Category Archives: Congo

Who killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the cold war and white supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams, New York: Columbia U.P., 2011.


Dag Hammarskjöld is undisputably a modern hero for many, including the author of this book. Without his vigorous stewardship, the United Nations would most certainly not be in charge of 17 peace missions nowadays, employing more than 121,000 people and costing billions. Yet, in the cold war and the painful decolonization process of Africa, his actions and personnality were not liked by all. Consequently, his death in a plane crash while on mission in the Congo has since always been a huge inspiration for conspiration theorists. Three inquiries into the causes of the crash have been undertaken: one immediately after the crash by the Rhodesian government concluding a pilot’s error; another one by the the UN in 1962 which already expressed doubt over the pilot error’s hypothesis; finally, a parliamentary investigation in Sweden in 1993 more clearly said that the hypotheses of a criminal cause could not be excluded. In July this year the UN set up a new inquiry commission in order to investigate the hypothesis of Susan William’s book that Hammarskjöld’s plane was either shot at or sabotaged by white mercenaries.

Indeed, the empirical material carried together by Susan Williams is impressive and first of all shows how incomplete and neglectant former inquiries had been. She not only retraces numerous inconsistencies in the way witness testimonies and essential data were recorded; she also unearthes interesting materials about the activities of white supremacist mercenary groups in Africa between 1960 and the 1990s. She retraces in detail how these mercenary groups had important government contacts in Rhodesia and South Africa. She makes a plausible case that Hammarskjöld was sufficiently loathed by white settlers in Katanga, Rhodesia and South Africa to make them, at least, not regret his death. Yet, although impressive, this material does not allow beyond doubt imputing the plane crash to these groups and Williams carefully refrains from drawing any absolute conclusions. She makes very honestly clear that she cannot prove the authenticity of the documents she is discussing and she is also very sceptical about the veracity of the accounts former mercenaries have given her and other informants.

And even if a safe prove could be produced that mercenaries attacked Hammarskjöld’s plane or had placed a bomb in it, this would still be more than unsatisfactory. Mercenaries wouldn’t be commercial soldiers but political terrorists if they had acted on their own and become political at that point. They would have needed broad, powerful and rich support from political actors in order to attack directly the Secretary General of the UN. Williams is quite right when she notes that the logic consequence of this thought is to assume the involvment of right-wing groups in the former colonial powers, notably the UK, and white supremacists in Africa, notably in the Rhodesian and South African governments. Yet, chances are nil that evidence of that kind will ever come into the public domain. Neither the UK nor France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Portugal have in the past shown in any way that they are mature democracies enough to fully confront their colonial past. Admitting having participated actively in a plot against the Secretary General of the United Nations (assuming that they did, of course), the very institution these governments like to invoke today to justify their bombing of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places? No way.

Williams insistence to steer through this white supremacy-colonialism mud puddle is admirable. She does sometimes, however, muddle up dates and presents curious narratives which undermines partly the credibility of her account. She presents Hammarskjöld as supportive of Lumumba which was certainly not the case (see John Kent and Ludo de Witte on this relationship); she also argues that Hammarskjöld from the outset wanted to end Katanga’s secession which is also not the case; she furthermore asserts that some of the mercenaries in Katanga were former Organisation Armée Secrète soldiers (a group of French army colonels in Algeria, mostly paras, who fought to keep Algeria French) and therefore close to the French government which is simply nonsense as the OAS was explicitly set up to overthrow the government of Charles de Gaulle (and although certainly attached to French grandeur, de Gaulle’s absolutely outstanding quality was to have understood, admittedly late, how futile Europe’s grip to power in Africa and Asia was: “If you want independence, then take it!”). These are not minor factual errors but important misconceptions of main narratives of the events of the time. A second edition of the book (which will most hopefully come as paperback to make it more widely accessible) should correct these.



Where are the histories of the colonial mining companies?


At the moment I am working on a paper on the United Nations Mission in the first Congo Crisis, 1960-1964. In this context I’m reading left and right about the decolonization of the Congo whose chaotic and disastrous nature predestined much of the country’s later wars and violence. However, that is not what strikes me at the moment. Rather I’m surprised to find very little historical research on the such ominous organisations as the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, the Belgian mining cartel that financed Katanga’s secession in July 1960 and was probably also responsible for large parts of the violence in this conflict. I had noticed this lack of historical research already in my research on Sierra Leone where there is also very little about the Sierra Leone Selection Trust, the mining company that had been exclusively licenced by the British in the 1930’s to mine diamonds and which had already employed private mercenaries to keep Africans away from the diamond fields. There is also not very much research and literature on the role of contemporary mining companies in Africa’s politics in general and its wars in particular. The reference to the use of private military companies for instance in the Sierra Leonean war (Sandline International, Executive Outcomes) is frequent yet not much is known about their concrete dealings and doings. With the focus on “greed” of much of the civil wars literature this omission of Western “greed” is quite striking. In his article “Natural resources, Conflict, and Conflict Resolution: Uncovering the Mechanisms” Macarthan Humphreys mentions what he calls the “greedy outsiders mechanism” in impacting on civil war dynamics but just as one potential hypothetical causal mechanism amongst others (he mentions six mechanisms about the outbreak of war and seven on the war dynamics). Certainly, this is not another sign of eurocentric blindness where greed and violence is only the feature of the black man?????

The lack of interest is certainly an interesting point to note for itself. It is also probably one reason why these companies can hand over their archives to public institutions all the while making sure that they keep control over what will be known and what not. The Union Minière du Haut Katanga has passed their archives to the State Archives in Belgium but the inventary warns “Ces archives avaient été triées à plusieurs reprises dans les années 1980, la société n’ayant conservé que les dossiers qu’elle estimait les plus intéressants” (these archives have been sorted (meaning weeded) several times in the 1980s; the company only kept those files they thought would be the most interesting). I guess the company did not think that anyhing on their contacts to mercenaries, the Force Publique or even the assassination of cumbersome politicians like Patrice Lumumba is “le plus intéressant” for the wider public…


The deadends of counting the dead


In his article “The Libyan Model?” Vijay Prashad points out that there has not been yet a forensic mission to Libya, counting the dead before UN Security Council resolution 1973 or after in order to assess if the humanitarian intervention was really humanitarian. This lack of serious counting of the dead is not an exception and any account of dead in armed conflicts remains fiercly disputed. In some cases like the wars in Sierra Leone estimates vary enourmously, ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 (similarly the numbers put forward for the IDPs in Sierra Leone vary from 250,000 to 4.5 Million, the latter meaning that almost all of the country’s population was displaced).

In Congo, the estimates even vary in numbers of millions, with the International Rescue Committee advancing 5.4 million dead while the Human Security Report of 2009 contended that “only” 3.9 million people died (a summary of the debate can be found here). In those conflicts were forensic missions have been deployed, they sometimes have found much lower numbers than those put forward during the conflict by policy makers and observers in NGOs, think tanks or media. In the case of the war in Bosnia, the figure of 250,000 dead circulated for a long time until it was corrected to be rather around 100,000 in 2005 (see notably the works of Ewa Tabeau and others).

Much of the confusion in accounting for the dead derive from the varying methodologies and the conflation of numbers of battle casualties with civilian deaths (see Adam Roberts on this) and in this latter category the conflation of civilians killed in military actions and “war-related” deaths which may include death by diseases, malnourishment or psychological trauma, whether induced by exposure to violence or by the consequences fighting had generally on the lives of people through economic breakdown, expulsion and flight, breakdown of essential infrastructures etc. Counting the dead is by itself an extremely difficult exercise, so does it really matter?

As the Congo disaster neatly shows, the real problem is that numbers actually do not really matter in the decision whether to intervene or not. Rather they appear to be tools in the political battles over the question if an intervention is justified or not. At the times of the Kosovo war, Tony Blair heralded a new age of humanitarian intervention with reference to 2000 Albanians reportedley killed; in Congo we are talking of millions and in Darfur of hundreds of thousands killed. When it arranged the US Department of State under Colin Powell, they swiftly produced the “Atrocities Documentation Survey” in 2004, which, the authors, mainly lawyers of the Coalition for International Justice, claimed to be based on “hard” statistic facts. Subsequently, Powell declared that the situation was well to be called a genocide, yet that this would not change US policy in Darfur. When Colin Powell was replaced by Condoleeza Rice, the State Department changed the assessment team, the assessor’s expertise (public health instead of law) and, surprise, found a much lower number of deaths, leading to the conclusion that the situation could not be labelled genocidal (see for a full account the excellent article by Ron Levi and John Hagan: Lawyers, humanitarian emergencies and the politics of large numbers in Dezalay/Garth 2012: Lawyers and the Construction of Transnational Justice, p. 13-47).

This came in handy as the Bush administration had to fight back extremely high, some would even say genocidal estimates of war deaths in Iraq. Yet, the debate over how many people died subsequently to the military invasion of Iraq has not yielded any slightest change in policy, even though the WHO estimate of 104,00 to 223,000 is appalling enough. All these number games only show that minimum conditions of just war, mass atrocities on the one hand, and the criteria of commensurability of means, are simply irrelevant in the decision making for or against interventions. What seems much more important is the political bartering over military interventions and this can or cannot be based on reliable or unreliable figures.

However, if carefully analysed and cautiously contextualized, those figures and their debates are extremely relevant for our understanding of conflicts. First of all, they demonstrate (of course, one wants to add) how widespread and generalized armed fighting is and the stretch of the social capillaries affected by armed combat. Second, it can give an indication of the social groups affected, the geographic areas and of other characteristics of fighting groups. It is here where careful contextualization is, however, extremely important in order to avoid biased (hence, conflict reproducing) accounts of what happened. Third, as Guha-Saphir and van Panhuis pointed out almost 10 years ago, they can tell a lot about the state of the population’s health before the conflict, which is in turn an important indicator of conflict causes.

If it is not for a thorough examination of world power politics, then it is at least for the sake of research that thorough forensic missions to war zones should be undertaken.

As an example of diverging numbers, I have summarized below the numbers found for the conflict in Sierra Leone:

Death count Distinction combatant/ non-combatant? Displaced/refugees Secondary source Primary source
50000 No Half of population Nnadozie, Emmanuel/ Abdulmelik, Siham, 2009, The role of te private sector in Sierra Leone’s post-conflict reconstruction efforts, in Besada, Hany, From Civil Strife to Peace Building: Examinig Private Sector Involvement in West African Reconstruction, Waterloo, CA, Wilfrid Laurier U.P., p. 146
20,000 No Half of the population Douglas, Ian, Fighting for diamonds, in Cilliers, J., P. Mason, et al. (1999) Peace, profit or plunder? : the privatisation of security in war-torn African societies, Halfway House, South Africa, Institute for Security Studies. p. 175
75,000 No Half of the population refugees, 4.5 Million displaced (adds up to more than the population in 1990) The heart of the matter report, p. 8
No 1999: 600,000 in neighbouring countries; 2/3 displaced inside Reno, William. 2003. Political Networks in a Failing State. The Roots and Future of Violent Conflict in Sierra Leone. Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft(2).
50000 to 75000 No Half of the population Mateos, Oscar, Beyond greed and grievance, in Bowd, R., A. B. Chikwanha-Dzenga, et al. (2010) Understanding Africa’s contemporary conflicts : origins, challenges and peacebuilding, Pretoria, Institute for Security Studies. “some UN agencies”