Congo: pornography for misanthropes
Holocaust-hunters and rape-trawlers have besieged the Congo, where they ‘eat dead babies’, in search of the germ of human evil.
It is the ‘deadliest war since Adolf Hitler’s armies marched across Europe’. It is the ‘deadliest war since the Holocaust’. It is a place where ‘the savagery is beyond imagination’. It is a place where rape has become ‘a normal part of life’. There is ‘unimaginable brutality’. It is a world where a ‘culture of impunity’ allows men to ‘treat women like dogs’. It is a world swarming with women who have been subjected to the ‘monstrosity of this century: continual rape’ and have been ‘gang-raped by militias and shot in the vagina’. It is a world where ‘women are forced to eat dead babies’ (1).
Enough. The media coverage of the war in the Congo marks a shocking new low in Western depictions of Africa. In place of any analysis of the immense political complexities and the international dimension to the conflict in a country the size of Western Europe, we have borderline pornographic descriptions of instances of brutality and hysterical comparisons with the Holocaust. Vast numbers of Western observers have descended on the Congo, not to analyse or understand, but to search for the germ of human wickedness: to uncover African barbarism, and the essentially evil nature of humanity itself.
You’ve heard of ‘warzone tourism’, where thrill-seekers from the West visit cities scarred by conflict and pock-marked by bullets. In the Congo we have something new: ‘misanthropy missions’, where journalists, feminists and Western officials are desperate to discover the disgusting side to humankind. In recent years the Congo has been besieged not only by the armies of numerous African nations fighting a complex war over territory and resources, but also by Western Holocaust-hunters and rape-trawlers fighting to raise awareness about ‘evil’ in the ‘heart of darkness’.
The discussion of the Congo becomes more hysterical and distorted by the day. The latest development is that General Laurent Nkunda, the commander of Congolese Tutsi rebels in the east of the Congo who is most likely (serious experts say ‘definitely’) backed by the Rwandan government, has moved his forces further into Congo and threatens to take the key eastern city of Goma. Nkunda is acting on the ostensible basis of protecting Tutsis from the Hutu forces that were expelled from Rwanda following the massacres of 1994 and which are based in eastern Congo. Yet few analysts doubt that Nkunda’s moves are part of a Rwandan effort to re-assert its political influence in the Congo, with the spectre of the evil Hutu and memories of the 1994 genocide cynically used to justify political opportunism and land-grabbing.
As serious as this latest outburst of conflict is, the reaction to it – handwringing media coverage and the speedy intervention of both Britain’s David Miliband and France’s Bernard Kouchner – is driven by something other than facts on the ground. As one sensible observer points out, ‘There is something of an arbitrary quality as to how one crisis seizes the public imagination and others go ignored’. Indeed, Goma itself has seen ‘far worse than this’: the arrival of thousands and thousands of Rwandan refugees in 1994; a cholera epidemic that killed huge numbers; a lava flow that killed many more (2). Yet it is only today, in the panicked atmosphere of a threatened Tutsi takeover, that Goma is described as a ‘hell’ (3).
That is because the ‘hell’ of Goma, of the Congo more broadly, springs from the salacious misanthropic mindset of Western observers rather than from the reality of events, however brutal they may be. It is true that the Congo has been riven by bloody political conflict for many years. In the First Congo War of 1996 to 1997, the longstanding president of what was then Zaire, Mobutu Sésé Seko, was overthrown by rebel forces backed by Rwanda and Uganda, bringing Laurent-Désiré Kabila to power. In the Second Congo War of 1998 to 2003, Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent-Désiré, who was assassinated in 2001, sought to hold on to power with the assistance of ‘allied African nations’ against rebel forces backed by other African nations. Yet none of this justifies the description of the Congo as a ‘Holocaust’.
The Congo has been labelled ‘the worst war since World War II’. George Clooney, in his capacity as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, said it is ‘the deadliest war since the Holocaust’ (4). These wild and foul claims are made on the basis that an estimated 5.4million people have perished in the complicated conflicts of recent years, which is close to the figure of six million Jews exterminated by Hitler. Yet the vast majority of these deaths were not combat deaths: they were the deaths mainly of children under five caused by the kind of diseases and malnutrition that are tragically familiar in extremely poor parts of Africa hit by conflict.
As one writer says, the estimated 5.4million deaths are from diseases ‘easily treated in regions where clinics operate, roads are passable and families can harvest their crops’ (5). To compare the tragic and chaotic deaths by poverty of people in the Congo with the Nazis’ conscious, organised extermination of Europe’s Jews represents an historic moral nadir in the discussion of Africa. It attributes a purely evil and exterminatory element to the Congo conflicts that simply does not exist. The disasters in the Congo spring from the fact that things are out of control, and nobody is truly in charge, rather than from any systematic state annihilation. In some of the European media coverage of the ‘Holocaust’ in the Congo, this ‘unimaginable savagery’ that has killed 5.4million people, one can almost sense a sigh of relief, a settling of historical odds, as European observers in cushioned, air-conditioned offices discover in Africa the sort of barbarism that gripped civilised Europe 60 years ago. We may have erred terribly two generations ago, but they are still evil today.
The removal of the Congo conflicts from any understandable, political universe is most clear in Western observers’ nauseous obsession with ‘rampant rape’ in the region, with what one report describes as the ‘monstrosity of the century’: the rape of an estimated 250,000 women and girls in the Congo in recent years (6). Rape, tragically, has accompanied virtually every war in history: as moral conventions collapse, and societies become consumed by violence, violence against women can become more widespread. Yet Western researchers have been struggling to work out why, allegedly, ‘Congo’s rape problem is the worst in the world’ (7). One reason might be that, in recent years, what can only and unfortunately be described as a rape-trawling industry has been founded in the Congo.
Vast numbers of Western feminists have descended on the Congo to search for rape stories; as one report says ‘activists from overseas have been pouring in’. European aid agencies have built special rape courthouses and prisons across eastern Congo, and even introduced ‘mobile courts’ that hold rape trials ‘in villages deep in the forest that have not seen a black-robed magistrate since the Belgians ruled the country decades ago’ (8). The American Bar Association built a rape ‘legal clinic’ in the Congo earlier this year. Congolese investigators have been flown to Europe to be taught ‘CSI-style forensic techniques’ in uncovering rapes (9). The American author of the hit play The Vagina Monologues made a publicised visit to the Congo to encourage more and more women to give ‘public testimonies’ about their experiences. She describes rape in the Congo as ‘femicide’, part of a ‘systematic campaign to destroy women’. Maybe these savages are even worse than Hitler. She also said that she heard stories about women ‘being forced to eat dead babies’ – the first time in years that the image of Africans as cannibals has made a return to respectable public debate.
This might go some way towards explaining why the Congo’s war-related rape crisis is allegedly the ‘worst in the world’: because well-financed forces from the West are searching everywhere for rape, making it more likely, comparative to other conflicts, that crimes of rape will be reported and recorded. The ceaseless discussion of the Congo’s horrors of rape symbolises the removal of politics from the conflict and the reduction of it to mindless, savage abuse. A man’s attack on a woman becomes a metaphor for the general wanton cruelty of this inexplicable conflict. Indeed, the reason put forward for the Congo’s ‘femicide’ is that there is a ‘culture of impunity’, of ‘shame and stigma’, where men can do as they please with women and fear no repercussions (10). This is little more than a PC cultural twist on the old racial stereotype of the savage African male. In the past, the ‘rape of Africa’ was a metaphor for the destructiveness of colonial rule; today rape in the Congo is a metaphor for African barbarism.
The horrendous Holocaust-mongering in the Congo blinds people to the political dynamics behind the recent conflicts – and in particular to the role of the ‘international community’ in deepening tensions in the region and inflaming conflict. America shoulders a great deal of responsibility for the conflicts in the Congo. Following Belgian Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, upon which time it was renamed Zaire, America played a key role in transforming it into a Cold War outpost. In January 1961, as one of its final acts, Eisenhower’s government gave the nod to the assassination of Zaire’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and America then helped to install the Cold War strongman Mobutu. In the following 30 years, the US provided more than $300million worth of weapons and $100million worth of military training to keep US-friendly Mobutu in power.
Following the end of the Cold War in 1990/1991, however, Mobutu, like many of America’s ‘bastards’ around the world, became surplus to requirements. America and Belgium (and for a time, France) put pressure on Mobutu to ‘democratise’. Bill Clinton (US president from 1992 to 2000) began to refer to some of America’s African Cold War allies as ‘rogue states’ and in Mobutu’s case as a ‘dinosaur’. Clinton’s solution to post-Cold War Africa was to promote ‘new leaders’, including in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda, ‘pragmatists who would cooperate with Washington in establishing a new order in Africa’ (11). America armed and trained the militaries of Rwanda and Uganda and implicitly backed their invasion, carried out with rebel Congolese forces, to depose Mobutu and replace him with Kabila Senior in 1997 (the First Congo War). However, when Kabila Senior sought to expel the Rwandan Tutsi forces that had helped to bring him to power, America again backed Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese rebel efforts to isolate Kabila (the Second Congo War). In total, the US has supplied arms or training to eight of the countries that have engaged violently in the Congo over the past decade (12). None of this is discussed in the coverage of the Congo’s instability, however; everything is just culture, rape, genocide, murder, baby-eating.
If anything, the recent tragedies in the Congo highlight the dangers of Western Holocaust-hunting in Africa. Rwanda has justified many of its American-backed actions in the Congo on the basis of victim politics, as part of an effort to keep evil Hutus at bay and to ensure there is never another Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s attacks on Hutu refugee camps in the Congo in 1996 and 1997, in which huge numbers of vulnerable Rwandan Hutu refugees were killed or displaced, was justified as part of an ‘anti-genocide’ campaign. As Foreign Policy in Focus argues: ‘American backing for Rwandan and Ugandan intervention in the Congo reflects uncritical acceptance [that] Tutsis are deserving of support because they are genocide victims.’ (13) It is worth noting that for the past 10 years Rwanda has been uncritically backed by the British government, too – most notably by that well-known peacenik Clare Short, who as secretary of state for international development spearheaded Britain’s relationship with Kigali.
The people of the Congo have gone from being the pawns of power games to the stars of porn churned out by Western observers. Yet there is far more to the current warped discussion of the Congo than old-fashioned disgust with Africans. It is also shot through with self-loathing. Western observers see in the Congo not only ‘their’ barbarism but ours, too; humanity’s wantonness more broadly. Commentators claim that we are all responsible for the Congo Holocaust since its vast resources are used to make our jewellery, our mobile phones, and other sorts of ‘twenty-first century zing and bling’: ‘the war in Congo is a war about you’, one columnist tell us, as if our greed sustains it (14). Others claim that the Congo’s rape reveals an eternal truth about men and women (15). The Congo has become a theatre of misanthropy, a place denuded of its political complexity and turned into Exhibit A to prove all of mankind’s greed and turpitude.
However, the new-fangled misanthropes and old-fashioned racists can make fitting bedfellows. A racist website called ‘Why Blacks Suck’ recently argued that Africans, who are ‘inhuman in their cruelty’, are importing the Congolese ‘savage rape practice’ into Finland, where a woman was recently raped by an African man (16). A disgusting sentiment, right? Yes, but not a surprising one at a time when the Congo is discussed in respectable, liberal circles as a cesspit of warped cultures, rape, possible cannibalism and human foulness in general.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Barrie Collins argued that attacks on France for its role in the 1994 war in Rwanda obscured the truth about the genocide. Earlier, he reported from the waiting room of the Rwandan genocide tribunal. Tara McCormack criticised the indictment of Sudanase President Omar al-Bashir for genocide. Julie Hearn looke at Kenya and the myth of Afrian barbarism Brendan O’Neill said Somalia is a case study of the dangers of moralism in international affairs, and that Darfur has been damned by pity. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.
(1) The beginning of hope or the end of it, Huffington Post, 30 October 2008
(2) Our own dark secret that Congo reveals, Observer, 2 November 2008
(3) Congo battle brings new exodus, Independent, 2 November 2008
(4) UN advocate George Clooney on DR Congo violence, UN News, 30 October 2008
(5) Our own dark secret that Congo reveals, Observer, 2 November 2008
(6) The Great Silence: Rape in the Congo, LI Reviews, April 2008
(7) What makes Congo’s rape problem is the worst in the world?, Dallas Morning News, 18 October 2008
(8) Tears and cheers as Congo rape victims end their decades of silent hell, Scotland on Sunday, 26 October 2008
(9) Tears and cheers as Congo rape victims end their decades of silent hell, Scotland on Sunday, 26 October 2008
(10) Tears and cheers as Congo rape victims end their decades of silent hell, Scotland on Sunday, 26 October 2008
(11) War in the Congo, Foreign Policy in Focus, Volume 5, Number 10, April 2000
(12) War in the Congo, Foreign Policy in Focus, Volume 5, Number 10, April 2000
(13) War in the Congo, Foreign Policy in Focus, Volume 5, Number 10, April 2000
(14) How we fuel Africa’s bloodiest war, Johann Hari, Independent, 30 October 2008
(15) The beginning of hope or the end of it, Huffington Post, 30 October 2008
(16) See Why Blacks Suck