Soon after the 11 September attacks George Bush declared that the US and the world were facing 'the first war of the 21st century'. He was contemptuously brushing aside a war in which almost 3.5 million people have died. This has been going on since 1998 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa. It still goes on today.
Some of the 3.5 million have been killed directly in the fighting. Many more have suffered lingering deaths because of starvation and disease because the war has shattered Congo's agriculture, economy and society. Three out of every four children born during the war have already died or will die before their second birthday.
In the entire 225-year history of the US – including the American Civil War, First World War, Second World War, Korean War and Vietnam War – around 900,000 US citizens have died either on the battlefield or because of the conflicts. This is less than a third of the number killed in DRC in the last five years. The war has drawn in seven African countries to fight over the country's wealth. But there are far more powerful forces involved than the ruling classes of Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda, Rwanda, Namibia, Chad and Sudan.
The Great Powers and imperialism are involved, just as they have always been in Congo's history. In the 1960s the Great Powers brought Joseph Mobutu to power. This dictator ruled from 1965 to 1997 over a country which he renamed Zaire. It was a prized asset during the Cold War. One attraction was the mineral wealth. The mineral belt in Katanga province contains copper and zinc in far higher concentrations than neighbouring countries.
Cobalt is a key mineral for jet engines. The US has no domestic source of supply, and Zaire produced half the world's supply in the 1980s. No wonder a US ambassador once referred to 'the Congo caviar' in a cable back to headquarters.
But even more important to the US was keeping strategic control over a huge swathe of Central Africa. Mobutu could be relied on as an ally against the USSR – so long as he was thrown enough loot and allowed to butcher his opponents. Mobutu was allowed by his Western backers to plunder so much money that he became legendary in Africa. When he bought a $5.2 million villa on the French Riviera he asked as an afterthought whether the price was in dollars or Belgian francs.
The 39-fold difference was unimportant for a man with a country's treasury at his disposal. Mobutu stayed in power because he murdered his opponents, and because he could rely on Western backing. During the Shaba rebellion in the 1970s the US organised a military airlift and France parachuted in legionnaires to crush Mobutu's enemies.
French and Belgian troops flew in to police the streets when the army rioted in Zaire's cities during the 1990s. The present war in Congo has its roots in the horrific events of 1994 in neighbouring Rwanda, when around 800,000 people were slaughtered in a hundred days.
The Rwandan government of the time, dominated by members of the Hutu group, unleashed a meticulously planned campaign of murder against people in the Tutsi group and opposition Hutus.
In response to the killing, a Tutsi-dominated rebel movement of Rwandan exiles invaded Rwanda. Those who had organised the genocide and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Hutus fled the country. Many ended up in eastern Zaire under Mobutu's protection. The Rwandan and neighbouring Ugandan governments wanted to smash the potential threat from the Hutu militias.
In 1997 they allied with the Zairean opposition under Laurent Kabila to drive Mobutu out. But instead of ushering in a new era of freedom, this opened up widespread slaughter. It detonated a struggle between regional competitors and, behind them, the US and France vying for control of an area where both believed they should dominate.
In 1998 Uganda and Rwanda fell out with Kabila and organised a military rebellion against him. Kabila turned to Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola for military assistance. The rebellion split into many factions as the local and international ruling classes fastened like vultures on the rapidly decaying corpse of what was now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
DURING THE last five years most of the countries involved have changed sides at some point, and the US and France have also shifted their allegiances. They have channelled loans and grants and sold arms to a variety of ruling classes, prolonging and intensifying the war.
Through all this power-play the ordinary people have suffered unimaginable horror. Hardly anyone has noticed. What happens in Congo does not cause the slightest stir in the boardrooms of London and New York. Whether 3.5 million live or die is unimportant to them. But the decisions made by those country's rulers and capitalists have a huge impact on the people of Congo.
Arms sales, military alliances, debt enforcement, changes in commodity prices and withholding aid can all mean death for hundreds of thousands. In addition the example of how the Great Powers use violence is not lost on the ruling classes of Africa. If it is legitimate for the US to blast Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and Iraq in pursuit of its interests then how can anyone complain if African countries dismember Congo?
Rampant imperialism creates a general climate pushing countries to reach quickly for the gun and the bomb. As the killing continued last week the UN considered declaring that what was happening was 'genocide'. This could trigger intervention. A century of 'intervention' has wrecked Congo. The last thing it needs is even more Great Power manoeuvres. Last year an alliance of Congolese trade unions, religious groups and women's groups put out an appeal that said, 'The world has forgotten us and left us to die. But seeing what it has done to us in the past we almost fear to be remembered.'
Tony Blair famously told the Labour Party conference in 2001 that the fate of Africa was 'a scar on the conscience of the world'. Yet he and his allies have created a global order where horrors like the Congo can happen almost without a murmur. Opposition to what Bush and Blair are doing in Iraq is part of a wider confrontation with the brutal system that brings hunger and violence across the world.
THE CONGO was first torn apart by Belgian colonialism. At the end of the 19th century European powers began what became known as the 'scramble for Africa', a frantic competition to seize chunks of the continent. The Belgian King Leopold II targeted the area around the River Congo. When he died in 1909 the royal treasury was overflowing with money made from Congolese rubber, and 8 million Congolese people had died from his policies.
Leopold's money was more than usually blood soaked. As one investigator reported, the king's colony was based on 'legalised robbery enforced by violence'. One of Leopold's African subjects wrote, 'We are sent out to get rubber, and when we come back with little rubber we are shot. When we did not bring enough rubber the white men would put some of us in lines, one behind the other, and would shoot through all our bodies.'
The most potent symbol of colonialism's brutality was the 'severed hands'. African soldiers in the pay of their Belgian masters were sent out to smash opposition. To demonstrate that they had not wasted their bullets they hacked the hands from their victims, alive or dead.
Africans did not meekly accept colonialism. They rose in rebellion in 1908 and were defeated only by a desperate government pouring in large numbers of Belgian troops. This brutal rule was finally shattered by rebellion in 1959.
THE BELGIAN government was forced to concede independence. But it hoped to hand power to a pliant ruler who would look after the profits of the giant mining companies. To their horror, the radical nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba was elected as Congo's prime minister.
Belgium, the US, Britain and, crucially, the United Nations, came together to undermine Lumumba, have him removed from office, and then to murder him in 1961. The Great Powers and the UN brushed aside the wishes of Congo's people, destroyed the country's unity and set Joseph Mobutu up as a pro-Western tyrant. As Ludo De Witte writes, 'It is a staggering example of what the Western ruling classes are capable of when their vital interests are threatened.'
King Leopold's Ghost
Brilliant and harrowing account of the colonial period.
Ludo De Witte
The Assassination of Lumumba
How imperialism snuffed out the challenge of Patrice Lumumba after independence.
In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz
A journalist's account which reveals some of the horrors of the Mobutu government.
The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila, A People's History
Detailed history of the modern era.
A novel set in the Belgian Congo just before independence.