The Congo Crisis: An International Perspective There is a need to take advantage of the change that has taken place in the Congo, however tragic that has been in its coming. – Paul Kagame As the third largest country in Africa and blessed with a large endowment of natural resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo possesses great opportunity to develop itself into a successful nation. However, the great abuses of the Congo’s colonial rulers and the lack of central unity across its vast territory left the nascent republic to be taken advantage of by various forces, both inside and outside the country.
From the first colonization of the area under King Leopold’s reign of terror as his personal colonial venture, to the Belgians rapid handover of independence after only five months notice, the position of the Congo as colonialism’s worst legacy led to the volatile state present at independence in 1960 which resulted in the Republic of Leopoldville being reduced to six years of civil war and secessionism known as the Congo Crisis.
The Congo Crisis and its effect on the Congo is of utmost importance especially in respect to the First and Second Congo Wars, current conflicts which have cost millions of lives and involved up to twenty five armed groups and eight African nations. To that end, this essay will seek to analyze how outside interests effected the development of the 1960-1966 Congo Crisis and to research this internal conflict in its international context.
There were several reasons behind the breakdown in order upon the Congo’s independence: the devastating treatment of the land by its colonial masters and the abrupt move towards independence with little provision made for a smooth transition of power, the lack of political unity in a government split by wider Cold War politics, European and business interest support of secessionist movements in the Congo’s resource rich, yet distant provinces and underlying ethnic disputes in this vast nation.
Today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo has a long history stretching back to medieval era native kingdoms, such as the Kingdom of Kongo, whose people had trading contacts with both European powers and the Arab/Swahili slave traders operating out of Zanzibar in East Africa. In the late 19th Century, European industrialization and the rise of new powers such as Germany led to a growing interest in acquiring African colonies, ostensibly to uplift and civilize the natives.
One such “humanitarian” venture was the International Congo Society of Leopold II King of the Belgians, which like other colonial ventures was a front for the actual exploitation of Africa’s vast natural resources and population base. King Leopold began his private colonial adventure in the Congo basin when it became apparent his Belgian subjects had no interest in colonies. The king used the International Congo Society to further his ambitions in setting up the Congo as his private source of income.
In his imperialistic bid for a personal colony, King Leopold commission Henry Morton Stanley to explore the Congo basin and establish trading posts in the name of the society. The competing interests of France, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the Congo Society were the leading factor that led Portugal to call for and Bismarck to convene the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. It was at this historic conference, which included no native African representatives, that the rules for empire building in Africa were laid down, effectively opening the continent to the subsequent territorial scramble.
The status of the Congo was one of the first issues resolved, by playing off French and German interest in free trade in Central Africa, King Leopold was able to maintain his gains and the centuries old Kingdom of Kongo was partitioned between Leopold’s newly formed Congo Free State, French Congo based in Brazzaville and Portuguese Angola. Meanwhile, the Congo Free State was organized as the private property of the International Congo Society, and thus the property of King Leopold.
With his control of the region secure, Leopold began the wholesale exploitation of the Congolese people and resources with a terror regime meant to bend the native population to the state’s dictates. With much of his personal fortune invested in the Free State, Leopold’s district administrators and mercenary enforcers were given authority to do anything to meet his unrealistically high rubber quotas, or pay the difference in the severed hands of the native workers. The Congo Free State, and in reality, King Leopold’s treatment of the native forced labor has been argued to have reduced the Congo’s population by half from 1885-1908.
Leopold’s reign of terror in the country would prove economically unsustainable in the long run, but the spike of rubber prices in the 1890s made the king a huge fortune, none of which was used to develop the Congo or uplift its population as was the Congo Free State’s original intention. The development of competing rubber sources and the international outcry as news of the atrocities committed by the Free State were made public created one of the biggest scandals of the period and eventually forced King Leopold to cede control of the Congo to the reluctant Belgian government in 1908.
The debacle of European rule in the Congo was regularly criticized and satire by European writers of the time, most famously Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. The transfer of power to the Belgian Congo brought a reduction to the brutal exploitation and arbitrary violence committed by the government and foreign concessionary companies. Though the Congo’s new Belgian rulers made some efforts at improving the nation’s infrastructure, healthcare and education, the primary motivation for colonial expansion remained the desire to tap the great mineral and natural riches of the Congo basin for Belgium.
The Belgian’s labor practices were quite preferable to previous treatment under Leopold’s mercenaries; however, forced labor and violent tactics existed until independence in 1960. The Belgian’s did make investments into developing the Congo’s infrastructure, especially in the 1920s and 1950s, though these developments were entirely focused on economic development to support European corporations and business interests.
While Congolese exports soared, an extensive plantation system became an economic base of the colony along with the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of native workers to Katanga province’s copper belt. After the First World War, the colonial administrators instituted mandatory farming of cash crops, such as coffee, cotton and palm oil, which was despised by native Congolese farmers who faced sanctions if they did not meet the quotas.
The Congo’s export-dependent economy was hit hard by the Great Depression and the associated fall in demand for the colony’s mineral exports. Similarly, the Belgian Congo was exploited for its material resources in the Second World War, serving as the Allies main source of rubber and uranium throughout the war and early Cold War period. In fact, the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was mined in the Congo. After the war, the Belgian government in Leopoldville finally enacted reforms aimed at actually improving the lives of the native Congolese population.
Much effort was expended in building the nation’s infrastructure and healthcare system. The Catholic Church set up an extensive school system that aimed at educating the Africans with Western values and culture. The colonial government was eager to be seen as a benevolent protector of native rights and culture, whose only mission was to bring the locals up to modern standards, yet the Belgian administrators did little to actually uplift the native populations and the Congolese had no voice in government decisions.
Despite their life improving reforms, the Belgians still maintained a de facto regime of segregation and other forms of discrimination. In the atmosphere of the post-war 1950s de-colonialism, native resistance and dissent was on the rise and the Belgians were forced to allow the limited political emancipation of educated Africans, known as evolues. However, the colonial government’s unwillingness to grant real political reform led to a sharp spike in Congolese resistance to their colonial rulers.
The Belgian government completely lacked an official plan to develop the Congo towards independence and with very few educated Congolese capable to take control of colonial administration, even as compared with other African colonies, many scholars and politicians in the Belgian metropole, such as professor Antoine van Bilsen, advocated a “Thirty Year Plan” to gradually prepare the Congo for independence.
This was seen by local elites and evolues as an attempt by Belgium to maintain control over the Congo indefinitely and was met with instant hostility. Beginning in 1955 through to independence in 1960, the rapidly developed Congolese independence movement sought to cultivate indigenous rule as rapidly as possible. The refusal of the colonial government to introduce credible change to the political system led to the Congolese elites organizing themselves socially and politically.
With the Congolese public supporting the move towards greater native control, two forms of nationalism took root among the disparate political organizations: those who advocated the independence of the entire Belgian Congo as a single, territorially unified state, and those who supported ethnic and regional nationalism. The first political organizations were formed along ethnic lines, beginning with the Association des Bakongo (ABAKO), led by the important Congolese politician Joseph Kasa-Vubu. This cultural/political organization of the est coast’s Bakongo people was an early opponent to Belgian colonial rule and was tacitly supportive of other regional or ethnic movements, such as in Katanga and Kasai. Kasa-Vubu’s Bakongo people and other groups in the Lower Congo where also unified by religious association with the popular Kimbanguist Church. The Belgians allowed educated Africans to stand for municipal election in the three major cities of Leopoldville, Jadotville and Elizabethville in 1957, but it was events taking place outside the Congo that sped up demands for independence.
In 1957, Ghana gained its independence from the United Kingdom and President De Gaulle offered France’s sub-Saharan African colonies the choice of full independence or association with France. Furthermore, the 1958 World Expedition in Brussels brought many Congolese elites to Belgium for the first time, accelerating the independence movement. By 1958, the drive for independence entered a radicalized phase and nearly every ethnic/social group had established a representative political organization in Leopoldville.
As early as 1956, Patrice Lumumba had organized the Mouvement National Congolaise (MNC), the first political organization that encompassed the entirety of the Congo’s territory and advocated for the unified independence of the whole colony. In 1959, the national party split after Albert Kalonji created the more moderate MNC-K to counter Lumumba’s left leaning policies. The socialist leanings of Lumumba and the MNC-L were opposed by Belgium and other westerners who feared for their extensive financial interests in the Congo.
The Belgian government’s unwillingness to part with its colony was turned around by the events of 1959. On January 4th a large-scale rally organized by the Association des Bakongo (ABAKO) that was prohibited by Belgians authorities got out of control, leading to major rioting in Leopoldville and throughout the country. In the days it took for colonial authorities to restore order, it is estimated several hundred Congolese were killed. The outrage this incident stirred amongst the native Congolese population had quite an effect on Belgian policy.
Just nine days later King Baudouin declared that Belgium would move towards independence “without hesitation, but also without irresponsible rashness. ” However, the Belgians still envisioned a path to independence that would take years and see the handover of powers on a gradual basis. Increasing resistance to Belgian control included refusing to pay taxes and the threat of militant unrest in the provinces. The furious public backlash against the Belgians arrest of Patrice Lumumba made the Belgian public fearful of a sparking a bloody, expensive colonial war.
The ongoing French military involvement in drawn out conflicts in Algeria, Vietnam as well as the bloody Dutch colonial war in Indonesia convinced Belgian public opinion that the Congolese independence process should be instantly sped up. In January of 1960, the major Congolese political leaders met in Brussels for the Roundtable Conference to settle the future status of the Belgian Congo. The Belgians sudden desire to get rid of its colony was evident when the conference quickly granted the Congolese nearly all their demands.
General elections where to be held in May of that year, with full independence known as “Dipenda”, set for June 30th, 1960. The elections were primarily a race between three coalitions of parties: a centralist union coalition led by Patrice Lumumba’s MNC-L, a federalist organization supported by Albert Kalonji’s MNC-K and Joseph Kasa-Vubu’s ABAKO, and regionalist parties headed by the ruler of the mineral rich Katanga province Moise Tshombe.
Each faction did well in the May elections, winning votes in the core regions of their support: ABAKO and the ethnic, federalist parties based in the west at Leopoldville, Lumumba’s unionist MNC in Stanleyville and eastern Congo, and the mining unions and regional secessionist movements in South Kasai and Katanga. With the arrival of independence soon after, the various coalitions compromised; Joseph Kasa-Vubu was to be the first President and Patrice Lumumba the first head of government of the Republic of Congo – Leopoldville.
On its first day of independence, King Baudouin of Belgium made and ill-advised speech praising his great uncle King Leopold II and the work the Belgians did to uplift the Congolese. Lumumba’s retort was a fiery repudiation of what the King had said, extolling the Congolese struggle for independence as a path “of blood, fire and blood” against the Belgian’s “regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation”. Despite indignation at this combative speech in the West, this represented a clear break with Belgium and its tone was widely supported in both the Congo and the rest of Africa.
In his speech marking independence, Lumumba also made a call for: Thus, in the interior and the exterior, the new Congo, our dear Republic that my government will create, will be a rich, free, and prosperous country. But so that we will reach this aim without delay, I ask all of you, legislators and citizens, to help me with all your strength. I ask all of you to forget your tribal quarrels. They exhaust us. They risk making us despised abroad.
I ask the parliamentary minority to help my Government through a constructive opposition and to limit themselves strictly to legal and democratic channels. I ask all of you not to shrink before any sacrifice in order to achieve the success of our huge undertaking. Though the Congo’s independence celebration in June of 1960 was one of jubilation and hope for the future, the nascent Republic’s unity was only to last five days. The unraveling of law and order in the infant Congolese republic began in its military.
The Force Publique was left over from the Belgian administration, and its inability to cope with the nation’s new status led to a disastrous army mutiny on July 5, 1960, just five days after independence. With few indigenous officers properly trained by the time of independence, the Force Publique was commanded by an overwhelmingly white, European officer corp. The inability of native soldiers and non-commissioned officers to seek advancement in a Belgian dominated command structure was a source of major resentment.
Exacerbating tensions, Patrice Lumumba raised the wages of all government employees and civil servants, with the exception of the military. Discontent had reached a high point when the Belgian commander of the Force Publique, Lieutenant General Emile Janssens convened the July 5 meeting with the army garrison at Leopoldville. In a misguided attempt to improve morale and affirm the soldiers’ loyalty to the Force, the lieutenant general recalled the men’s commitments and oaths sworn to the colonial Force Publique to establish a continuity of doctrine.
He even went as far as writing “After independence = before independence” on the blackboard, which convinced the Congolese soldiers that their Belgian officers were trying to maintain the colonial order of things. Janssens blunder served as a catalyst to the rapidly building dissent in the Congolese army, but the mutiny which erupted later that day was the reflection of a broader anti-Belgian, anti-European reaction sweeping through large segments of Congolese society. The mutineers, after overthrowing their white officers, began the lawless looting of Leopoldville nd the targeting of the whites living in the city. Thousands of Belgians fled the capital and the mutiny became an international crisis. The breakdown of order and the collapse of central governance in the next few weeks shattered the Lumumba’s government. Within two weeks of the proclamation of independence, Prime Minister Lumumba was faced with both a nationwide mutiny by the army and a secessionist movement in the province of Katanga bankrolled by Western mining interests.
Both revolts were instigated by the Belgians, who also intervened militarily on 10 July a day before the Katanga secession was announced. – Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja The Belgian decision to intervene militarily in the Congo was ostensibly to protect its citizens from the marauding army, whose threat to white settlers in the country was very real, but it was done so without the permission of Lumumba or the Congolese government and was generally seen as being supportive of the central government’s opponents.
The Belgian unilateral action directly violated the Republic’s national sovereignty and was thus illegal by international law. The Belgian interventionist forces clearly supported centrist political leaders opposed to Lumumba and had a vested interest in assisting Katangan independence or autonomy to secure its business interests in this vital, mineral-rich region. Belgian economic interest in Katanga was backed up by the deployment of over six thousand Belgian troops to bolster the breakaway state. Katanga’s bid at independence was proclaimed the day after the Belgian intervention on July 11, 1960.
Under the leadership of Moise Tshombe, Katangan strongman and head of local party Confederation des Associations Tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT), Katanga seceded to distance itself from the anarchy pervading the rest of the country and cultivated close ties with Belgian business interest such as the Union Miniere in order to keep Katanga’s mineral wealth in the state. Katanga represented the entire Congo’s major share of copper, uranium and gold, and was the richest and most developed region of the country.
Its independence from the Leopoldville government would economically cripple the newly independent nation and was increasingly viewed by the United Nations as a bid by the Belgians to establish a puppet mining-state in Katanga. In order to force the Belgian forces out of the Congo, Lumumba put the matter to the UN, who adopted Resolution 143 on July 14, which called for Belgian troops to evacuate the country and authorized UN “military assistance as may be necessary until the [Congolese] security forces to meet fully their tasks. The international crisis that fed the developing Congo Crisis was initially only an anti-colonial effort against the intervening Belgians, but the issue soon devolved into a major Cold War political confrontation, which colored the often uncoordinated and poorly planned UN decisions in respect to the Congo. Prime Minister Lumumba demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Belgian forces form Congolese territories in two day or he threatened to seek assistance from the Soviet Union.
The UN, looking to prevent the crisis from developing into a Cold War battle, quickly set about creating the United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC), the largest UN mission to date, peacekeeping troops began arriving immediately to help restore order. The UN Resolution establishing ONUC forces lacked a clear mandate and means to accomplish its objectives. Lumumba wanted to use UN troops to replace the fractured Armee National Congolaise (ANC), renamed after “Africanizing” the Force Publique, and use them to reconquer Tshombe’s breakaway State of Katanga.
Some UN leaders, including UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, argued that UN troops were not authorized to conduct offensive actions and that the Katanga secession was a Congolese internal matter, thus forbidden by Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. The United Nation’s presence in the Congo remained rather inconsequential until the August 9 UN Resolution 146, which allowed UN troops to enter Katanga and repeated calls for the withdrawal of Belgian troops from the province. However, the UN failed to make effective use of its presence and there was little development towards a resolution of the conflict.
In fact, in the atmosphere of complete political disintegration in the country, on August 8, Lumumba’s old political rival from the early days of the MNC, Albert Kalonji, was installed as president of the autonomous Mining State of South Kasai as yet another region slipped out of the Leopoldville’s control. With no more patience for the UN force’s inaction over the past month, Lumumba finally called in Soviet support, which promptly provided military assistance in the form of an airlift of Congolese troops to attack breakaway South Kasai.
The bloody campaign that ensued began to return Kasai and its mining interests to central government control, but the Soviet military assistance set the United States and its allies against Lumumba, who was now seen as a firm Soviet ally. Increasingly, the US and CIA supported more conservative Congolese political leaders, such as President Kasa-Vubu and ANC commander Joseph Mobutu. The continued political disintegration of the government was exacerbated by the Cold War influence of the United States and the Soviet Union, leading to the complete split of the Congo’s first government.
On September 5, 1960, President Kasa-Vubu with Western backing dismissed Lumumba as prime minister and replaced him with respected moderate Joseph Ileo. Lumumba refused his removal and dismissed Kasa-Vubu as president in turn. Despite UN attempts to restore order, including closing all radio stations to silence the increasingly inflammatory actions of Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu, the disorder spreading in the country proved too much to control. By September 10, the coalition government elected back in May, before independence, was by every definition dissolved.
Into this political vacuum stepped Colonel Joseph Mobutu, the Chief of Staff of the Armee National Congolais and the leader that had managed to rein in most of the deserting soldiers during the mutiny. Both Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba had ordered the army chief to arrest the other and Mobutu was pressured by all factions to side with them. The fact that Western embassies paid much of his soldiers’ salaries combined with Mobutu and his subordinates’ mistrust of Soviet intentions in Central Africa led to Mobutu’s decision to turn on Lumumba.
With CIA backing, Mobutu launched a successful coup on September 14, 1960. Lumumba was again placed under house-arrest and Kasa-Vubu was left as the powerless, figurehead president. In order to cultivate further support in the United States, Mobutu ordered all Soviet advisors in the Congo to leave and accused Lumumba and his supporters of being communists. Meanwhile, Lumumba’s supporters under the leadership of similarly deposed Vice Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga created a rival government at their power base in Stanleyville.
By this stage, the territory of the Republic of Congo was controlled by four rival governments: the Western backed national government of Mobutu based in Leopoldville; the pro-Lumumba, Soviet supported rival national government based in Stanleyville; Moise Tshombe’s Belgian and mercenary supported breakaway State of Katanga; and Albert Kalonji’s mining state in South Kasai. On November 27, Lumumba attempted to escape to his supporters in Eastern Congo but was recaptured by Mobutu’s forces on December 1 in Kasai.
As the national hero who secured the Congo’s independence from Belgium, Lumumba’s remaining political power still posed a threat to Mobutu’s tentative reign in Leopoldville. Convinced by the Belgians, who considered Lumumba an even bigger threat to their interests than Mobutu, convinced the colonel to hand the deposed prime minister over to Belgian and Katangan forces. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was beaten, humiliated and brutally executed in Elizabethville, Katanga. The prime minister’s death sparked indignation and rage from the Soviet Union, who rightfully blamed Belgium for their involvement in the assassination.
The international atmosphere of anti-colonialism and protest of the situation in the Congo finally galvanized support in the UN to conduct military operations to bring Katanga back in into the republic. Though the Security Council adopted Resolution 161, urging the United Nations to prevent civil war in the Congo and end the secession of Katanga, the UN command waited six months to commence major military operations preferring instead to host several rounds of unity talks and political negotiations.
From January to May 1961, the UN hosted talks at Leopoldville and Tananarive, Madagascar that recommended a loose confederation: this conference was boycotted by pro-Lumumbist Antoine Gizenga and was opposed by Mobutu who wanted greater central control in Leopoldville. A third conference was held in Coquilhatville, capital of the Equateur province which advocated a federal state: this proposal was opposed by Moise Tshombe who wanted greater autonomy for Katanga.
Eventually, on August 2, 1961, the Congolese parliament voted in Cyrille Adoula as Prime Minister to bring stability to the central government and to provide unity between all the provinces. However, it soon became clear that Tshombe was not serious about including Katanga in the larger Congolese political process and that he was actively avoiding curbing Katangan autonomy by unifying with the central government.
When the UN learned that Tshombe was still employing foreign mercenaries to train and fight with the Katangan gendarme, they launched Operation Rumpunch: UN troops then moved into Katanga to disarm the local troops and arrest the foreign mercenary core of the Katangan forces. However, most foreign mercenaries in Katangan employ soon repatriated into Katanga through the Northern Rhodesian (Zambian) border. When the failure of Rumpunch became clear, the UN launched Operation Morthor to round up the mercenaries and arrest Tshombe and his top supporters.
The Katangan gendarme was prepared for the UN action and the operation turned into open warfare. Tshombe escaped and the fighting became very bloody, including the well publicized siege of an Irish company of UN troops at Jadotville by Katangan forces. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold’s attempt to personally broker a peace settlement through the UN into further disarray when Hammarskjold’s plane crashed en route to Ndola, killing him. The UN eventually regained its composure and engaged in several operations against Tshombe’s gendarme and foreign mercenary force, finally forcing the secessionist leader to negotiate by the end of 1961.
With the Katangan front under armistice, Congolese forces focused on a four month campaign to eradicate Albert Kalonji’s independent mining entity in South Kasai. With the arrest of Kalonji on December 30, 1961, South Kasai returned indefinitely to Congolese control. Meanwhile, Antoine Gizenga’s pro-Lumumbist government in the Orientale province was widely recognized by Eastern European and several African nations and was receiving arms shipments from China, whose enigmatic leader Mao Zedong held mass rallies and published literature such as In the Support of the People of the Congo (Leopoldville) Against U.
S. Aggression. Gizenga’s cooperation with Prime Minister Cyrille Adoula’s coalition government in Leopoldville broke down by the end of 1961, and the resurgent ANC quickly ended the rival government when it defeated Stanleyville militias on January 14, 1962 and arrested Gizenga. Katanga under Tshombe managed to preserve autonomy throughout the fruitless peace discussions of 1962. Eventually, the new UN Secretary General U Thant authorized the December 1962 Operation Grand Slam, which proved the final blow to an independent Katanga and by January of 1963 the hole nation was at last under UN and Congolese control. This brief lull in the Congo Crisis was shattered with the Simba Rebellion of Eastern Congo in 1964. Protesting alleged abuses of the central government in Leopoldville, rebels under leaders Pierre Mulele, Gaston Soumialot and Christophe Gbenye started attacking government troops and installations across the Orientale and Kivu provinces. The rebel leaders were former members of Antoine Gizenga’s Parti Solidaire Africain and were political leftists.
In this way, the Simba Rebellion, and its rapid capture of half the Congo within weeks of its start can be seen as a continuation of the leftist, rival government of Gizenga in Stanleyville from 160-1961. The rebellion was also a violent reaction to the perceived abuses on the Congo perpetrated by Western powers. Western leaning Congolese were publicly executed in the rebels growing reign of terror over Eastern Congo. In order to effectively counter this emergent threat, former secessionist leader Moise Tshombe replaced Cyrille Adoula as Prime Minister in July 1964.
The ironic appointment of former rebel Tshombe to the Congo’s highest post was thought to utilize Tshombe’s extensive experience in rebellion to help the faltering ANC put down the Simba rebels. Making use of his old Katangan gendarme and many of the same mercenaries who fought for him in Katanga, Tshombe’s forces made decent progress against rebel troops. In August, fearing defeat by Tshombe’s resurgent leadership of the ANC, the Simba Rebellion making hostages of several hundred white residents in Stanleyville.
To resolve this crisis, the Congolese government requested assistance from Belgium and the United States. Belgium quickly landed a task force in the country, and the United States provided its 322nd Air Division to drop Belgian paratroopers into Simba territory and provide logistical support. Belgium and the United States conducted two paratrooper actions: Operation Dragon Rouge in Stanleyville and Operation Dragon Noir in Paulis. These operations were regarded as successful and over the next few days, over 1,800 Americans and Europeans were evacuated.
The Western paratroop operations coincided with the advance of ANC and mercenary units to Stanleyville, delivering a deadly blow to the Simba Rebellion. The remains of the rebellion would be put down by the end of the year. Despite his successful resolution of the conflict, Tshombe’s intervention by white Belgian and mercenary forces severely tarnished his political reputation among the native Congolese. Political infighting between Tshombe and President Kasa-Vubu and the Congolese public’s desire to end all remaining divisions in the country led to Joseph Mobutu’s second coup in 1965.
On November 23, 1965, Mobutu seized power bloodlessly, throwing out the politicians who had, according to Mobutu, taken “five years to ruin the country”. Under a state of emergency, Mobutu assumed vast, sweeping powers that essentially made him the absolute ruler of the country. In contrast to the past five years of fractious society, Mobutu reduced provincial autonomy and secured all state power in his person. Mobutu’s thirty year regime was propped up by the United States and other Western interests who saw Mobutu as a bulwark against communism in Central Africa.
In the one-party state that he assembled, Mobutu faced early threats to his rule that were direct extensions of the Congo Crisis. The First and Second Kisangani Mutinies in 1966 and 1967, respectively, were revolts by the former soldiers and supporters of the exiled Moise Tshombe who still opposed the centralization of power under Mobutu. When the ANC crushed the last resistance to Mobutu’s rule in the east, the Republic of Congo entered thirty years of stability and authoritarian rule of Mobutu Sese Soko. Mobutu eventually changed the name of the Congo to Zaire in a campaign to “authenticate” the nation’s history.
Mobutu’s corrupt reign would last until 1997, when the lack of Western support following the Cold War led to Mobutu being deposed by Laurent Kabila in the First Congo War. The involvement of foreign powers in the Congo for the first time since the Congo Crisis set off the catastrophic events of the Second Congo War, a war that involved over twenty five armed groups, eight nations and over five million Congolese deaths. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast territories and natural resources offer great opportunities, but they have made the country attractive and vulnerable to foreign influence.
In the Congo Crisis, the fledgling nation was the seat of contest between several varying coalitions of outside powers seeking to exploit and control Congolese resources. Be it the Belgian desire to maintain its colonial investment or ethnic and regional nationalism, the beginnings of the crisis highlight the struggle to establish a Congolese identity. As the conflict attracted the attention of the world-at-large, the Congo Crisis became embroiled in the larger machinations of Cold War diplomacy.
Congolese leaders, such as Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, sought the support of outside powers such as the Soviet Union and the United States to combat the Belgians and secessionists. However, this made the Congo the battleground for competing east-west interests and UN intervention forces. Throughout the five year Congo Crisis, the nascent republic was at the mercy of numerous foreign armed forces operating on its territory. Despite the brutality of his reign, it was only with the complete control of the Congo by the native forces of dictator Mobutu after 1967 that stability and order could be imposed on this unique country.
Today’s conflict in the Congo bares striking similarities to the tribulations of the 1960-1965 Congo Crisis. It is only with the study of how foreign interventionism and the lack of effective central control caused the Congo Crisis can the current crisis attempted to be resolved. With foreign involvement in the current “African World War” at heights unimaginable in the 1960s, the correct analysis of decisions that eventually stabilized the post-independence Republic of Congo is essential to uncovering the proper action for resolving the volatile situation in today’s Democratic Republic of Congo.
As a nation that still owns vast natural wealth within its ground; the current rate of poverty, warfare, mass rape and murder in the Congo has turned this potential success story into an unprecedented international disaster. Hopefully, increased public knowledge of the issues on the ground in the Congo combined with greater understanding on the roots and resolution of the Congo Crisis in its international context will one day precipitate changes in this troubled region. The successful resolution of the current conflict in the Congo holds the keys to the stabilization and growth of all Central Africa and beyond.