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Anjan Sundaram on Covering Africa: From Rwanda to the Devastating War in DRC to Rise of U.S. AFRICOM

Web ExclusiveJune 09, 2023
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Image Credit: US Africa Command/Flickr

In Part 2 of our interview with Anjan Sundaram, award-winning journalist and author, we discuss in detail his new piece in Foreign Policy, “Why the World’s Deadliest Wars Go Unreported,” and his New York Times opinion piece on Rwandan President Paul Kagame, “He’s a Brutal Dictator, and One of the West’s Best Friends.” He joins us from Mexico City, where he moved two years ago to report on the threats faced by environmental defenders.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We continue now with Part 2 of our interview with Anjan Sundaram, award-winning journalist and author. His new piece in Foreign Policy is headlined “Why the World’s Deadliest Wars Go Unreported.” His latest book is Breakup: A Marriage in Wartime. He’s also the author of two other memoirs of journalism set in Central Africa. He’s a Yale mathematician who declined a job in finance to move to the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, to report on the world’s deadliest conflict, that had received virtually no media coverage, certainly in the West, despite being the deadliest conflict since World War II. He’s joining us now from Mexico City, where he moved two years ago to report on the threats faced by environmental defenders.

So, in Part 1 of our discussion, Anjan, we started to talk about the Democratic Republic, and also The New York Times op-ed you wrote about the Rwandan President Paul Kagame. It’s headlined, “He’s a Brutal Dictator, and One of the West’s Best Friends.” Can you talk about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, lay out, you know, the beginnings of this war, what it’s being fought over, and the relation between Congo and Rwanda, how Rwanda is fueling this war?

ANJAN SUNDARAM: Absolutely. It’s very important question for that region. Congo — and Congo is a giant country in Central Africa. Rwanda is a much, much smaller country, just to the east of Congo. And the war in Congo, which is still ongoing today and has killed an estimated 6 million people, was started in the aftermath of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Rwandans, almost all them Tutsis, were killed by extremist, mostly Hutu militias. And so, you had that genocide in 1994 in Rwanda. And what happened was, Paul Kagame’s rebel forces took power in Rwanda, and many of the Hutus, many of them ordinary civilians, but some of them also perpetrators of the genocide, you know, fled to Congo. And then Kagame’s army pursued them across Congo twice, in 1996 and then 1998. And that initiated the Congo War, the most deadly war in the world since World War II, which is still ongoing today. So, that’s the kind of background.

What we have right now is a sort of second part of that war, by which, you know, the eastern Congo is very rich in minerals. Congo has a long history of providing the world with the minerals it needs for, you know, many technological revolutions. Congo provided rubber for the automobile revolution in the early 20th century. Congo then provided copper for the electrical revolution for wires, and Congo has some of the biggest deposits of copper in the world. Then, Congo then provided tin for the electric circuits when the digital revolution happened. And now Congo provides tantalum for our cellular telephones and cobalt for our lithium batteries. It seems like Congo is cursed. Every time the world comes up with a new technological innovation or revolution, Congo seems magically to have, to possess the mineral resources that we need in order to, you know, enable and create that technology and disseminate it around the world.

Eastern Congo is very, very rich in minerals. And Rwanda considers — has historically considered eastern Congo as a part of its own country. And so, what we have now is a rebel group in Congo, that is — you know, very credible accounts link it to Paul Kagame, link it to the Rwandan government. So, the Rwandan government is supporting rebels in eastern Congo that are, you know, securing mineral resources, that are securing land and territory. And this is both from a political perspective, as well as, you know, trying to get riches and mineral wealth out of Congo for export to the world.

And so, I think the lesson to take away here is that though Congo and Rwanda seem far away, the war in the Congo and, you know, Rwanda’s dictatorship, we are complicit, through our economic ties, to what is happening in that region. And my New York Times piece was pointing out that even though Kagame has been linked and credibly accused of serious war crimes — U.N. researchers have accused him of possible acts of genocide in Congo in the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide — despite all these accusations and credible evidence, he remains one of the West’s best friends.

And, you know, 70% of Rwanda’s budget is financed by Western aid, which is incredible. You know, Western companies, the national — the NBA is playing basketball in Rwanda. We just spoke about this briefly, you know, artificial intelligence conferences and other conferences are being held in Rwanda. Rwanda is seen as a beacon of the future, you know, as a country making enormous progress. But we should remember that, you know, Rwanda, prior to the genocide, was also similarly praised for peace, for its modernity. And it was also a dictatorship, as it is now.

And the risk of violence in Rwanda is very real, because there are very few independent institutions. Paul Kagame has destroyed the independent judiciary, Parliament and the press. And my book describes in intimate detail, because I traveled with these Rwandan journalists, who very bravely stood up to his government and tried to report on his abuses of power. And many of them paid for it, you know, paid the ultimate price, paid with their lives. Many of them had to flee the country. And some of them are still in prison for standing up to Kagame. It’s a very — it’s a brutal dictatorship.

And Kagame is not held to account, because he controls the local press, which praises him constantly. And that is filtered out to the international press, that also repeats some of that praise and portrays him as a benevolent visionary, when, in reality, he’s — like many dictators, he’s built roads and schools and hospitals. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria also built roads and schools and hospitals. But, you know, like them, he’s also a dictator. And we should hold him to account and prevent — you know, mitigate the risk and probability of future violence in Rwanda, because Rwandans who have lived through the genocide don’t deserve to live in fear of more violence. And that’s the real tragedy here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anjan, you mentioned — let’s just go back to the DRC, where, of course, you did your first book and you reported from right after you graduated from Yale as a mathematician. You mentioned that the DRC is so rich in mineral resources, and has been, in fact, for centuries. And now, of course, there’s cobalt, which is essential in many aspects of our lives here in the Global North. So, if you could explain, you know, exactly the use of cobalt, and the fact that, you know, first, the Congo, then known as Zaire, was under brutal Belgian colonial rule the entire first half of the 20th century and the late 19th century, and how different Western powers have fought over this region precisely for access to these minerals?

ANJAN SUNDARAM: Sure, yes. You know, I begin with a Congolese saying. Congolese — the Congolese have a saying that when God created the world, God sort of placed all the — distributed all the riches kind of evenly around, you know, across many different countries. But then he got tired and fell asleep in Congo with all his sacks of riches. And that’s why Congo is so wealthy today. And they see it as a curse, because, you’re right, so many countries have fought over Congo’s wealth historically.

When I mentioned, you know, Congo supplying rubber for the automobile revolution, there are accounts of, you know, maybe millions of Congolese being killed under brutal Belgian colonial rule. And Congolese had their hands chopped off if they didn’t collect enough rubber. And this was to provide, you know, tires for European and, you know, the Global North for the new cars that were all the rage back then. And as I mentioned, you know, Congo has then gone on to provide so many minerals for the technological revolutions of the Global North, coming to cobalt.

And I guess one important moment in Congo’s history was during its independence in 1960. And back then, there was the electrical revolution, and Congo lies on one of the world’s richest copper belts in the south of the country. And Belgium tried to get the south of Congo to secede, to break away from Congo. And that claimed the lives — that conflict claimed the lives of two very important people: Patrice Lumumba, who was Congo’s independency hero, who was sent to that region and then killed by his political enemies, because Lumumba had tried to keep Congo whole, but the Belgians, who were supporting the southern province of Katanga, you know, the copper-rich province in Congo, had wanted Katanga to secede so that they could, you know, benefit from the copper; and that conflict also claimed the life of Dag Hammarskjöld, who was the U.N. secretary-general at the time, who was on a plane trying to mediate that conflict, when that plane mysteriously crashed. And many link that plane crash to the Belgians, again, who were wary of his attempts to mediate that conflict and keep Congo whole. And so, it’s led to incredible, incredible bloodshed and sort of conflict in the past.

And now, to your question about cobalt, cobalt is — you know, has many uses. It’s used by military — by the military to harden steel and provide, you know, metals with certain qualities that are especially useful to build spacecraft and, you know, high-speed aircraft, military aircraft. But it’s also used in very mundane things now that are — you know, like lithium batteries. And so, suddenly, Congo’s reserves of cobalt have become essential to many of us in the Global North who are trying to do the right thing by buying electrical vehicles and trying to decarbonize our economies, when, in reality, that demand for cobalt is further fomenting conflict in the Congo. It’s also — you know, I’ve been to some of these mines in eastern Congo, where I’ve walked by graveyards of children who have worked in these mines, who have collapsed in the forests from exhaustion, from carrying, you know, 30 kilos or more of minerals on their back, because they mine these minerals, and they walk through the forest carrying it on their back to reach, you know, kind of wholesale dealers, who are also, you know, artisanal dealers in the middle of the forest and who are buying these minerals for very little and exporting them for 10 times the price. And, you know, that process continues until these minerals reach the Global North.

And so, this is the process by which many of these minerals that are essential to us, who are trying to do the right thing, are extracted. And this isn’t reported on enough. And we don’t really realize that by creating this demand, we are further enhancing the conflict and also further creating demand for these very, very poor working conditions, that often employ children and, you know, very vulnerable people in places like Congo.

AMY GOODMAN: Anjan, I wanted to go back for a minute. You talk about the great independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who was killed by political enemies, but, to be specific, captured by authorities under the dictator who was long supported by the West and the United States, Mobutu Sese Seko. He was murdered in the presence of Belgian officials, Katangan officials, military officers, his body thrown into a shallow grave, later dug up and destroyed. And the question of the U.S. CIA’s involvement in his death. If you can talk about what the CIA and the U.S. involvement in that early leadership in and destroying the leadership in Congo, and how it relates to what we’re seeing today?

ANJAN SUNDARAM: I think, you know, that it’s such an important relationship between the dictator of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, who was — who began his political career as a secretary, private secretary to Patrice Lumumba. And Patrice Lumumba was in the mold of, you know, the great African independence leaders, Nyerere, Nkrumah, Lumumba himself, who wanted to shake off Western colonialism in Africa and create a united Africa that would benefit the local people.

And to your question about the CIA, I think the most telling anecdote might be that the paratroopers, the Belgian paratroopers, who came and arrested Lumumba and transported him to Katanga to his enemies, that those Belgian paratroopers were carried in a USAID, the U.S. International Development Agency, aircraft that took off from a British airbase. And, you know, those paratroopers, that’s how they came to Congo and conducted their secret mission. And so, you can see over there, there’s the U.S. government, the Belgian government and the British government all colluding to protect their economic and political interests, because they felt threatened by leaders like Lumumba, who spoke — who had a very strong anti-West rhetoric and who wanted to claim independence for their countries and shake off Western influence and power in that region.

And the CIA, which then — which, you know, used this USAID plane, which was supposed to be to bring aid to Congo, but instead brought these Belgian paratroopers who changed the course of Congolese history — the CIA has long been complicit in — long been known to be complicit not only in the death and the assassination of Lumumba, but also in then elevating his secretary, Mobutu, to power, who then ruled brutally for 32 years, not only sent Lumumba to his enemies to be killed, but also repressed his own people and took on incredible loans in the name of his people from the World Bank, from the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, you know, foundation.


ANJAN SUNDARAM: Sorry, International Monetary Fund. And these loans that Mobutu took in the name of Congolese are still being repaid today, and have contributed to the poverty of Congo, you know, with the complicity of the West. So it’s ruined Congo in many, many ways. And Mobutu lived a life of incredible — you know, an incredibly lavish life. He had Concordes flying in from Paris carrying croissants for his birthday to an airstrip built in the middle of the Congolese jungle, especially for his — you know, for his birthday and for his palace. So, incredibly lavish and kleptocratic form of government that he perpetrated and created with the complicity of Western nations.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anjan, you said, of course, that the DRC is extremely impoverished. And this is despite the fact that — I mean, it’s extremely impoverished, in part because of, of course, you said, Mobutu, and also the complicity of multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF and the U.S., despite the fact that Congo has untapped mineral reserves, apart from the ones that have already been extracted, of something like $25 trillion. So, if you could talk about that, and what the constraints are for the sovereign government of Congo to use these resources for their own — for its own economy?

ANJAN SUNDARAM: Yeah, I mean, you know, the numbers are staggering, $25 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources, two-thirds of the world’s known reserves of coltan, which is columbite-tantalum, which is used in capacitors that power — that power and run our cellphones. The scale of the mineral wealth in Congo is truly staggering.

And, you know, the Congolese government has never really been able to shake off these geopolitical forces, Western forces, but Western forces also through Rwanda, you know, which I spoke about prior. President Paul Kagame was trained at Fort Leavenworth. When he took over Rwanda and then invaded Congo, his rebel forces were supplied weapons by the U.S. government. So, we’re talking about, you know, now the U.S. government has a very powerful African Command called AFRICOM. The CIA listening station has reportedly moved from one dictator, Mobutu in Congo, to now Paul Kagame, another dictator, in Rwanda. So, the West and the U.S. exercises control over this region, exercises control over its mineral interests and economic interests, through these military establishments and through puppet dictators like Paul Kagame, who are financed primarily by the West and further American interests. And we see this — I mean, this is not just speculation. We’ve seen it been reported by U.S. diplomats in the WikiLeaks leaks of U.S. diplomatic cables, which very clearly emphasize that U.S. foreign policy and aid policy in Central Africa is tied to U.S. economic interests and its hold and its desire for Congolese minerals. And Congo’s government has never really been able to shake off these enormous forces, that, you know, still govern regional politics and the country’s political situation today.

Congo is a giant country. It’s the size of Western Europe, you know, France, Germany, the U.K., Portugal, Spain, all put together. That’s the size of Congo. And if you look at the world map, you don’t see this, because of the way — the colonial ways, again, in which the world map is drawn. But to have one president in the west of Congo trying to rule over and control this gigantic territory is really an enormous task. And they’re facing — they’re up against, you know, very powerful economic forces, which make it difficult to exercise control in the way that they should.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Anjan, you were just talking about Kagame again, and in your New York Times piece, you talk about perhaps Mr. Kagame’s greatest endorsement is a deal with the British government to receive asylum seekers deported from Britain. Can you talk about this bargain and how he has framed Rwanda to be a place where people flee from dictatorships, though he himself a dictator?

ANJAN SUNDARAM: And I think to understand this, a concept called ubwenge is very interesting and important. It’s an art form in Rwanda, practiced traditionally by the elite, of rhetoric and of providing information and building social relationships in a way that is pragmatic. One example of this is, when the Germans first came to Rwanda, for a long time they thought they were speaking to the Rwandan king, and actually they were speaking to a person who had dressed up like the Rwandan king who was an impostor, and they had no idea. And there’s this Rwandan tradition of rhetoric, of political — of diplomacy, that Kagame has — you know, is an exemplary practitioner of, and he’s used it to achieve this extraordinary feat of convincing Britain to send asylum seekers, people who are fleeing dictatorships and wars, as in Syria, for example, who are seeking refuge in the U.K. Kagame has convinced the United Kingdom to send those people to his dictatorship, which is really remarkable.

And it shows, you know, the depth of his relationships with the West, and also the West’s reliance on Kagame. Kagame has offered in return to send Rwandan troops across the African continent to wars that the West doesn’t want to send their own troops to. And in this way, he proves himself useful to Western nations. And in return, he’s been able to market Rwanda as a safe place, as a place where people who are fleeing dictatorships can find refuge, when, in reality, many, many Rwandans have fled Rwanda because of his own dictatorship and are now living abroad, not only in fear of going back home, but in fear of Kagame’s security forces in the U.S., in the U.K. I know someone in the U.K. who received a letter from Scotland Yard saying his life was in imminent danger from Rwanda, and Scotland Yard could not protect him, and he should take the necessary measures.

And, you know, this has been — this transnational repression that Kagame has practiced beyond Rwanda’s borders is — has been extensively documented. Human rights workers, Rwandan dissidents who are living in the United States find themselves living in fear. The former Hotel Rwanda manager, Paul Rusesabagina, was on his way, you know, traveling in Dubai, when he was extradited through a — you know, put on a plane and sent against his will to Rwanda, and held in a prison in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, for two years, until the U.S. government, using an incredible amount of political pressure, extricated him and brought him back to the United States. And, you know, that shows — that incident shows the degree to which Rwandans who criticize Kagame, even if they’re living abroad, live in fear of his regime. And for the U.K. to agree to send asylum seekers is absurd and shocking.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you something, Anjan. Where does AFRICOM fit into this picture? And explain what it is.

ANJAN SUNDARAM: So, AFRICOM is, you know, the United States’ military command that governs Africa. They have bases all across the African continent, and, as well, in Germany and Europe. And as described in the — the U.S. government will have its own, you know, explanation of what AFRICOM does, and it’s training African forces, providing military support, assistance, even military equipment to African nations.

But I think what the WikiLeaks cables really reveal is that AFRICOM is a very important part of Africa — of the U.S., of U.S. economic and military strategy to secure the resources it needs from places like eastern Congo. And what AFRICOM does is provide military training and support to places, countries like Rwanda and Uganda, Congo’s other neighbor to the north of Rwanda, that are complicit in extracting mineral sources and exporting them to global markets for use in the Global North.

And this is, you know, one of the reasons Congo’s war has been perpetrated so long. I think many of us, at a psychological level, don’t want to — we don’t want to look at our own flaws. And in the same way, we don’t want to look at places like Congo, which are an integral part of our economic system and supply chains around the world that produce cars, batteries for electrical vehicles, cellular telephones, computers, many of the things we rely on. And so, to look at places like Congo and to understand the role that the U.S. government and AFRICOM plays in that region would be — would incur a great cost to us to reshape our supply chains, provide dignified jobs in places like Congo, where children aren’t dying, you know, from exhaustion in the forests from carrying the minerals that we need for our — for progress. That would come at a great cost. And that cost prevents us, many of us, from looking at places like Congo and Rwanda and the geopolitical situation there, and taking the necessary measures in order to change the situation there so that people can live, you know, in better conditions and lead dignified lives. And I think this speaks to a relationship between the West and places like Congo, that have been structured by colonialism for too long, and that colonialism continues today.

And the reason Africa and China — as we spoke about earlier in our conversation, the reason African nations are turning to Russia and China, even though those relationships are not necessarily that much better, is because many African nations and many former colonies are tired of the crimes that the West has perpetrated in Africa, crimes for which the West has not apologized, has not paid any reparations for. One recent example is that, you know, French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic were credibly accused of running child prostitution rings in that country, exchanging food for sex, when really they were supposed to be protecting the local population. The U.N. whistleblower who revealed the details about this child prostitution ring was forced to resign. He first lost his job, was reinstated and then forced to resign. And no senior French officials have been held responsible, political or military officials, have been held responsible for perpetrating these crimes on Central African young girls.

And so, what does that say about the West’s relationships with these countries? Many of these countries are tired. And they’re saying, you know, “We want a different kind of relationship.” And Russia and China provide partnerships, offer partnerships, and say that they won’t interfere in local politics, and these countries are free to act as sovereign nations. And that is such — there’s such a hunger for that, just to be treated as independent and, you know, being able to govern your own destiny, to a greater extent, that they’re willing to forge partnerships with entities like the notorious Wagner Group, that is, you know, active in the war in Ukraine and perpetrating violence in Ukraine. And we’re really heading towards a multipolar world because of a fatigue and resentment for the West’s past crimes in these regions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anjan, just before we end, you’re now in Mexico City. You moved to Mexico two years ago to report on the threats faced by environmental defenders. Could you talk about that?

ANJAN SUNDARAM: I think the headline statistic that’s important to note here is that Indigenous people comprise 5% of the world’s population, but they protect 80% of the biodiversity that we have remaining. And often these Indigenous environmental defenders, two-thirds of whom — there’s about 1,700 Indigenous environmental defenders and environmental defenders and land defenders have been killed over the past decade. Two-thirds of those have — of those killings have occurred in Latin America. And many of them aren’t reported widely, because often these Indigenous communities, that are defending their river or forest or mountain, they live in very remote areas. They’re very poor. And there’s historic racism, which means they’re not very present in the national news of their countries.

And the work I’m trying to do in Latin America, I’m doing — I’m traveling across the region to report on these defenders and trying to raise their profile, and, you know, with the idea that if we are to protect our environment, we really need to protect these Indigenous groups, and we need to pay more attention to the brave work that they’re doing. And we need to combat racism, that is inherent in our societies and in our media, not only because, you know, it’s the right thing to do, but also, selfishly, for our own survival, because much of the pristine ecosystems that we have remaining, that are essential to our survival, are now in the care of many of these Indigenous groups. And I think, you know, in reporting on them, we should do more to learn about how they preserve these ecosystems, the relationship that they’ve maintained over hundreds of years, sometimes thousands of years, with the nature around them, and what we can learn in order to protect the areas and the ecosystems that are under our care. I think this is incredibly important. And for me, this is the new frontline, our battle with the environment. And these Indigenous environmental defenders are some of the bravest people on those frontlines working to protect nature on behalf of us all.

AMY GOODMAN: Anjan Sundaram, award-winning journalist and author, his new piece for Foreign Policy headlined “Why the World’s Deadliest Wars Go Unreported,” his New York Times piece on the Rwandan President Paul Kagame headlined “He’s a Brutal Dictator, and One of the West’s Best Friends.” His latest book, Breakup: A Marriage in Wartime. We’ll link to the articles at democracynow.org.

To see Part 1 of our discussion with Anjan, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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