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Turning Off Congo’s Looting Machine

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been pillaged by foreign governments and corporations for more than 500 years, and this sordid pattern continues to this day. Given this history, is it any wonder that the country suffers from massive corruption, perpetual conflict, and state capture?

WASHINGTON, DC – Last month, the Belgian government returned a gold-capped tooth that was ripped from the mouth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, more than 60 years ago. Lumumba was assassinated in 1961 by a Belgian execution squad that dissolved his body in acid, taking the tooth as a “hunting trophy.” Now, the Belgian government has been attempting to make amends for the crimes that Belgium visited upon the Congolese people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

But Belgium’s role is only part of this sordid history. The DRC is a case study of how greed-fueled transnational economic exploitation can continue for centuries. Companies and consumers in the United States and Europe – and more recently in China, Uganda, and Rwanda – have reaped enormous gains as a direct result of the Congolese people’s brutalization. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to travel to the DRC in August, he has an opportunity to help prevent another chapter of devastating exploitation from being written.

This process started in the late 1400s, when the Portuguese landed on the shores of what was then known as the Kongo Kingdom. In the centuries that followed, there were periods when roughly one-third of the Kingdom’s population had been sold into the transatlantic slave trade. Ultimately, the Kongo Kingdom accounted for one-quarter of those enslaved on plantations in the American South.