Reading these articles. I was struck by the horrific mention that more than six million Congolese have perished since 1997 due to the above-mentioned resource wars. Genocide in the Congo, it seemed, has a long and catastrophic history. In 2001, while constructing the syllabus for a class on African art history focusing on the mass pillage of African natural and cultural resources by European colonial powers, I stumbled upon Adam Hochschild's book (King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998). One fact struck me forcefully in the horrifying tale of genocide recounted on its pages--the assertion that Leopold II of Belgium's misrule of the Congo resulted in the murder and death of 10 million Congo peoples in forty years between 1880 and 1920. Surely the author was wrong. In a 20th Century world in which the deaths of six million victims of the Holocaust (mostly Jews but also including homosexuals, Africans, gypsies, individuals of diminished mental capacities and other segments of conquered populations deemed "undesirable" by the genocidal Nazi death machine) remains the high-water mark in narratives of humanity's capacity for evil, surely the death of 10 million Africans ought to count as an unbearable outrage. Why didn't it and why didn't I, a scholar of Africa history, know of this fact before I read Hochschild's book?
I will pause here to state categorically that I am not trying to rewrite the history of the Holocaust or make light of Jewish suffering during this catastrophic historical event. I refer to it because the Holocaust has become a benchmark for defining genocide in all spheres of Western discourse. I do not study the Holocaust but I do study human intercultural relationships. The excellent work done by Holocaust scholars to define the strategic and systematic genocide applied to its victims provides a very important framework for dealing with matters of genocide in intercultural discourses. In this regard, the Holocaust is indeed a moment of great importance to global analysis of conflict and it is relevant to any subsequent discussions of genocide.
In that regard, it seems to me that if the death of six million people is clearly genocide, the death of 10 million must equally count as genocide. I have not however heard that Belgium ever accepted culpability for the genocide carried out by their King Leopold against the Congo (see Hochschild’s grim account of the death toll in chapter 15 of his book). I know however that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium has the largest collection of Central African art in any Western museum much of which was "collected" in the forty years of Leopold’s genocidal stewardship of Congo. The lack of accountability for the deaths of that many Congolese struck me as heinously cold and comparable to the relentless loss of life in the Congo right through its period of colonial rule by France subsequent to Leopold’s genocide, its independence from France in 1960, the rise and death of Patrice Lumumba (my father—then a young non-commissioned officer in the Nigerian police force--served as a member of the Nigerian contingent on the UN stabilization Force in the Congo during this conflict), its misrule by Mobutu Sese Seko, and its long history of very uncivil wars that persist right to this day. Narratives of each historical period list millions of lives lost in the Congo with each new conflict and at some point, I started wondering just how many people lived in the Congo and how much loss of life it has sustained in the 20th Century alone. I decided to try a cursory calculation based on news accounts of each conflict. Leopold’s genocide took place from 1880 to 1920 and, according to Hochschild, left 10 million Congolese dead. French colonial rule (including Congolese who fought for France in the two world wars and deaths during the independence struggle: over 2 million dead. From 1960 to end of Mobutu’s reign in 1997: 1.5 million dead. Deaths from various resource wars in the Congo from 1998 to 2008: 6 million dead (a very conservative estimate).
This means that roughly 20 million Congolese have lost their lives since 1880 and most of those deaths occurred between 1920 and 2008.
I have left out Congolese deaths resulting from European traffic in kidnapped Africans that fueled the Trans-Atlantic slave trade during which the Congo (at that historical period, a Christian African nation with ambassadors in Europe and the Vatican) lost more than seven million of its citizens to slavery. Of these at least three million died in the wars to capture slaves and four million made the transatlantic crossing to the “New World” where their descendants subsist in various guises. Hochschild’s premise holds true across the board: these deaths are directly attributable to the greed of Western and African interests waging resource wars in the Congo, a veritable rape of the country by multinational corporations. We must remember in this regard that King Leopold II governed his Congo fiefdom as a corporation in which all power resided in him as its CEO. The slave trade itself gave birth to the first significant multinational corporations and was run strictly as a business by corporations funded by banks, insured by insurance houses, an traded on the nascent stock markets, very much as US prison stocks are now traded on Wall Street.
The main questions raised by this grim litany of losses is why the death of 19 million Africans in the last century alone does not cause global or at last Western outrage? And this is where Orwell comes in: all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. Orwell’s diabolical axiom means that loss of African lives is somehow taken as being less significant that the loss of Western lives. Helix711, responding to Hari’s article in the Huffington Post, clarifies the matter in a poignant manner:
I really think that the first world sees the cost of a human life as being less in Africa. That's an old tradition, anyway. It might not be because the people are black though. Bear with me here: I think it's because people in modernized societies implicitly assume that people in less modernized societies are somehow less important, less valuable.
For me, this is the main reason why I hope that Obama wins the presidency of the United States. Let me state clearly here that I think Obama is just another politician: a master tactician for sure and very clearly a brilliant orator but nevertheless, he is simply a politician who has mastered and enhanced American political propaganda. He is not a messiah and if he wins, he will quickly be ridiculed by the same adulating crowds for not effecting sweeping political changes (as another messianic figure discovered a long time ago, anytime you set yourself up as a savior, sooner or later people will nail you to a cross to prove your claim). However, if Obama's government displays even a fraction the qualities evident in his mastery of political campaigning, it will go down in history as a very significant presidency.
Were I in a position to do so, I would demand only one thing from an Obama government—that he does something to elevate the value of African lives in global discourses. In the past five hundred years, the Western world has built a global economy on the free labor of Africans (and other oppressed people worldwide) while also denying Africans any share of or mobility in this economy, even going as far as defining Africans as less than human. In the USA, President Bill Clinton “apologized for slavery” with the implication that an apology was sufficient remuneration for the ongoing devastation wrought in African American communities by a past system of oppression and a contemporary social order that automatically excludes blacks from the tangible benefits of American citizenship (If you doubt this fact, check out ANGOLA PRISON, supposedly the largest penitentiary in the USA, located on a former slave plantation once named “Angola”: the current prison population of over 5000 inmates is almost 90% black, replicating widespread and continued enslavement of African Americans through legally sanctioned incarceration of the prison-industrial system). In South Africa, the Apartheid system negotiated a “get-out-of-jail-free” agreement for companies that used South African blacks as slave labor for over 50 years. Instead of a true accounting of the heinous crimes of the Apartheid government, the supposedly free South African state substituted a comical “Truth and Reconciliation commission” that essentially turned Apartheid era black suffering into a form of global theater of the absurd. Black South African victims of apartheid got apologies while the country’s mining conglomerates and other multinational escaped intact with all their apartheid era profits and without any serious accountability for their genocide against black South Africans. (Consider that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man of peace, was recently quoted as saying that maybe the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was too forgiving). Britain is even now, aided largely by the misguided policies of the tyrant Robert Mugabe, destroying Zimbabwe through international sanctions. No one in Britain has ever taken responsibility for the slaughter of Africans in all its colonial conquests, or for inciting the problems that now cause Zimbabwe to implode—the colonially sanctioned dispossession of Africans of their lands and resources without compensation, which denies the rights of Africans to their own bodies, lands, and natural resources.
Yes. All these horrors happened in historical time and it is unfair to ask white people alive today to bear the burden of their ancestor’s mistakes or be punished for their errors. But if this holds as an argument for not demanding Belgian culpability for the crimes of King Leopold, surely it ought to demand also that no African person should be condemned to what Giorgio Agamben described as “bare life” merely on account of being black. But blackness has often correlated to a completely diminished life in what my people call "Enu Oyibo"--the world brought about by the Western ascendancy. And what galls me is that in each of the instances described above, the global community had a chance to answer a very important question—what is the value of an African life—and in each instance, they either answered that it is valueless, is worth an apology, or worth an absurd theater of recriminations.
To have Obama, an African American, hold the most powerful leadership position on earth has the potential to change the global perception that African lives are valueless. In this powerful position, maybe he will have enough courage to demand that Africans be given a better stake in the global economy as a means of revaluing and improving African lives. We gave the world its humanity: surely it is not too much to ask that the world stops demeaning ours.