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The Case for Reparations to the People of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Last month, members of the Morehouse College community celebrated the life and martyrdom of a Black leader not named Martin Luther King, Jr. and in doing so, underscored the need to settle an enduring debt.

On Friday, January 18, 2020 nearly one hundred souls convened at the African American Hall of Fame above King Chapel to honor the life of Patrice Emery Lumumba, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The commemoration came on the 59th anniversary of that leader’s assassination at the hands of Belgian forces with the collusion and support of the United States of America.

Why assassinate the young Congolese leader? Coming during the Cold War, the murder was planned by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and fueled by a mix of vile, racist stereotypes and anti-communist animus.  President Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles both saw Lumumba as a communist radical despite his appeals for an alliance with the U.S.  Eliminating the Pan-Africanist leader would help to secure a steady supply of minerals including cobalt and uranium, essential in maintaining a military advantage over the Soviets. Political scientist and Congo expert, George Ntalaja-Nzongola writes convincingly that while the U.S. dithered with harebrained schemes involving crocodiles and poison toothpaste, Belgium moved forward using Katangan soldiers to execute Lumumba.

Since Lumumba, the record is clear. Congolese brutalization and immiseration have been overseen by U.S.-backed dictators: Moise Tshombe and Mobutu Sese Seko from 1965 to 1997 and the dictatorial president, Joseph Kabila from 2001 to 2019. Since 1961, the U.S. has secured those minerals, paid for with the life-blood of approximately 5.5 million Congolese people in wars that have only benefited America and European states. Despite the brutal extraction of their natural resources, the Congolese retain hopes for a unified peaceful and prosperous nation.

In 2014, Morehouse College President John S. Wilson sent a delegation of five faculty members—Dr. Belinda Johnson-White (Business), Dr. Justin Kakeu (Economics), Mr. Julius Coles (Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership), Dr. Sulayman Clarke (President’s office), and myself (Africana Studies) to the North Kivu Province of the DRC. Our goal, part of President Wilson’s ‘African Strategy’ was twofold: identify partners for a Civil Society collaborative project and find candidates for the Rugare scholarship funded by Zimbabwean businessman and philanthropist, Strive Masiyiwa. Of the 40 or so citizens and activists that our team met, three people stood out: a Goma-based seamstress, Claudaline Muhindo, Dr. Kenedy Kihangi Bindu, Professor of Law and Society at the Université Libres des Pays Grands Lacs (ULPGL), and a young woman, Duse Hery Mgagbo, who was president of the student body at ULPGL. Madame Muhindo was strong, kind, and caring. She ministered to young women who were victims of sexual violence, teaching them to become seamstresses—self-supporting, autonomous contributors to the community. Duse Hery, a student of Dr. Bindu was intelligent, clear voiced, a natural leader of her fellow students and she was optimistic about her and her nation’s future. Her goal of becoming a lawyer and researcher in support of her people struck accord with the same optimism expressed by most of the people we met in the traumatized towns of North Kivu—Goma, Butembo and Beni. Their optimism persists despite militia violence evident in the bullet holes that marked several buildings on the ULPGL campus, failed peace-keeping efforts by United Nations’ MONUSCO force, poverty in one of the most resource-rich, yet wealth-poor nations on the planet, and a disturbing, yet deserved reputation as the world’s rape capital.

In this hellscape, the little girl, Duse Hery was born and raised. When she was two, her hometown of Goma was the frontline of the First Congo War fought between Rwanda, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), and Uganda on one side, and Mobutu’s Zairean, Yugoslavian, Angolan, and Sudanese mercenaries on the other. The U.S. had sold arms to both parties. Her education had been set to the music of artillery fire paid for by American citizens. Today, despite the fact that Rwanda has zero tantalum reserves, it provides the global market with 24% of this critical mineral used in a range of computerized devices. As consumers of this technology, we all are implicated in this exploitation and therefore, owe the people of the DRC backpay for the blood minerals fueling our texts, tweets, pins, posts, etc.

Without a doubt, many Americans will note that it isn’t the responsibility of the U.S. to protect Congolese people from Rwandan militias. They will observe that it is the responsibility of the DRC to protect its own people. But this argument ignores a history of U.S. interference in the Congo.  In the 1880s, America officially recognized King Leopold II’s bloody Congo Free State, which saw between 6-9 million colonial fatalities.  With the U.S. as a principal beneficiary, Belgium continued to exploit the Congo from 1878 to 1960.  By 1945, the U.S. was benefitting from Congo’s mineral resources extracting uranium for its new uber race weapon, which ultimately settled WW II. Without question, Congo has been the battery fueling America’s perennial economic growth and military dominance.

What can we do? The most important step we can take today is to inform ourselves of the historic connections between the U.S. and the DRC. At Morehouse, the Africana Studies Program works in solidarity with Friends of the Congo to develop its #CongoCurriculum focused on texts like Dr. Ntalaja-Nzongola Lumumba biography. In March, we will read the United Nations’ 2010 Mapping Report. This report on the United Nations’ Mapping Exercise documents the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed within the territory of the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003. This report should be a part of the basis for a new policy direction in the DRC. We owe the Congolese and ourselves nothing less than a new direction.

Photo credit: Painting of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's 1960 Independence Day Ceremony. (AUC Woodruff Library)

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Samuel T. Livingston is an associate professor of Africana Studies and Director of Africana Studies and History at Morehouse College.