Reading about the 50th anniversary of the independence of the Congo (that is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or RDC) brought all the memories back. It was the story of how the vast area in the centre of Africa that had been run for eighty years, first brutally, then paternalistically, by one of the smallest and least substantial countries of Europe, had been plunged into a poorly-planned independence, and triggered a major international crisis.
Assumptions about Africa’s seamless progress to independence were shaken, and the dreams of what the continent could become were deformed by the painful intrusion of the Cold War, at that period still escalating.
My own memories of the Congo crisis, in the year I became a journalist, are still unusually vivid. My own political consciousness had been honed by the bitterly divisive Suez crisis of 1956, which presaged the real ending of the British empire, and one was aware that those who deplored such a development were seeking ways to discredit the process of decolonisation. I was not yet working on African matters, but the dominant press in Britain, Europe and America, dramatised simplistically events as they were unfolding. From the ominous public clash between King Baudouin of the Belgians and the Congo’s Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, to the breakdown in anarchy of the Force Publique ten days later, going on to the secession of Katanga and the arrival of the UN Peacekeeping force, the news made acutely compulsive reading. It was the early days of TV reporting, but the radio reports added to the intensity of what was going on, and even the photographs meant that the faces of the players, Lumumba, Kasavubu, Tshombe were engraved on the international imagination. Friends of mine in Trinidad told me a local policeman earned the nickname ‘Tshombe’ because of a physical resemblance to the moon-faced puppet of the mining companies trying to resist change.
From accounts of the time, it was clear that the shock to the system, especially for the United Nations, and also to newly independent African states was considerable. Kwame Nkrumah, then President of Ghana, clear-sightedly grasped the problem the crisis posed for the very idea of African independence. The turbulent nature of the crisis was initially very divisive, and fuelled tensions between the Casablanca and Brazzaville Groups. The latter was manipulated by France, which had its own agenda, in support of secessionist Katanga and hostile to the UN intervention. However, the clear majority of African states were strongly against secession, and favoured the US- supported UN military operation to end Katanga’s independence in January 1963, swallowing the deep unhappiness in Africa at Western involvement in the murder of Lumumba.
Indeed, the major lessons of the Congo crisis were, firstly that the newly independent states of Africa were strongly against any secession, and secondly, that the best way of insulating the continent against the destabilising effects of Cold War rivalries was to build their own unity. Thus, once Katanga secession had been ended, the path was clear for the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in May 1963. This was largely on the terms of the conservative African states, which by now had been consolidated into the Monrovia Group, but it still represented a kind of fulfilment for those (above all Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah) who dreamed of a united continent. Looking back over the fifty year perspective, it was the Congo crisis, agonising as it was, that helped bring the OAU into existence.
The story of the Congo itself, however, was in no way a success story. The arrival in power of President Mobutu in 1965 may have ensured the consolidation of power within the country’s massive area, but the house Mobutu constructed was built on the sand of corruption and oppression, and proved to be a hollow edifice. And since his fall, the idea that Mobutu’s successors – the Kabilas, father and son – have hardly been able to make anything of the wreck. The civil wars between 1898 and 2003 left millions dead. And although parts of the country such as Katanga function somehow as autonomous units, the total image is of little more than a failed state.
Those who still hold out hope point to the 2006 elections, although scarcely democratic, and the deal last year with President Kagamé of Rwanda, which may have brought a little more stability in Eastern Congo, to the point that President Kabila can envisage the departure of the 17,000 UN troops presently there. Western countries, too, continue to pump in aid, and appear to have agreed to writing off a large slice of debt. So, the ‘celebrations’ of June 30, which attracted somewhat reluctantly, King Albert of the Belgians, as well as Ban Ki-Moon, and a number of African leaders including presidents Zuma and Mugabe, were not just an acceptance of the central role the Congo must continue to play in African affairs, but a testimony to what the country, brimming with mineral wealth, might still be.