A reaction to Dan Snow's History of Congo

Last night, the BBC ran a documentary on its flagship channel BBC Two seeking to provide some insight into the vast central African country’s history, its colonial legacy, post-independence chaos, and endemic corruption.

In assessing the DRC’s present day troubles, historian Dan Snow looked beneath the symptoms, apportioning blame largely to colonialism, slaving and corruption.

Below, Phil Vernon (Alert’s Director of Programmes) and Maria Lange (Alert’s Country Manager in DRC) share some thoughts about Mr Snow’s documentary.

Phil Vernon: “It is welcome to see the BBC approaching the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from a long-term historical perspective, in its transmission of This World: Dan Snow’s History of the Congo programme on BBC Two last night. Mr Snow’s description of the prevailing conditions in the DRC was perhaps a bit over-excited, given his frequent use of adjectives like “apocalyptic”. Nevertheless, it is good to see the BBC asking a historian to explain things there, providing a perspective which goes deeper than the picture usually painted, of “African tyrants”, sexual violence and human misery. Because, as elsewhere, Congo’s present day problems are indeed rooted in its recent and more distant past. The history of slaving and other forms of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial exploitation by outsiders and their local co-optees helps explain why so many Congolese are trapped in a cycle of poverty and conflict from which it sometimes seems there is no way out. Good governance has been successively undermined by outside agents – and notably in recent decades “the West” – acting in their interests rather than the interests of the Congolese themselves.”

Maria Lange added: “It is nice to see the BBC taking a historical analysis of the issues in DRC into account. Where Mr Snow’s piece falls short however is on its insufficient emphasis on the domestic governance problems – mentioned in passing, but only in relation to the influence of ‘outside meddlers’. We mustn’t forget that the DRC has been an independent country for 50 years and successive governments have not done nearly enough to address the needs of the population – preferring instead, to look after their own narrower interests. The DRC is not the only resource-rich African country with a terrible colonial past which draws significant interest of multinational companies, Western governments and countries in the region. It is up to the DRC government to navigate these ‘outside interests’ to the benefit of the Congolese population.”

International Alert is working with Congolese partners and communities in long-term programmes designed to address the problem of poor governance, supporting local voices, including those of women, into public debate and decision-making. Alert is also helping to improve the livelihoods of those trying to make a living, and invest in a more peaceful and prosperous future. For more details see our last report on the DRC, and read about our work in the DRC.

Photo: BBC