|During the period of formal African independence, imperialist powers, the African elite and radical nationalists each attempted to influence the structure of post-colonial society. As A. Adu Boahen observed, in an environment of mostly hastily negotiated self-determination and increasing collaboration between neo-colonialists and the new ruling class, the basic legal and bureaucratic systems "bequeathed by the colonial administrations, [did] not undergo any fundamental changes in any of the independent African states."i In assessing the importance and significance of African "independence", it is important to identify the forces that led to self-rule, what changes occurred as a result, and how the goals of the new ruling class related to those of the general population.
In the Belgian Congo, the political and social forces of nationalist leaders, conservative elites and imperialist governments conflicted violently over a short period of time and provide a microcosm for the way these forces acted in much of Africa. Following official independence in the Congo, Belgium pursued the same interests as the other major imperialist powers (maintenance of the neo-colonial system). The extreme actions taken by various factions in this conflict demonstrate their interests more clearly than in many other parts of the continent where these struggles assumed more subtle and diplomatic natures. It is not the purpose of this paper to prove how events in the Congo mirrored those throughout the continent. However, in studying the events there, it may become clearer that the actors in that former colony were pursuing the same interests as the actors in the rest of de-colonized Africa.
The origin of the current Congolese state lies with the brutal reign of King Leopold II of Belgium who personally owned and ruled the colony for a quarter-century, killing half of its inhabitants. Despite the horrific accounts that were publicized at the time mostly by British propagandists, it was by no means exceptional. As Adam Hochschild rightly notes in his account of this era, in many other areas such as French Equatorial Africa and German South West Africa, "the rape was just as brutal."ii After the Belgian government took over the administration of the colony, a system arose that, although highly centralized, disregarded the needs of the people in favour of economic interests. American, Belgian and other European companies profited immensely from mining and the extraction of rubber in the colony. Forced labour was common. Education was limited to missionary indoctrination. Travel outside of and within the colony was restricted. As one Belgian radical noted, "We are developing the economy of the Congo to the detriment of its peoples."iii
Walter Rodney has observed, "Under African conditions, anyone who went to school in the colonial period virtually entered the elite, because the numbers enjoying that privilege even at the primary level were so small."iv At independence, the Congo had only seventeen university graduates, a small number even for colonial Africa. Another way of limiting advancements for Africans and ensuring their loyalty to the colonial system, was the "civic merit card" system in which Congolese could theoretically advance in 'civilization' by adopting European customs. Service in the Force Publique, the repressive domestic military branch, was another means to advancement. The Force Publique was often used to exploit regional tensions for 'divide and rule' purposes, and in a colony with several hundred distinct "ethnic groups" this was relatively easy to do.v
The only way to avoid the worst of colonial exploitation for Africans under Belgian rule was to embrace that same repressive colonial system. The inherent conflict in the condition of peoples subjugated under such a system has been examined quite carefully by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin White Masks. While it is not necessary to delve into this examination of personal identity and conflict, it is worth keeping in mind that the system of colonialism had a devastating effect on the self-image and identity of 'successful' colonized people. In the context of African elites' complicity in the neo-colonial plans of their colonizers, Fanon's ideas and Du Bois' concept of "double-consciousness" are important to remember.vi
Although the complexities of the conflict were great, three main factions can be identified in the process of de-colonization in the Belgian Congo, the first of which was the former imperialist powers. As they have repeatedly stated since the formal independence of their African colonies, the former colonial powers have been concerned primarily with the preservation of 'order' and 'stability' in Africa. This conservative approach was a way of maintaining as much of the colonial machinery as possible while still "granting" formal independence. As Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA in 1960, wrote concerning the Congo, "In high quarters here, it is the clear-cut conclusion that if [Lumumba] continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will be at best chaos and at worst pave the way to Communist takeover of the Congo with disastrous consequences… for the interests of the free world."vii Since the fall of its empires, the primary goal of the West has been to prevent popular anti-imperialist revolutions such as that which occurred in Cuba. As Ludo De Witte has recognized concerning the post-colonial period, the fear of "communism" provided convenient cover for the neo-colonial plans of the West with remarkably little opposition from the Soviet Union.viii
The second political player during this period was the community of Western-educated Africans who used their small influence within the colonial system to criticize European rule. Edmond J. Keller has identified the Belgian government's attempt to set up a "'buffer' class, educated in Belgian culture and supportive of the system."ix However, contrary to the plans of the Belgians, this Congolese "buffer class", as in the rest of Africa during this period, became increasingly resentful of Belgian domination of the colonial state. The independence movement begun by this class was concerned primarily with putting African elites into high-level positions within the existing political structure, while removing Belgium's formal claim over the colony. As Ludo De Witte has written concerning one such leader's Independence Day speech, "the Africans, he implies, will be ministers, will drive luxury cars and live in beautiful houses but, behind the scenes, will allow the Europeans to continue pulling all the strings without fear of being contradicted."x
This view of post-colonial society contrasted greatly with the interests of the people of the Congo. The interests of this, the largest of the three groups, lay in the dismantling of the colonial system and the democratic nationalist reforms proposed by Patrice Lumumba. Unlike the majority of other anti-colonial African elites in the Congo and throughout Africa, Lumumba was interested in a revolutionary transformation of society after independence. Among the proposals that he advocated were the full revision of the colonial legal system and its laws, while rigidly defending Congolese "economic independence" by not allowing any "foreign countries… to force any policy of any sort whatsoever on us."xi As he stated in his Independence Day speech,
We [the Congolese people] have had our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but was only a recognition of the right of the strongest.… We are [now] going to see to it that the soil of our country really benefits its children. We are going to review all the old laws and make new ones that will be just and noble.xii
Although certainly not every Congolese peasant supported his nationalism, Lumumba was the only national politician to receive support from every province in the country. According to Basil Davidson, "The notion of a Congolese nation might be a chimera, but the notion soon won ground that a coalition of nationalities, organized in as many parties or movements and dubbed 'a nation', could possibly push for substantial gains against the colonial system."xiii
The process of independence in Africa was one that was largely orchestrated by the colonial powers. Following World War II and especially the independence of India in 1947, the Western powers gradually came to terms with the inevitability of the disintegration of their empires. In order to make this process as painless as possible for themselves, France and Britain ensured that their departing colonial possessions remained within a "French Community" or "British Commonwealth".xiv For every new African state in the 1960s aside from Algeria, independence came as a result of negotiation with the imperial government. In few African countries was independence "won" as a result of conflict or the thorough disruption of the colonial machinery through widespread protest as in India.xv As a result, independence throughout Africa was "granted" by the colonial powers, who were thus able to maintain great leverage in determining the course of post-colonial society.xvi
Belgium, like Portugal, had not prepared itself or its colonies as well as Britain or France had for a 'neo-colonial independence'. As a result of its ill-preparedness, Belgium was compelled to take a much more active and forceful role in framing the future of the Congo. As Ludo De Witte has pointed out, it was partly Belgium's refusal to prepare the colony for independence until so late that caused the Congolese nationalist anti-colonial movement under Lumumba to become as radical as it did. In 1956, Lumumba wrote a remarkably conservative critique of colonialism, Le Congo, terre d'avenir, est-il menaçé?.xvii Yet four years later as he addressed the gathering at Congo's independence celebration, he referred to Belgian colonialism as "the humiliating slavery that was forced upon us."xviii
The course of events in the Congo immediately following independence was to have a devastating effect not only on that country but also on Central Africa and the African independence movement in general. As in the rest of Africa, progressive leaders in Congo's Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) sought to create national unity and reject regional fragmentation.xix However, such potentially revolutionary nationalism contradicted the interests of the departing Belgians, who had ruled the colony for eighty years by deliberately suppressing any nationalist independence sentiments. As a result, the Belgian government and the United Nations gave de facto support to the Katangan secession until after the elimination of the MNC's leader Patrice Lumumba. As Ludo De Witte has clearly described, the common aspirations of the Western neo-colonialists and the moderate African leaders were being impeded by the work of militant nationalist leaders of the MNC. As Congolese leaders such as President Joseph Kasa Vubu sought to maintain stability within the existing order, they were increasingly forced to turn to the Belgian government and other neo-colonial supporters in order to further their aims. While it was Lumumba himself who had invited the United Nations to defend the national integrity of the country in the face of mutiny from underpaid anti-nationalist troops and secession in Katanga and South Kasai provinces, the UN, in practice, worked in the interests of its Western power base.xx
As in much of Africa, the independence movement in the Congo was not very old by the time that independence came in 1960. While Britain was preparing self-rule for the Gold Coast in 1955, a Belgian professor was labeled a radical for proposing that Belgium should grant independence to the Congo by 1985. After 1948, the few Congolese who had gained "civic merit cards" began modest agitation within the repressive constraints of the colonial system. They advocated a gradual move towards self-rule based on Congolese nationalism and Belgian co-operation. In early 1959, a protest in the capital resulted in the massacre of forty-nine demonstrators by the police, and public opinion in Belgium began to change as the tide of independence was gaining strength across Africa. Basil Davidson has also identified another strategy on the part of the Belgians: "It appears that Brussels now calculated that a very rapid transfer of political power to inexperienced men and conflicting parties could be the best way of prolonging the underlying colonial structure for a long time ahead."xxi Congolese political parties began to emerge in earnest, and an independence date was proposed for January 1961. The Belgians responded by fixing a date for June 30, 1960. Again, in the words of Davidson, "Independence came, and, as tension after tension erupted through the frailties of a régime without unity or roots, chaos came with it."xxii
At this point, the Belgian government sought to seize the opportunity to exert its will over the newly independent country. Because Patrice Lumumba's MNC party was the only party to gain support throughout the entire country, he was seen as a threat. However, after Lumumba's fiery Independence Day speech and a mutiny of Force Publique troops, Belgian soldiers and mercenaries orchestrated the secession of Katanga province under the leadership of an African, Moise Tshombe. Lumumba's government asked for United Nations' assistance in protecting the government from collapse and putting down the secessionists. However, American and European pressure from within the UN caused the UN troops to protect the illegal secessionist Katangan state from local opposition. When Prime Minister Lumumba and President Joseph Kasa Vubu mutually dismissed each other, and parliament voted that Lumumba's was the sole legal government, UN troops prevented him from addressing the country by radio and refused to offer him protection from Kasa Vubu's troops (led by Joseph Mobutu) outside of his own house, where he became a virtual prisoner. Meanwhile, the American and Belgian governments had simultaneously concluded that "the main aim to pursue in the interests of the Congo, Katanga and Belgium is clearly Lumumba's élimination définitive [definitive elimination]."xxiii With UN troops under strict orders not to protect him, Lumumba was arrested by Kasa Vubu's troops, who under Belgian pressure later sent him to Katanga where Belgian and Katangan officials immediately murdered him.xxiv
Following the death of Lumumba and various other nationalist politicians, the imperial powers, having accomplished the most difficult part of their mission, thrust their support behind the remaining conservative politicians. When in 1965 Joseph Mobutu consolidated all power in himself and set about a highly undemocratic, politically repressive course of action, he was fêted by Western governments as a great ally who had saved Central Africa from the "tyranny" Lumumba supporters.xxv The rule of Mobutu, which lasted until 1996, provided Belgium and the rest of the West with an opportunity to continue to build their economic interests within a stable, if repressive, social environment.
However, of greatest importance to the future of independent Africa were the ideologies of those who would inherit the reigns of the independent states. As is readily evident in the writing of many of these men, this group held a deep and sincere admiration of European society, culture and political history. As Kwame Nkrumah wrote, "In two days time our colonial relationship with Britain will end, but we part with the warmest feelings of good will."xxvi This came from a man who had himself been imprisoned by the same British colonial power. The fact that these leaders came from the Western-educated "buffer class" was a sign that any post-colonial society would by no means be a retreat from European cultural influence. In addition, the significance of the British Commonwealth, the French Community and the Treaty of Friendship between Belgium and its colonies is indicative of the relationship striven for by the post-colonial leadership in Africa.
As Thomas Kanza has noted, the fall of Lumumba and the subsequent rise of Mobutu's kleptocracy were as much caused by the outlook of many Congolese independence leaders themselves as by foreign intervention.xxvii The vision of independence held by most African elites in the late 1950s involved a simple transfer of power and an end to blatantly racist and repressive legislation. As Basil Davidson described, "The first tenet of [their] doctrine was that the colonial state would become the nation-state within existing frontiers. The second was that this nation-state should derive its institutions from the European power whose control they meant to escape."xxviii Thus, Lumumba's revolutionary proposals to rework some of these institutions were viewed unfavourably by many elite Congolese politicians.
In the context of the Congo, the maintenance of the colonial structure was a success for those elites who could most easily maintain their own power within such a system. In retrospect, the instability that has accompanied independence has been a great defeat for these politicians, many of whom have been killed or forced into exile due to unstable and/or repressive governments. However, during the period of African independence, the measures taken to imitate colonial structures and repress revolutionaries such as Patrice Lumumba were supported fully by most of the elite politicians who inherited these states.
The Belgian Congo offers an extreme example of conflict during the African independence movement. Although the Belgian government had not prepared itself well for the process of de-colonization, this lack of preparation did not fundamentally alter the desire of Belgium and its Western allies to maintain the old colonial order. As the interests of the West, conservative African elites and radical nationalists such as Patrice Lumumba clashed at the time of independence in Africa, the course of post-colonial society was set amid great political conflict. The way in which these forces interacted precluded the transformation of society which leaders such as Lumumba had envisioned.
i Boahen, A. Adu. African Perspectives On Colonialism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. (p. 98)
ii Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost. New York: Mariner Books, 1999. (p. 280)
iii quoted in Davidson, Basil. Africa In Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1978. (p. 273)
v see Hochschild, 1999 (p. 301) and Davidson, 1978 (ch. 25).
vi Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks
. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999 (1903).
vii quoted in De Witte, Ludo. The Assassination of Lumumba. New York: Verso, 2001. (p. 16)
viii see De Witte, 2001 (endnote #10 for ch. 7, p. 202)
ix Keller, Edmond J. "Decolonization, Independence
, and the Failure of Politics." in Africa, Third Edition
. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. (ch. 8, p. 164)
x De Witte, 2001 (p.1) about Joseph Kasa Vubu's speech on 30 June 1960.
xi Lumumba, Patrice. Lumumba Speaks. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1972. (p. 224, 223)
xii Lumumba, 1972 (p.221-222)
xiii Davidson, 1978 (p. 274)
xiv Countries that did not accept such unions were deliberately crippled, such as in Guinea where France attempted to undermine the progressive leadership of Sekou Touré at the expense of the general population.
Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. (p. 379)
xv Even in Portuguese Africa, the wars fought against the Portuguese were, in practice, wars to force the colonial powers to negotiate independence, as had happened in most of the rest of the continent. Even in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, the new Portuguese government that relinquished control in 1974 was able to maintain the dignity of having "granted" independence.
xvi Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1966. (ch. 1 "Concerning Violence")
xvii De Witte, 2001 (p. 175-177)
xviii Lumumba, 1972 (p. 221)
xx De Witte, 2001.
xxi Davidson, 1978 (p. 274)
xxii Davidson, 1978 (p. 275)
xxiii telegram from Belgium's African Affairs Minister Count Harold d'Aspremont Lynden on 6 October 1960 quoted in De Witte, 2001 (p. 47)
xxiv De Witte, 2001.
xxv De Witte, 2001 (p. 172)
xxvi Nkrumah, Kwame. I Speak of Freedom. New York: Praeger, 1961. (p. 95-96)
xxvii Kanza, 1979 (ch. 24 & 43)
xxviii Davidson, 1978 (p. 224)