The Congo and the politics of human cruelty

A group of kids lands on a desert island.

They understand the need for cooperation in order to survive. They hold free elections, under the guidance of chief Ralph they collectively engage in the construction of a rudimental, dreamlike civil society. Yet things start to go wrong. Rumours of a beast living in the island sneak in among the younger kids, spreading around rapidly. Chief Ralph starts losing grip on the situation. Hunter Jack, head of the military wing, mutinies and forms a new government. Defections to the seceded authority slip out of control. English, civilised kids, succumb to their primordial savagery, the beast within is the beast without. The dream turns into a nightmare.

When William Golding came out with this rather unsettling picture, in 1954, the spotlight of world politics still had little bother of what went on in the South: many countries in Africa were still enjoying exploitative, but relatively stable, colonial domination (occasional massacres notwithstanding). So was the soon-to-be Democratic Republic of the Congo, then under Belgian rule; an immense and invisible land, whose unthinkable natural wealth had already played crucial roles in Western geopolitics (fun fact: uranium used to build Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” came from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Southern Congolese province of Katanga).

Head of the hunters Jack Merridew. Lord of the Flies, 1963 (directed by Peter Brook)

The Congo as a free state

In 1960, the “year of Africa”, the Congo (along with other sixteen African countries) gains independence from colonial rule. Patrice Lumumba, head of the Congolese Nationalist Movement, wins the first free elections of the country. Yet, as among the kids in the island, things start to go wrong. Numerous vested interests merge into what is known as the Congo Crisis (1960-65); secession of Southern Katanga province, and defection of Colonel Joseph Mobutu, chief of the Congolese national army. Arrest, torture and execution of Prime Minister Lumumba. Military coup of “hunter Jack” Mobutu in 1965, and subsequent establishment of a military dictatorship. In the 1990s, Mobutu’s role as a Cold War puppet loses its relevance to US policymakers. He falls from power in May 1997; then political turmoil, civil wars, leftovers of the Rwandan genocide. Conflict on the Rwandan border has been raging on ever since, indulging in the most sophisticate methods of cruelty. To this day, millions of Congolese nobodies are on the ever-increasing death toll, in one of the most troubled and least media-covered countries in the world.

Patrice Lumumba with British Foreign Affairs Minister John Profumo in London, July 23rd, 1960 (

Moving on to sheer politics, Patrice Lumumba is one character who’s worth paying attention to. Charismatic, good looking, this Malcolm X-like figure is the anti-colonial hero, one man many hopeless people put their highest hopes on. Throughout his brief presidency, in a climate of “either with or against us” Cold War power politics, he sticks to his Pan-African political agenda. He turns to the UN and the United States for help against Katangese secessionists, he gets none. Therefore, he  turns to Nikita Khrushchev, which outrages the liberal world. US-backed Mobutu’s military coup topples the freely elected government. Lumumba is executed by a Katangese firing squad on January 17th, 1961. The corpse is dismembered and dissolved in sulfuric acid, along with all the remaining hopes for peace.

Joseph Mobutu with President Ronald Reagan in Washington D.C., August 5th, 1983 (

What then?

Today, numerous bloodsheds later, the Congo shows very little signs of recovery. President Joseph Kabila, who took office after the assassination of his father President Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001 (during the second Congo war), was meant to step down from power in 2016; the 2006 constitution, issued by Kabila himself, only allows for two terms of presidency. His refusal to leave office prompted mass protests in late 2016, which are still going on to this day. Given the irreconcilable Hutu-Tutsi dichotomy, given the furious conflict of Eastern Congo (fueled by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda) which left millions behind, for slaughter, disease or malnutrition, given the tendency of African leaders to overstay in power, real appeasement is something one can’t be too optimistic about.

What then? The future’s not ours to foresee, yet recurring patterns of human behaviour can be drawn from the analysis of political events. It is not the purpose of this article to account for almost six decades of Congolese postcolonial history, nor does it wish to squeeze the latter deeds into the chief Ralph/hunter Jack quarrel.  Nonetheless, Lord of the Flies raises a crucial point: once the rational, idealistic leader succumbs to the greed of power (of other leaders or indeed, in some cases, of his own), thereby institutionalising violence as a means of state control, all social restraints and regards for the human condition are at stake. Understanding political turmoil as the trigger to unfettered savage action is linking the conceivable to the inconceivable. It is the very means to bring the Western view closer to these dynamics.

There is no need to be meddling with the gut-churning stories of rape, torture and mutilation that characterise Congolese conflicts as much as those in Sierra Leone, North-Eastern Nigeria or the Central African Republic (just to name a few). However, it shall not be forgotten that the most vicious African warlords are nothing but a product of their context, and their context is a product of decades of ruthless conflicts, in which colonial powers play no negligible part. It is true that strong and durable institutions in the postwar liberal order prevent political turmoil from degenerating into human slaughter; but by no means is the Congo, with its jungles and its turbid, endless river (or the path towards human and natural wilderness, Joseph Conrad would say), to be regarded as distant from our daily lives. The power politics of human cruelty has manifold faces: all are rooted in the desire, and fear, of domination. Some of these faces may at times resemble our own.

Lorenzo Flego

Lorenzo Flego, born in Pordenone (Italy) in 1993. I'm currently studying MSc International Politics at SOAS University of London, although I've been formerly trained in Classical Piano Performance at the Conservatory of Music "G. Tartini", Trieste. I'm much interested in geopolitics, history and literature, as well as in music and fine arts. My aim as a Socialnews writer is to raise awareness about lesser-known places or situations which though may have great importance in shaping the international scene. My main focus is the relations of power, and how these relate to matters of human rights and human rights violations. 


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