Are you half-decent at geography and keeping up with the news? See if you can guess the country I'm talking about without cheating, and see if you can do it before reading every hint.

1. It is home to the deadliest conflict since the end of World War II, responsible for somewhere between 3 and 5.5 million deaths.

2. It is the 11th-largest country in the world by area and has a population greater than France, UK, South Korea, Spain, Poland, or Argentina.

3. It is the world's leading producer and exporter of cobalt, and in the top ten for diamonds and gold.

4. It is the largest country in the world with French as an official language.
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5. Foreman and Ali fought in its capital city in 1974 (the "Rumble in the Jungle").

Still searching?


6. It used to be called Zaire.

The correct answer, if the final one didn't give it away, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And I am fascinated by it. I have no proper academic experience studying it, but I wish I did. It is the absolute perfect example of the long shadow of colonialism, the minimal attention paid in the western media to conflicts – sometimes enormous conflicts – in the Wrong parts of the world, and a lesson I hoped Americans might learn after Iraq about the fallacy of placing any importance on map lines in that region.

The DRC as a nation-state has zero historical basis. None. It's kind of amazing. This notion of "Zaire" as a historical entity barely goes back 100 years and was drawn up by Belgium with the assent of the other European colonial powers. The USA is a fairly ethnically diverse country, right? We're such a melting pot, right? Well within the modern borders of the DRC there are over two hundred distinct ethnic groups, often with no common language. And some people from outside the continent simply decided, OK you're all a country now.

Hmm. I wonder why it hasn't become a stable democracy yet.
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Ethnic conflict is just one of the many reasons behind its enormously bloody civil war, sometimes called the Second Congo War when it is noticed at all. Eight – eight! – different African countries in the region have sent armed groups, massive floods of refugees, or both across the borders into the DRC in the past two decades, contributing to the chaos and death toll. If you think it would be impossible for 3-5 million people to die in a war without anyone noticing, surprise. Here you go.

Like many ex-colonies, DRC is cursed and blessed with resources. If its people had any basis whatsoever for coming together as a modern nation the potential for wealth is there, but of course not only do they have any common national identity but the extensive corruption, in-fighting, and constant outside interference ensure that will never happen.

It is, even by post-colonial African standards, just a broken place. It should not exist as a country, as its people had to be informed that they were to exist as one and were not consulted in the matter. And it amazes me the extent to which such an enormous place with so much turmoil can get so little attention. It's an example begging us to learn something from it, hiding in plain sight. When was the last time you read anything about it on the news?

46 thoughts on “UNDER THE RADAR”

  • I got it on the second clue because DRC has been sort of on my radar for a few months. I was in Uganda about 18 months ago and one of my traveling companions had just returned from doing surveys of endangered birds in the DRC and had some crazy stories of having to get from Kinshasa to where he was supposed to go in the eastern part of the country that involved a lot of riding on the back of a motorbike for days at a time.

    Apparently the difference between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, on the other side of the river, is absolutely insane. Kinshasa makes Brazzaville, which is no one's idea of a modern city, look like freaking Paris.

    Anyway tl:dr, DRC is a clusterfuck in ways that are truly unimaginable.

  • Noseflower says:

    I'm sure you've read it already (or don't want to) but just in case I recommend King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. It is a mind blowing look at how colonialism actually worked in the most cynical of circumstances.

  • The Congo is a fascinating place. So many stories. The revolutionary movement in katanga province was put down by US forces and French and British mercenaries, as shown in the film Jadotville ..

    The fighting spilled over into Angola. .


    And to Southwest Africa ..

    And now.. they are helping in Nigeria.
    .. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/14/south-africas-ageing-white-mercenaries-who-helped-turn-tide-on-boko-haram

  • mike shupp says:

    Well… I've seen projections that by 2100, the population of Africa will have increased from its current 2 billion people to 5 billion. I also see proejctions that several million people escaape really dire poverty for something better.

    So my guess is, as horrible as Zaire may seem today, the resources required to pull it into the 21st century will be there eventually. It's not so clear the USA will have much of a role in this — my suspicion is that by 2100 the US as an international player is going to have about as much influence as say France or maybe Italy does today.

    Odds are, whether there's a triumphant outcome for Zaire or a really miserable one, most Americans will never be able to locate it on a map.

  • HoosierPoli says:


    Those projections are ALWAYS wrong, and usually for the same reason: they assume that fertility rates will stay the same as development increases and mortality rates drop. This never happens. People have tons of kids because 1. They don't have good access to birth control, 2. Children provide income security, and 3. If two of your children die before they reach adulthood, having six children makes quite a bit more sense.

    When children go from being illiterate subsistence workers to resource-intensive, decades-long investments in human capital, people have fewer of them. Development is the answer. Luckily China is plowing their money into Africa in a big way. The next 30 years will be fascinating to watch.

  • Having lived and worked in black Africa for many years i can confirm: true, all true. Except for the inferences. And the fact that you didn't mention Mobutu Sese Seko – that's like describing the USA without mentioning George Washington.

    For your own education and entertainment in this context, you should read The Tribe That Lost Its Head and its sequel, Richer Than All His Tribe by Nicholas Monsarrat.

  • I work in a development studies institute in Belgium so the DRC is a pretty hot topic for us — although my colleagues are perhaps exceptional since most do their research there (in general, the Belgian education system has only recently started actually teaching the horrors of the colonial past). But like Ed I was always interested in the country and wondered too why it is so overlooked in the Anglophone media. There are some US outlets that do occasional pieces, such as the Washington Post's unfortunately-named 'Monkey Cage' column (*it comes from a quote from Mencken about democracy, but makes me cringe).

    Some other good overview books:

    Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War in Africa (Jason Stearns)

    Why Comrades Go to War: Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa's Deadliest Conflict (Philip Roessler & Harry Verhoeven)

    In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo (Michaela Wrong)

    Also some interesting documentaries:

    Cemetery State – about Kinshasa's largest cemetery and the slum encroaching upon it (Filip de Boeck)

    The Tower: A Concrete Utopia – about the legacy of colonial architecture and infrastructure in Kinshasa (Sammy Baloji & Filip de Boeck)

    Virunga – about conservation and poaching in DRC's Virunga National Park (Orlando von Einsiedel)

    Enjoy Poverty – disturbing and sort-of satirical doc about the aid industry in DRC (Renzo Martens)

  • @HoosierPoli– do HAVE 30 years? Seems like WWIII's on again in the middle east.

    BTW, I know it's hopelessly naive, but I've often thought that some kinda "let's not manufacture and sell small arms" treaty among the usual suspects (US, Russia, China, EU and eastern European countries) could seriously reduce the death toll in places like the DRC. Can't have that, tho.

  • "that's like describing the USA without mentioning George Washington."

    More like describing the USA without mentioning Trumpligumygdala.

    He was a murdering fucking scumbag piece-of-shit. I can see why you'd be a fan. Assholes tend to like other assholes.

  • "He was a murdering fucking scumbag piece-of-shit. I can see why you'd be a fan. Assholes tend to like other assholes."

    I meant Mobenniesfome Sucking Zaire Dry.

  • @democommie
    'Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!' A line that fits you like a glove – except for the adjective, of course. I can't do anything right in your eyes, can I? How unimaginative.

    I felt that I should make the point that the DRC's colonial past is not only the factor, as Ed seems to suggest, that has made this country into the hellhole it is today. Internal issues have played a major role, ever since the end of the colonial period, which is why Mobuto's name should be mentioned.

  • @Hoosierpoli

    I wouldn't say African nations are necessarily "lucky" that China is investing. China's help comes at a great cost. They build roads that fall apart a few years later, government buildings with wiretaps built into the walls, and create a massive market for illegal wildlife trade that has enormous negative impact on Africa's biodiversity (and their home-grown ecotourism industry).

    They also rarely hire Africans to do the work, preferring to send over their own crews so the money stays in house. It's crazy and leads to a lot of low-level antagonism and racism (going both ways) on the ground.

  • Thank you for writing about this. There was history before the scramble and it had irretrievable consequences on power. I know the barest bit about it, and I’m appalled that so few know more or care to know more.

  • So cute that so many believe that anybody anywhere will be alive in 2100. The world and its wildlife including 'terminal man' will be well toasted by 2100 give or take a few years. Believe me when I tell you, you're in at the end.

  • I had DRC in my mind, but what had me confused was the size–I had no idea how big it was. To be completely honest, my knowledge of the position and size of most of the countries on the African continent is not stellar. Beyond the Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, that is.

  • @ Cummstain:


    ""I need to make a correction. I have never pretended that I intend to do anything but comment on the absurdity of the progressive delusion. Hence, I don’t think I have ever attempted or proffered solutions."
    A little unintentional birthday gift to me @ 9:55 AM on 10/25/17.

    So you admit to being nothing but a fucking troll.

    Thanks, for being clear.

    And just so I'm clear. I intend to put that bit in quotations, and only that, as a reply to any comment you make on any thread.

    Now, fuck off, troll.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    Michela Wrong, a British journalist who understands that part of the world as well as any Westerner, wrote a book about 15 years ago called "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz." It was about the reign and fall of Mobutu. It explains perfectly how Mobutu sucked that country dry and drained it of allthe resources–military, economic and political–that it needed to defend itself against rapacious forces, inside and outside Africa.

    Mobutu's rise was inextricably linked to Belgium's colonial exploitation of the Congo. It's a perfect example of history as inevitable train wreck.

  • So if the Congo has something to teach us it's that ethnic conflict is bad and some people don't belong in the same country. That makes sense but that's the kind of thing that gets your PayPal account cancelled and gets you driven off the internet and personally destroyed so I'm guessing that's not the conclusion Ed was going for, no matter how blazingly obvious it might seem.

  • "so I'm guessing that's not the conclusion Ed was going for, no matter how blazingly obvious it might seem."

    Not sure what your point is. Elaborate, please.

  • Bitter Scribe, that is not at all the conclusion Michela Wrong drew. In fact she begins the book with the famous story of the two kids who hitch a ride in the wheelwell of a plane and arrive in Belgium with a note that says "please come back Belgians the Congo needs you." If Mobutu had let the Belgians stay Congo would doubtless be better off today. Weeks after they left the shelves were empty and the Congolese began to starve. Mobutu had literally no understanding of economics and that's hugely responsible for the state Congo was in under his rule. He operated entirely in the Big Man tradition and had no understanding of wealth is created.

  • Democommie, Ed is saying that ethnic homogenity of some kind is a way to prevent ruinous civil war. That's basically the argument that Orban and Richard Spencer and other odious characters make so I can't believe that is actually the conclusion Ed is suggesting.

  • I think the point was more that you can't just draw a border on a map and proclaim a nation (let alone a nation-state), especially when there is no historical, economic, social, political basis (outside of colonial administration) of one. Ethnicity is just primary marker of identity in the DRC, but the same could hold true for religion, race, class, political affiliation etc.

  • @bjdudds:

    Iraq, DRC, Israel, The Koreas, The Germanies, The Yemens–lately Crimea. All "countries" or parts of countries peopled by those who had no say in the matter.

    Where there has been hard currency, adequate food and potable water, a well educated middle class–capable of understandimg how "functional" governance works and a true understanding of quaint terms like "public servant"–you will have a successful transition from colony/client state to free and equal society.

    In the last several centuries we have seen a lot of M&A activity at the national level. Of those countries that have transitioned back from colonial shitholes to fine, upstanding world citizens–none of them made that journey without substantial actual fucking help from outside.

    As Ed says, DRC is blessed/cursed with natural resources.

    I talked to 2 historians and an economist last evening (one from Rumania, another a U.S. born, IndianAmerican and the third (she was with the Rumanian, they're both history people) well, she's home grown, I do believe–frankly, I was smitten by her beauty and never thought to ask. Anyway, I said I was curious if there were any economic or historic treatments of the economies of continental Africa pre-large scale arab/european contact and how they were affected by the massive slave trade for nearly 13 centuries. Beginning ca: 700 CE with the arabs and then the European/U.S. slave trade beginning around 1000 CE (I'm not at all sure of the chronology but I think that is roughly correct), millions of men, women and children were kidnapped and subjected to horrific treatment as slaves. And Africans surely seem to carry the mark of Cain. They are the root cause of most violent unrest wherever they appear. You don't have to believe me, just ask anybody who is in a position of power in any country that isn't predominantly black. Odd how that works.

    DRC was fucked by the Belgians and that fucking has never stopped.

  • Second clue – ashamed to say – because the first clue said it all.

    Mobutu Sese Seko's role in next-door Angola's War for Independence, and, especially, Angola's Civil War earns him damnation for helping add another half-million to the body count.

  • "Forty years ago, in Südwest, we were nearly exterminated. There was no reason. Can you understand that? No reason. We couldn’t even find comfort in the Will of God Theory. These were Germans with names and service records, men in blue uniforms who killed clumsily and not without guilt. Search-and-destroy missions, every day. It went on for two years. The orders came down from a human being, a scrupulous butcher named von Trotha. The thumb of mercy never touched his scales.”

    Thomas Pynchon – Gravity's Rainbow

  • @ Maj. Kong:

    Question, Sir!

    Tony Monetti, LtCol USAF retired is running for the RefucKKKliKKKlansmens' spot against Sen. Claire McCaskell in MO.

    He wears a flight suit in some of his photos and his facebook and other spots say he was a B-2 pilot. If you know anybody who knows somebody, please let me know if he's fluffing his quaulifications. If you have time.

  • Should I mention DRC is the mining place of many specialty metals used to make ahem your cell phone? Maybe not speaking about it in the media is a policy, IMHO.

  • @ Vegymper:

    Yes–and Bolivia's Andes if I'm not mistaken.

    It's apparently easier and cheaper to lay waste to a civilzed society with taxpayer funded military adventures and then simply find the strongest surviving former commander/pol and setting them up as DFL and paying them a pittance compared to the wealth you are separating from their country (while polluting the fuck out of it for generations to come) than it would be to strike a deal with the country and working something out that ensures a fair share for all parties.

    I know, I'll never be successful in life–not being successful has been much less painful for me than the few times I was and hurt someone, deliberately or not, in the process.

    @ Maj. Kong:

    I was just wondering if he might be one of the guys who thinks being IN the plane makes him a "pilot"–I seem to remember a former pol who had never BEEN in the plane who reminsced about his duties as bombradier or navigator during WWII.

  • "projections that by 2100, the population of Africa will have increased from its current 2 billion people to 5 billion."

    Not going to happen, after the phosphate mines runout in FL and Morocco, the Earth's carrying capacity is maybe 2 billion. That's if humans were rational, but there not. So on top of the Green Revolution petering out there will be climate change redistributing rainfall.

    That's why major re-insurers like L of L and GEM are pessimist about business after 2045

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    bjdudds: What book did you read? There's nothing like what you describe in "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz." Wrong is very forthright in acknowledging the cruelty and racism of Belgian rule.

  • @democommie
    You are probably talking about the Bolivia of the tin mining until the 90's. Now they are a quite proud nation under Evo.

  • @ Vegymper:

    Nope. I was meaning the lithium which they supposedly somewhere between 25 and 70% of the worldwide reserves*.

    It will be wonderful if they are able to use that natural resource to enrich their NATION and not just the oligarchs or foreign investors**. Bolivia lacks the infrastructure to do it on their own and anybody "helping" them is looking for a major score. Bolivia has three much larger and militarily more powerful neighbors, at least one of whom, Chile, has historically been at odds with Bolivia (and they are not the only country that abuts Bolivia that has issues with the country.

    Evo Morales is 12 years into his President for Life career–this will not end well.

    * eastimates vary but the link is a place to start–https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jan/17/white-gold-companies-search-lithium-bolivia

    ** https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bolivia-lithium/bolivia-to-invest-in-billion-dollar-lithium-deal-with-aci-systems-idUSKBN1HS0RW

  • @ The Pale:

    Phosphate is not the only thing that will fertilize ag crops. It is the only thing that allows BigFarma to maintain their hold on the means of production.

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