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Congo Free State: 1885-1908

When Leopold II of Belgium wins international recognition for the Congo Free State in 1885, it is as his own personal fief rather than a Belgian colony. The king is willing to fund the project from his own resources and from concessions to private Belgian companies. The Belgian government has no interest in what seems likely to be an expensive exercise.

In the early years it proves so. In 1890, and again in 1895, the king has to appeal to his government in Brussels for help. He is granted large interest-free loans, in return for the right of the Belgian government to annexe the territory if it so wishes in 1901.

In fact, at the time of these loans, the economic prospects are improving dramatically. There is a simple reason. One of the region's two most valuable commodities is latex, from wild rubber trees. The other is ivory. In the early years of the Congo Free State ivory seems likely to be the more profitable. But in 1888 John Boyd Dunlop patents the pneumatic tyre for the most popular and useful new machine of the age, the bicycle.

The effect on Leopold's fortune is dramatic. The Congo Free State exports less than 250 tons of rubber in 1892, more than 1500 tons in 1897. Leopold is suddenly flush with wealth. He spends much of it on lavish public projects in Brussels and Ostend to impress his Belgian subjects.

In spite of this turn of events, the Belgian government does not exercise its option in 1901. The Congo Free State seems set to continue as an outstanding example of a successful colonial undertaking. But in the early years of the century ugly rumours begin to circulate that all is not well in this dark interior of Africa. There are stories of atrocities practised on the Congolese.

At first such travellers' tales, impossible to substantiate, are easily dismissed by Leopold and his spokesmen. But in Britain (where rumours of Belgian restriction of free trade cause almost equal indignation) a campaign to discover the truth about the Congo steadily gathers momentum.

In 1903 Roger Casement, living in Boma as the British consul to the Congo Free State, receives an encrypted telelgram from the foreign office. It instructs him to travel into the interior to investigate the supposed abuses. He sets off up the Congo in a small steam launch, the Henry Reed, hired from some American Baptist missionaries.

What he discovers is blood-curdling. He finds villages depopulated, people terrified, gruesome tales of death and torture, and a strangely large number of victims whose hands have been amputated.

The pattern which emerges is one of systematic and brutal exploitation by the concessionary companies, in all of which Leopold has a half share. Their system for boosting rubber production is simple. Villages are given an ever higher quota of latex to be collected as it oozes from the trees in their vicinity or further afield.

If the target is not met, reprisals are savage. Villages are looted and burnt, families butchered. The severed hands reflect the companies' wish to be certain that their barbaric militia are maintaining control and not wasting ammunition. Hands are portable evidence of disciplinary activity.

Casement's report causes a sensation when published in Britain, though international statesmen - eager not to upset each others' colonial applecarts - are less prone to outrage. Nevertheless a commission is set up in Belgium to investigate the charges. It confirms Casement's facts, while condemning the failure of the many missionaries in the region to make the abuses publicly known.

Leopold fights a strong rearguard action to keep hold of his treasure trove, but by 1908 his position is untenable. Under international pressure the Belgian government annexes the Congo Free State - meanwhile adding to Leopold's fortune by paying him 50 million francs, to compensate for his 'sacrifices' on behalf of the nation.

Belgian Congo: 1908-1957

Although Belgium takes responsibility in 1908 for the Congo, it remains a colony unlike others in Africa. It is still ruled from Brussels (rather than by a governor in situ), though a minister for the Congo now takes direct charge rather than the king. Similarly Brussels continues to leave much of the administration of the colony to non-governmental agencies.

The predominantly Catholic missionaries are in charge of education, in which they have a good record. By mid-century 10% of Congolese children attend primary school, compared to just 3% in neighbouring French Equatorial Africa. And as before, the economy of the region is largely left under the control of large commercial companies.

The importance of rubber in the local economy declines dramatically during the first quarter of the century; in 1901 it represents 87% of the Congo's exports, by 1928 the proportion is as low as 1%. Meanwhile Katanga, in the southeast, has begun to produce immense mineral wealth.

A mining company, the Union Minière du Haut Kanga, is formed in 1906 to exploit the new opportunities. It begins to extract copper in 1911. By 1928 it is producing 7% of the world's total. At the same time diamonds contribute to the status of the Congo as one of Africa's richest regions. First mined in 1907, the Congo's diamond output is twenty years later a close second in the world after South Africa's.

As a region depending exclusively on the export of raw materials, the Belgian Congo suffers greatly during the slump of the 1930s. But by the same token World War II is a prosperous period. With Belgium occupied by the Germans, the colony remains loyal to a Belgian government in exile in London. Congo's minerals make a major contribution to the allied war effort.

The postwar period sees a continuing increase in prosperity and in immigration from Belgium. Between the end of the war and 1958 the white immigrant population more than trebles (34,000 to 113,000). In the same period the population of the capital, Léopoldville, quadruples (100,000 to nearly 400,000).

This thriving community shares a disability common to African colonies. There is a yawning difference between living standards and job opportunities for whites and blacks. But the Belgian Congo also has a special weakness of its own, resulting from the paternalism of Brussels. There is a complete absence of any developing political structure.

Until 1957 nobody in the Belgian Congo, white or black, has a vote - because there is no representative body of any kind to vote for. This begins to change only because of the pressures for independence throughout Africa in the 1950s, from which even the Belgian Congo cannot remain entirely immune.

The short path to independence: 1957-1960

In 1957 municipal elections are held in Léopoldville. They are won by Abako (Alliance des Ba-Kongo), a political party championing the cause of the Bakongo tribal group. This is headed by Joseph Kasavubu, who believes in a federalist independent Congo in which the Bakongo can enjoy a considerable measure of autonomy.

Another more firebrand politician emerging at the same time is Patrice Lumumba. A member of a minor tribe, he believes in a future nation which is strongly centralized. In 1958 he founds the Congo's first nationwide party, the MNC or Mouvement National Congolais.

In these circumstances leisurely talks are undertaken in Brussels to consider the introduction of some greater measure of local autonomy. But the pace is suddenly quickened by riots which break out in Léopoldville in January 1959. The immediate cause is the banning of a scheduled political rally. Shops are looted, houses are burnt, Europeans are attacked. Africans are killed and wounded in the police response.

Belgium's response is conciliatory. For the first time the king, Baudouin, declares the intention to give the Congo full independence. Meanwhile it has already been decided that elections for a territorial assembly will be held in December 1959.

The announcement of elections launches intense political activity. But it is along tribal lines, since almost no other allegiances have been formed. By November 1959 more than fifty political parties are officially registered. Only Lumumba's MNC has an essentially national perspective.

At least two of the tribal parties represent such large regional groups that their programme implies the strong possibility of secession. One is Kasavubu's Abako party (the Bakongo people live in the coastal region, where in the 15th-17th century they established the powerful slave-trading kingdom of Kongo). The other is the party led by Moise Tshombe, based in the mineral-rich province of Katanga.

With mounting violence in the colony, and with the December elections invalid because of widespread boycotts, the Belgian government invites ninety-six delegates from the main Congolese parties to a conference in Brussels in January 1960. Lumumba, Kasavubu and Tshombe are among those who attend.

The Belgians suggest a four-year transition to independence, but the Congolese refuse to wait. By the end of the conference Belgium has accepted a completely impractical dash to the starting line. The Belgian Congo will become an independent nation in less than six months, on 30 June 1960.

Lumumba and Kasavubu: 1960-1961

Elections take place in May. Lumumba's MNC emerges as the largest single party, with Kasavubu's Abako in second place. Neither succeeds independently in forming a coalition. As a compromise Kasavubu becomes president and head of state, with Lumumba as prime minister at the head of a coalition including a dozen extremely diverse minor parties. Tshombe's party wins control of the provincial assembly in Katanga.

This arrangement seems a certain recipe for future trouble, but there turn out to be more immediate problems. The nation becomes independent on 30 June 1960 as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Just four days later there are early signs of mutiny in the army.

The reason is the fury of the African soldiers that in spite of independence the officers in the Congolese army are without exception white. The fact is not surprising (in the colonial army Africans could not rise higher than the rank of sergeant-major, and in the rush to independence the first Congolese officer cadets have not yet completed their courses). But it is none the less profoundly displeasing.

Lumumba gives in as the tension rises during the first week of July. He agrees to the dismssial of the Belgian officers and the appointment of Congolese in their place. The role of hastily issuing the new commissions falls to Joseph Mobutu, the minister for defence. This patronage later gives him a powerful role in the evolving army.

In the short term no one can control the unfolding chaos. Without any effective chain of command, the army goes berserk in riots against the Belgian population. Priests and nuns in particular are singled out for violence and rape. Before the middle of July 25,000 Belgians flee the country. In the other direction nearly 10,000 Belgian troops fly in to protect European lives and property, particularly in wealthy Katanga.

On July 11 Moise Tshombe takes advantage of the collapse of government control. He declares the independence of Katanga. With the help of Belgian troops he is able to expel all units of the Congolese army. The ingredients for the next stage of the Congo's agony are all in place.

With many in the west showing signs of support for Tshombe (mindful of the wealth of his region), Lumumba raises the stakes by asking for Soviet help in recovering Katanga. During August there arrive from Russia aircraft, arms, technicians and military advisers.

Within two months of independence the Congo has become a potential flashpoint of the Cold War. The issue dominates debate in the general assembly of the UN. Meanwhile UN forces are on the ground trying to hold the peace. In the event a local coup, still during the first three months of independence, proves a turning point.

On September 4 President Kasavubu announces that he has dismissed Lumumba as prime minister. Lumumba, in response, hurries to the radio station to broadcast that he has dismissed Kasavubu as president. The resulting confusion is only resolved when the 29-year-old minister of defence, Mobutu Sese Seko, declares on September 14 that he is 'neutralizing' all politicians and is temporarily taking over the duties of government in the name of the army.

Mobutu is secretly in Kasavubu's camp (both act with the encouragement of the CIA, alarmed by Lumumba's Soviet policy). One of his first actions is to close down the Soviet embassy. In February 1961 he returns the government to Kasavubu, who appoints him commander of the army.

Meanwhile Lumumba has been murdered, in circumstances which remain mysterious. In November 1960 he unwisely leaves Léopoldville, where he has been living under UN protection. He is captured by forces loyal to Kasavubu and is sent in January 1961 - presumably with only one purpose in mind - to Katanga.

He is last seen on arrival in Katanga being transferred, blindfold and handcuffed, from the plane to a waiting car. No more is heard of him. He is believed to have been murdered either by Katangan police or Belgian mercenaries. Evidence emerges years later to suggest that both President Eisenhower and the Belgian government were party to plans to eliminate this left-wing African leader.

Kasavubu and Tshombe: 1961-1965

During 1961 and 1962 the urgent question in Congo is whether Tshombe can sustain an independent Katanga. He has the support of the powerful mining company, Union Minière, and his army is strengthened by the continuing presence of Belgian troops (by now removed again from the rest of the country) and by the addition of European mercenaries. But the UN and the majority of international opinion is against the secession of Katanga.

Outbreaks of warfare and bursts of urgent UN diplomacy alternate during this period (the UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld dies in a plane crash in 1961 when flying to negotiate with Tshombe). But Tshombe has a habit of reneging on promises when it suits him.

The turning point comes late in 1962, when UN policy moves from a neutral peacekeeping role to active intervention against Katanga. After strong initial resistance, the Katangan army gives up the fight in January 1963. Tshombe flees into exile in Spain.

But this is not yet the end of Tshombe's involvement in the Congo. President Kasavubu, faced in 1964 by continuing unrest in the eastern provinces, attempts to resolve the issue by inviting Tshombe to return from exile as the nation's prime minister.

New elections for the national assembly are held in April 1965. Tshombe's party seems to win a majority (the results may be unreliable), but in the aftermath of the election he is dismissed from his post by Kasavubu.

Tshombe returns to Spain, leaving the Congo in continuing political chaos. But a new strong man is waiting to strike. Mobutu, now commander in chief, has been strengthening the Congolese army and with it his own power. In October 1965 he stages a coup, dismisses Kasavubu, and takes on the role of president.

Mobutu: 1965-1997

Mobutu rapidly puts in place the apparatus of dictatorship, forming in 1966 the MPR (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution) as the only permitted political party. He also sets about asserting the African identity of his nation. The colonial capital, Léopoldville, becomes in 1966 Kinshasa. Five years later the nation itself acquires an appealing new name, Zaire (relating to the Congo because it derives from an African word for river).

An order is given for all citizens to adopt African names. The president himself, previously Joseph Mobutu, becomes Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga ('the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, sweeps from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake').

There are frequent threats to Mobutu's rule, most of them centring on Katanga. In the early years they are widely assumed to be orchestrated by Tshombe. Tshombe is kidnapped in Spain in 1967 and is taken to Algeria, but Algerian officials refuse Mobutu's request to have him extradited to the Congo to stand trial for treason (he dies in Algeria in 1969).

In 1977 and 1978 there are major invasions of Katanga (now renamed Shaba) by an opposition group, the FLNC (Front de la Libération Nationale Congolaise), operating from Angola. Mobutu recovers control with help from Morocco and France, but only after thousands of casualties on both sides.

While retaining the support of western nations, Mobutu presides over a massive decline in Zaire's economy (by 1994 it has shrivelled to the pre-independence level of 1958, even though the population has trebled in the same period). At the same time he salts away a vast personal fortune.

By 1990 the mood of the times forces upon Mobutu at least the semblance of democracy (though the nature of his rule remains all too evident when protests at Lubumbashi university in this same year are suppressed with the deaths of between 50 and 150 students). A national conference in 1991 elects a government headed by an opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi.

Mobutu accepts Tshisekedi in the role of prime minister, but during the next four years - to a background of strikes, riots and outbreaks of tribal warfare - there is a continuous struggle betweeen president and prime minister for the reins of executive power. The economy comes to a standstill. In 1994 the World Bank closes its office in Kinshasa and declares the country bankrupt.

The internal chaos is soon increased by an eruption of violence across the border. In 1994 a million Hutu refugees flee into Zaire from Rwanda. By 1995 their camps are controlled by the Hutu militia responsible for the massacre of Tutsi in Rwanda. Their presence leads to attacks on Tutsi resident for generations on the Zaire side of the border.

The sympathy of the Mobutu government is with the Hutu. A decree is passed expelling all ethnic Tutsi from the army and civil service. Tutsi property is looted in riots in Kinshasa.

This ethnic conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, spilling over into Zaire, is the force which finally ends Mobutu's thirty-two years of self-serving dictatorship. In the eastern province of Kivu the Tutsi, fighting back against Hutu aggression, find a very effective leader in a local politician, Laurent Kabila. When Kabila and his men start winning a succession of local victories, Mobutu sends the Zairean army against him - to no avail. Kabila astonishes the world by announcing, early in 1997, that unless Mobutu resigns within two weeks his regime will be overthrown by force.

Kabila: 1997-2001

During the early months of 1997 Mobutu (suffering by now from cancer) takes panic-stricken measures in Kinshasa, appointing and dismissing ministers in a desperate attempt to avert the crisis. Meanwhile Laurent Kabila, with his army of Tutsi soldiers (most of them well trained in Rwanda and Uganda), advances west at an astonishing speed. He is helped by the defection to his side of Zairean troops and by offers of support from western commercial interests - two groups sensing an imminent transfer of power.

In May Kabila enters Kinshasa, meeting relatively little opposition. Mobutu flees to Morocco, where he dies a few months later.

Kabila assumes the office of president, taking full executive and military powers. He changes the name of the country from Mobutu's favoured Zaire, reverting instead to the original Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ironically the new president inherits in the late 1990s the identical problem confronting his predecessor, Lumumba, when the Democratic Republic first became independent in 1960. The richest province in the nation, Katanga, is once again threatening to go its own way. In 1993 the governor of Shaba has claimed total autonomy, changing the name of his province back to Katanga and running it exclusively for local benefit. In the political chaos of the time, no one has the power to gainsay him.

Kabila's ability to do so is limited by more immediate problems in the neighbouring Kivu region, his own original power base (during the 1970s he has ruled a small semi-independent Marxist enclave here, surviving on the local trade in gold and ivory).

The Tutsi of Kivu, largely responsible for Kabila's rapid capture of power, are dissatisfied by his subsequent behaviour in office. In 1998 they launch a new rebellion. At first it is almost as successful as its 1997 predecessor, developing rapidly into the status of civil war. But Kabila, unlike Mobutu, is able to obtain assistance from neighbouring states.

Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia send troops, tanks and aircraft to support the Congo government in a crisis which shows no signs of abating. A cease-fire plan agreed in Lusaka in 1999 comes to nothing, while evidence begins to emerge of genocidal massacres in rebel-held areas in the northeast of the country. Support for the rebels by Uganda and Rwanda effectively transforms the civil war into an international conflict.

The situation becomes even more chaotic when Kabila is assassinated in January 2001. His place at the head of his warring nation is taken by his son Joseph Kabila.