Typically for the time, the colony was to be handed over to an elected government, and thus one month before independence the first national election was held. This forced the young leaders of young political parties to go to the urban and rural masses and mobilize them. Surprisingly, they very often found an angry, radically inclined population which anticipated that independence would dismantle the whole colonial system. Because of this mood, the more radical political parties won, and the most prominent leader of this tendency, Patrice Lumumba, became the first Prime Minister. Unlike most of the independence movements, there was no time for the parties to coalesce into one or two massive movements. At the national level, sixteen political parties were represented in the first parliament with none having a majority.
The first cabinet was made up of leaders from many different parties and it had little cohesion or loyalty to its leader. A few days after independence the army mutinied and a massive exodus of Belgians began. A few days later, Katanga, the mineral rich province declared itself to be independent. Katangan secession was given protection by the Belgian army and support by a variety of European, South African, and American right wing forces. Lumumba first sought U.S. help but was told to request it from the UN. Within weeks, a massive UN operation ONUC began with at its peak about 30,000 foreign troops. Stopping Katangan secession became Lumumbas highest priority, and he felt that the Security Council resolutions supporting ONUC promised use of its forces to accomplish this goal. But the then Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, regarded military action against Katanga as undesirable. He thought that the Security Council resolutions calling for the maintenance of the Congos sovereignty could be accomplished diplomatically. This difference of view created a deep rift between the Lumumba government and the UN and was partly responsible for Lumumbas appeal for help to the Soviet Union. That only confirmed, for the U.S., that Lumumba was leaning toward the communist world and resulted in an attempt by the CIA to assassinate him in September 1960 (this particular incident came to nothing).
Another plot against Lumumba was organized by getting the President, Joseph Kasavubu, to dismiss him. In the political struggle which ensued, ONUC intervened in a manner which helped Kasavubu and resulted in Lumumbas isolation in the Prime Ministers residence. The head of ONUC at the time was Special Representative Andrew Cordier, an American citizen. When a few months later Lumumba attempted to escape from his Kinshasa residence and make a run for it to his Kisangani home base, he was caught by Mobutus men, shipped to Katanga and there murdered. This brutally summarized story is all but forgotten at the UN, but it is remembered as if it were yesterday by the Lumumbists who are among the most important government leaders in Kinshasa today.
There is a tragic irony in this story; Hammarskjöld also lost his life as a result of the first Congo crisis. His plane crashed on the way to yet another attempt to bring about the end of Katanga secession. But in the end, Lumumba was right and Hammarskjöld wrong it was impossible to end Katanga secession diplomatically and it took a military campaign by ONUC with strong backing from the Kennedy administration to end this chapter in the Congos history. But by that time (1962) Lumumba was gone, his closest allies were in exile, and Kinshasa was controlled by Mobutu who became for decades the Wests favorite dictator in Africa.
Apart from Lumumbists, Kabilas closest allies are people from his home province, Katanga. It was the Katangans in Angola who became the most important Congolese military force which helped Kabila reach Kinshasa in 1997. The Katangans gave him the protection with which he was able to divorce himself from the Rwandans in the summer of 1998. When the Congolese see ethnic favoritism in Kabilas entourage, it is the Katangans they point to. Today, the Katangan identity is essentially regional, but in the 1960s it was divided, more or less, on the basis of ethnicity. The north Katangan Luba were allied to Lumumba while the south Katangan Lunda supported the provincial President, Moise Tshombe, who organized, with much help from Western right wing circles, the Katangan secession. In fact in 196062 there was a war between the Lunda-dominated Katanga Gendarmerie and the Luba in the north. As indicated earlier, when ONUC put an end to the secession many of the Gendarmerie fled to Angola. They were the ones who attempted to overthrow Mobutu in 1977 and 1978 by invading Katanga from their Angolan bases only to find that Mobutu was rescued by the military intervention of some of his African and European and American supporters. These forces finally returned to the Congo during the campaign to oust Mobutu and have since become a vital part of the FAC. But despite the fact that they were Lumumbas worst enemies at the time, their memory of the UN is quite as negative as that of the Lumumbists. After all, it was ONUC which ended their attempted independence movement and drove them into exile.
The Congo Rebellions-Revolution
Between 1960 and 1963 the Congo was essentially under a UN protectorate which in turn was under strong U.S. influence. As noted earlier, this allowed the elimination of Lumumba and resulted in the exclusion of many of his collaborators from the political arena. Some compromised and joined one of the several pro-Western governments which were established in Kinshasa, some attempted to create a competing central government in Kisangani (but that soon failed), and others went into exile in Third World or communist countries. By 1963, ONUC had almost bankrupted the UN and it took the opportunity of a parliamentary compromise which gave the semblance of restored legitimacy in order to withdraw. In the meantime, living conditions for ordinary Congolese had plummeted. In many rural areas, the purchasing power of workers dropped to 25 percent of what it had been three years earlier. Many politicians, having been elected, failed to return to their home bases since power and money now flowed from embassies rather than from their constituents. A population which had been mobilized in 1960 and which often displayed quite radical predilections was abandoned by its leaders and its living standard was sharply reduced.
It was at this moment that some of the exiled Lumumbist leaders returned and began to organize a revolutionary movement with vaguely Marxist ideology and some support from sympathetic states. These elites found very fertile ground and in a matter of weeks liberated large areas of the country. The Congolese army was clearly destined to be defeated by this upheaval, but it and the Kinshasa regime of the day were saved by massive Western aid. White mercenaries were hired, a small airforce was organized piloted by Miami-recruited anti-Castro exiles, and much military hardware was sent to the forces fighting this revolutionary movement. In the end, the movement was defeated and shortly thereafter, Mobutu officially took over the presidency. The cost of this episode in lives and destruction was enormous. Many villagers escaped into the forests where then as now they often starved and died of diseases. Some observers have estimated that over one million Congolese died.
This terrible legacy has left two results: First, the impact of the Rebellions-Revolution is the return of some of its leaders. Kabila himself is the best example of this group, some of whom have been in exile since the mid 1960s. They are not many, but they are very important in Kinshasa today. If it is considered diplomatically maladroit for Kabila to visit Cuba, Sudan, Libya, and Iraq (the last only rumored), the reason can at least in part be linked to the deep distrust he appears to have inherited from the 1960s for everything which is Western and that includes the UN, since in those days it was Western-dominated.
The second impact of the Rebellions-Revolution of the mid 1960s was that the Congolese people thereafter adopted a passive political culture. Someone has called this the Spanish syndrome, drawing a parallel with post-Civil War Spain when, despite a tradition of political engagement and activism, people accepted Francos rule with little active protest. If one asks why the Congolese people tolerated Mobutus rule for so long, the answer can be found in this post-revolutionary reaction. If today one can say that most of the fighting in the First and Second Congo Wars was done by foreign troops on both sides of the struggle, this can also be linked to this pacifist culture. Perhaps the best illustration of this phenomenon occurred in Katanga in 1993 when an anti Kasai pogrom encouraged by the Mobutu regime resulted in the brutal expulsion of close to a million Kasaians. This ethnic cleansing exercise forced these destitute people to return to a province in which most of them had never lived. But East Kasai was not without means. It possesses the greatest source of diamonds in the DRC, and at the time it had direct commercial relations with Angola and South Africa. These people could have bought arms and sought to avenge themselves against the Katangans. No such action was organized. The expelled people were, with great difficulty, integrated into a small province.
However, today this culture of rejecting violence, born out of an excess of violence, may be evaporating. Certainly, in the Kivus the mobilization of the Mai Mai and the support which they are receiving from the general population is indicative of a change. Is this because the memory of the bloodletting which took place in 196365 is no longer alive? Is this because the violence in the neighboring states Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi has infected the Congolese? Is this because of the heightened hatred between Rwandaphone peoples and the Kivu populations? Is this because of an age-old struggle between pasturalists and sedentary farmers? Is it because this is one of the most densely populated areas of Africa? Or, finally, is it because the wars have destroyed the opportunities for education and work for a whole generation of young men who are therefore easily mobilized by militias and armies?
Whatever the reason, it is possible that a sea change has occurred and that henceforth the DRC will behave more like so many of its neighbors Congo/Brazzaville, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and Angola where political conflict has repeatedly been transformed into armed, violent struggle.