This month’s outbreak of renewed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) threatens to further weaken this central African country and perpetuate its economic dependence on the U.S. and other big capitalist powers.

As Africa Liberation Day (May 25) approaches, and as the Organization for African Unity – conceived of as an instrument for resisting colonial domination – prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary on that day, the DR Congo finds itself deeply entangled in the coils of neocolonialism. It remains engulfed in a seemingly never-ending cycle of war and destruction.

More than four-and-a-half years of bitter warfare in the region have resulted in at least 50,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of injured and displaced persons. In April the International Rescue Committee reported that casualty rates have been greatly underestimated, and that up to 3.3 million people may have died during the same period.

The most current strife stems from a conflict between rival tribes, the Hema and the Lendu, who are struggling for control of the resource-rich Ituri province in the northeastern corner of the country. Since May 7 more than 230 people have been killed and well over 10,000 have been made refugees. Calls for an international peacekeeping force under the auspices of the UN have come from many quarters, including the current government, although Western governments have been dragging their feet.

The DR Congo is rich in mineral resources: diamonds, cobalt, cadmium, gold, zinc, uranium, copper, and coltan, a vital element in the production of cell phones and computer chips. It also has significant deposits of crude oil and valuable agricultural products, including coffee, timber and palm oil. The country also has great hydroelectric power potential were it to be developed.

Despite the DR Congo’s wealth, the vast majority of its 52 million people remain mired in extreme poverty, with massive unemployment, declining living standards, and a declining life expectancy. Popular hopes for a new day in the DR Congo after the overthrow of Mobuto Sese Seko in 1997 by Laurent Kabila (subsequently succeeded by his son, President Joseph Kabila) have gone largely unfulfilled.

It’s precisely the country’s natural resources that historically drew the colonial powers, the Portuguese and especially the Belgians (remember King Leopold?), to exploit these resources and to colonize the country. The Belgians were booted out in 1960, under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba and others. But Lumumba was murdered with the assistance of the CIA in 1961, and shortly thereafter Mobutu took power and reopened the country to neocolonial plunder.

Today, U.S. companies like American Mineral Fields, Bechtel, Inc., American Diamond Buyers, and Goldman Sachs have substantial vested interests in the DR Congo. A lively arms trade, much of it stemming from the West, has plied the combatants with their deadly arsenals.

In a recent essay in The New York Times, Adam Hochschild, an authority on the Belgian colonial period, notes that perpetual internal strife in the DR Congo only facilitates its exploitation. “The Balkanization and war” in the DR Congo, he said, “suit the amazing variety of corporations – large and small, American, African and European – that profit from the river of mineral wealth without having to worry about high taxes, and that prefer a cash-in-suitcases economy to a highly regulated one.”

The old colonial practice of “divide and conquer” is still being practiced by the West, and racism – in the form of concepts like “they’ve always been fighting each other,” etc. – only serves to mask U.S. imperialism’s policy of destabilization and plunder in central Africa.

Mark Almberg can be reached at malmberg@pww.org

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