American Fingerprints on Congolese Suffering

A statue of King Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium, covered in red paint. (Source: EmDee/Wikimedia Commons)

For over a century, the United States has played a key role in shaping Congo’s destiny. From its support for the bloody colonial rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, to its backing of the assassination of the Congo’s first democratically elected leader, the United States has long contributed to the suffering and exploitation of the mineral-rich nation.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we look back at the history of U.S. involvement in the Congo.

How the U.S. helped King Leopold II colonize the Congo

At the 1884–85 Berlin Conference, European powers convened to partition Africa among themselves, in a period historically known as the “Scramble for Africa.” Among the attendees was Belgium’s King Leopold II, who wanted to establish a new colony in the Congo. Desperate to convince European powers to grant him permission to forge a new colony, King Leopold sought the help of General Henry Shelton Sanford, the United States’ Ambassador to Belgium, to lobby the American government to recognize his claim of the Congo. In exchange for America’s support, King Leopold promised that Americans would be able to buy land in the Congo and export their goods. As a result of Sanford’s efforts, King Leopold’s authority in the Congo was recognized by President Chester A. Arthur. President Chester then persuaded European countries to follow suit in recognizing King Leopold’s claim of the Congo, and he was given permission to create the so-called Congo Free State.

The “civilization” that King Leopold promised to bring to the Congo was nothing but a lie to mask his imperialist agenda. Under King Leopold’s rule, the Congo experienced grave atrocities and brutal economic exploitation. King Leopold built a brutal system of forced labor to supply the world’s skyrocketing demand for rubber at the time. Under Belgian rule, Congolese villages were given quotas for rubber, and those who didn’t meet their quota were tortured, maimed or shot and killed. Rape and sexual expolitation were also used as punishment.

The hands of Congolese victims, of the British-Belgian rubber company ABIR.
Another victim of the “Congo atrocities,” that took place on colonial rubber plantations in the Congo Free State. (Source: USC Digital Library)

At his palace in Tervuren, King Leopold built the Royal Museum for Central Africa, and set up a “human zoo,” where 267 Congolese men, women and children were put on display as exhibits.

The 1897 “human zoo” in King Leopold’s colonial palace in Tervuren. Photo credit: Royal Museum of Central Africa (RMCA)

These images are just a small sample of the brutality and violence that Leopold employed to exploit one of the richest nations in Africa. It is estimated that as many as 10 million Congolese were killed under Leopold’s rule. By 1908, the cruelty of Leopold’s rule forced European leaders to remove the colony from under his authority. Leopold died in 1909, without paying a price for the atrocities he committed.

The CIA and its role in Patrice Lumumba’s assassination

In 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Congo. The charismatic leader made it his mission to free the Congo of exploitation, and dreamed of securing his country’s economic independence through its rich natural resources. Lumumba was a revolutionary who continuously called out colonial powers in the West for their complicity in denying the Congo its independence and economic freedom. In one of his many fiery speeches, Lumumba famously said, “not a single square metre of Congolese territory must belong to any foreign power, and nothing can and must be done in our country without the permission of its Government, which is the custodian of the legality and sovereignty of the Congolese people.”

January 26, 1960: Patrice Lumumba in Brussels, Belgium. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lumumba’s revolutionary spirit and his progressive-populist ideas bought him enemies, who later would be implicated in his assassination. Lumumba’s vision of a unified Congo was threatened in July 1960, when a secessionist movement began in Katanga, the wealthiest province of the Congo. Belgium, the UK and the US backed the secessionist movement as they all had mining interest in Katanga. Hoping to defend Congo’s sovereignty and to receive support to resolve the crisis in Katanga, Lumumba turned to both the United States and the United Nations, only to be rejected. Lumumba’s decision to finally seek military assistance from the Soviet Union, put a nail in his coffin. The Soviet’s support alarmed the U.S. and other Western powers who quickly branded Lumumba as a “communist.” In a wired message, Allen Dulles, the then Director of CIA wrote to Larry Devlin, the CIA field officer in the Congo, “if Lumumba continues to be in power, the result will be at best chaos and at worst an eventual seizure of power by the communists, with disastrous consequences for the prestige of the UN and the interests of the free world. His dismissal must therefore be an urgent and priority objective for you.”

In 1965 Lumumba was overthrown in a coup backed by the United States and Belgium, and Mobutu Sese Seko seized power. Shortly after, Lumumba was placed under house arrest and made an unsuccessful attempt to escape. When he was seized the second time, he was beaten, tortured and executed. Perhaps the most horrific part of Lumumba’s assassination was the way his body was disposed of by his executors. After receiving orders from the Interior Minister Godfried Munongo, a Belgian policeman named Gerard Soete, along with another officer, dissolved Lumumba’s remains in acid. What was left of Lumumba’s remains, a tooth, was only returned to his family in October 2020, 59 years after his assassination.

Mobutu Sese Seko went on to rule the Congo with U.S. support for over 30 years, a time marked by repression, conflict and economic decline. Mobutu plunged the Congo into a deep political and economic crisis from which the country continues to suffer today.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) today

60 years after Lumumba’s assassination, the dream of a united, democratic, and economically prosperous Congo has yet to become a reality. Although the DRC has seen different leaders over the past few decades — Laurent Désiré Kabila, Joseph Kabila, and currently, President Felix Tshisekedi — significant progress has yet to be made in addressing the violent conflicts and the frequently illegal resource exploitation that continues to plague the country. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, between 2017 and 2019, an estimated 5 million people have been displaced due to unrest and conflict.

Since coming to power in 2019, President Felix Tshisekedi has attempted to rekindle the DRC’s relationship with the U.S. In April 2019, President Tshisekedi made his first trip to the U.S. and met with former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Although President Tshisekedi has been ruling under a coalition government with his predecessor Joseph Kabila’s party the Common Front for Congo (FCC), in December, he announced the end of the coalition, amid a political upheaval. Since then, supporters of President Tshisekedi have demanded the removal of pro-Kabila allies in parliament. It is not yet clear how President Tshisekedi plans to leverage this renewed relationship with the U.S. to address his country’s growing economic and security concerns.

As the United States celebrates Black History Month, it must not only reckon with its own history of slavery and systemic oppression of black people, but it must also acknowledge its role in supporting the colonization and exploitation of nations such as the Congo. We must never forget the role that the United States played in the killing of one of Africa’s greatest revolutionary leaders. In order for the United States to be an ally for the DRC and its people, it must first address its lack of action when it comes to holding exploitative individuals and entities accountable. For example, the U.S. can hold individuals like Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler accountable, for corrupt mining and oil deals in the DRC that have cost the Congolese people over a billion dollars in lost revenue. Though the U.S. had sanctioned Mr. Gertler through the Global Magnitsky Act 2017, in his final days in office, former President Donald Trump eased sanctions imposed on Mr. Gertler and his entities, allowing him to resume doing business with the U.S. for a year and gain access to his frozen assets. The move to grant Mr. Gertler, a license to operate, has triggered rising protests from Congolese and international civil society groups, as well as influential Black members of Congress such as Representatives Gregory Meeks, the new Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Karen Bass, chair of the Sub-Committee on Africa, who are urging Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yallen to reverse the decision.

As President Joe Biden begins his presidency, he must make it a priority in the short term to reinstate the sanctions against Mr. Gertler, and in the long-term make it a priority to ensure that the age-old exploitation of the DRC and its people, stops. It can do this by supporting the Congolese people’s fight against corruption. A better future for the DRC and its people can only be achieved by standing in solidarity against all the forms of exploitation and abuse the country continues to suffer at the hands of the selfish few.

Nan Detti
Communications Intern,
Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement