With the help of the United States, who were just glad to have someone in power that wasn’t a communist, Joseph Mobutu was dictator of Zaire for 32 years, using its natural resource wealth to enrich himself and his cronies. Given that this was a common strategy by the U.S. during the Cold War, it might be good to have a quick aside on the reasoning of the day. By the 1960’s, the Soviet Union had been around for about forty years, a time period during which it killed around 16 million of its own people. At the same time, the second most powerful communist nation, China, was well on its way to killing 50 million. In fact, during the seventy years of the communist era the communist regimes collectively killed over 100 million of their own citizens. So yes, while today it’s pretty obvious that supporting dictators who killed tens of thousands of their own people was a pretty shitty strategy, at the time it was seen as the lesser of two evils. Whether or not it actually was will likely be debated until the end of time. Anyways, the moment the Cold War ended in 1991, the U.S. mostly got out of the whole supporting dictators thing, leaving Mobutu and his contemporaries on their own. Things of course somehow just got shittier.
The end of Mobutu’s dictatorship was tied closely to goings on in the neighboring country of Rwanda. We could spend a whole article talking about it, but here’s the cliff notes version. The area today called Rwanda was home to two groups divided mostly economically, the majority Hutu, and the minority Tutsi who held most of the power and wealth. When the Europeans took control of Africa, Rwanda was controlled first by the Germans, but was then given to the Belgians for being on the winning side of World War I. To maintain control over their colony, Belgium worked to keep the Hutu and Tutsi divided, launching a propaganda campaign that they were two separate ethnic groups. This led to the Tutsi generally dumping on the Hutu, which in turn led to a civil war when the Belgians granted the country independence in 1962. The Hutu won the civil war, leading to many Tutsi fleeing to neighboring countries, including a significant number to eastern Zaire. There, they began building up military power with plans to retake the country. In 1990, they began a guerrilla war to do just that. This guerrilla war helped Hutu hardliners gain power, creating a powder keg situation, which erupted in 1994 when the country’s president was assassinated, though nobody is sure by whom. Deciding to end the issue once and for all, the Hutus began the systematic killing of Tutsis throughout the country. Within one hundred days some 500,000 Tutsis were murdered, 75 percent of Rwanda’s Tutsi population. In response, the Tutsi rebel army invaded the country, seizing control and killing 300,000 Hutu along the way.
When the Tutsi regained control of Rwanda, around 2 million Hutu, led by the same hard liners who had caused the genocide, took refuge in eastern Zaire. There, they began planning on how to retake Rwanda and started killing Tutsi living in the area. By then Zaire was pretty much a failed state, with especially the eastern half of the country controlled by various resistance groups. In 1996, Rwanda invaded eastern Zaire with the declared goal of protecting the Tutsi in the area. This led to a series of revolts breaking out across the country, which ironically received U.S. support. Eventually, with the help of troops from Rwanda and other neighboring countries, these revolts led to Mobutu being thrown out of power. However, instead of founding a democracy, the rebel leader, a man named Laurent Kabila, declared himself dictator. As all good dictators do, his first act was to change the name of the country, this time calling it the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Kabila was in a precarious position. It was pretty obvious that his so-called allies from Rwanda and Uganda were planning on seizing control of the valuable mines in the eastern half of the country. To stop them, Kabila ordered all foreign troops to leave, to which Rwanda and Uganda responded by invading again. Things quickly descended into a total cluster fuck from there. Other neighboring countries sent in troops to support Kabila, and numerous rebel and resistance groups sprouted up across the region. The war quickly turned into an all out slaughter, with villages burned, men and women raped, and adults and children forced to join militia units. Both disease and malnutrition ran rampant. In 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated, leading to his son, Joseph Kabila, to take power. The following year a peace deal was brokered, officially ending what became known as the Congo War in 2002. Foreign troops left the country soon after, but the resistance groups they had supported remained. Many of these resistance groups continue to fight to this day, committing all sorts of atrocities that have grown worse in recent years. Though the country’s first free elections took place in 2006, Joseph Kabila’s victory sparked claims of fraud. Kabila was re-elected in 2011, but chose not to run in elections that took place in 2018.
Though little heard of in the United States, the so-called Congo War is the deadliest war to have taken place since World War II. It’s estimated that around 6 million people have been killed directly or indirectly by the conflict. For context, it’s estimated that the Iraq War cost around 500,000 lives and the Vietnam War resulted in the death of around 2.5 million people. World War II is estimated to have killed some 80 million people. To this day, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is still pretty fucked.