Recently, the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo has hit the world’s news for two reasons.
One is the viral Youtube video about Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, for over 25 years the scourge of north-west Uganda. The video calls for the maintenance and expansion of the 100-strong US military team of advisors in Uganda until Kony is captured, ignoring the fact that he is widely reported to be in Congo.
The other was the conviction by the ICC of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord who terrorised the people of the Ituri Forest region of Eastern Congo. Lubanga’s co-accused and deputy, Bosco Ntaganda, remains at large in eastern Congo where he has been integrated into the National Army. (Irish Times, 15/3/12)
The world’s attention was also focussed on that part of the world a century-and-a-quarter ago, in the late 1880s, when the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition was led there by Henry Morton Stanley. The similarities of the situations then and now are stark.
The Youtube video about Kony, funded largely by right-wing US groups, places emphasis on using the technological resources of US military advisors to hunt down Kony. It’s the same argument that was used to justify the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1887 – defenceless people need our help; therefore this is what we must do. History shows us the action prescribed might have an undeclared agenda.
The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition was set up by wealthy Scottish businessman William McKinnon in 1886 in order to exploit the enormous resources of Central Africa, in the guise of a humanitarian relief mission. He’d made a fortune by dominating the trade routes from India, and he wanted his newly-established Imperial British East Africa Company perfectly placed to dominate the commercial exploitation of Central Africa. He needed a secure trade infrastructure, and a cheap export channel.
McKinnon approached Henry Morton Stanley to lead the expedition. Stanley was world-famous since he found David Livingstone in 1872. He had traversed Africa, mapping Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and the course of the Congo. He’d spent five years in charge of the Congo Free State, extracting contracts from hundreds of tribal chieftains that gave ownership of their lands to King Leopold of the Belgians. His possession of the latest technology of the international arms trade of the day facilitated his success in this endeavour.
Stanley got arms companies such as Maxim, Remington, Winchester and Gatling to supply the expedition, the payback being the peerless advertising opportunity offered. The publicly-stated plan was to arm Emin Pasha, governor for Egypt of the Southern Sudanese province of Equatoria, to enable him to resist the forces of the Mahdi who had overrun Khartoum. Egypt was at this point under British rule in all but name, because it owed colossal amounts to foreign creditors, mainly British banks.
King Leopold wanted to develop the Congo as a conduit for transporting valuable ivory, rubber and other produce from Central Africa to the Atlantic coast. The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition presented the pretext to forge a new route from Emin Pasha’s territory on the Upper Nile to his own new colony in the Congo Basin. For this reason King Leopold asked Stanley to use the longer Congo route for the relief expedition, rather than the overland east coast route.
Stanley quickly recruited the assistance of Tippu Tib, the most powerful slave trader in Africa. Tippu Tib’s status was gained mainly thanks to Stanley, who 10 years earlier, in exchange for military aid, had led Tippu Tib northwards along the Upper Congo. He had since then terrorised and enslaved the natives of the region methodically, building up a massive fortune.
On behalf of King Leopold, Stanley offered Tippu Tib the governorship of the province of Stanley Falls, if he would hand his transport infrastructure over for the use of the expedition – i.e. supply carriers. There was also a vague agreement that Tippu Tib would suspend his slave trade operations, though how this would be regulated was not specified. Bosco Ntaganda’s recent absorption into the Congolese national army provides an alarming echo of Tippu Tib’s appointment in 1887.
In its 500-mile trek through the Ituri forest of eastern Congo, the expedition spread havoc. William Stairs, one of the officers, wrote: “Every male native capable of using a bow is shot. This, of course, we must do. All the children and women are taken as slaves by our men to work in the camp”. In Colin Turnbull’s book, The Forest People, published in 1961, members of the Mbuti pygmy tribe still passed on their parents’ stories of the trail of destruction Stanley left behind him on the Emin Pasha expedition. In the recent past, Lubanga and Ntaganda used the same methods of suppression and exploitation, with the same justification – guns courtesy of the international arms trade, as Stanley’s mercenary army had used in 1888.
The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition ended up being one of the most devastatingly destructive interventions in the course of the Scramble for Africa. Of the 600 African porters recruited for it in Zanzibar, themselves mostly slaves or indentured labourers, less than one-quarter survived. There is no record of the number of native deaths attributable to the actions of the expedition, but the throwaway references to atrocities in the officers’ accounts give a chilling indication. History is written by the victors, and Stanley was an expert practitioner of that particular skill.
When Emin Pasha was found, he was discovered to be using tribes such as the Madi as slave-porters for his ivory empire. The expedition ended up shepherding his slave-based social order across east Africa to Zanzibar, all in the name of humanitarianism.
Just as assurances of Emin Pasha’s good works were accepted without challenge in the 1880s, the Youtube Kony video avoids any questioning of Ugandan president Museveni’s human rights record today. He came to power after decades of tyrannical rule under Milton Obote, Idi Amin and Obote again. In recent years Museveni has shown dictatorial tendencies, including extrajudicial killings by the Ugandan army and draconian media censorship, yet his army is given the power-world seal of approval of US military advisors. Why are they there? A humanitarian mission? Or would it have anything to do with the vast amounts of gas and oil discovered by Tullow Oil in the Lake Albert basin, “farmed down” recently to China’s Conoc and France’s Total? Lake Albert straddles the border between western Uganda and Eastern Congo. It’s where Stanley met Emin Pasha. That meeting was a function of power-world economic expansion. What’s the function of a US military presence in the region now, endorsed by the Kony video? Humanitarianism?
In 1888, the European powers and the US created “spheres of influence” in the remote regions of Africa. They pretended to act in the interests of the native inhabitants. By the time Stanley and Emin Pasha reached the east coast of Africa in 1889, they were greeted by native carriers heading westward speaking German. What the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition inflicted in the name of humanitarianism, and what King Leopold inflicted in the name of commercial progress, provided the blueprint for the extermination of the Herrero people by the German army in Southwest Africa in 1904. It was an exercise the German military and technocrat elite repeated horrifically with a more scientific methodology only thirty-five years later.
As Micháel Ó Seighin, one of the Rossport Five jailed for his opposition to the Corrib gas pipeline, often ruefully states:- “the price of freedom is constant vigilance”. It behoves those approached by powerholders bearing gifts to be vigilant, especially when they carry guns as well. US military advisors act in the interests of the US government. This humanitarian gift to the poverty-stricken people of north-west Uganda, loudly cheered by the viral Youtube Kony video, should be carefully unwrapped to see what’s really inside.
Donal O’Kelly is a writer and actor. His plays include Catalpa, The Cambria, Vive La, Joyced and Jimmy Gralton’s Dancehall. Photo of Henry M Stanley with the officers of the Advance Column, Cairo, 1890 sourced from the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition entry in wikipedia.