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In Search of Lumumba (cont’d)

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Kabila–the man and the statue–embodies the disintegration of political thought and progressive politics in the Congo. His sad history is part of how Lumumba is simultaneously remembered and forgotten.

In 1965, Che Guevara and 150 Cuban volunteers joined Kabila on the western shores of central Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. Che’s diaries from that “lost year” offer a bizarre tale: He came for socialist revolution and found petty warlords, witchcraft and peasants largely detached from the world’s capitalist system. Che described Kabila as “cordial but aloof.” Kabila’s men were thuggish and lazy. Their adversaries, mercenaries led by Mike Hoare, the infamous Anglo-Irish marauder and former British military captain, were thuggish and not lazy.

After 32 years of Mobutu, Kabila re-launched the former dictator’s corrupt clientalism. He even retained the old dictator’s PR man. In 2000, some of Kabila’s disgruntled child soldiers assassinated their leader and he was succeeded by his son, who now rules with a similar combination of corruption and violence.

Hell on earth

Today, the eastern Congo is a hell on earth. In the lush mountains outside the city of Goma, U.N. troops and the national army, such as it is, face off against an array of competing militias. Among them are Gen. Nkunda’s Tutsi forces; elements of the old Hutu Interuwama of Rwanda (the FDLR) that fled into the Congo after their country’s genocide in 1994; and further north are the Mai Mai, some of whom began as Lumumbaists. They fight naked, protecting themselves against enemy bullets by washing in water.

Rwanda and Uganda support some of these militias and receive a steady flow of lumber, gold, coltan and diamonds in exchange. Both countries export these products in amounts that far exceed their own natural supplies. This makes local elites rich and helps the general development of their economies.

In late August when I visited Goma, armed men killed 10 of Congo’s remaining 170 mountain gorillas in the nearby Virunga National Park. The animals were not poached, but simply murdered. Suspicion settled on Nkunda’s men. As for humans, a band of Mai Mai raided a village and systematically raped scores of women. The International Crisis Group estimates that in the last year “over 370,000 civilians have been displaced in the province” and that throughout the Congo “over 1,000 people continue to die each day from conflict-related causes, mostly disease and malnutrition but ongoing violence as well.” Shortly after my visit, Ebola hit the area.

This level of horror demands explanation. Merely to describe the situation risks acquiescence to racist myths. But there’s a direct line from the rise of the slave trade that continues to the present. Starting in the late 15th century, the Portuguese marauded in from the west coast while “Arabs” (really Muslim Africans) from Zanzibar raided from the east.

As an industry, stealing bodies required methods akin to total war: villages annihilated, the old and the young slaughtered, the working age carried off in chains. The raiders sustained themselves by killing off wildlife and when necessary, smoking and eating human flesh.

Belgium’s King Leopold II invoked these horrors to justify his “humanitarian intervention” in the late 19th century. He promised that his Congo Free State would stamp out slavery. In reality, the slaving parties simply morphed into the colonial militias, now in service of the rapacious station chiefs of Leopold’s Free State working to extract ivory and rubber from the population.

Among the most famous of these colonial-era terrorists was Tippu Tip. His private army’s methods included mass murder, rape, mutilation and cannibalism. Soon these militias were transformed into the uniformed Force Publique, the colonial-era paramilitary police. This in turn became Mobutu’s army and, with his fall, his soldiers seeded the militias.

And here they are, still, in their ragtag fatigues, carrying Kalashnikov rifles and crazy amulets. They no longer take slaves or rubber, but steal cattle and loot minerals. Some see the militias of North Kivu as the failure of the U.N. peace process. But the militias are also living monuments to a long, oft-forgotten history of terror as a means of economic extraction. The violence is here in the heart of Africa, but the wealth flows out and away to all points of the compass, bearing with it no sign of the bloody processes that produce it.

God Lumumba

Some weeks after gazing upon the statues of Kinshasa, I traveled to central Congo, near a small town on the river. There I met George Ningo Toleka, who works for a tiny, impoverished local NGO. We talked politics.

“Mobutu thought that Lumumba was bad,” Toleka says, “but in my view, he was a good leader.” He continued: “In Opala, about a two days ride from here, there is a group that believes in Lumumba.”

My ears perk up. Toleka watches me closely as he talks: “They think Lumumba is still alive and will come back. They call him Nzambe Lumumba–God Lumumba. They think he can heal the sick. Their leader is Olungu Moses, prophet Moses.”

He looks at me blankly, and adds: “It is a politico-religious movement. They all voted for the prime minister’s party, the neo-Lumumbaists, but they have no idea what that party stands for. But no one really does.”

In the Congo–as anywhere else–ideas and political symbols change with the times. And so it seems to be the case for Patrice Lumumba. Once dead, the memory of Lumumba is erased, then revived to prop up a dictator, then to legitimize the rebel who overthrew that dictator and then, out in the jungles along the river, an imaginary Lumumba cures the sick and promises to come back to life.

Christian Parenti is an American investigative journalist and author. His books include: Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (2000), a survey of the rise of the prison industrial complex from the Nixon through Reagan eras and into the present; The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror (2003), a study of surveillance and control in modern society; and The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (2004), an account of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Parenti has also reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and Bolivia.

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