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Monday, November 29, 2004

Colonial Warfare, pt 5

Force Publique. Turned on the Belgians in 1960

The collapse of Beligian Rule in the Congo would turn into an international crisis within days of the handover.

Independence for Congo followed a strange course of events unlike anything else in the rest of Africa. The Belgian Congo was huge and underdeveloped. After the war, new cultural organisations like ABAKO, Association des Bakongo and the Lulua-Freres, emerged in the 1950's.

But it was the attitude of the Belgians which bred a new political consciousness in the 1950's. In the first place, the Belgians like the Portuguese, were resolutely untouched by the drive towards independence in the early 1950's. De-colonisation was first discussed in 1956, but seen as something that would happen thirty years into the future.

On the eve of independence, the Congo, a territory larger than Western Europe, bordering on nine other African colonies/states, was seriously underdeveloped. There were no African army officers, only three African managers in the entire civil service, and only 30 university graduates. Yet Western investments in Congo's mineral resources (copper, gold, tin, cobalt, diamonds, manganese, zinc) were colossal. And these investments meant that the West was determined to keep control over the country beyond independence.


Following widespread rioting in 1959, the Belgians to the surprise of all the nationalist leaders said elections for independence could go ahead in May 1960. This in itself caused confusion and a rush to form parties. In the event 120 different parties took part, most of them regionally based. Only one, Mouvement National Congolais or the MNC, led by Patrice Lumumba , favoured a centralised government and had support in four of six provinces.

The actual independence day was a mixture of huge excitement and bad temper on the part of the former colonial power. King Baudouin of Belgian made a patronising speech; and Patrice Lumumba's speech was spirited.

Listen to Patrice Lumumba's announcing Belgian Congo's independence followed by an Independence cha-cha-cha

Within days things fell apart. The army mutinied against Belgian officers. The main mining area, Katanga, declared itself a separate state under Moise Tshombe, but with strategic support and encouragement from Belgian mining interests. Belgian troops then intervened unasked; Lumumba invited UN peacekeeping forces to help but they steered clear of fighting Tshombe's Katanga regime.

No country was less prepared for independence and none reacted as badly to it. And the Belgians were simply unable to comprehend an independent Congo.

Heart of Darkness: the Tragedy of the Congo, 1960-67

Yet, as late as 1959, Belgian officials dismissed any talk of independence for the Congo as wildly unrealistic fantasies. An advisory commission (made up entirely of learned, government-appointed Belgians) felt that a strictly limited form of Congolese self-government would possible in thirty years at the earliest. The commission conceded that local and municipal elections might be appropriate somewhat sooner, but it carefully refrained from setting dates. Unfortunately, what were major concessions in Brussels were already too little, too late in Léopoldville, Luluabourg, and Stanleyville. The Congolese had had enough.

Ten days after the Congo commission delivered its conclusions to the Belgian government, but before the report could be published, Léopoldville exploded. When police banned a gathering of the Alliance de Ba-Kongo (ABAKO), a tribal cultural society cum political party with widespread support in the capital, three days of rioting ensued. Fifty Africans died, 250 were wounded, and, most ominous of all in Belgian eyes, fifty Europeans were injured. A deeply divided Belgian cabinet hastily announced that it would adopt the advisory commission's recommendations. It vaguely hinted that independence was Belgium's long-term goal for the Congo. But it did nothing to alter the behavior of the colonial administration, set no time tables, and made no start at organizing an orderly transition of power.

As a result, the "concessions" only inflamed passions in the Congo. While politicians in Brussels debated over the wisdom of the over-cautious steps they had just taken and wondered how they might get out of their commitments, Joseph Kasavubu, the conservative, nationalist leader of ABAKO, angrily rejected the entire government proposal. He demanded nothing less than immediate, unconditional independence. A broad spectrum of the country's hitherto tentative and splintered political parties coalesced around Kasavubu's position. Belgium was stunned, completely at a loss. That the Congolese might reject Belgian largesse had never occurred to the ministers and deputies gathered in Brussels. As rioting spread to other cities, the colonial administration began to disintegrate. The Belgian police found themselves unable to control events. The territorial army or Force Publique proved unreliable. In Belgium itself, popular opinion barred any intervention from the home land. The unions and the socialist parties rallied round the slogan, "not one soldier for the Congo," while cautious government ministers agreed that no one wanted a huge and costly war of attrition like that being fought in French Algeria.

Faced with this crisis, the government in Brussels reacted with typical decisiveness: it convened another conference to study the matter further. This time, though, it invited various Congolese leaders and foreign representatives to a meeting at Brussels, in January 1960. Belgium probably hoped that lengthy negotiations would let it exploit the ethnic divisions and individual rivalries that had always splintered the African opposition in the past. But the strategy backfired badly. Ably led by Patrice Lamumba, a charismatic leftwing politician from eastern Congo, the Congolese delegation maintained a militantly united front from the first. It never strayed from the fundamental demand expressed in Kasavubu's manifesto: immediate severance of all ties with Belgium. Faced with such unanimity and with little effective opposition from the ill-prepared Belgian delegation, the international conference recommended unconditional independence for the Congo, effective in six months.

Belgium's oppressive colonial policy now came back to haunt it. No elections had ever been held in the Congo. There were no experienced Congolese administrators or civil servants. The entire nation of 14 million people had only 16 university graduates and 136 high-school graduates. There were no native doctors, teachers, or army officers. This would have been bad enough had there been a well-organized, unified political front to take over from the colonial authorities. But political parties had been banned until 1959, and no broad, ideologically based political organizations existed. Tribal hatreds fostered by years of Belgian policy and by the corruption endemic in the administration created a fractured, suspicious polity. Congolese political parties were thus almost entirely based on ethnic and regional loyalties. There were hundreds of tribal and cultural associations led by naive and ambitious local strongmen. Kasavubu's ABAKO drew its support all but entirely from the Ba-Kongo ethnic group. It worked not for a united modern republic, but for a revival of the sixteenth-century Kingdom of Kongo that had once stretched across lower Congo and northern Angola, where many Ba-Kongos still lived. CONAKAT, founded by Moise Tshombe, was the party of the "true Katangans," southerners who opposed incursions by other ethnic groups into northern Katanga province. BALUBAKAT represented the interests of the rival Baluba ethnic group in south Kasai and north Katanga. Only Patrice Lamumba's large Movement Nationale Congolese (MNC) made any serious effort at recruiting members without regard to tribal affiliation. Even so, it drew most of its support from the tribal groups of eastern Orientale and Kivu provinces. Lacking any experience of government and any real sense of nationhood, the leaders of these associations saw political power as a way of advancing tribal interests and personal prestige.

Faced with insurmountable obstacles of its own making and with independence only months away, Belgium simply gave up. The colonial administration did nothing to smooth the transition. It let the Congo slide rapidly into anarchy and barbarism. When its rightwing white commander, Gen. Emile Janssens, announced that independence would have no immediate effect in the Force Publique and that no African officers would be commissioned in the near future, troops mutinied. Units brought in to restore order joined the mutineers, attacked their officers, and turned on the officers' families. Ill-trained and inexperienced Congolese sergeants could not maintain discipline in such circumstances, even when they wished to. Gangs of armed, uniformed troops looted shops, raped women in their homes, and indiscriminately beat and terrorized Europeans in the street. Léopoldville's European population fled en masse across the river to relative safety in Brazzaville. Non-African inhabitants of the interior found themselves under siege. Some were murdered or raped, and many more were robbed and beaten. Nor did the hated "whites" have a monopoly on suffering. In the mounting chaos, many old scores and newborn resentments were settled with machetes, spears, and the rifles and machine guns of mutinous soldiers. In Kasai province, genocidal warfare raged between Baluba and Lulua tribesmen, while well-armed "true"-Katangan paramilitary units systematically massacred Balubas in north Katanga.

This disaster was the result of a Belgian policy of paternalism. While the British and the French cultivated a civil service class in their colonies, the Belgians didn't. They wanted children and that left the resource rich country in utter turmoil. Unlike in India, where there was a leadership of trained lawyers and politicians ready to assume power, the Congo had anger, but no one to run the country. The Belgians had no intent on ever letting the Congolese run their own affairs and liked the factionalism which had kept them in control. Remember, Algerians were not only commissioned in the French Army, but attended the Sorbonne. Indians had attended Oxford and Cambridge, including Ghandi and Nehru. India also had a legacy of both civil and military leadership at the lower levels. There were also Indian pilots and sailors. But in the Belgian Congo, the locals were expected to always need a Belgian master. All intellectual prowess was in Belgian hands. Which would turn into a bloody disaster after independence.

posted by Steve @ 9:25:00 AM

9:25:00 AM

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