AFRICAN HORRORS have been prominent in the news recently as crisis after crisis emerges from the detritus of various failed nation states.
The role of European colonial ventures in creating these scenes of profound suffering and destruction is sometimes acknowledged, but with less conviction that the history of the later 19th century has much to tell us about the reality of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Angola or Zimbabwe at the beginning of the 21st century.
In fact, the greatest colonial venture of the period -- the brutal conquest of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium -- is not merely the historical key to much of what is occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It also suggests how many of the characteristic instincts of rapacious greed and sickening disingenuousness are alive and well in various parts of Africa -- thriving especially in the extraction efforts by the multinational corporations that have replaced Belgium, Britain, France and other colonists.
Leopold's ambitions have been chronicled in a superb recent history by Adam Hochschild, "King Leopold's Ghost." He makes clear that we will never know how many millions of Africans in the Congo basin lost their lives, their land, their dignity, their culture because of Leopold's fixation on establishing a Belgian colony. The relentless greed that worked to extract the steady stream of ivory and rubber was incalculably destructive.
If we say 10 million human beings were destroyed by the Congo venture we may still have come up short.
In Sudan, the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. (a striking echo of colonial names) comprises three powerful oil companies, with a nominal Sudanese presence: Canada's Talisman Energy, the state-owned Petronas of Malaysia and China National Petroleum Corp.
Even as Leopold continually justified one of the most destructive ventures of the colonial period as "humanitarian," so companies like Talisman declare that in Sudan they are bringing "economic development" for the desperately poor Sudanese. Oil wealth is being generated for the murderous Khartoum regime, the deeply culpable party in Sudan's 17-year civil war -- a war that has claimed 2 million lives and forced 5 million from their homes and land.
This immensely destructive conflict pits Khartoum's governing National Islamic Front (NIF) against various opposition forces, but mainly those of southern Sudan, where the people are racially "African" (Khartoum looks to the Arab world for racial and cultural identity). Southerners largely follow traditional religions or Christian faiths, even as the NIF pursues a tyrannical policy of Islamizing the entire country. This brutal effort by Khartoum is amply funded by oil, which is extracted from land in the south.
What are the parallels to the Belgian Congo?
Beyond supplying revenues to a regime bent on acquiring yet more destructive armaments, there is another aspect to "economic development" that Talisman and its partners don't discuss.
For the security requirements of the Greater Nile project necessitate -- as a recent report from Amnesty International makes clear -- intense scorched-earth warfare in the oil regions.
In turn, just as Leopold's absurd claims to "humanitarianism" helped to spare Europeans the burden of looking at his horrifically destructive "security" efforts, so the Greater Nile partners make much of their oil infrastructure housekeeping, disingenuously cultivating the image of an "august benevolence," as Joseph Conrad's scathingly described it in his book about Congo, "Heart of Darkness."
It is no great stretch to say that the Greater Nile project is a form of "economic colonialism," its legality roughly equal to that of the contracts Leopold's agents extracted from the Congo chiefs. Indeed, Talisman continually trumpets the legality of its presence in Sudan: "We have violated no laws!"
And Leopold's agents had contracts for every Congolese person enslaved. But such "legality" for Talisman is simply good PR. And for the Malaysians and the Chinese, it doesn't even exist as a problem.
Like their Belgian Congo predecessors, the Greater Nile partners had counted on minimal reporting of the realities of oil development. Given the invisibility of Sudan's civil war, the presumption until recently seemed justified.
But the key difference between the 1890s and the present is the speed of communication and the consequent transparency of world events. If we would only look, we can see clearly what is happening in Sudan. The real question is whether the general ignorance of the realities of Congo at the end of the 19th century has been replaced by a corresponding indifference toward Sudan's agony in the 21st.
Eric Reeves, professor of English at Smith College, is on extended leave to complete a book on Sudan.