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The Congo watershed holds a history of government abuses and armed revolts. The Kingdom of Kongo, among others, fed European slavers with a sinister stream of human beings. In an act of self-proclaimed magnanimity, King Leopold II took an interest in the land. He relied on several European explorers to help establish his Association Internationale Africaine and map out his claim to over two million square kilometres, which he then secured with humanitarian and philanthropic promises at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. His reward was absolute sovereignty over the Congo River basin on the conditions that he attained the above objectives, but also under permitted free trade upriver to the signatories. In short order, Leopold’s officials established the Congo Free State, a bloody, ruthless colonial administration that subjected its inhabitants to forced labour collecting “red” rubber, ivory and other raw resources by mutilating and terrorizing those who resisted.

In Europe, Edmund Morel led a campaign to expose Leopold as the so-called “philanthropic monarch,” who in fact had legalised plunder to enrich himself at the expense of his subject peoples in the Congo. The ruthless practices of Belgian officers were often emulated by their local subordinates in the Force Publique. The armed force introduced new atrocities to the region: people’s hands were cut off, women and children were kidnapped and sexually abused, and even cannibalism was recorded. The human cost of King Leopold’s enterprise is still unclear, but convergent figures of 10 million lives havhistorians such as Isidor Ndaywel è Nziem and Adam Hochschild.

An international campaign against Leopold's rule helped push the Belgian parliament to annex the Congo Free State in 1908. While the old administration’s predatory exploitation lessened, it did not cease and little changed for ordinary Congolese. Most worked in conditions that amounted to forced labour and life expectancy hovered at 40 years. The Belgian administrators limited education of Congolese to religion and basic literacy. After a half-century of rule, the évolués, educated local elites, consisted of a handful of lower-level administrators (Lumumba, for example, worked as a postal clerk). It was this tiny group that took over the colonial institutions when the Belgians withdrew en masse before the first elections.

The general election in 1960 brought the Congo its first elected leaders: President Kasa- Vubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Yet Mobutu Sese Seko’s undid the promise of democratic rule and instead perpetuated colonial patterns of violent natural resource exploitation. Mobutu’s increasingly chaotic and kleptocratic rule collapsed nearly three decades later amidst renewed threats of secession that he had first used to justify his coup. In 2006, the transitional government held a referendum on a new democratic constitution, and then legislative and presidential elections for a new political order charged with rehabilitating the country. The elections built upon a transitional military and political power sharing agreement and referendum that sought to end the so-called ‘Second Congo War’. Nearly a decade of civil wars from 1998 to 2007 had a devastating human cost of 5.4 million dead.

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