- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001


By Ludo de Witte

Translated from the Flemish by Ann Wright and Renee Fenby

Verso, $27, 224 pages, illus.


Given the breathtaking level of destruction caused by the wars of central Africa in the past several years — the International Rescue Committee has estimated a death toll attributable to the fighting of 2.5 million in the eastern Congo (the regions adjacent to Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda) alone — it is odd there have been few attempts to go back to the sources of the trouble. Even in the ahistorical world in which we seem to be living, it should occur to some reporters and observers that the recent background of a conflict as catastrophic as this might offer some clues on what to do about it.
Although extremely partisan, the 1999 work of the Belgian sociologist Ludo de Witte, "De Moord op Lumumba" (translated — execrably —from the Flemish as "The Assassination of Lumumba" by Ann Wright and Renee Fenby) will serve a purpose even if it only manages to remind a few people of the degree to which Congo, like most of Africa but more so, suffered, and continues to suffer, from a botched process of decolonization in the late 1950s.
Botched or deliberately botched? That is the question Ludo de Witte quite correctly forces the reader of his monograph to confront. Mr. De Witte himself is quite sure that it was deliberately botched in order to protect the interests of Belgium and other Western nations, or more exactly of individuals in these countries who were deriving income from Congo's natural resources. These included members of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations as well as members of the Belgian government (headed by Gaston Eyskens during the key years) and of the Belgian establishment more generally, notably the officers of Belgium's Societe Generale, the big holding company that controlled much of the extractive industry in Congo.
Congo's mineral and other natural resources (notably rubber) were, and still are, vast, and their exploitation by the Belgians, since the late-19th Century, could have been the basis of a sustained effort to bring this largely equatorial country into the modern world. Unfortunately, as Adam Hochschild showed in his masterful "King Leopold's Ghost" (1999), the Belgians, carrying the European experiment in colonialism to an extreme of ruthlessness, turned the place into a forced labor camp. When in 1959 independence was agreed to, following several popular uprisings, there was only a handful of educated cadres for a country of some 40 million people.
This in itself need not have doomed decolonization. The most popular national leader, Patrice Lumumba, was a postal employee before going into politics. Arrested and jailed by the Belgians, his party, the Congolese National Movement, won the parliamentary elections of May, 1960, designed to prepare an independent government. The Belgians were forced by their own logic to allow him, then aged 35, to assume the premiership when independence was proclaimed in June.
Evidently, the Belgians had underestimated the degree of nationalist passion that was pent up in their former colony. At the independence ceremonies, the new president, Joseph Kasa Vubu, essentially thanked the former masters for letting him have a turn at the wheel, but Lumumba told them, not rudely but straightforwardly, they had been serial criminals for the better part of a century and now it was time to go. The result of this speech — which instantly made Lumumba a national and international hero of the emerging "third world" — was that the Belgians decided he had to go.
The ensuing "Congo crisis" contained many of the elements that have been sickeningly replayed since the fall of the Mobutu regime in 1997, itself the prelude to the wars that are presently ravaging much of eastern Congo. Most importantly, the Belgians used two tactics that have been used in the recent chronic crisis, internationalization and regional rivalries.
The story, though complicated, is best understood as a triangular game involving Lumumba's nationalist Congolese, who cut across the "ethnic" lines that are so well liked by commentators today, the pro-West (essentially Belgium and the United States) forces of President Kasa Vubu and Joseph Mobutu, who had been named army chief, and the secessionist government of the mineral rich southern region of Katanga under Moise Tschombe, whom most observers at the time and since have viewed as a front-man for Belgian and American mining interests. Viewed this way, Lumumba's request for help from the United Nations was a catastrophe (for him), since the U.N., led by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, while pretending to promote peace, actually functioned as a shield for both Tshombe and the central government of Kasa Vubu.
By the end of the chaotic summer of 1960, Mobutu had installed himself as the strong man in Leopoldville (later named Kinshasa), and Lumumba was under arrest. He escaped in November, and it is quite likely that he could have rallied his forces and regained control of the whole country, Katanga included. The Belgian media engaged in a hysterical campaign against him, calling him a demagogue and capable of plunging all of Africa into a race war. Captured by Mobutu troops, he and two of his close associates were transferred in January, 1961 to Katanga, where they were murdered.
The U.N. and United States were, basically, complicit in a Belgian operation to put in place two "neo-colonial" regimes, one in Congo and one in Katanga, which were finally consolidated when Mobutu, after a period on the sidelines, staged a second coup in 1965 and proclaimed the Second Republic. This was an autocratic kleptocracy which kept everyone happy for the next 30 years, with the exception of the overwhelming majority of Congolese.
Though Mr. de Witte's writing is tendentious, awkward (at least in translation) and confusing, its point is clear enough: Congo's independence was stolen from the beginning. This is unfortunately true. And it created a pattern which repeated itself with atrocious consequences when Mobutu finally left the stage and died. Foreign interventions, ineffective U.N. actions, functional secessions and a feeble regime in Kinshasa has been Congo's lot since the mid-1990s. An experiment in independence under the admittedly anti-Belgian Patrice Lumumba might not have succeeded on its terms, but it is unlikely it would have left Congo in worse shape that it is now, after 40 years of "pro-Western" government.

Roger Kaplan is a writer, editor and specialst in African political affairs.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide