King Phillippe. Photo: World Trade Organization/Wikimedia Commons
This year marks the 60th anniversary of independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Those of us who came of age in the 1960s remember the euphoria and the excitement we felt when Patrice Lumumba, who already was well known to us as a young pan-African icon, became the Prime Minister of the newest and perhaps the richest country with immense potential. It was the dawning of a new era in Africa. I will return later to the calamitous events that followed within months of independence.
In his congratulatory message on this year’s anniversary celebration, King Phillippe of the Belgians expressed, “my deepest regrets for the injuries of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies.” He goes on to say, “I will continue to fight all forms of racism. I encourage the reflection that has been initiated by our parliament so that our memory is definitely pacified.” What injury could he have been talking about while expressing his regrets in such civil manner using seemingly innocuous words?
He is referring to the brutal rule of his great, great, great grand uncle, the notoriously greedy and evil King Leopold II who portrayed himself to the world as a humanitarian on a civilizing mission. Leopold established the Congo Free State with himself as the monarch. In actuality, the so called “free state” was his private property, a colossal plantation if you will, whose natural wealth he wantonly plundered, brutally oppressing the people and torturing them using his Force Public, a mercenary army made up of African recruits with Belgian officers. The army mutilated or killed those who did not meet their assigned quota of ivory and later rubber collection; cutting their heads, limbs, ears and other body parts. Conservative estimates put the number of Congolese who lost their lives under his rule as five million, some estimates go as high as 20 million deaths. The European Powers awarded the Congo Basin to Belgium at the Berlin conference of 1884-85.
Joseph Conrad’s character in his Heart of Darkness sums up the atrocities with the immortal words: the horror! The horror! Leopold’s enabler and agent in this genocide was Henry Morton Stanley, who claimed he “discovered” the Congo River—whose existence Africans had known of since for centuries— and “found” finding David Livingstone, another so-called explorer who’d gone lost in Africa. Stanley was hailed in the U.S. and Britain as a great “explorer.” He was eventually knighted.
The United States by the way was the first country to recognize Leopold’s Congo Free State. As the news of the atrocities were becoming known outside Congo, Leopold II became a liability and an embarrassment to the great European powers. The king had to cede private control of the Congo which then became a colony of Belgium in 1908. It remained a Belgian colony until its independence on June 1960.
The parliamentary election held in May of 1960 showed that Movement National Congolais (MNC) led by Patrice Lumumba won. Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of Congo.
At the independence proclamation ceremony at the Palais de La Nation, King Baudouin of Belgium spoke patronizingly that Congo’s independence was the “culmination of the civilizing mission” of his great grandfather Leopold II, attempting to whitewash the history of genocide. The President of Congo, Joseph Kasavubu, made a polite short speech without challenging the king’s speech. Lumumba, the executive prime minister, who was originally not scheduled to speak was later added on roster. He made a memorable speech in which he corrected the King’s reading of history. European observers dubbed the speech as that of an ingrate, arrogant, and radical African.
Lumumba was of course ahead of this time. In our contemporary era much of the world is now revisiting and acknowledging the crimes of colonialism.
Here are excerpts from Lumumba’s speech: “Although this independence of the Congo is being proclaimed today by agreement with Belgium, an amicable country, with which we are on equal terms, no Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle, a persevering and inspired struggle carried on from day to day, a struggle, in which we were undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood. It was filled with tears, fire and blood. We are deeply proud of our struggle, because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to humiliating bondage forced upon us. That was our lot for the eighty years of colonial rule and our wounds are too fresh and much too painful to be forgotten.”
He ended his speech with, “Eternal glory to the fighters for national liberation!! Long live independence and African Unity, Long live the independent and sovereign Congo!”
His words did not sit well with King Baudouin who walked out at the reception, to express his royal displeasure. In just over two months following independence, the Force Public, yes, the same army that carried out genocidal terror on behalf of Leopold II six decades earlier, mutinied. It had essentially remained a mercenary force made up of African conscripts commanded by Belgian officers. There was no Congolese that had attained the rank of an officer. Lumumba in an attempt to quickly Africanize the command structure appointed Joseph Mobutu —later known notoriously as Mobutu Sese Seko— who was the highest ranking Congolese, as a noncommissioned officer, to become his Chief of Staff.
The country was plunged into chaos after the mutiny. The mineral rich province of Katanga was encouraged by Belgian mining interests to declare independence under Moise Tshombe. Thousands of Europeans fled the country as a result of the unrest. Lumumba’s government was demonized by the Western press. President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba, who felt the president’s action was unconstitutional.
The U.N. intervened. Supporters of Lumumba blame the U.N. for undermining his administration by failing to suppress the secession and mutiny. Lumumba was later arrested by the military under Mobutu and handed over to Tshombe in Katanga. It was there that Belgian and CIA security agents tortured Lumumba and killed him in 1961 by firing squad. During the crisis the U.N.’s Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld also died in a plane crush whose cause remains shrouded in mystery and assassination remains a credible possibility.
The CIA which had recruited Mobutu since independence saw him as an asset in 1965 he formally seized power. Mobutu quickly established a one man kleptocratic dictatorship for the next 30 years with strong support of Belgium and France, but more importantly the United States who saw him as a valuable asset in its anticommunist campaign in Africa. Meanwhile the plunder and exploitation of the rich mineral resources by the U.S. and European allies continued unabated with Mobutu and his cronies enriching themselves with the crumbs their Western patrons threw their way. He is reported to have amassed $5 billion from stolen public funds.
The long nightmare of Mobutu’s reign came to an end when Laurent Kabila who had been waging an armed resistance for decades marched into Kinshasa, the capital. His revolutionary image—Che Guevara had fought alongside him briefly during the 1960s—was tarnished when he established his own brand of authoritarian rule until he was assassinated by his bodyguard on May 17, 1997. His son Joseph Kabila succeeded him and led a corrupt government. He stayed in power beyond his term before finally agreeing to a general election in which his own handpicked candidate lost to Felix Tshisekedi, son of the late Etienne Tshisekedi who had resisted Mobutu for decades. Kabila reached an understanding with Tshisekedi before leaving office. Some suspect that Kabila may be wielding some influence and power behind the scene.
That brings us to back this year’s anniversary celebration and the King Phillippe’s “deep regrets for past injuries.” Leopold II enriched himself, and Belgium, from the forced labor of Congolese—using torture, starvation, maiming and killings as punishment. Belgium exploited Congo’s ivory and later the more lucrative rubber. Phillippe now encourages “reflection” so that “our memory is definitely pacified.” The memory of his genocidal ancestors may be pacified but the souls of the millions of their victims remain restless having had no chance to transition with the proper African burial sendoff as their ancestors did. Belgium must officially acknowledge the genocide, atone for its crimes against humanity and make the appropriate redress. Then, and only then, perhaps could he talk about “pacification of memory” and the souls of our ancestors could possibly rest in peace.
Congo has never had a period of sustained peace since independence, with multiple armed groups supported by multinational corporate interests terrorizing villages and towns, raping women and recruiting boy soldiers. Neighboring countries, most notably Uganda and Rwanda, also entered the fray invading with their armed forces or through their proxies, lured by the mineral riches. Millions of Congolese have lost their lives since independence. The forces that committed genocide and assassinated Lumumba are still active in some form or another and continue to enrich themselves while the Congolese people remain among the poorest on the continent.
Political independence did not necessarily bring economic emancipation to the Congo and to most of the African countries that gained their freedom around the same decade. The economic relationship between former colonial powers and newly independent nations has for the most part remained unchanged. France, particularly, enjoys unchallenged economic advantage over its former colonies which have remained in a position of dependency. This economic imbalance is ensured by continued French military presence in the region, often interfering in the affairs of these states with Paris becoming arbiter of political settlements to its liking. The exploitation continues.
Whenever I think about this and look back with nostalgia to the heady days of independence, I am reminded of one of my favorite books “Not Yet Uhuru” by Oginga Odinga—the late father of Raila Odinga—who was affectionately referred to as “Double O.” Uhuru in Kiswahili means freedom. The book is autobiographical in which the author, an unsung hero of Kenya’s liberation struggle, decries the betrayal of Kenyatta of the ideals of national liberation and economic justice for Kenyans.
There is “not yet uhuru” until Africa wrenches economic independence and becomes master of its resources and destiny, thus completing the unfinished liberation of the 1960s.
I am optimistic this could be achieved sooner than later because I have confidence in the enterprising youth of Africa that is tech savvy. Many are already making their mark with innovations that have been gaining them notice and are well positioned to be leaders in the technology world.
Africa Must Unite!
Dr. Mohammed A. Nurhussein, MD, is a retired physician and Professor of Medicine Emeritus, Downstate Medical Center.