Republic of Congo
Congo Free State: AD
When Leopold II of Belgium wins international recognition for the Congo
Free State in 1885, it is as his own personal fief rather than a Belgian
colony. The king is willing to fund the project from his own resources
and from concessions to private Belgian companies. The Belgian
government has no interest in what seems likely to be an expensive
In the early years it proves so. In 1890, and again in 1895, the king
has to appeal to his government in Brussels for help. He is granted
large interest-free loans, in return for the right of the Belgian
government to annexe the territory if it so wishes in 1901.
In fact, at the time of these loans, the economic prospects are
improving dramatically. There is a simple reason. One of the region's
two most valuable commodities is latex, from wild rubber trees. The
other is ivory. In the early years of the Congo Free State ivory seems
likely to be the more profitable. But in 1888 John Boyd Dunlop patents
the pneumatic tyre for the most popular and useful new machine of the
age, the bicycle.
The effect on Leopold's fortune is dramatic. The Congo Free State
exports less than 250 tons of rubber in 1892, more than 1500 tons in
1897. Leopold is suddenly flush with wealth. He spends much of it on
lavish public projects in Brussels and Ostend to impress his Belgian
In spite of this turn of events, the Belgian government does not
exercise its option in 1901. The Congo Free State seems set to continue
as an outstanding example of a successful colonial undertaking. But in
the early years of the century ugly rumours begin to circulate that all
is not well in this dark interior of Africa. There are stories of
atrocities practised on the Congolese.
At first such travellers' tales, impossible to substantiate, are easily
dismissed by Leopold and his spokesmen. But in Britain (where rumours of
Belgian restriction of free trade cause almost equal indignation) a
campaign to discover the truth about the Congo steadily gathers
In 1903 Roger Casement, living in Boma as the British consul to the
Congo Free State, receives an encrypted telegram from the foreign
office. It instructs him to travel into the interior to investigate the
supposed abuses. He sets off up the Congo in a small steam launch, the
Henry Reed, hired from some American Baptist missionaries.
What he discovers is blood-curdling. He finds villages depopulated,
people terrified, gruesome tales of death and torture, and a strangely
large number of victims whose hands have been amputated.
The pattern which emerges is one of systematic and brutal exploitation
by the concessionary companies, in all of which Leopold has a half
share. Their system for boosting rubber production is simple. Villages
are given an ever higher quota of latex to be collected as it oozes from
the trees in their vicinity or further a field.
If the target is not met, reprisals are savage. Villages are looted and
burnt, families butchered. The severed hands reflect the companies' wish
to be certain that their barbaric militia are maintaining control and
not wasting ammunition. Hands are portable evidence of disciplinary
Casement's report causes a sensation when published in Britain, though
international statesmen - eager not to upset each others' colonial
applecart's - are less prone to outrage. Nevertheless a commission is set
up in Belgium to investigate the charges. It confirms Casement's facts,
while condemning the failure of the many missionaries in the region to
make the abuses publicly known.
Leopold fights a strong rearguard action to keep hold of his treasure
trove, but by 1908 his position is untenable. Under international
pressure the Belgian government annexes the Congo Free State - meanwhile
adding to Leopold's fortune by paying him 50 million francs, to
compensate for his 'sacrifices' on behalf of the nation.
Belgian Congo: AD
Although Belgium takes responsibility in 1908 for the Congo, it remains
a colony unlike others in Africa. It is still ruled from Brussels
(rather than by a governor in situ), though a minister for the Congo now
takes direct charge rather than the king. Similarly Brussels continues
to leave much of the administration of the colony to non-governmental
The predominantly Catholic missionaries are in charge of education, in
which they have a good record. By mid-century 10% of Congolese children
attend primary school, compared to just 3% in neighbouring French
Equatorial Africa. And as before, the economy of the region is largely
left under the control of large commercial companies.
The importance of rubber in the local economy declines dramatically
during the first quarter of the century; in 1901 it represents 87% of
the Congo's exports, by 1928 the proportion is as low as 1%. Meanwhile
Katanga, in the southeast, has begun to produce immense mineral wealth.
A mining company, the Union Minière du Haut Kanga, is formed in 1906 to
exploit the new opportunities. It begins to extract copper in 1911. By
1928 it is producing 7% of the world's total. At the same time diamonds
contribute to the status of the Congo as one of Africa's richest
regions. First mined in 1907, the Congo's diamond output is twenty years
later a close second in the world after South Africa's.
As a region depending exclusively on the export of raw materials, the
Belgian Congo suffers greatly during the slump of the 1930s. But by the
same token World War II is a prosperous period. With Belgium occupied by
the Germans, the colony remains loyal to a Belgian government in exile
in London. Congo's minerals make a major contribution to the allied war
The post-war period sees a continuing increase in prosperity and in
immigration from Belgium. Between the end of the war and 1958 the white
immigrant population more than trebles (34,000 to 113,000). In the same
period the population of the capital, Léopoldville, quadruples (100,000
to nearly 400,000).
This thriving community shares a disability common to African colonies.
There is a yawning difference between living standards and job
opportunities for whites and blacks. But the Belgian Congo also has a
special weakness of its own, resulting from the paternalism of Brussels.
There is a complete absence of any developing political structure.
Until 1957 nobody in the Belgian Congo, white or black, has a vote -
because there is no representative body of any kind to vote for. This
begins to change only because of the pressures for independence
throughout Africa in the 1950s, from which even the Belgian Congo cannot
remain entirely immune.
The short path to
independence: AD 1957-1960
In 1957 municipal elections are held in Léopoldville. They are won by
Abako (Alliance des Ba-Kongo), a political party championing the cause
of the Bakongo tribal group. This is headed by Joseph Kasavubu, who
believes in a federalist independent Congo in which the Bakongo can
enjoy a considerable measure of autonomy.
Another more firebrand politician emerging at the same time is Patrice
Lumumba. A member of a minor tribe, he believes in a future nation which
is strongly centralized. In 1958 he founds the Congo's first nationwide
party, the MNC or Mouvement National Congolais.
In these circumstances leisurely talks are undertaken in Brussels to
consider the introduction of some greater measure of local autonomy. But
the pace is suddenly quickened by riots which break out in Léopoldville
in January 1959. The immediate cause is the banning of a scheduled
political rally. Shops are looted, houses are burnt, Europeans are
attacked. Africans are killed and wounded in the police response.
Belgium's response is conciliatory. For the first time the king,
Baudouin, declares the intention to give the Congo full independence.
Meanwhile it has already been decided that elections for a territorial
assembly will be held in December 1959.
The announcement of elections launches intense political activity. But
it is along tribal lines, since almost no other allegiances have been
formed. By November 1959 more than fifty political parties are
officially registered. Only Lumumba's MNC has an essentially national
At least two of the tribal parties represent such large regional groups
that their programme implies the strong possibility of secession. One is
Kasavubu's Abako party (the Bakongo people live in the coastal region,
where in the 15th-17th century they established the powerful
slave-trading kingdom of Kongo). The other is the party led by Moise
Tshombe, based in the mineral-rich province of Katanga.
With mounting violence in the colony, and with the December elections
invalid because of widespread boycotts, the Belgian government invites
ninety-six delegates from the main Congolese parties to a conference in
Brussels in January 1960. Lumumba, Kasavubu and Tshombe are among those
The Belgians suggest a four-year transition to independence, but the
Congolese refuse to wait. By the end of the conference Belgium has
accepted a completely impractical dash to the starting line. The Belgian
Congo will become an independent nation in less than six months, on 30
Lumumba and Kasavubu: AD
Elections take place in May. Lumumba's MNC emerges as the largest single
party, with Kasavubu's Abako in second place. Neither succeeds
independently in forming a coalition. As a compromise Kasavubu becomes
president and head of state, with Lumumba as prime minister at the head
of a coalition including a dozen extremely diverse minor parties.
Tshombe's party wins control of the provincial assembly in Katanga.
This arrangement seems a certain recipe for future trouble, but there
turn out to be more immediate problems. The nation becomes independent
on 30 June 1960 as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Just four days
later there are early signs of mutiny in the army.
The reason is the fury of the African soldiers that in spite of
independence the officers in the Congolese army are without exception
white. The fact is not surprising (in the colonial army Africans could
not rise higher than the rank of sergeant-major, and in the rush to
independence the first Congolese officer cadets have not yet completed
their courses). But it is none the less profoundly displeasing.
Lumumba gives in as the tension rises during the first week of July. He
agrees to the dismissal of the Belgian officers and the appointment of
Congolese in their place. The role of hastily issuing the new
commissions falls to Joseph Mobutu, the minister for defence. This
patronage later gives him a powerful role in the evolving army.
In the short term no one can control the unfolding chaos. Without any
effective chain of command, the army goes berserk in riots against the
Belgian population. Priests and nuns in particular are singled out for
violence and rape. Before the middle of July 25,000 Belgians flee the
country. In the other direction nearly 10,000 Belgian troops fly in to
protect European lives and property, particularly in wealthy Katanga.
On July 11 Moise Tshombe takes advantage of the collapse of government
control. He declares the independence of Katanga. With the help of
Belgian troops he is able to expel all units of the Congolese army. The
ingredients for the next stage of the Congo's agony are all in place.
With many in the west showing signs of support for Tshombe (mindful of
the wealth of his region), Lumumba raises the stakes by asking for
Soviet help in recovering Katanga. During August there arrive from
Russia aircraft, arms, technicians and military advisers.
Within two months of independence the Congo has become a potential
flashpoint of the Cold War. The issue dominates debate in the general
assembly of the UN. Meanwhile UN forces are on the ground trying to hold
the peace. In the event a local coup, still during the first three
months of independence, proves a turning point.
On September 4 President Kasavubu announces that he has dismissed
Lumumba as prime minister. Lumumba, in response, hurries to the radio
station to broadcast that he has dismissed Kasavubu as president. The
resulting confusion is only resolved when the 29-year-old minister of
defence, Mobutu Sese Seko, declares on September 14 that he is
'neutralizing' all politicians and is temporarily taking over the duties
of government in the name of the army.
Mobutu is secretly in Kasavubu's camp (both act with the encouragement
of the CIA, alarmed by Lumumba's Soviet policy). One of his first
actions is to close down the Soviet embassy. In February 1961 he returns
the government to Kasavubu, who appoints him commander of the army.
Meanwhile Lumumba has been murdered, in circumstances which remain
mysterious. In November 1960 he unwisely leaves Léopoldville, where he
has been living under UN protection. He is captured by forces loyal to
Kasavubu and is sent in January 1961 - presumably with only one purpose
in mind - to Katanga.
He is last seen on arrival in Katanga being transferred, blindfold and
handcuffed, from the plane to a waiting car. No more is heard of him. He
is believed to have been murdered either by Katangan police or Belgian
mercenaries. Evidence emerges years later to suggest that both President
Eisenhower and the Belgian government were party to plans to eliminate
this left-wing African leader.
Kasavubu and Tshombe: AD
During 1961 and 1962 the urgent question in Congo is whether Tshombe can
sustain an independent Katanga. He has the support of the powerful
mining company, Union Minière, and his army is strengthened by the
continuing presence of Belgian troops (by now removed again from the
rest of the country) and by the addition of European mercenaries. But
the UN and the majority of international opinion is against the
secession of Katanga.
Outbreaks of warfare and bursts of urgent UN diplomacy alternate during
this period (the UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld dies in a plane
crash in 1961 when flying to negotiate with Tshombe). But Tshombe has a
habit of reneging on promises when it suits him.
The turning point comes late in 1962, when UN policy moves from a
neutral peacekeeping role to active intervention against Katanga. After
strong initial resistance, the Katangan army gives up the fight in
January 1963. Tshombe flees into exile in Spain.
But this is not yet the end of Tshombe's involvement in the Congo.
President Kasavubu, faced in 1964 by continuing unrest in the eastern
provinces, attempts to resolve the issue by inviting Tshombe to return
from exile as the nation's prime minister.
New elections for the national assembly are held in April 1965.
Tshombe's party seems to win a majority (the results may be unreliable),
but in the aftermath of the election he is dismissed from his post by
Tshombe returns to Spain, leaving the Congo in continuing political
chaos. But a new strong man is waiting to strike. Mobutu, now commander
in chief, has been strengthening the Congolese army and with it his own
power. In October 1965 he stages a coup, dismisses Kasavubu, and takes
on the role of president.
Mobutu: AD 1965-1997
Mobutu rapidly puts in place the apparatus of dictatorship, forming in
1966 the MPR (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution) as the only
permitted political party. He also sets about asserting the African
identity of his nation. The colonial capital, Léopoldville, becomes in
1966 Kinshasa. Five years later the nation itself acquires an appealing
new name, Zaire (relating to the Congo because it derives from an
African word for river).
An order is given for all citizens to adopt African names. The president
himself, previously Joseph Mobutu, becomes Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu
Wa Za Banga ('the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and
inflexible will to win, sweeps from conquest to conquest, leaving fire
in his wake').
There are frequent threats to Mobutu's rule, most of them centring on
Katanga. In the early years they are widely assumed to be orchestrated
by Tshombe. Tshombe is kidnapped in Spain in 1967 and is taken to
Algeria, but Algerian officials refuse Mobutu's request to have him
extradited to the Congo to stand trial for treason (he dies in Algeria
In 1977 and 1978 there are major invasions of Katanga (now renamed
Shaba) by an opposition group, the FLNC (Front de la Libération
Nationale Congolaise), operating from Angola. Mobutu recovers control
with help from Morocco and France, but only after thousands of
casualties on both sides.
While retaining the support of western nations, Mobutu presides over a
massive decline in Zaire's economy (by 1994 it has shrivelled to the
pre-independence level of 1958, even though the population has trebled
in the same period). At the same time he salts away a vast personal
By 1990 the mood of the times forces upon Mobutu at least the semblance
of democracy (though the nature of his rule remains all too evident when
protests at Lubumbashi university in this same year are suppressed with
the deaths of between 50 and 150 students). A national conference in
1991 elects a government headed by an opposition leader, Etienne
Mobutu accepts Tshisekedi in the role of prime minister, but during the
next four years - to a background of strikes, riots and outbreaks of
tribal warfare - there is a continuous struggle betweeen president and
prime minister for the reins of executive power. The economy comes to a
standstill. In 1994 the World Bank closes its office in Kinshasa and
declares the country bankrupt.
The internal chaos is soon increased by an eruption of violence across
the border. In 1994 a million Hutu refugees flee into Zaire from Rwanda.
By 1995 their camps are controlled by the Hutu militia responsible for
the massacre of Tutsi in Rwanda. Their presence leads to attacks on
Tutsi resident for generations on the Zaire side of the border.
The sympathy of the Mobutu government is with the Hutu. A decree is
passed expelling all ethnic Tutsi from the army and civil service. Tutsi
property is looted in riots in Kinshasa.
This ethnic conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, spilling over into Zaire,
is the force which finally ends Mobutu's thirty-two years of
self-serving dictatorship. In the eastern province of Kivu the Tutsi,
fighting back against Hutu aggression, find a very effective leader in a
local politician, Laurent Kabila. When Kabila and his men start winning
a succession of local victories, Mobutu sends the Zairean army against
him - to no avail. Kabila astonishes the world by announcing, early in
1997, that unless Mobutu resigns within two weeks his regime will be
overthrown by force.
Kabila: AD 1997-2001
During the early months of 1997 Mobutu (suffering by now from cancer)
takes panic-stricken measures in Kinshasa, appointing and dismissing
ministers in a desperate attempt to avert the crisis. Meanwhile Laurent
Kabila, with his army of Tutsi soldiers (most of them well trained in
Rwanda and Uganda), advances west at an astonishing speed. He is helped
by the defection to his side of Zairean troops and by offers of support
from western commercial interests - two groups sensing an imminent
transfer of power.
In May Kabila enters Kinshasa, meeting relatively little opposition.
Mobutu flees to Morocco, where he dies a few months later.
Kabila assumes the office of president, taking
full executive and military powers. He changes the name of the country
from Mobutu's favoured Zaire, reverting instead to the original
Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ironically the new president inherits in the late 1990s the identical
problem confronting his predecessor, Lumumba, when the Democratic
Republic first became independent in 1960. The richest province in the
nation, Katanga, is once again threatening to go its own way. In 1993
the governor of Shaba has claimed total autonomy, changing the name of
his province back to Katanga and running it exclusively for local
benefit. In the political chaos of the time, no one has the power to
Kabila's ability to do so is limited by more immediate problems in the
neighbouring Kivu region, his own original power base (during the 1970s
he has ruled a small semi-independent Marxist enclave here, surviving on
the local trade in gold and ivory).
The Tutsi of Kivu, largely responsible for Kabila's rapid capture of
power, are dissatisfied by his subsequent behaviour in office. In 1998
they launch a new rebellion. At first it is almost as successful as its
1997 predecessor, developing rapidly into the status of civil war. But
Kabila, unlike Mobutu, is able to obtain assistance from neighbouring
Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia send troops, tanks and aircraft to support
the Congo government in a crisis which shows no signs of abating. A
cease-fire plan agreed in Lusaka in 1999 comes to nothing, while
evidence begins to emerge of genocidal massacres in rebel-held areas in
the northeast of the country. Support for the rebels by Uganda and
Rwanda effectively transforms the civil war into an international
The situation becomes even more chaotic when Kabila is assassinated in
January 2001. His place at the head of his warring nation is taken by
his son Joseph Kabila.