The Colonial Legacy

How the Democratic Republic of the Congo has dealt with corruption, assassination, and ethnic tension following decolonization.

by Sarah Sutherland

In the late 19th century, many European states began colonizing the African continent during what became known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. This was done to exploit the resources of the region as well as to ‘civilize’ the indigenous peoples. States viewed colonialism to be crucial to their international image because it not only allowed them to increase their geopolitical power, but it also permitted them to acquire vast swaths of resource-laden land. One of the countries to do so was Belgium; a country that had only gained independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830. Ruled by King Leopold II since 1865, Belgium began to colonize parts of central Africa in order to gain a footing on the resource rich continent. However, the methods the country used against local populations were brutal and based on ethic ties, therefore leaving a devastating impression on the internal affairs of the central African states – specifically the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The International African Association, created by King Leopold II in the 1870s, was meant to aid local populations in the Congo River Basin and surrounding regions by introducing European-style educational and health systems and convert them to Christianity. This was typical of colonial powers, as many conned their way into acquiring vast amounts of territory on the African continent by presenting their efforts as civilizing missions. The economic exploitation of the central African region following the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 was hastened by the industrialization of the European continent, which required resources, such as ivory and rubber, in bulk. In order to ensure quotas were met, brutal measures, such as burning villages and farmland, were used. An example of this was Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, in which the author described the brutalities committed by the European powers on the African continent. Under pressure from the United Nations, and hoping to avoid a costly war with the native Congolese, Belgium granted independence to its biggest territory, the DRC, on June 30th, 1960. Other neighbouring Belgian colonies, like Rwanda and Burundi, would have to wait two more years to gain independence from the colonial power.

The fragility of the entire central African region became clear during decolonization because it was done quickly and with little care. Prior to independence, Belgian nationals or affiliated individuals held the majority of high-ranking positions in the DRC, Rwandan, and Burundi governments. Once the country withdrew its claim over the regions, these positions were left vacant and with no trained personnel to take over. The impact of the Belgian withdrawal was immediately felt. Despite infighting breaking out in the region, most notably in the DRC because of its diverse ethnic composition and expansive land, outside help was viewed with suspicion due to region’s history with the European powers. One of the major events to illustrate this was the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, in which over 800,000 individuals were murdered in the span of 100 days. Although the then-Congolese President Mobutu’s government offered logistical and military support to the French and Belgian troops during the genocide, Mobutu’s motivation was strictly political. It allowed him to reopen channels of communication and economic ties with Western powers, which aided in securing his position as the head of the country rather than a moral obligation to help a neighbouring state.

As the second largest country on the African continent and home to over 200 ethnic groups, the DRC’s response to the Rwandan Genocide created tension within the central African region. Many ethnic groups present during the genocide, specifically the Hutu and the Tutsi populations, were also presented in the DRC, therefore making the neighbouring conflict spill into the territory of the DRC by default. This highlights the importance of Belgian colonialism of the region, as the ethnic diversity of the country, and the subsequent tension it caused, was misrepresented during the formation of the Belgian territories in the colonial period.

The amount of ethnic groups present within the countries were not considered when King Leopold II created the states – he simply saw it as the acquisition of territory rather than the acquisition of peoples. The fragility of the Democratic Republic of the Congo almost 50 years after independence elucidates the state in which Belgium left the country in 1960 after years of brutal exploitation. With little training and infrastructure, the country was not prepared for independence but it was also not ready to accept assistance from outside powers. As a result, rampant mismanagement of governmental affairs and improper use of military aid/influence persist in both the DRC and in its neighbouring states. Millions are still being displaced in the DRC by internal conflict due to disagreements with the central government, which has led many regions to form their own militias to support local leaders. A possible resurgence of the 1990s bloodbath in the country remains a fear for Congolese citizens to this day despite advancements in the country.

Sarah Sutherland is a Master of Global Affairs Student at the University of Toronto. She was an editor for The General Assembly from 2017-2018 and was formerly the Vice President of Media for the Association of International Relations. Her areas of historical focus are Napoleonic Europe, the formation of Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Rwandan Genocide. She also has an interest in the United Nations, specifically in Peacekeeping Operations and diplomatic relations in international organizations. She can be reached at

HistoryThe General Assembly