The Civil War of DRC

1960 is a famous year for “the year of Africa”. 17 African countries achieved independence and most of them joined to the United Nations within the same year. Right after the World War II, there were only four independent countries in the African continent. Starting from the northern part of Africa, the wave of independence movement swept the whole Africa and introduced the breakthrough in colonial rules with Ghanaian independence in 1957. One of the 17 countries who attained statehood in this year, which symbolises the era of African independence, was the Republic of the Congo (Léopoldville), currently called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). However, the Congo suffered from the civil war in spite of the people’s positive delight of independence around the African continent for years. The chaos in the Congo was caused because of the oppression pressed by the former colonial master Belgium and too much rapture which should be also called enthusiasm among the native Black people of the Congo.

The colonisation of the Congo by Belgium began in 19th Century. Leopold II, the King of Belgium, felt dissatisfaction at the fact that Belgian status was not so high among the Europe since it was a small country surrounded by the superpowers such as France and Netherlands. Not persuading the Belgian government which was not very positive with a colonisation, he established his private territory named “the Congo Independent State,” better known as the Congo Free State in 1885. He ruled Congo with a rod of iron and caused international criticism; for instance, he who cannot fulfil his tax obligation should have lost his arm or leg. His tyranny symbolised by such cruel laws sharply decreased Congolese population from 20 million to nine million meanwhile King Leopold II became the richest capitalist in the world. Many European countries very harshly ruled their colonies in that period, but Leopold II’s way was the worst of the worst. Due to the pressure of the international criticism, Leopold II sold the Congo to the Belgian government and the King’s private territory had become the official colony which was named Belgian Congo was newly established in 1909.

It is often said that the situation in the Congo had become much better during the Belgian colonial rule than Leopold II’s Congo Free State; however, it is still the fact that the land and its people suffered from reasonless violence and oppression based on racism. The people were poor even though the Congolese land produced abundant copper, cobalt, diamonds, zinc and Uranium because of exploitation done by the Belgian government and companies. Especially, Uranium produced in the Congo was used for atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The members of the colonial council were all white and topped by the Belgian colonial minister. The burden of the Congo was discussed by Belgian congress—never reflected Black opinions. The education system was based on European and Christian view of the world while the original Congolese standpoint was completely ignored and forgot. Thus, the gap of economy, politics and society between the native Black people and the White Belgians invited outrage amongst the original inhabitants.

As pan-Africanism swept the whole Africa in 1950’s, the Congo was not an exception. Political activists such as Patrice Emery Lumumba, who was the leader of the Congolese National Movement (MNC), and Joseph Kasa-Vubu, who was the leader of the Bakongos’ Alliance (ABAKO), and Moïse Kapenda Tshombe, who was the leader of the Confederation of Tribal Associations of Katanga (KONAKAT) were big men during the Congolese independence struggle. Lumumba of MNC was relatively moderate and called for united front to many groups from various political positions meanwhile Kasa-Vubu of ABAKO was a radical nationalist. MNC was the largest party in Africa at that time; however, the largest also meant the most complicated. The group was more moderate than ABAKO, but there were some radical nationalists in the group as the range of its members varied. MNC and ABAKO were good rivals, but this balance collapsed due to Riot of Léopoldville in 1959. The riot originated from a political demonstration in Léopoldville, but it became violent as nationalism rose in the Congo. Many members of ABAKO were arrested; as a result, the influence of MNC had been more significant. As its counter movement, while people formed “vigilante committee” named the European Volunteer Corps, which often unlawfully attacked the native Black people.

In the next year, the Congolese Round Table Conference was held in Brussels, Belgium since the demand of Congolese independence was increasingly high. Belgian government suggested that it needed at least 30 years to give independence to the Congo; but nonetheless, this nonsense was strongly and definitely denied by the Congolese representatives including Lumumba. Instead, 30 years had been shortened to less than six months—Congolese independence on 30th June 1960. 30 years was too long indeed, but One-sixtieth terms was also too short. In this conference, all the decided point was the thing that the Congo would get independent on 30th June of 1960. Other important factors such as the identification of ethnic groups, future political system and new roles of Belgium towards the Congo were never solved or determined as no one knew this crack would eventually kill more than 5.4 million people (“IRC Study,” 2007).

In May of 1960, the fist general election open to the native Black people was held in the Congo. MNC and its allies won 41 seats out of total 137 seats at the National Assembly and became the primary party while ABAKO gained 12 seats, the third most, and CONAKAT got eight seats, the fifth largest. The second largest party was African Solidarity Party, which won 13 seats, but it was basically “in solidarity” with MNC; therefore, ABAKO was same as the largest opposition party then. As for the Senate, MNC won 25 seats out of 84 seats, CONAKAT won seven, and ABAKO won five (“Elections in Congo-Kinshasa,” 2012). On 30th June, the Congo acquired independence from Belgium. Lumumba became the prime minister and Kasa-Vubu was inaugurated as the president by the parliament.

The central government was given with a strong authority even though federalists represented by CONAKAT opposed the idea of the big government. The Congo was and is consisted of various groups of ethnicities, religions and political thoughts—for instance, it is said that there are more than 250 ethnic groups reside, and many religions such as Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islam, Kimbanguist, other indigenous beliefs and syncretic sects are believed, and more than 200 languages, if includes dialects, more than 700 different tongues are spoken in the Congo (“the World Factbook,” 2015). These abundant diversity seem to easily cause harsh conflicts, however, Shinsuke Horiuchi and Sadaharu Kataoka points out on their work that the more ethnic groups exist in one country, the less conflicts occur and vice versa (Horiuchi & Kataoka, 2012). If so, what was the trigger?

As most war and conflicts in the world are caused by this reason, the chaos in the new-born Congo was triggered by economic issue. As mentioned above, the land of the Congo, especially southern part called Katanga produces abundant mineral resources like copper, cobalt and zinc. CONAKAT party, represented by Moïse Tshombe, was a united political party of Katanga and was supported by the Western countries such as the former colonial master Belgian government and enterprises. In July, Tshombe declared independence from the Congo and established a country called the State of Katanga, becoming the president of it because he was apprehensive of deprivation of profit made from mines in Katanga. This separatist movement brought a severe whirl around the Congo and led the area into storm of the civil war. Katanga had deep economic relations with the Northern Rhodesia, which was famous for its racist policy often compared with apartheid of South Africa. The Belgian government sent its army in Katanga in the name of “protecting domestic civilians” since it appealed to its people in the Congo for remaining in the country before. Then, the first civil war in the Congo had begun.

In terms of both economy and security, the southern part of the Congo represented by Katanga was better than the rest of the country. Tshombe and his sympathiser did not like sharing the economic profit of mining in Katanga with the whole Congo; and getting involved in the disorder in Léopoldville caused by the confusion of the independence. The Western countries, especially Belgium, wanted to support Katanga because Tshombe was pro-West unlike MNC-led central government which was ruled by Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu, who strongly hated the Belgian colonial period and its government. The central government applied the United Nations to delegate United Nations Forces to put down the rebellion; then the United Nations Operation in the Congo had formed soon and it was replaced with the Belgian forces in turn. However, United Nations did not get involved in the separatist movement in Katanga itself because it could break neutral spirit of the United Nations.

Lumumba did despair of “useless” United Nations and approached to the Soviet Union, and this incident eventually led Kasa-Vubu and the United States to distance them from him. The Soviet forces attacked southern part of the Congo and helped Lumumba’s government, but it also was involved in ethnic cleansing against Luba people. Kasa-Vubu criticised this massacre and dismissed Lumumba from the seat of a prime minister for it in September even though both the Lower Chamber and Senate supported Lumumba. During this chaos, the Congolese commander Joseph- Désiré Mobutu, later known as Mobutu Sese Seko launched a coup d’état, and took the authority control while denying both Kasa-Vubu’s and Lumumba’s government, and expelled Soviet forces. Later, Kasa-Vubu, who cooperated with Mobutu to recover stability in the Congo, was appointed to be the president. In January of 1961, Lumumba was assassinated by Katanga forces and this provoked the international outrage. The State of Katanga lost foreign support due to this unlawful and inhuman act, which resulted in collapse of the “country” in January 1963.

The Congo became one but the central government lost its trust and power because of long-term instability in terms of politics and security. Exploiting the unstable situation, communists started a new rebellion in the central and eastern part of the Congo. It is a famous story that even Ernest “Che” Guevara tried to start the revolution. This communist revolution is called Simba Rebellion and it was suppressed by the Belgian and American forces until December of the year. As an exception, Laurent- Désiré Kabila, who later overthrew Mobutu’s dictatorship in 1997, fought against the government until 1980’s. Over all, the second general election was held in 1965 and Tshombe-led Congolese National Convention (CONACO) scored an overwhelming victory. However, Kasa-Vubu thought Tshombe would be his great rival in the near future and displaced Tshombe from the prime minister. As the political tension rose again, Mobutu, again, staged coup d’état and had control over the whole authority in the Congo. The chaos has been solved but it left Mobutu’s notorious dictatorship.

To sum up, what caused and complicated the Congolese civil war were two points. One is the Western irresponsible policies on the Congo which should be represented by inefficient preparation for the independence and haphazard intervention to control the area and absorb the mining profit even after the independence. The other is that extraordinary ambitions dreamed by the “big men” and their sympathisers actively supported the conflict one after the other. It is pretty understandable that those who contributed to and celebrated the independence had much hope for becoming the top of the country but that cannot justify bearing instability in the newly born independent country which needs peace, not disorder.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s