Swedish UN troops during Congo Crisis

On 30 June 1960, the Belgian Congo, which had emerged out of the Scramble for Africa as the Congo Free State of King Leopold II, became independent as the Republic of the Congo. The country was ill-prepared for independence; political parties had only been allowed during the second half of the 1950s, and not until after riots in 1958 and 1959 did the Belgians begin to modernize their colonial structures in preparation for the coming change. The June date for independence was fixed at a meeting in Brussels in February 1960. The Belgians had created six provincial governments with competencies equal to those of the central government, an arrangement which naturally encouraged an immediate power struggle between the provinces and the center, once the Belgians had gone. In elections that May, one month before independence, Patrice Lumumba and his party, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC)/National Congolese Movement, won the most seats and on 30 May, Lumumba was made prime minister, while Joseph Kasavubu, a politically more moderate rival, became president. They had to rule a vast and unwieldy country with extremely difficult communications, a range of differing ethnic groups, and virtually no trained personnel.

Collapse into Violence

Within days of independence there were riots and then a mutiny by the Force Publique (armed forces) for better pay and conditions. A breakdown of law and order followed, leading to an exodus of Europeans. The problems the new country faced—a left–right struggle at the center, ambitious provincial leaders, a breakdown of law and order, and desperately few people with any kind of training—ensured that breakdown would lead to civil war. The immense mineral wealth of the Congo was another factor of great political importance since a number of western nations—the former colonial power, Belgium, with large-scale investments, the United States, and Great Britain—were simply not prepared to see this wealth lost to them or destroyed. They had, in consequence, compelling motives for intervention. Almost at once, a power struggle developed between Prime Minister Lumumba, who was accused of “selling” the country to the Soviets, and Moise Tshombe, the leading politician of Katanga (now Shaba) Province where the bulk of the country’s minerals were located, who was right-wing in his politics and had close ties with western business interests. The Congo was also to be the first black African country into whose affairs (originally quite legitimately through the United Nations) the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) would intervene: up to that time it had been largely a stranger to African politics. This meant that the Congo crisis became inextricably bound up with the Cold War. On 11 July, Tshombe announced that Katanga Province was seceding from the Congo; the following day, Lumumba appealed to the United Nations to help restore order and prevent the secession. Belgian troops, whose presence was deeply resented, had remained in the Congo after 30 June and their attempts to restore order made matters worse.

The United Nations

Under its secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations responded swiftly and sent a mixed force of Swedish and African troops to the Congo to keep the peace. The attempted secession of Katanga was followed by another would-be secession, this time by Kasai Province. As the UN force discovered, the task of maintaining order was formidable: the Congo, Africa’s third largest country, covered 2,345,095 square kilometers and consisted of more than 200 ethnic groups. Government forces managed to get control of Kasai Province quickly enough, but were insufficient to subjugate the rebellious Katanga Province. The Belgians, in fact, assisted Tshombe’s secession. Belgium had huge stakes in Katanga’s mineral wealth; it recruited mercenaries to safeguard Tshombe and the mines, while Tshombe himself was an adroit politician. Meanwhile, a power struggle developed between Lumumba and Kasavubu and in September Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba. The military commander, Lt. Col. Joseph Désiré Mobutu, then carried out his first coup and created a College of Commissioners to rule the country. Lumumba fell into the hands of the Commissioners and then was taken to Katanga where he was tortured before being murdered. The United Nations failed to intervene on his behalf and was widely blamed for allowing his murder, a black mark against the organization that remained for a considerable time. On 2 August 1961, Kasavubu appointed a new government with Cyrille Adoula as prime minister, and Antoine Gizenga, a Lumumbist, as his deputy. A new crisis arose in September 1961 when Dag Hammarskjöld, on a flight from Ndola in Northern Rhodesia to Katanga in order to negotiate with Tshombe, was killed in a crash that has never been adequately explained. At the end of 1962, UN forces finally moved against Katanga and brought its secession to an end on 15 January 1963. Tshombe went into exile.

Civil War

Events from independence to January 1963, when Katanga’s secession was brought to an end, were as much a United Nations effort to restore order as they were a civil war. But after the restoration of central government control, there followed a general deterioration in law and order. First came the Mulele rebellion in Kwilu Province, one of the country’s richest regions. Pierre Mulele had served briefly in Lumumba’s government. Early in 1964, his followers killed about 150 officials and his rebel army of not more than 4,000 became a major threat to the country’s stability. Meanwhile, in March 1964, about 400 members of the Katanga Gendarmerie crossed into Angola where Tshombe’s white mercenaries gave them military training. In June 1964, the last UN troops left the Congo and in the wake of their departure a new round of violence erupted. In July, Kasavubu invited Tshombe back from exile to replace Adoula as prime minister; Tshombe then raised a force of mercenaries to put down the Mulele rebellion in Kwilu and the northeast, on the Uganda border.

By that time, the eastern rebels had come to control about 500,000 square kilometers of territory. The Congolese Army, on the other hand, had virtually disintegrated. On 5 August, the rebels, who had named themselves the Popular Army of Liberation, captured Stanleyville (later Kisangani), the Congo’s third town. They allied themselves with the National Liberation Committee, consisting of left-wing exiles and Lumumbists. However, in pitched fighting between the Congolese Army and the rebels on 19 August, some 300 rebels were killed, including Mulele. The United States now intervened; Tshombe had sought its support early in August, and it now sent a number of air force transport planes and 50 paratroop guards, which it put at the disposal of the U.S. Ambassador. Tshombe appealed for African troops to help him fight the rebels and claimed that the rebellion had been stirred up by the People’s Republic of China. This was at least a possibility, as the Chinese, operating from their Burundi embassy, saw the chance of increasing their influence in the region. On 7 September the rebels, who still held Stanleyville, announced the formation of a government under a former Lumumbist, Christopher Gbeng. Meanwhile, Tshombe’s agents were recruiting South African and Rhodesian mercenaries at $280 a month. Tshombe’s agents worked hard to secure Organization of African Unity (OAU) backing for his position, but when the heads of state meeting took place in Cairo that October, he was refused permission to participate. In fact, Tshombe was dependent upon Belgian support and between 400 and 500 mercenaries led by the notorious Mike Hoare. Some of these mercenaries were then training the Congolese army to retake Stanleyville. On 24 November 1964, the United States used its transport planes to fly in 600 Belgian paratroopers to retake Stanleyville, where the rebels were holding 1,200 Europeans hostage. A number of these Europeans lost their lives in this operation while the remainder were either rescued or turned up later. The Congolese army, led by mercenaries, followed the Belgian paratroopers into Stanleyville.

Kasavubu, who saw Tshombe developing into a dangerous rival, now dismissed Tshombe whose Confédération Nationale des Associations Congolaises (CONACO)/Council of National Alliance of the Congo appeared to be winning the elections that were held that month. By the end of the month, the rebellion became increasingly disoriented. Even so, it was still dangerous, with forces consisting of the Simbas, including a number of ex-soldiers, and the Jeunesse, young untrained Mulelists who could be fanatical. The rebellion continued into March 1965, but by then the rejuvenated Congolese National Army, led by mercenaries, was winning the war. This army was a law to itself and carried out widespread terror tactics and slaughter among the civilian population. The mercenaries, who by then were being paid $560 a month, were responsible for a growing catalog of brutalities, which included torturing prisoners before killing them.

The Aftermath

On 24 November 1965, General (as he had since become) Mobutu took power, suspending President Kasavubu and his prime minister, Evariste Kimba, who had replaced Tshombe. Mobutu assumed all executive functions and was set to rule the country until his overthrow in 1997, 32 years later. It is impossible to be precise about the nature of the Congo Crisis, as it was called at the time; there were so many interventions—by the United Nations, the Belgians, the United States, big business interests, mercenaries—that it is difficult to say whether it was really a civil war or something else. How much were the attempted secessions of both Katanga and Kwilu foreign inspired? The crucial question about the crisis, which must remain unanswered is: what would have happened in the Congo had there been no interventions from outside?

Estimates of December 1964 suggested that the rebels had killed about 20,000 Congolese and that 5,000 of these had been killed in Stanleyville. The Congolese Army is reputed to have killed many thousands, often in reprisals, though no figures have been produced. The mercenaries killed people in the villages through which they passed and often did so out of wanton cruelty. Certain European deaths came to 175, less than the figure of 250 originally estimated for Stanleyville, when the Belgian paratroopers retook the town in 1964; many more Europeans were wounded. Possibly 300 Europeans died altogether from beginning to end of the crisis, and their deaths attracted most international media attention. A total figure of 30,000 deaths has been suggested, though the real casualties may have been much higher. Destruction to property and the general collapse of order did enormous long-term damage to the Congo. The interventions of the West were self-serving, having more to do with the preservation of western interests in the country’s mineral wealth than any desire to ensure peace. The mercenaries, whose behavior was barbaric, did the white cause in Africa great harm. Apologists for the mercenaries would argue that they were responding to equal barbarism perpetrated by the Congolese rebels whose brutalities against Congolese government officials were often appalling. The end result of this brutal civil war and collapse of order, which for a time made the name Congo synonymous with breakdown in Africa, was to be 32 years of dictatorship and what later came to be called state kleptocracy under Mobutu.

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