepted as enough reasons to exclude him.

We took a position against that. I went to my house, in my father’s house, they took off all the pictures of Daniel Kanza, so I asked why. He said, "Oh, because they said that he has sold the land." I said, "But how do you sell the land when we are here?" So then he said, "Oh, then it’s probably not correct [what they are] saying. But they also said he’s going to get his daughter married to the king." I said, "But a king marries a princess. Now, this one is not a princess, and on top of that she’s Black. How could this [story be true]?" So then he put back the pictures.

So it was at that time that we started getting more or less involved in politics.

You came to the United States for education. How did you wind up coming to the United States? Was it the situation in the Congo changing for the worse that brought you here to study?

Our school was on the list of the best secondary schools. The African-American Institute usually gave a number of scholarships. So in this particular year, when I finished, they gave three scholarships, so three of us were supposed to go to the U.S. from the secondary school where we graduated. We went to Kinshasa for an interview. In fact, this was the first time that I was asked questions which I’d never thought of, because they had this psychologist who was asking, "Ten years from now what are you going to do?" So I said, "Well, I never thought of that!"

Then she said, "Judging from your background, you could be a professor at the university." I didn’t know what that was, because I had never even visited a university. So then I said, "No, I want to be a professor of secondary school." So then she said, "Well, we will send you to a school that trains secondary teachers, but if you change your mind, we will try to see to that." So that’s how I ended at the Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where apparently the strongest program was training for secondary school teachers.

You went on to Brandeis and to Claremont here in the United States. We can't go into what you learned at all those places, but overall, what did you learn in the United States that you were able to bring back to the Congo and that shaped your ideas about all the exciting things you were to do down the road?

While I was here I got involved in the movements which we were going on, like the Civil Rights movement, and ended up, in fact, getting married to an African-American woman. So I went into the history of slavery, the Reconstruction, and so on. I got involved in the movement of Black students, SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], which was linked to the Southern African Christian Conference. I was also involved in the African students’ movement, which was a pan-Africanist orientation. Later on, when the liberation movement started in Africa, I was in the supporting committees of those movements.

At Western Michigan University, I had very close relationships, because I was in what they called the "honor college" program, where you’re assigned to teachers that most of the time you are working with. One was a professor of philosophy of history, Hans Brycer, who helped us conceptualize certain things about history. There was a professor of economics, but more of political economy, and who helped us criticize the program offered by the university. At that time, there was almost nothing said about African economics. I took, also, a minor in philosophy. Somebody called Polasky, who helped me to write my honors dissertation on Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre.

In Claremont, I was closely linked with Peter F. Drucker. We had some things in common — he liked Jean Bodin, and I’d read Jean Bodin. What impressed me was his way of asking questions of management, and things that I’d never really thought of: where your time goes, and what do you do with your time; and, the objective or the outcome of an organization must be in the community. It was very challenging and much more stimulating than the other classes, which were more technical in the sense that, "marketing is profit, managing is just maximizing profit" — more technical.

At Brandeis, first of all, it’s the environment. You’re dealing with an environment [where] for the first time you get a little bit more awareness of Israel, of the problems involved with the Middle East. Also, you get people who have very strong ideas about how humanity should be moving, and people whose ideas seemed rather — not so much liberating, like Diamandopoulos — but who basically were thinking, "Unless you know a great deal about philosophy .." or something like that.

In the Boston environment, because I also taught at Harvard, I met quite a few people coming from different countries. [They raised] questions of civil rights, questions of democracy, questions of freedom of speech, of thinking, of organizations; questions also of the impact of what we may call the critique of U.S. involvement in the world: interventions, military interventions. At that time, things like the treatment of foreign leaders were being discussed in Congress. So I learned quite a bit from my stay in the U.S.

The Recent History of the Congo

You've gone back to the Congo, and now you're involved in
the project of building a democracy in your own country. Before
we talk about your work in the Senate and your ideas about how
to do that and how you mingle these traditional elements with the ones
that you learned in the United States, give our audience a little understanding of what happened to the Congo in the forty years after independence. The Mobutu regime create a failed state, I guess is the only way to describe it. Help our audience briefly to understand the situation that you inherited in your new role in the transition.

Well, first of all, as you know, the Congo wasn’t created as a country to become a democracy. This was a territory for looking for resources, essentially. That’s how King Leopold II, for instance, viewed it. The state was created as a way of getting ivory and rubber. So it was not a state in the sense of institutions, per se. Despite the paternalism of the Belgians, there was still arbitrariness and there was no sense that Belgium was ready to prepare anybody for independence.

So when the independence movement started, but also the influence of the socialist/communist world, and also the U.S. was asking that colonies be more or less freed, [then] independence was given very precipitously, without much preparation. The pioneers of the movement of independence didn’t develop a capacity that would help them deal with the problems that open up in a country [becoming] independent.

We were dealing with the situation of the Cold War, for example. In the Cold War, it was understood that either you are on one side or you are on the other side. You can’t be neutral. In fact, a [U.S.] Secretary of State, I’ve forgotten who, said that neutralism was immoral.

Sounds like John Foster Dulles.

Yes, that is a possibility.

So when independence was proclaimed, we ran into difficulties of formulating a national program, because the program had to, for the first time, start creating institutions, because the colonial state was not meant to [create] institutions leading to any democracy. The person who advocated the necessary program was the premier minister, Patrice Lumumba. The U.S. either misunderstood him, or he was taken as being on the other side.

The other side of the Cold War ...

The Cold War. So all the forces came to bear, at the end, that he was assassinated, and those following him were also assassinated. And then the country was brought to the side of the Cold War crusaders, essentially.

That’s how Mobutu came in, with no vision of his own except to do whatever he was asked to do. You can say that maybe the vision was to make sure the country was always on the side of … well, the "correct" side of the Cold War, [without] a program of organizing institutions or a program of dealing with the needs of the majority of the population. In fact, at some point, he was just somebody doing predation, taking resources for his own needs. At some point, he became also a sort of regional gendarme, involved in helping UNITA in Angola, and so on.

At the end, that autocratic, kleptocratic rule almost destroyed the country. The state, as you said, collapsed. That meant, also that those wanting to change things didn’t just stay quiet, so once in a while you’d get an uprising, rebellions. So from the sixties’ independence up to now, you can count something like eleven phases of some kind of war. These wars hardly ended up with any program of institution-building per se, so that the legacy of the state, we can say it’s no legitimacy at all.

So if we are serious, now is probably the first time that we can deal correctly with the causes, the conditions [bringing about] these never-ending crises of the country. Probably it’s now that institutions can be put in place.

We should say that at the end of this reign of the despot Mobutu, as a result of the genocide in Rwanda, the Congo got entangled in what was essentially comparable to the world wars that Europe had experienced, where various state actors from outside came into the Congo and a war involving Congolese nationals on the one hand, but outside states on the other, went on for many years, resulting in the death of probably over 3 million people. So this was an additional layer.


Consolidating a Modern Democratic State

Now, in talking about what you're trying to do in the Senate, can you give us an example of what institution-building comes to mean in what is now a legislative body in the new Democratic Republic of the Congo?

At the end of the war in the entire Congolese dialogue, we arrived at an agreement which was called the Global and Inclusive Accord, which lays the ground for the kind of work which is being done now. So besides the state structures, we thought of structures that support democracy. We call them "commissions." One of the tasks of the Parliament is to make sure that these institutions supporting democracy are properly created and properly put in place.

[Another task is] to make sure that the transition is going according to the principles of the accord and the transitional constitution, and also to make sure that a new constitution is drafted which will be the basis of the elections. For example, the Senate is in the process of drafting the constitution.

Since the past constitutions were drafted without any input of the Congolese people at large, and they ended up, in fact, just being left at the door without being followed in any case, we also feel that there should be a national debate on the constitution, that people should express their ideas of what they want — what kind of state, what kind of regime, and so on. After we have gone through this debate, the Senate can make the synthesis and draft the constitution, and then put it to a referendum. If it is accepted, then that is going to be the basis of the elections.

So, hopefully, by doing that we will have institutions that could give us a basis for sustained peace.

In this dialogue about the constitution and the work of the Senate, to what extent are you drawing on African ideas of what democracy is -- which may differ from notions that we in the United States have or that grow out of the history of Europe?

So far, I must say that the task of actually trying to find out what in our culture’s ideas could be constitutional ideas, or ideas of conflict resolutions, ideas of how we could handle the multiethnic character of our society — these are already issues that are dealt with by individuals, not necessarily the Senate focusing on it, but there are some individuals who are dealing with those [ideas]. In our group, for example, we have been reflecting on the notion of palaver in the Congo culture, and how conflicts in the community were resolved, and the notion of the right of an individual in a community, and the community’s role in terms of protecting the individual and also the property of the community.

For example, we have this notion that crime is not committed by an individual, but the individual carries the crime committed by the community, so that the punishment is a punishment which must address the community part, not just the individual. So the punishment must be followed with a ritual of cleansing in the community, so that the punished person can now be reinserted in the community without suspicions. This is not quite the same notion of individual crime in other [societies].

And there’s the whole notion of how the state can be made responsive to the needs of the population. These are questions that some individuals are addressing.

The main issue that the Senate will contend with is the impact of foreign interventions on the Congo. If one looks at the history, one has the feeling that instability has always been caused by the difficulty of articulating the national interests with the interests of powers that be and the interests of neighboring countries. How do you make sure that a partnership of equity can come about? What sorts of constitutional principles have to be adopted to [ensure] respect, so that you don’t have a situation where the strongest interests dominate the interests of the population and the nation? So, some of these issues are being addressed.

We should tell our audience that the Congo, in addition to being a large, important country, is very rich, potentially, because of its wealth of natural resources. This makes it an inviting target for both regional actors and for international actors, as was shown in the Cold War.

Charting the Congo’s Future

What kind of institutions might be created to protect the national interests of the Congo, and define it? And in your work, what part do the ideas that you have acquired in your travels and education play in your contribution to the debate?

First of all, the real issue is how do we get from an economy of war, of conquest, an economy of looting, of predation, an economy open to all kinds of solicitors, to an economy of peace, which first of all serves the needs of the majority of the population? Right now in the economy, a lot of wealth is produced, but even the maintenance of the country is not taken seriously, let alone the reproduction of those [things which] produce the wealth. We are trying to address the structural break in the way the economy is organized as an economy only of extraction of natural resources which don’t have a market inside the country and which go out. [We need to] empower the population by creating specific institutions that would make sure that the resources [benefit the population], that even when we’re dealing with foreign investors, there is a partnership of equity, with mutual interests. It is difficult at this time, because globalization tends to mean a weakening of national states in favor of transnational enterprises sometimes dominating.

For example, the whole program of good governance tends to say that the smaller the state, the better. Now, in a post-conflict situation, one would think that there are major works that have to be accomplished, and that one would want to develop the state capacity to address some of these questions. But what is being said is, "reduce the expenditures of the state and focus only on the maintenance of order and the police," essentially. Education, health, and all the things which are crucial are more or less left to the private sector, which cannot be in a position to have an equitable relationship with transnational enterprise. What is actually being said is that you leave these to the transnational enterprise.

So there are difficulties, but we also think that if we come to a state which is decentralized (we sometimes call it a federal system) where you have local initiatives being respected and given legal integrity, people at that level will realize how important it is to protect their interests, and when it comes to selecting leaders, how important it is to change them if they’re not doing what the community wants. So that lesson can probably help ensure that the national government doesn’t act from commands from outside more than from the needs of the population inside.

So a dynamic federalism would offer the possibility of balancing a state that might otherwise become a servant of outside global forces.


What other mechanisms should there be, if any, to break with this
tradition of the Congolese state as another predator of resources and of the people?

It is difficult, because the mentalities take a long time before they can change. Even the occupants of the state structures don’t look long-term, but mostly to their own needs, using the state as a resource rather than as a protector of institutions, a protector of the integrity of the country. So it’s a little bit difficult. But we feel that if people become [mobilized to take responsibility] locally, the notion that all you need is to have some part of the state get a piece of the pie probably may change.

The international environment in our opinion is also important. For example, if the International Criminal Court can be given the leverage that it [needs to] have, certain people who may not be tried locally may probably [be tried in the ICC]. So that kind of institution may serve also as a constraint in making sure that things now move as they should.

Also, the network we are trying to build, networking even in the U.S., [helps] the U.S. civil society and population get a sense of what their government does outside [the U.S.]. In our case, [we can suggest] some things that people here can help us do, so that instead of the pressure which make it difficult for our institutions to function, we can ask for help from this side, to make sure that their government can also help. Most of the institutions of globalization are based in the West, and in these institutions, often Africans have no real impact. So if the [U.S.] population makes sure that some of the institutions are [operating with] a sense of equitable partnership, then that probably may help.

On our own we need to address issues of civic education, issues of being able to elect people who are going to make a difference. [We need to make] sure we have the institutions that make it impossible for anybody to function as if there were no laws. This means that we have to move to a real republic with autonomy of justice, autonomy of the legislature. The executive [branch of government] shouldn’t be as prominent or as linked to outside interests as it is now.

So you're saying, if I can summarize, that state building and nation building involves a sophisticated strategy of working at home to build a sense of norms and values you need, but at the same time working the globalization process to make sure that you win support elsewhere, and that the forces of globalization don't work against what you're trying to do at home.

Yes, precisely.

In your distinguished career you have been involved in many of the negotiations to bring a resolution of the conflict that was based in the Congo and coming from outside. Talk a little about that experience.
What made it possible through this series of negotiations (some of which failed) to bring the international security environment to a stable place where you could move ahead with these processes? Was it that people just got tired of fighting, was it a new balance of power in the region, or was it because of external intervention of great powers from different parts of the world?

I would say all of those. The population, first, got tired of the war and was becoming vocal in demanding that the Congolese actors come to an agreement. Civil society organizations and some individuals appealed to the actors to come to an agreement. Then you have the international community, the UN, all the humanitarian organizations also pushing for the process of peace.

Within the region, not all states were involved [in warfare]. Some
states from the very beginning of the war wanted questions to be resolved through negotiations. We had what was known as a "proximity talks" committee composed of those states who were opposed to the pursuit of war — Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. They made sure in their discussions with Uganda, Rwanda, Namibia, Angola, that some kind of consensus would come, which in fact led to the Lusaka Accord. The international community, because of its capacity in terms of finance, came in also; and the UN, using its organs. At one point, even, a personal envoy of the Secretary-General of the UN became in charge of the negotiations themselves. And South Africa, because of the relative capacity that it has (which other African states lack for the moment) offered its services, and offered also resources. So all these elements meant that we came to some kind of agreement.

Not that all issues were resolved. As you know, the conception of peace that dominates in the world is more like peace brought from without. It’s a peace that responds to the demands of those who threaten peace, not the demands of the victims. So it ended up saying, look, we must satisfy the actors, those who may resume or want to continue the war. If they stop fighting, the victims also benefit because there is no war, but the victims are not necessarily the starting point in terms of what kind of peace we want. At one point, when it was a zero-sum game, it was difficult, because this one wants more, that one [wants more].

And so we came to an understanding of what now is described as consensus and inclusivity, that all these actors are included. It’s now a matter just of working out the proportionality, who is supposed to have more, who is supposed to have less. That makes it also a little bit unstable, because the message is clear that if you have more arms you can have more power. That is why some people are trying to also do something like in Inturi, because they feel that by so doing maybe they also will be given something.

All the actors involved in negotiations are also given what we may describe as a responsibility stake. South Africa has certain things that it has to do. The Rwandese, the Ugandans, the Burundis too, and so on. And there is an international committee which is supposed to be the guarantor of the success of the transition. Now, it so happened, and I don’t know whether it is accidental, but it so happened that the UN mission to Congo, headed by a personal special envoy of the Secretary-General — the person of Ambassador William Swing, who is an American, so I don’t know if it’s just accidentally or whether it was planned — but he is also in charge of this committee that is the guarantor of the success of the transition.

So you have these checks and balances which make sure that nobody is going to break the accord without being accused of the responsibility of pursing the war, and that each party is, so to speak, watching the other parties, so that nobody is going to do things that are not accepted in the accord. That’s what probably is maintaining a little bit of the balance.

What are the factors that will enable the Congo to stay together as a state and not fall apart into the various regions?

The strong element is that all the categories of people — street people, leaders — they all want the country to be unified. Even when we were in the war, you ask Bemba, he says he wants the country to be unified. You ask Onusumba, he says the country has to be [unified]. You asked the government in the Kinshasa, you ask people in the streets, "What do you want?" "We want the country to come back together." So I would say that the strongest element is the fact that people want the country to remain together. There have been cases of Balkanization, but it’s also clear that no movement really has wanted the Balkanization. In fact, one guy mentioned that Tschombe’s son also said, "No, no, no, we want unity of the country." So that is the strongest thing.

The second element is that we need the infrastructure to reintegrate the country. Roads — the infrastructure right now is almost nonexistent. We have a natural road — the river! — which is now what [connects] Kisangani to Kinshasa. Building roads, building telecommunications and so on will bring people more and more together.

The third thing is the capacity of the state to at least be able to attend the borders, because at some point there were almost no states in many, many areas. The state wasn’t present, so those fighting the civil wars in the neighboring countries could just come in When it was discovered that not only could you come to organize yourself, but you discover, also, that you can have access to resources, it became a free-for-all. So the state needs the capacity to make sure that boundaries are attended to.

Fourth is the necessity of having clear people-to-people relationships. The way these countries were created was artificial, with many of the ethnic groups present in both contiguous countries. If there is a sense of people-to-people relationships and there are institutions that express that, that also will favor, in our opinion, [an unwillingness] to make a Balkanization or to start a war. If the state is based on discrimination, then this element of extending to other countries may become a negative element. That is why we need solidarity structures among the population to make sure that people understand that I, from the Congo, and the neighboring people in Rwanda are brothers and sisters in the sense of people-to-people relationships. That will make it possible to have peace and to have unity prevail.

Professor Wamba, on that hopeful note, I want to thank you for
coming to our program today and for participating in this fascinating story of your journey in the Congo to the United States and back to a leadership role in the Congo. And thank you, also, for coming to the campus to be a Regents Lecturer.

I thank you. It’s a pleasure.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with

The failure of an African political leadership: An interview with Professor Wamba dia Wamba

This story comes from Z Magazine and is based on an interview conducted in July 2003 by Mandisi Majavu.


ZNet | Activism

The failure of an African political leadership
An interview with Professor Wamba dia Wamba
by Mandisi Majavu; July 18, 2003

Professor Wamba dia Wamba is a leader of the Rassemblement Congolais la democratie (RCD-Kisangani), and is based in Kinshasa, the capital town of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is a recipient of the prestigious Prince Claus Award for Culture and Development in recognition of his “scholarly contribution to the development of African philosophy and for sparking off the philosophical debate on social and political themes in Africa.” He has written innumerable articles in various scientific and non-scientific journals on the politics in Africa. He has taught at Harvard University and at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, to name but a few. At the beginning of this month (July 2003) I approached him, via email, for an interview, and what follows is what transpired.

What does the Rassemblement Congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Kisangani-) stand for?

Since November 2000, the RCD-Kisangani/ML, after Mbusa Nyamwisi [who was once an Executive council member of the Rally for Congolese Democracy] and John Tibasima failed putsh (3-17Nov. 2000) there are two major tendencies in the movement, one led by me and the other by Mbusa.

I am the only one to have been elected by the assembly of the members. Our tendency does not recognize the putshist leadership of Mbusa. Now, the movement has to change and become a political party; our tendency will soon announce our party’s name and philosophy. We are not going to be with militarists. We will have a federalist orientation; the right to self-determination at all levels is the only meaningful political framework to have a consistent democracy and avoid the politics which are separated from the people and often facilitate dictatorship.

In your view, what are the problems facing the transitional government in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), please explain?

The transition has taken off with the formation of the government. Because of the way it has been formed, it is like an airplane taking off with on board, pilots who do not know well how to pilot planes as they have been selected on other criteria than competence or integrity; with bicycle mechanics standing for airplane mechanics, etc. The landing at the destination is not assured and those who are not on board may be safer.

The basic issues of the Congolese crisis have not been dealt with: people have no confidence in the existing institutions and their officers. Nothing inspires that confidence even now. Leaders themselves do not have trust in each other; as the power-sharing is conceived in zero-sum game perspective: one wins, not with the others, but at the expense of the others. The necessary atmosphere of trust is lacking. The 4 vice president based cohabitation, requiring great mutual trust, is likely to be a form of continuation of war, hopefully without real arms. When the overall system is based on mediocrity and irresponsibility, each leader has no self-confidence. There is complete absence of a sense of Statecraft and workmanship.

There are people in the government who have acted as real criminals at the local and regional levels and now as leaders at the national level. Some of them have occasioned the massacres of their own distant relatives and the destruction of their own cities; it is not clear how they will become more respectful of people of other regions; they are in the government only to continue to have access to resources. This makes the national reconciliation process difficult.

Yerodia Abdoulaye Ndombasi, a former foreign minister once sought by a Belgian court for inciting genocide, is now one of the four deputy presidents in the transitional government. Does this not compromise the reconciliation and the peace process in the DRC?

The whole issue of moral integrity, political responsibility and accountability and impunity has not been at the center of how people have been selected to assume positions. In fact the whole issue of the profile of people has not been at the center of the discussions at all. Might is right has been the rule. One must satisfy all those likely to continue creating problems at least to end the war and the balkanizatioin of the country. There was no conception in view of strategic positions to enhance chances of sustainable peace and reconciliation and to give to credible people with integrity and commitment.

The president of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, for example, is a person that has been less conciliatory and in fact practised exclusion in the process of attempting to implement the Sun City Accord. There will probably be many people to be brought to international criminal court. If this happens, it might redirect the airplane for a better and safer taking off, rather than compromising the process. Vice president Ndombasi may not be the only case.

The USA is apparently making it difficult for the court to do its business; this may reinforce the compromising tendency. Anti-Tutsi racialism seems to be a real problem with some Congolese due to the war campaign made especially by the government side and the effects of ideologies of hatred spread by the consequences of the Rwandese and Burundian genocides. Many people have not taken a firm stand against such genocides. There must be a way of dealing with the issue, to embark ourselves on a road towards a consistent democracy free of all racialist prejudices.

What do you make of the solution being advanced in reply to the military question, the fact that the rebels and the government must share posts in a unified military posts, with president Joseph Kabila having a prerogative to choose the armed forces chief of staff and the head of the navy, while the RCD-Goma has been granted a right to nominate the head of the ground forces, and the Mouvement pour la liberation du Congo heading the air force?

Fundamentally, granting political partisan influences in the unified army is not a good way of creating a professional and republican army. The unification could have started with the real army (from ordinary soldier to the colonel) drawn from all the belligerent components and given a neutral command and training before the transitional government could organize more correctly the take over of the command from the neutral command provided, for example, by UN expertise.

The army power-sharing scheme, no matter how balanced, will still create political spheres of influence inside the army more likely to cause problems. Especially since what exist now are various militias with few professionally well trained soldiers in a situation in which promotion to higher ranks has not been based on professional criteria, creating a malaise inside the armies and lack of moral credibility. The fear of a coup d’etat becomes more real with the way the whole issue has been handled.
Is it possible to put the continuing fighting in Bunia and Kivus into a context? In Kivus, it is reported that the fighting is between the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD-Goma) and the RCD-Kisangani-mouvement de liberation

The context is basically one of the lack of political will to solve the Congolese crisis on both sides of the war and hence the lack of commitment to ending the war. There is also a misunderstanding of what the Lusaka Accord refers to as negative forces.

It is said that the Kinshasa government allied with Mbusa tendency of the RCD-K/ML still works with the Interahamwe [remnants of the former Rwandan genocidal militia based in the DRC] and provide them with arms, the same way as they are said to provide their other client, the MaiMai [one of the rebel groups in the DRC], with arms to continue fighting the positions of RCD-Goma, to continue weakening the RCD-Goma’s position.

Mbusa being used by the Kinshasa government, first to attempt to weaken the MLC [Movement for the Liberation of Congo] and now to weaken the RCD-G, uses the continuation of war as a way to gain stronger bargaining position in the power-sharing process. It is even said that he had dreams of being the vice president as compensation for what he has done for the government component. Even after the multinational troops arrived in Bunia, they were still arming the Lendu to fight UPC [Union des Patriotes Congolaise] seen as being supported by Rwanda.

However, there are many people linked to regional mafias benefiting from the trafficking of arms, apart from the violent access to resources (primitive accumulation). The movement of troops by the Kinshasa government closer and closer to RCD-G positions has made RCD-G to also continue fighting.

The multinational force that was deployed to Bunia on authorisation of the Security Council is due to withdraw in September, do you think fighting will have stopped by then?

Unless there are positive developments in the direction suggested above where real political will and commitment to end the war on the part of all the actors involved are achieved. A neutral administration established, justice for all becomes a norm and enough resources for national and local reconciliation are provided; furthermore, the arm-trafficking, mafias controlled industry should be done away with. Otherwise, the war will continue.

What conditions do you envisage for a sustainable peace in the DRC?

Regional commitment and political willingness to have sustained peace in the great lakes region. The International Conference on the great lakes region must come up with a Marshall type Plan for the regional rehabilitation.

Firm commitments on the parts of the political actors in the region to equity and inclusive and equitable representation, democratization and social justice. For the DRC, structural changes are necessary: meaning a move from an economy governed by the extractive problematic-entertaining, violent production relations under the cover of market (forced labor, great wealth produced without taking care of the life reproduction of producers nor the maintenance of the country, continuous non-payment of salaries-not even living salaries, Congolese majority poverty stricken), the continuous militarization of the politico-administrative structure since the colony and reinforced since the coups d’etat; and a promotion of culture of peace and truth and reconciliation.

Moreover, a move from politics from the point of the state to politics from the point of the people from all origins. Necessity to democratize the country’s politics and to move towards a federal form of State. To get to this level of commitment, we must develop a national debate on crucial issues so that a truly patriotic and committed pro-Congo political current develops and comes to the national leadership and serves as the basis of creating the necessary confidence in promoting dialogue and peaceful ways of resolving conflicts.

A four page document written by you, dating August 2002, calls for the Belgian Royal family as related to King Leopold IIís legacy to be brought before the International Criminal Tribunal. Do you think this will ever take place? And what will such an action accomplish?

The main thing is to dramatize the ignored holocaust that was done by King Leopold’s Free Congo State, analysed, for example by Adam Hochschild (King Leopoldís Legacy, 1998). The continuous impact of this legacy on our country has to be addressed and responsibilities established. This helps humanity to become more humane and reinforces equality and real democracy. Belgians have started some sort of self-criticism over the issue of their involvement in the assassination of Lumumba and colleagues and the dismantling of the nationalist regime. This is helpful beginning. We should go beyond.

The diamonds, also known as “blood diamonds”, how did they contribute to the four-year war that is reported to have killed more than four million people?

It is the clearest illustration of an economy totally based on extraction of natural resources, the cheapest way of doing it is through violence. To an extent that nature is seen as valueless, forced labor can be reduced to its lowest by gun point.

The context is easily exploited by the world criminal economy seeking ways for money laundering. It was the struggle of monopoly control over diamond purchasing which initiated the Rwandese-Ugandan confrontation in Kisangani. The war started with the attack by Rwandese soldiers on the Ugandan based diamond dealer comptoir. But, of course that is not the only thing responsible of the continuation of the war. But continuous access to the resources fuelled the war.

Any plans to take the companies who kept this trade booming, while millions of people were being killed, to the International Criminal Tribunal?

Files on this matter will be organized little by little with the help of worldwide justice interested jurists and lawyers by consistent democratic regional and Congolese forces. The Case of South Africa will inspire people.

Can you talk a little about the Ota Benga, the International Alliance For Peace in Congo? What is the rational behind it? What does it aim to achieve and what has it done so far? Also, I understand there is a fascinating history behind the name Ota Benga?

Our Ota Benga:Centre pour la DignitÈ Humaine is in a process of being set up. Some parts are more ready than others. It aims at developing consciousness and promoting human dignity.

Ota Benga, a Congolese of the so-called Pygmy race, was taken to the USA by an American anthropologist who used him as an illustration of a link in the evolutionary chain between the primates and human species. He was put on exhibition in museum and at a Universal Exposition in Saint Louis. Finally he was put in the Bronx Natural Zoo (NY) with the primates. It was the Afro-Americans who led the protest, which eventually led him to be taken out of the Zoo. He ended up with a black poetess who took him to her home.

My late son interviewed a lady who, as a young girl, knew him and was a friend of his. He could not find anybody to help him go back to the Congo as he so dearly desired. One day in 1916, he committed suicide. We are still searching to identify his burial place. This is one of the worst cases of violation of the sovereignty of one’s humanity and dignity. We have adopted the name for a center that wants to promote human dignity.

We have a structure which is concerned with the empowerment of rural communities. We already have one such a community at Boko Bas, Congo. We have together with the people there built a source of potable water. We have plantations growing cassava roots and onions. We are planning to build together school structure for kids not in school and an emergency health care center. The idea is to get people in dire conditions to be empowered and live like humans.

We are planning a house of cultures to promote the diversity of cultures and mutual respect of each other as a way of enlarging each person’s identity. The slogan is: roots and wings. One must be rooted in a culture and travel also (temporally and spatially) through other cultures. Plans to have a Weekly Newsletter are in place. Also, we have a small law office to provide legal aid to the poor, and we have in place a structure called Coordinating Committee, a campaign for a sustainable peace in the DRC.

What contributed to the split-up of the Rally for Congolose Democracy into what it is today: the RCD-Goma and RCD-Kisangani-Liberation Movement?

The RCD was actually a front regrouping three adversary tendencies in agreement minimally on the need to overthrow Laurent Kabila’s dictatorial regime: The Mobutist tendency who had lost power and wanted to return to power, the ADFLists [Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire-Congo] who had lost in the struggle for power within the ADFL regime and who wanted to redirect the ADFL regime by removing Kabila and the Democrats (from inside and abroad) who have fought dictatorship since Mobutu’s Coup d’etat.

The RCD was not organized as a front with recognized autonomy of tendencies, but as a politico-military structure of the liberation movement type, with almost no cadres at all. The minimum program was often understood as the maximum program. Conflicts had to develop on essential issues: relations with allies, relations between political and military victories, management of resources, relations between the movement and the people; conceptions of the conduct of war, etc. The first two tendencies tended to give privilege to military victory as they did not feel confident to get to power through elections. The third tendency, led by me, promoted the notion that armed conflicts are due to unresolved political fundamental problems which can only be resolved politically. As the people are not ready to support the war, we must seek ways of getting to direct negotiations with the government and force it to come to intercongolese dialogue and organize eventually elections.

Briefly, the split took place between militarists and democrats- with opportunists being on both sides as well. In the end, the democrats’ thesis won but the democrats lost in the power-sharing, which is essentially based on might is right.

What solutions, politically and economically, would you like to see the Democratic Republic of Congo take?

Note that this is not a short answer question. I have a ten point political program. Roughly politics must cease to be separated from the people, physically and socially i.e., pro Congo, pro-Congolese people and pro-pan-africanist politics.

An income raising productive economy based on the Congolese majority implemented, a break from an extractive problematics and lootcracy dominated economy; and a Federal State for all Congolese- after the transition.

Is there something I did not ask that you would like to add?

It is sad to note that despite all the killings, massacres, genocides of Congolese people and other people in the region, the African political leadership has had no urgent strategy to implement and counter-act so as to make positive difference. It eventually was sidelined from the very peace process of Lusaka Accord which it initiated. It being a neighbour of a country that has lost 2.5 millions people in 4 years and not being ultimately concerned does not give hope in the African unification.