Africa over the past generation has proved to be a tragic continent, plagued by war, famine and the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps no country sums up this tragedy more starkly than the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose president, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated last week.
This vast country, the size of Western Europe, is blessed with plentiful natural resources-diamonds, cobalt, copper, gold, zinc and timber. It should have flourished since it won independence from Belgium in 1960. But the Congo's very wealth made it a target for outside predators from the start.
Western interests, headed by the United States, intervened to secure the overthrow and murder of the radical national premier Patrice Lumumba in 1961. This time of idealism and savagery is well evoked by the Irish writer Ronan Bennett in his novel The Catastrophist.
Laurent Kabila was one of Lumumba's followers. There followed years of bloodshed, as Western mercenaries fought nationalist guerrillas and their foreign allies including, for a while, Che Guevara. Eventually General Mobutu Sese Soko took power with American support. He was flagrantly corrupt, but the International Monetary Fund turned a blind eye because he was a reliable Western client during the Cold War.
When radical nationalists took control of neighbouring Angola in the mid-1970s with Russian and Cuban help, Zaire (as the Congo was known under Mobutu) provided the American-backed guerillas of UNITA with their base of operation. But by the mid-1990s Mobutu was beginning to be an embarrassment for the West. The Cold War was over, and he was allowing his territory to be used as a refuge for the mass murderers responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which Hutu chauvinists slaughtered half a million members of the Tutsi minority.
A loose coalition of neighbouring states-Angola to the west, Rwanda and Uganda to the east-emerged to deal with Mobutu. They needed a local ally, and Kabila, who had a strong base in his home province, mineral-rich Katanga, fitted the bill.
Mobutu's regime was so rotten that it fell apart when given the slightest push. Kabila's forces took the capital, Kinshasa, in May 1997. A new day seemed to be dawning for the Congo. These hopes disappeared with astonishing speed. Kabila quickly learned Mobutu's habits of corruption and nepotism. Key posts were filled by his Katangese friends and relations.
The president sold mineral concessions to foreign companies, and offered continued asylum to the Hutu butchers who the Rwandan government wanted to bring to justice.
In October 1998 a new war broke out. Kabila's former patrons in Uganda and Rwanda had had enough and wanted to get rid of him. But a rival coalition of states-Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia-stepped in on his side. Tens of thousands of foreign soldiers are fighting in the DRC. Rebel forces backed by Uganda and Rwanda now control much of the eastern part of the Congo. Both sides are busy looting the country's resources.
According to the Guardian, 'Uganda's gold exports have risen almost tenfold since its involvement in the Congo, and its £400 million trade deficit has been erased.' Meanwhile the personal entourage of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe are also busy enriching themselves. To quote the Guardian again:
'A state-owned firm run by retired army officers, Zimbabwe Defence Industries, was contracted to provide arms and ammunition to Kinshasa. In return, a Zimbabwean mining firm, Ridgepointe, got a one third share and management control of the potentially highly profitable Congolese state mining company, Gercamines. About half of the profits go to Harare to pay for its war machine.'
The war is threatening the Kabila regime's hold on this wealth. Late last year rebel forces took the town of Pweto, only 250 miles from the mining centre of Lumumbashi.
The American security consultants Stratfor speculate that Kabila's death might have been precipitated by disagreements within the regime over how to respond to this defeat.
Kabila had wanted to launch a fresh counter-offensive, but his allies were showing signs of tiring of the war. For example, Zimbabwe's hugely expensive involvement in the DRC has contributed considerably to Mugabe's domestic unpopularity.
Africa's suffering is often put down by racists to its peoples' alleged inability to rule themselves. But the case of the Congo shows that the end of colonialism did not mean that Africans ceased to be the victims of outside forces.