Despite the conquest of Belgium in 1940 by the Nazis, the Congolese continued to work, as their land was being used to fully fund the Belgian government in exile (Nzongola-Ntalaja 29). To do so, the period of forced labor was extended to 120 days, with many coerced into working as porters, miners, and rubber-tappers. In fact, most of the uranium used in the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war came from the Congo (Nzongola-Ntalaja 29). Consequently, the whole world, especially the United States, began to eye the Congo with increasing interest.
By then, the Congo had undergone urbanization and small reforms, yet the state was still riddled with problems: segregation permeated society and working conditions were deplorable (Nzongola-Ntalaja 39). For many Congolese, these years of hardship and the resulting rebellions would ignite a flame that would burn away Belgium’s grip over their land (Nzongola-Ntalaja 52 - 53).
Amidst this growing class of politically active Congolese was Patrice Lumumba. In the post-war years, Lumumba led the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC)—a nationalist party that embodied Lumumba’s desire for quick independence, pan-Africanism, and a Congo that was “conducive to the ideological concerns of the Western world but most importantly, in line with African needs and desires” (Cole 2). Opposite to Lumumba’s party were ethno-religious and regional nationalistic factions that vehemently opposed Lumumba’s vision of a unified Congo state.
At the same time, European colonialism around the globe was deteriorating: in 1954, the French were forced to recognize Vietnamese independence, challenges to British rule over Ghana shortly followed, and the French would also lose their holdings in Algeria in 1962 (Pangloss). Belgium was pressured externally and internally to find a solution to the “Congo Problem,” and thus, in 1955, a thirty-year plan was outlined for Congolese independence. The lengthy time was reportedly so that an educated elite could form that would lead the country (Pangloss). With investment in the country’s politics by foreign nations having surged, the United States, obsessed with combatting the Soviets during the Cold War, sought to manipulate the process of Congolese independence, with the Eisenhower administration classifying Lumumba as a communist threat (Cole 28).
Yet, no one was prepared for the rapid degradation that would follow. In preparation for independence, an election was held in the Congo where Joseph Kasavubu was voted as president and Lumumba as prime minister (Office of the Historian). Soon, in 1959, political demonstrations in Léopoldville escalated, and several hundred died in the ensuing crackdown. Many ceased paying their taxes, with some regions degenerating into complete anarchy. In July, Congolese Force-Publique soldiers mutinied against their white Belgian commanders. Violence, specifically against Belgian residents, ensued, and many were forced to flee. In response, the Belgian government sent in troops without permission from either Kasavubu or Lumumba. The Congolese government, infuriated at this, seeked aid from the United Nations (U.N.). To resolve this, the U.N. assembled an intervention force and ordered the withdrawal of Belgian troops. Amidst the chaos, separatist groups in regions such as Katanga broke away and declared independence (Office of the Historian).
Desperate to rid themselves of this predicament, the Belgian government, despite having no systems for stability established in the Congo, granted full independence in June of 1960. Lumumba became the face of a new Congo, one that was finally liberated for the first time since Leopold had claimed the land. Yet, there was little time to celebrate as the Congo Crisis would only worsen.
Kasavubu or Lumumba disagreed over what the root cause of the problem was. Kasavubu claimed that the Congo people were too backwards to comprehend the concept of a modern state, while Lumumba believed foreign intervention to be the reason for destability (Cole 29). Lumumba may have been correct, for he was eyed with increasing suspicion by the Belgians and especially the United States after his request for Soviet aid (Cole 34). Soon, seeing Lumumba as a threat to the creation of a U.S. ally-state, plans were drawn up by the Eisenhower administration for the assassination of Lumumba (Office of the Historian). With the United States’ interest in the region economically and politically now at an all time high, the United States began throwing money and support at whoever could neutralize Lumumba. This climaxed in a coup performed by General Joseph Mobutu with support from the United States government and the brutal killing of Lumumba in January, 1961.
The “Congo Crisis” would last until 1965 and, like most Cold War proxy-conflicts, was worsened by the world’s superpowers at the expense of the people. What emerged from the ashes was not the Congo Republic, but instead a one-man dictatorship under General Joseph Mobutu or, as he would rename himself, Mobutu Sese Seko.
What is important about this tragic series of events is that for a moment, the Congo people held a possibility of freedom. They could have escaped from the leviathan that Leopold had constructed through the leadership of Lumumba, who envisioned a world where the Congolese and all of Africa could determine their own futures. And yet, those dreams were mutilated by a new oppressive government: the United States, which would prop up a regime that continued the legacy of Leopold for their own agenda. Therefore, the death of Lumumba was the moment the Congo people were robbed of their ability to determine their lives and were thrusted back into the status quo.
Cole, Jonathan. “The Congo question: Conflicting visions of independence.” Emporia State Research Studies, vol. 43, no. 1, p. 26-37, 2006.
Hurst, R. Congo Civil War (1960-1964). BlackPast, 15 July 2009, https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/congo-civil-war-1960-1964/. Accessed 5 January 2022.
Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People's History. New York and London, Zed Books, 2002.
Office of the Historian. “The Congo, Decolonization, and the Cold War, 1960–1965.” https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/congo-decolonization. Accessed 5 January 2022.
Official Congo government portrait of Patrice Lumumba as the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 1960. Photograph. Republic of the Congo Government. http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/Perspectives_1/article_6904.shtml
Pangloss, Maitre. “Independence in Thirty Years?” Belgian History, 2016. https://belgianhistory.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/independence-in-thirty-years/. Accessed 5 January 2022.