King Leopold's shadow still haunts the DRC - but its politics remains persistent
Illustration credit: Bethan Chinn

Inside the Africa Museum in Brussels stand statues dedicated to King Leopold II – a man whose rule saw the slaughter of as many as 10 million Congolese people. Most people are unaware of the atrocities committed under King Leopold II’s rule. However, for those living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), there remains stark and daily reminders of a colonial past and its present-day implications. 

While corruption is often cited as the primary reason behind the DRC’s slowed development, there is another hidden storyline behind the disrupted growth of the resource-rich nation. 

For context, it is essential to understand the events that led to King Leopold II’s brutal regime in the Congo. How was such an awful man allowed to take control of a country?

King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo (formerly known as the Independent State of the Congo) began with the Berlin Conference, which took place between 1884-1885. The conference involved the gathering of major European nations to divide up the continent of Africa, negotiating which countries received which land. The glaring injustice was that there was no African representation, meaning that they had no say in the matter. 

In attendance was King Leopold II – not on behalf of Belgium, but instead to sew together his deal. Leopold’s country had not been in support of his ideas for imperialism, which only sweetened the deal for the King, who was happy to keep all the profits for himself.

With the backing of several major countries, King Leopold II was in a commanding position to begin ruling the Congo – a nation whose supply of rubber and ivory was plentiful.

King Leopold and his army were tough and enforced strict laws by which the Congolese people had to live their life. Nearly impossible quotas had to be met – and the rules had to be strictly followed. Otherwise, one would either be shot dead or endure mutilation by having their hand chopped off as a trophy for the Belgian King. However, the effects of this disturbing leadership remain in the DRC, even after 60 years of independence. 

With an estimated debt of $12.5 billion, the DRC has struggled immensely since the end of Leopold’s regime. In the direct aftermath of the King’s leadership, many Congolese people lacked a stable form of education and found it hard to find work to sustain themselves. This weakened the economy massively and ensured that the politics of the country represented only a small group of people. 

“Congo will keep persisting, no matter the challenge or circumstance”

The DRC was left in a state of turmoil following the end of colonial rule. Different ideologies began to arise from various groups of people, leaving the political scene with two crucial parties: the army and the Congolese Nationalist Movement. However, due to their lack of organisation, both parties were often at odds with one another which was ultimately no more evident than with the torture and assassination of the Congo’s well-liked and promising inaugural leader, Patrice Lumumba, at the hands of the army. Lumumba had been an advocate for Pan-Africanism, a movement which aims to unite the whole of Africa as one. The movement did not appease the army who had a more nationalist view on the situation. 

Despite all this and against the odds, Congo remains a country, even in the modern-day. The nation and its people have dealt with the devastation of war, the terrible effects of colonialism, constant stereotyping from the West, and have now begun to educate the youth on a widespread scale.

King Leopold had not just ensured that universal education was unavailable to most of the population, but also displaced many Congolese people, even within their own country, burning down villages without warning in order to make space for cash crop farms. 

This led to poor infrastructure in the country. With the help of the charity, Congo has been able to accumulate enough funds to begin looking at efforts to better the lacklustre infrastructure. With the development of hospitals, houses, offices and hotels, it seems that the Congolese government is focusing on elevating itself through increased infrastructure in various areas, making a safer, and more attractive place to visit. 

In addition to this, following in Pakistan’s stride, Congo has begun efforts to improve the tourism sector in the country, aiming to cultivate a business industry, all the while bringing money and investment into the nation. Given the natural and unstated beauty of Congo’s countryside, this is a step in the right direction and could provide some much-needed funds for investment in other areas. 

Another side to an important story is presented once you understand the history behind Congo and its dark colonial past: while the country is riddled with corruption, there have been other significant contributors to the still-existing poverty. However, one thing, above all, is most evident: Congo will keep persisting, no matter the challenge or circumstance.