The colonial legacy

October 02, 1991

Thirty years after achieving its "independence," the African nation of Zaire is once more in a state of chaos. Fearing civil war, Belgium has dispatched soldiers to evacuate its nationals.

Would that Belgium had always shown such solicitude for all the inhabitants of its erstwhile colony, formerly known as the Belgian Congo. Belgium's colonial legacy is just about the scariest in the whole house of horrors. To use one example, in the early 1900s, when Belgians were systematically plundering the vast and rich area, indigenous Africans were impressed into a form of slavery to do the grunt work of stripping their land for the benefit of the European occupiers. As a form of "discipline," when an African worker failed to produce his quota of plunder, the Belgian bosses would chop off a hand. If the worker still failed to produce his quota with only one hand, they would cut off the other hand and send the worthless worker back to the jungle. When high muckety-mucks from Belgium visited the colony, the colonial gauleiters, to demonstrate how well they were doing their jobs, would show the visitors basketfuls of human hands that had been smoked in order to preserve them in the hot and humid climate.

When Belgium finally and grudgingly granted independence to its colony, the Congo had a total of 16 college graduates. Against that background of brutality and neglect, is it any wonder the Congo promptly fell into civil war? In due course Joseph Mobutu emerged as the strongman ruler. His brutal and corrupt regime was tolerated by the United States, however, because he was a reliable ally against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

So now we have a country of immense mineral wealth, and yet in 1989 its per capita gross national product was only $149 -- fourth from the bottom in the world. That compares to a per capita GNP of $12,000 in Belgium, one of Europe's poorer nations. To this day there are only 58 dentists in Zaire -- a country of 33 million people. Their life expectancy, now under 50, is certain to go down as the frightful AIDS epidemic spreads.

To blame Zaire for its own problems is like blaming a woman for being raped. What we are witnessing is the inevitable dismal legacy of colonialism in the last decade of the 20th century.

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