Having lived in Belgium for 18 years, I figured it was time to start learning about the country’s colonial past. Or should I say present?
My research is at an early stage but it has lead to an unavoidable conclusion: the Belgian elite still behaves as if it calls the shots in Congo.
The French-language magazine Marianne recently published the names of 10 men implicated in the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first Congolese prime minister after its independence. The list — compiled by Lumumba’s family for a legal investigation opened in Brussels two years ago — include Etienne Davignon, a former member of the European Commission and chairman of that “gentlemen’s club” for global capitalism, the Bilderberg Group. Davignon worked for the Belgian foreign ministry at the time of Lumumba’s murder and reportedly drew up a telegram recommending the prime minister’s “removal”.
Now in his 80s, Davignon remains a high-flying corporate lobbyist. His appearance on the Lumumba list prompted me to check if his commercial activities are in any way connected with Congo. The short answer is “yes, they are”.
Davignon’s profile on BusinessWeek states that he has held the posts of director and vice-president with Umicore. This mining company was previously known as Union Minière du Haut Katanga and began extracting Congo’s rich mineral resources in the early twentieth century. It has good political connections. Jean-Luc Dehaene, a long-serving Belgian prime minister, has served on Umicore’s board too.
Patrice Lumumba had the audacity to advocate that “the soil of our country should really benefit its children”. That was in June 1960. Fifty-three years after he made that pledge, the soil of Katanga province is being used for the benefit of Umicore.
There is a strong likelihood that my smartphone – or yours, if you have one – contains material from Congo. Umicore regularly buys cobalt from mines and suppliers in Katanga for batteries, computers, chemicals and cars. Umicore brags that it shares 50% of the global market in materials for lithium-ion batteries (a key power source for electronic equipment) with just one other firm.
Corporate Knights - an insert with The Washington Post that promotes “clean capitalism” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) – has put Umicore in its “100 most sustainable companies” table for 2013.
Only someone with a warped sense of humour could praise firms active in Congo’s mines for being “sustainable”. The International Monetary Fund – not a friend of the downtrodden – has calculated that the value of Congo’s mineral and oil exports come to $4.2 billion in 2009. Yet the Kinshasa government collected just $155 million in tax that year – 4% of the value of those sales.
This is in a country where – as the “Africa progress report” published by Kofi Annan recently notes – some of the world’s worst malnutrition can be found and seven million children are out of school. Congo is at the bottom of the United Nations “human development index”; it has also been plagued by a war, in which the question of who should control Katanga’s mines has played a significant part.
Far from having its reputation damaged by its involvement in Congo, Umicore’s advice is much in demand. The European Commission has appointed Umicore representative Christian Hagelüken to an “expert group” on ensuring access to raw materials for entrepreneurs. A 2010 paper drawn up by that group identified cobalt and tantalum from Congo as being among 14 “critical” minerals, underscoring their importance for the electronic industry. The paper urged that action be taken against “trade distortions” – code for measures designed to use resources for the benefit of a nation’s children (as Lumumba envisaged), rather than for MP3 players.
Needless to say, the “experts” have made all the right noises about “sustainability” and protecting the environment. If we ignore this spin, however, we will see that the determination of Europeans to control Congo has not changed.
When Belgium conceded in the 1950s that it would have to grant independence to Congo, it resolved to retain a grip on Katanga’s mines. It did so by supporting Lumumba’s rival, Moise Tshombe, as the province’s chief. Belgium tried to encourage Katanga’s secession from the rest of Congo.
Davignon’s reported call for the removal of Lumumba bears a chilling similarity to a message conveyed by Dwight D Eisenhower, the American president, to Allen Dulles, head of the CIA. In it, Eisenhower pleaded for Lumumba to be “eliminated”.
In 1884, America was the first country to recognise Belgium’s claim to the Congo. This set in train a process which wiped out at least half of the Congolese population by 1920, according to Jan Vansina, an anthropologist who specialises in Central Africa. This could mean that 10 million lives were destroyed during the reign of Leopold II – the Belgian king who colonised the Congo – and the 10 years after his death.
David Van Reybrouck’s recently published history of Congo traces how the agri-food giant Unilever had its origins in the exploitation of Congolese palm oil. Vast fortunes have been amassed for wily businessmen at the expense of the Congolese people. Despite apologising for its role in Lumumba’s murder a decade ago, Belgium has never atoned for the suffering it inflicted on the Congolese. One explanation for why it has never atoned is that some affluent Belgians are doing nicely from the ongoing pillage of Congo’s resources.
David Cronin’s book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War will be published in August. It is available for pre-ordering from Pluto Press (www.plutobooks.com).