Background of events in the DRC
by Ahmed Khan.
Located in central Africa, the Congo is one of the largest, most populous countries in the continent. Strategically located it borders nine countries; Angola, the Congo-Brazzaville, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia. Economically, the Congo is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of resources, with the western Capitalist countries obtaining seven percent of their tin, nine percent of their copper, forty nine percent of their copper, and sixty nine percent of their industrial diamonds from there in 1959.
Belgian colonialism witnessed the intense exploitation of this resource rich country, dominated by Belgian-owned firms. Apart from mining these resources, large latifundia and commercial farms produced cash crops destined for Brussels such as Cotton, rubber, coffee, tea and cocoa.
With the intensification of the freedom movement spearheaded primarily by the Mouvement Nationale Congolaise (MNC) founded and led by the leftist Patrice Lumumba, Belgium was compelled to abandon its colony in the Congo, however it reserved the right to play a major role in its subsequent history. To review the character of the major parties up to independence, the MNC was “the patriotic party enjoying most influence among the population…it stands for complete independence and unity of the country”
In alliance with it, stood the Parti Solidaire Africaine and the centre du regroupement Africaine which apart from independence called for the nationalization of plantations and industrial undertakings along with the participation of workers in the management of industry. The appeal of the MNC as opposed to its competitors can be explained largely by the fact that it was the only national party claiming to represent all Congolese whereas the other parties represented the interests of specific ethnic, tribal and regional groupings.
The largest party antagonistic to the MNC and its allies was the Association des Bakongo (ABAKO) led during the crisis by Joseph Kasavubu to represent the Bakongo ethnic group. Close to the Catholic Church, ABAKO “well known for its separatist tendencies became obedient executors of the will of the Imperialists”
Congo became independent with a coalition government formed between the MNC and ABAKO and various other smaller parties. Lumumba was made prime minister with Joseph Kasavubu in the largely ceremonial post of president. On 30th June 1960, at the formal independence ceremony held Leopoldville, the difference between the two was made immediately clear. In the presence of King Baudouin I of Belgium and his entourage, Lumumba in an impromptu speech lambasted Belgian colonialism and its racial policies. A particularly scathing part of his speech:
“Our lot was eighty years of colonial rule … We have known tiring labor exacted in exchange for salary which did not allow us to satisfy our hunger … We have known ironies, insults, blows which we had to endure morning, noon, and night because we were “Negroes” … We have known that the law was never the same depending on whether it concerned a white or a Negro … We have known the atrocious sufferings of those banished for political opinions or religious beliefs … We have known that there were magnificent houses for the whites in the cities and tumble-down straw huts for the Negroes.”
Just a few days later, an uprising broke out involving the 24,000-strong Force publique, the Belgian-created and officered army designed to perform both military and police functions. The problem was instigated by a Belgian officer Lieutenant-General Emile Janssens inscribing on the blackboard at force headquarters; “Before Independence=After independence”. This proved to be too much for the native soldiery, who long resented the poor conditions and impossibility to rise above the rank of noncommissioned officers (a post with no real authority and not included in the officer corps) for Africans.
The targets of the uprising were the Belgian officers and the roughly 100,000 Europeans remaining in the Congo. The uprising spread to Leopoldville, Stanleyville and Katanga. Panic-stricken, Europeans within the Congo began a mass exodus to nearby Congo-Brazzaville and Belgium. The monopoly of the European settlers of the administrative, military and economic apparatus of the state ensured that this spelt disorder and chaos in the newly-independent republic. To appease the rebellious troops, Lumumba dismissed the 1,135 Belgian officers and reorganized the Force Publique into the Congolese national army. Joseph Mobutu was named as the chief of staff of this new army.
At this juncture, the ideological split within the leadership became apparent. Joseph Kasavubu, who desired the retention of western influence and a pro-capitalist orientation for the state, Mobutu who also harbored sympathy for the conservative wing of the leadership were at loggerheads with the radicals; Lumumba, a firm advocate of socialism, supporter of the Soviet Union and critic of neo-colonial domination of poor countries who saw Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana as a model for economic development, Pierre Mulele; a Maoist who distinguished himself by his affinity to Peking and Antoine Gizenga his deputy prime minister. The conservatives resented the alienation of the Europeans from the new regime.
The crisis was further exacerbated when on July 10th, Belgium sent paratroopers in the towns of Kamina and Kitona in direct violation of Congo’s sovereignty under the pretext of protecting the European population. These areas were cleared of rebellious Congolese troops. Conservatives such as Kasavubu welcomed this intervention. However they were soon disappointed when the excesses of the Belgian troops brought the regime to near political collapse with the massacre of nearly a score of Congolese civilians in the town of Matadi on July 12th.
Moise Tshombe, head of the Katanga province, with Belgian backing announced the secession of mineral-rich Katanga from the Congo. Although conceding political independence, the Belgium was unwilling to give up its economic domination of the Congo. With its Gold, Uranium and Copper deposits, Katanga represented 80% of the country’s national economy and its only source of foreign exchange. Mining rights were given to a Belgian company, the Union Minere de haut Katanga who, by contract was to hold exclusive mining rights until 1990. The Belgian intervention and the secession of the Congo were designed to protect Belgian economic interests, along with those of the U.S and Western Europe from the threat posed by the radicals and nationalist Congolese leadership. Katanga’s claims to secession were bolstered not only by the Belgian regular troops but also by hundreds of white mercenaries mainly from South Africa and Rhodesia.
Enraged, Lumumba approached the United Nations. A peacekeeping force was dispatched to the Congo on the 15th of July 1960. This did not upset the Belgians as the secretary-general at the time Dag Hammerskjold was seen as a pro-U.S figure. The force itself was commanded by U.S and West European personnel. With the Congolese army still in disarray, Lumumba called on the U.N force to clamp down on the Belgian sponsored-Katanga secession. This was refused. In reaction, Lumumba cut off contact with Hammerskjold, accusing him of collaborating with the U.S and Europeans in the fragmentation of the Congo.
Lumumba then approached the Soviet Union and nearby African nationalist regimes for help. The Soviet Union provided transport aircraft, vehicles and a thousand technical advisors within a span of six weeks.
This move alarmed the conservatives Kasavubu and Mobutu along with the United States. CIA director Allen Dulles began describing Lumumba as an African Fidel Castro who would frustrate American policy in the region.
Preparations for overthrowing Lumumba were in full swing. This included an assassination attempt by the CIA which entailed poisoning Lumumba’s toothpaste, which was never carried out as Larry Devlin (the top CIA man in Congo at the time) couldn’t sneak it into Lumumba’s house before it expired. According to a thousand-page Belgian parliamentary report released in 2002 on the events in the Congo, the CIA had by August 1960 launched the covert ‘Project Wizard’ which included providing hundreds of thousands of dollars to political opponents of Lumumba and the nationalists including president Kasavubu, Mobutu (who commanded the loyalty of a section of the Congolese army), labor leader Cyrille Adoula, foreign minister Justin Bomboko, top finance aide Albert Ndele and Joseph Ileo the senate president. According to the joint CIA-Belgian plan, Ileo and Adoula would put engineer a no-confidence vote against Lumumba’s government, followed by union-led strikes, culminating in the resignation of cabinet ministers (organized by Ndele) and the dismissal of Lumumba by Kasavubu.
According to declassified U.S documents, beginning on the 1st of September 1960, the U.S National Security Council (NSC) authorized payments to Kasavubu. On the 5th of the same month, Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba from the post of prime minister. An enraged Lumumba declared Kasavubu’s presidency terminated. Lumumba then proceeded to rally support within the Congolese parliament. On the international scene, the Soviet Union managed to win support amongst the African and Asian countries to recognize Lumumba as the legitimate head of government.
In the midst of this constitutional crisis, Andrew Cordier, the American head of the U.N mission in the Congo shut down Leopoldville’s pro-Lumumba radio station (thereby hampering Lumumba’s ability to rally support) and it’s airport, to prevent Soviet planes from transporting Congolese troops loyal to Lumumba to defend him.
Despite the Belgian and U.S role in destabilizing the government, Dag Hammerskjold, the U.N secretary-general reserved his condemnation of outside unilateral assistance in the Congo only for the Soviet Union. However, Kasavubu was unable to act decisively against Lumumba, as he had no mass following nor the popularity that the latter enjoyed. On the 14th of September, Mobutu, who was identified by the U.S as its surest bet due to the following he commanded in a faction of the army, carried out a coup, retaining Kasavubu as the president, holding Lumumba under house arrest and establishing a ‘college of commissioners’ to replace the disbanded government. This formation was funded directly by the CIA including a one-time payment of over $200,000 and arms, ammunition and sabotage materials.
In the UN session on the 23rd of September 1960, Soviet chairman Nikita Khruschev reaffirmed support for Lumumba and reserved the right to militarily assist pro-Lumumba forces. A few days earlier, the Soviets had abstained from a Security Council resolution forbidding all outside military intervention and support to any forces in the Congo except through the United Nations. The reason was obvious; the Soviets had correctly perceived the UN in the Congo as merely an extension of U.S foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Lumumba’s former deputy prime minister Antoine Gizenga had organized a separate pro-Lumumba government in the Orientale province, determined to oust the U.S-Belgian backed government in Leopoldville. At the time, therefore, four separate entities claimed to represent the Congo. At the capital Kasavubu and Mobutu rallied the conservatives, in Katanga Moise Tshombe retained his government, Albert Kalondji declared himself the king in the short-lived secession of southern Kasai and in the Oreintale, Gizenga organized Lumumba loyalists. Almost immediately, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Nasser’s Egypt, Sekou Toure in Guinnea, the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Czekosloavkia, and other Eastern European states recognized Gizenga as the legitimate government of the Congo. This recognition was backed up by increasing military supplies.
The CIA had, by the 20th of November begun stepping up its deliveries of arms, ammunition, sabotage materials and training to Mobutu’s army in the event that a military showdown took place between pro and anti-Lumumba forces.
On the 27th of November 1960, Lumumba eluded his captors escaping in a foreign diplomat’s car. He made for the Orientale province to join Gizenga and his forces. On the 1st of December 1960, he was caught en-route by Mobutu’s troops on the banks of the Sankuru River, with the active help of the CIA, who was tracking his movements. Upon capture, he was taken and beaten in front of media cameras in Mobutu’s private villa. However, his captivity was to be short-lived. His immense popularity throughout the country, even amongst his own prison guards, was to make him too much of a liability for the usurpers of the government. On the 17th of January 1961, he was transferred to Katanga, in the hands of his arch-enemy, Moise Tshombe. This decision was transmitted by Mobutu to the CIA three days in advance and was carried out with the overt support of the then-Belgian minister of African affairs and the Foreign Minister.
The same day (barely five hours later) Lumumba and two comrades caught with him were tortured and shot by firing squad, supervised by four Belgian officers, and in the presence of Tshombe and other members of the Katanga government. To hide the murder, Belgian troops dug up the bodies, hacked them to pieces and dissolved them in concentrated sulphuric acid procured from a nearby Belgian-run mine. A cover story was aired on Katangese radio involving an escape attempt by Lumumba ending in his killing by enraged villagers. However, no one was taken in by it. Thus, the first (and only) elected leader of the Congo was murdered, in connivance with the very states that posed as champions of ‘Democratic’ principles.
Mobutu and Kasavubu now acting in concert deported Soviet technicians and materials, and arrested Gizenga. The U.N general assembly in 1961 opened with strong denunciations of the U.S and Belgium from the Soviets and the newly independent states of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In particular, the Soviets accused the U.N and its general-secretary, Dag Hammerskjold as being directly complicit in the murder. Tshombe was termed ‘Africa’s most unpopular African’ for his role in the murder.
To consolidate the new pro-western government, the U.N in September 1961, began to clamp down on the Katanga secession, something that it deemed too difficult to do in Lumumba’s lifetime. Hammerskjold died when his plane crashed near Ndola airport while departing for negotiations with Tshombe. Subsequent enquiries into his death by the U.N, despite opposition by Tshombe, brought to light evidence of Belgian complicity once again. Katanga was Brussel’s turf.
Following the end of the Katanga secession, Tshombe was made the prime minister in 1964. Paradoxically, he helped defeat another rebellion in a break-away province, Oreintale.
Lumumba’s murder and the abolition of Gizenga’s government led to the outbreak of the Simba (Swahili for ‘Lion’) rebellion. Based in the Orientale province, it was led by former members of Gizenga’s government, the Maoists Mulele, Soumaliot and Gbenye. At one point succeeding in controlling two-thirds of the Congo, the movement was only crushed by the military intervention (once again) of the U.S and Belgium in an operation titled operation ‘Dragon Rouge’ (once again under the cover of protecting and evacuating white residents) and the use of white mercenaries from Rhodesia, South Africa and Belgium. After the defeat of the Simbas, Mulele was subsequently killed by gouging out his eyes and hacking off his limbs one-by-one under Mobutu’s regime.
After holding corrupt elections, Tshombe was forced to flee to Spain. In November 1965, Mobutu staged another CIA-sponsored coup and accused Tshombe of treason In Abesentia, Kasavubu had fled, removed from his post of president. The foreign policy objectives of the U.S and most of Western Europe had come full circle. Mobutu, their identified tool had concentrated absolute power in his hands.
Mobutu went about setting up an anti-communist, one-man dictatorship that was seen as the very picture of Kleptocracy in Africa.
In 1965, another Lumumbist armed movement was underway to overthrow Mobutu. Led this time, by the young Marxist Laurent Kabila, with Soviet and . The Cuban revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara also landed in the Congo as Kabila’s military assistant, accompanied by guerrillas of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) from nearby Angola. However, the operation was a fiasco in Che’s estimation, forcing him to return to Cuba. The Maquis (Resistance) to Mobutu continued throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Mobutu embarked on a program of ‘Zairianization’, which included re-naming the country Zaire (its 14th century name) and abolishing Christian and European names for people and places. Thus, Leopoldville was renamed Kinshasa and Joseph Mobutu became Mobutu Sese Seko.
American aid to strengthen the new regime intensified, cumulative American military aid till 1977 amounted to a total of U.S $589 million. Economic assistance for the same period was $468 million, discounting American private investments, which accounted for $750 million in 1975. Much of this capital was to find its way into Mobutu’s personal account or those of his relatives and loyalists. The regime was characterized by its uncontrolled corruption. Mobutu retained personal control of between 15 to 20 percent of the national operating budget and 30 percent of its capital expenditures. Famous examples of the corruption of the regime include the former minister of culture auctioning off artifacts purloined from the national museum as his personal property. In 1971 it was reported that more than 60 percent of governmental allocations had either been lost or been diverted for purposes not originally designed. The corruption of the regime reduced the economy of Africa’s once ‘Most industrially developed country’ (Great Soviet Encyclopedia) into shambles. By 1978 inflation had hit 100 percent. The once agriculturally self-sufficient country with the potential to feed the whole continent and a major agricultural exporter had reverted to subsistence farming on all but 1 percent of the land. This due to the fact that Mobutu’s uncle imported vital foodstuffs under exclusive license from South Africa, while countries such as the Ivory Coast with far fewer agricultural resources prospered. Despite all of this, American and west European capital continued to rain in, due to Mobutu’s preservation of their economic assets in the country.
In exchange for an annual payment of $50 million, Mobutu even compromised Zaire’s sovereignty, granting the West Germans concessionary rights to 38,000 square miles of northeast Shaba, for the latter to test cruise missiles on Zairian soil.
Despite, or perhaps precisely because of, the corrupt and reactionary nature of the regime, Mobutu enjoyed extremely close relations with the U.S and Western Europe; Belgium, Britain, West Germany and France in particular. Indeed, the sheer extent of corruption and unpopularity of the regime had rendered it unable to meet even internal threats without outside help. In March 1977 small groups of Guerrillas launched attacks from northern Angola on the Zairian army in an operation termed Shaba I. The seventy-thousand strong Zairian army crumbled under the attacks, the regime was saved only by the intervention of fifteen hundred Moroccan troops. In May 1978, once again the regime was on the verge of collapse in Shaba II, saved only by the intervention of French Legionnaires and Belgian paratroopers.
Ideologically, Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) served as a bastion of anti-communism, dedicated to prevent Communist or Radical African Nationalist movements emerging in central, eastern or southern Africa. In foreign policy, Zaire was completely subservient to American geo-political interests. The most prominent example being Zaire’s patronization of the FNLA, led by Mobutu’s brother-in-law Roberto Holden (A party opposed to the Marxist pro-Soviet MPLA-then fighting Portuguese colonialism- A key NATO country). Zaire served as a conduit of CIA funds and base of operations for both the FNLA and UNITA (another Angolan anti-communist party, patronized primarily by South Africa, led by Jonas Savimbi).
Apart from working to prevent an MPLA victory in Angola, Zaire worked to thwart Samora Machel’s FRELIMO in Mozambique and ZANU and ZAPU in Zimbabwe.
Mobutu was finally ousted in 1997 by a coalition of forces led Laurent Kabila and the Rwandan Tutsi militia under the banner of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL). Following the ADFL victory, Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is estimated that Mobutu had embezzled more than $5 billion from the Congolese state and people, making him the third-most corrupt world leader and most corrupt African head of state, in history. Mobutu fled into exile in Togo and eventually died in Morocco.
The end of Mobutu, however, did not spell the end of U.S and European interference in the Congo. Kabila, another Marxist and outspoken critic of neo-colonialism, embarked on a leftist economic and social program. Young Congolese were organized into a ‘national service’ to rebuild the country’s ruined infrastructure and undertake agricultural projects, Cantines populaires (people’s canteens) combated food insecurity in the cities and comités du pouvoir populaire (Committees of Popular Power) served as the grassroots organization of popular political power. In addition an economic program was drawn up and presented in 1997 in opposition to IMF and World Bank dictates.
Kabila was no more palatable to the west than Lumumba. Once again the U.S and Western Europe began to use Rwandan and Ugandan forces as proxies to get rid of the Kabila regime. The Rwandan and Ugandan armies (former Tutsi allies of the ADFL), and Mobutu loyalists within the Congolese army began an armed rebellion led by guerrilla commander Laurent Nkunda, Bemba and then-Rwandan minister of defense Paul Kagame, in 1998 (armed and funded by the U.S and Belgium, primarily). Stretching till 2003, this intervention (or more appropriately, foreign invasion of the Congo by Rwanda and Uganda) claimed the lives of more than five million Congolese, including counter-massacres of Hutu civilians in the DRC by Tutsi troops. Throughout the war, Belgium declared on numerous occasions its ability and willingness to intervene with its paratroopers. The DRC was supported primarily by China, Zimbabwe and Angola.
Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila. The last conflict termed ‘Africa’s first world war’ ended in 2003, due to the unpopular nature of the foreign intervention on the one hand, and Joseph Kabila’s acceptance of IMF and World Bank strictures, something that won him acceptance in Washington and Brussels.
However, recently violence has once again flared up in the Congo, where the U.S and west European countries have given their backing to a reinvigorated push by the pro-Imperialist Ugandan and Rwandan governments and their local puppet Laurent Nkunda through his `Congress for the defense of the people’ (CNDP- In reality, just Mobutu remnants). It is estimated that the military aggression has led the displacement of over 45,000 people from camps for the internally-displaced, fearing death at the hands of the `Lord’s Resistance Army’ (LRA) (Patronized by Uganda) and the CNDP. What we are witnessing here is another two-pronged foreign intervention in the DRC. The UN “peacekeeping” mission in the DRC, one of the largest deployments in the world, has been unwilling to engage in fighting against Nkunda, has merely melted away in the face of this foreign aggression. Where the roots of it lie is rather obvious. Given the justifiable contempt in which the Congolese people hold the U.N and the western Imperialists, frustration with UN inaction has led to episodes of civilians launching attacks against the UN troops, apart from resisting Nkunda’s adventurism.
Why is this taking Place? Why now at this time? Lets keep in mind that quite recently the Chinese signed a multi-Billion dollar deal that envisaged the construction of Roads, infrastructure and construction projects, as opposed to the withholding of aid by the imperialists on the pretext of `corruption’ and `lack of democracy’. According to this deal, touted as arguably the most ambitious on the African continent, a 3,400 km highway will be constructed linking North-eastern Congo with the Zambian border to the south. In addition, a 3,200 km railway will link the key mining heartland to the port of Matadi. The deal also calls for the investment of 2- billion dollars for the revitalization of state-owned mines, in return for contracts for the sale of its products to China, out of which the DRC will retain a 63% stake in revenue (including taxation and royalties).
It is clear that the Western Imperialists are unwilling to allow Africa to turn to alternative states for trade. This episode is merely a reminder that they are willing to go to any lengths to scuttle any deal that impinges on their interests on the African continent, long viewed as their exclusive monopoly. Let us not forget that the U.S-European Axis now also has established a NATO command on African soil. This is merely the beginning of a protracted struggle for Africa to cast off its historical colonial shackles and emerge as truly independent socialist states. Who said the Cold War was over?
Death to Neo-Colonialism!
Socialism is our Future!
Ahmed Khan is a member of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (Communist Workers and Peasants Party) of Pakistan and is currently based in Mauritius, Africa. Other article by the author can be found here.