Steal This Country

From slavery to coltan, five centuries of fleecing.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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1482 Portuguese explorers arrive at mouth of Congo River, find well-developed African kingdom (pdf) of Kongo.

1520s Sugarcane plantations in Brazil ignite vast demand for African slaves. Over next 350 years more than 12 million people will be taken from African coast near the mouth of the Congo River.

1526 In letter to Portuguese King João III, Kongo King Afonso I writes, “Our country is being completely depopulated” by slave trade.

Mid-1800s Reports from David Livingstone and other explorers whet European appetite for ivory.

1885 Belgian King Leopold II wins recognition of Congo as his personal colony.

1887 Scottish veterinarian John Dunlop creates inflatable tire, launching worldwide rubber boom.

1893-1913 Peak of Congo rubber trade. Leopold’s private army occupies villages, holds women hostage to force men into the rain forest to gather wild rubber. Famine, disease, displacement ensue; uprisings bloodily suppressed. Congo’s population drops from 20 million to 10 million in 40 years.

1895 First reported find of Congo gold, in Ituri.

1907 Diamonds discovered in Kasai province. Today Congo produces 17 percent of world’s uncut diamonds.

1911 British soap tycoon William Lever visits to inspect his new holdings of palm groves.

1931 Railway completed from Katanga through Angola to Atlantic, parallel to old slave-trade route, for faster export of Congo copper. Profits mainly go to Belgium.

1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs built with Congolese uranium.

1960 After months of violent protests, Belgium grants Congo independence. Patrice Lumumba becomes prime minister, advocates African ownership of African resources.

1961 Lumumba killed, with Belgian help, after CIA assassination attempt fails.

1965 Joseph Mobutu, a 35-year-old army officer, seizes power in CIA-approved coup, ruthlessly crushes all opposition.

1966 Mobutu nationalizes mining, goes on to embezzle billions from trade in copper, cobalt, diamond, and coffee industries.

1971 Mobutu changes nation’s name to Zaire and his own to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga—”The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”

1974 Muhammad Ali regains heavyweight crown by defeating George Foreman in “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa.

1977 Commodore begins selling personal computers; demand accelerates for minerals used in electronics, including gold, coltan (colombite-tantalite), and cassiterite (tin ore), all of which Congo produces in abundance.

1997 Mobutu overthrown, dies in exile following year. Country renamed Democratic Republic of Congo.

1998 Rwanda and Uganda invade, try to overthrow Mobutu successor Laurent Kabila. Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Chad, Sudan also get involved, supporting Kabila and seizing mining concessions. Armed rebel groups proliferate, also capture mine sites.

1999 About 100 Congolese miners die when gold mine run by Ugandan military caves in.

1999 Six countries involved in war sign peace accord in Zambia; UN peacekeepers deployed. Fighting for control of mining sites continues. Hundreds of thousands of civilians forced to flee.

2000 Coltan, in demand for cell phone manufacturing, sells at $380 a pound. Demand for tungsten, used to make phones vibrate (and lightbulbs glow), also surges.

2000 Kabila grants timber rights on 15 percent of Congo’s land area to joint venture that includes high Zimbabwean officials and army officers.

2001 Kabila assassinated, succeeded by his son Joseph.

2002 Second peace accord signed in South African luxury resort Sun City. Rebel warlords continue to fight.

2002 UN panel of experts estimates Rwanda has removed $320 million worth of minerals from eastern Congo during war.

2003 Amnesty International also targets Rwanda, saying that plunder of Congo’s coltan and other minerals was a “carefully managed military operation.”

2006 UN helps arrange first free elections since 1960. Joseph Kabila wins presidency, incorporates former rebel warlords into army and administration as price of shaky peace.

2007 Congo hit with Ebola outbreak.

2007 China signs long-term deal investing $9 billion in Congo in exchange for minerals worth some $50 billion, mainly copper and cobalt.


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