Killing The Prospects Of Development In The Democratic Republic of Congo.

Demonstration of Patrice Lumumba after being arrested.

As Ghana, Guinea and other colonies gained independence during the post WWII period, the African continent once again became a battleground of foreign powers, and this time it became a battleground in the US-Soviet Cold War conflict. For the Soviet Union, the African continent presented several characteristics favorable to socialism and it was a perfect place to promote soviet style revolutionary states. On the other hand, because of their colonial heritage, the US sympathized with African liberation movements. However, due to the ongoing cold war,  anti – communism sentiments prevented them from supporting many legitimate  independence movements in Africa. The risk of  antagonizing their NATO allies such as Portugal and France who were colonial powers at the time was one they were unwilling to take. Thus, newly independent African states were caught between two economic and political systems: Capitalism and communism; which deprived the newly elected leaders from experimenting new economic and political models that could work for their newly liberated states. Thus, the US-Soviet Cold War conflict killed the  prospects of the development of the African continent, specifically the Democratic Republic of Congo by setting up extractive economic and political institutions that served their interests instead of the interests of the African people.

The impact of economic and political institutions on the prospects of the development of nations is one that can not be stressed enough. The weight of the history of nations and the diverging paths that they took determined their economic and political institutions, which in turn affected the level of development  they could achieve. It is no overstatement that much of the contemporary African continent is underdeveloped and the main roots originate at the critical juncture of the decolonization process and the institutions that were set right after the decolonization process. The opportunities of experimenting new political and economic models that the decolonization process presented never saw the light of day because the cold war had just come to the African continent and the Democratic Republic of Congo would be the most affected by the US-Soviet tensions. The Congo crisis, 1960-1965, influenced the economic and political institutions of the then Belgian Congo and contemporary Democratic Republic of Congo. Geographically, Congo bordered nine other African territories in Southern, East, and Central Africa. It was and still is rich in deposits of Copper, Cobalt, Uranium and Industrial diamonds. More importantly, the west (US) was determined  in not letting the deposits of Uranium in Katanga fall into the hands of the Soviet Union.  Thus, Congo was of big importance to colonial and cold war powers.

 After a period of devastating political conflicts, in 1959 Belgium granted the Congolese Colony independence. Though independence was good in name, the Congolese were in no form prepared for independence. About fourteen million people had been drawn from over two hundred  tribal groups, and they had no sense of national identity.  Only a few  were educated in vocational work and had obtained degrees. To sum it up, former Europeans fled the Congo in fear of retaliation; the civil administration, the magistrate and the army quickly disintegrated. The whole country was in shambles, there was an urgent need for a strong central government. Patrice Lumumba, who became the prime minister after parliamentary elections in May 1960 and his party ,the MNC, had all the necessary requirements to unite the diverse Congo to focus on the development of the country. Patrice Lumumba’s party was the only national party that could claim a national base, instead of an ethinc or regional base (Elizabeth, 59).  Lumumba’s administration was the only one that envisioned economic transformations that would benefit ordinary African people. Lumumba held the view that Congo’s vast mineral resources  should benefit the Congolese people rather than foreign corporate interests. This was in opposition with the agenda of western countries and corporations. It  was unacceptable to prioritize the development of  Congo, otherwise corporations would lose their profits. 

Unfortunately, the MNC did not get the chance to carry out its agenda during  Lumumba’s mandate. Lumumba was instead caught up  in the struggles of the Cold war while he was trying to unite the Congo, specifically the secession of the Katanga region. With the help of the Belgians, French and British, Moise Tshombe annexed the southernmost province of the Congo to be an independent state and called it the state of Katanga. Frustrated with the secession and what he viewed as neo-colonialism of the Congo, Lumumba wanted to end the secession and unite Katanga to Congo. This was for the unity of the whole country and it was also because the Katanga region would be very important if  Congo was to embark on its development agenda. Katanga was the wealthiest region of  Congo.   It was rich in copper ,gold and Uranium. Its secession meant that both government revenues and  foreign exchange earnings would be halved  (Schmidt,60). Thus, the region had to be united back with the rest of the country specially because from Lumumba’s view, Belgium was recolonizing the country, region by region. Therefore, Lumumba appealed for a UN Intervention. However, relations between Lumumba and the UN deteriorated immediately. The UN of the Cold War era “promoted US policies in the name of international cooperation, thus providing American interest with a mask of multilateralism.” (Schmidt,61).  With the UN promoting western interests, this meant that its  intervention in  Congo became about western interests and  “restoration” of the crisis to the benefit of Western political and economic Interest. (Schmidt, 61) . This was in contrast with the agenda of the Congolese government which had the priority of expelling the Belgian troops, uniting the country and starting its work on development of a united country. Thus, there was a fallout between the UN and the Congolese government.

 Lumumba tried asking for aid directly from the US (Eisenhower administration), Canada and other western European nations, but he was denied. All this meant that he had only one option. Which was  to turn to the Soviet Union for aid. However, the Soviet Union  could only offer limited aid, as they had already offered aid through the UN. The Soviets  were also cautious in their  involvement in the Congo because they were unwilling to challenge the western powers already present militarily in a territory far from theirs. Asking aid from the Soviet Union was a risky move for  Lumumba because during the Cold war, that meant Lumumba was a soviet minion that threatened  American interests. In reality, it was the west that had driven him to seek aid from the Soviets due to their control of the UN. 

 The  Eisenhower administration considered Lumumba a communist, even though many African leaders including Lumumba had made it clear that they were neither communists nor capitalists. “I am not a Communist. The colonists have campaigned against me throughout the country because I am a revolutionary and demand the abolition of the colonial regime, which ignored our human dignity. They look upon me as a Communist because I refused to be bribed by the imperialists.We are neither Communists, Catholics nor socialists. We are African nationalists. We reserve the right to choose our friends in accordance with the principle of positive neutrality.” (Lumumba, France -soir interview, 1960).  For the Eisenhower administration, this did not matter. There was wary of Lumumba’s strong popular support and all indications that he would win any future democratic elections.

During the cold war period, Allen Dulles, the CIA director at the time believed that Lumumba was another Fidel Castro, thus it was in the US interests to have  Lumumba  assassinated regardless of the Congo’s national interests. The plans had been put in motion, the Eisenhower administration had ordered Lawrence Devlin to set up a CIA office in the Congo with the main mission of overthrowing and assassinating Congolese leaders, presumably Lumumba (Jackson, 32). On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was brutally tortured and executed in the presence of Belgian officers who were directly aided  by the CIA, and the UN (Jackson, 65).

Demonstration of Patrice Lumumba after being arrested.
Lumumba captured in the hands of Congolese troops loyal to Mobuto and Belgian officers.Face2Face Africa, “The Chilling Details of Patrice Lumumba’s Assassination and How He Was Dissolved in Acid.” Face2Face Africa. Last modified January 18, 2019.

The Assassination of Lumumba marked a turning point for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lumumba’s Assasination was the Assasination of the prospects of development of the Congo.  Joseph Kasa-vubu, the new head of State, Cyrille Adoula, the new prime minister, and Joseph Mobuto, the head of the military, who were all pro-western began the struggle to monopolize power. After President Eisenhower left office, the UN under Kennedy’s (John F. Kennedy was the successor of Dwight D. Eisenhower) influence invaded Katanga and managed to unify the country. The policies enacted by the Kennedy administration managed to restore some form of stability whilst at the same time keeping the Soviets from any form of unilateral military operations in Congo. Although Kennedy was successful in restoring and uniting the country by convincing the UN to invade Katanga, US policies did not coincide with the interests of the Congolese people. They had assassinated the only leader (Lumumba) who had the most legitimacy compared to any national leader they could put in power. Lumumba’s party was the only political organization that was “least identified with tribal or ethnic factions, and was the country’s major civilian institution” (Jackson, 29). The new prime minister (Lumumba’s successor ) ,Cyrille Adoula, was a pathetic weak leader who lacked a strong base of popular support. He had been chosen by the Kennedy administration due to his anti- communist views and CIA connections. By 1962, with the US and UN support, Adeoula had managed to arrest all of his antagonists and purge the few remaining Lumumba supporters from his regime.

Excluding all Lumumbist from his regime was significant because they had strong popular support and by purging them all, he managed to exclude from power the single, largest and most important political force in the history of  Congo. Even though the sessions in the Congo had been quelled (Kasai and Katanga), it did not bring peace and stability. “Government corruption and economic decline had led to widespread discontent in the civilian population” (Schmidt,70). Convinced that instability and disorder was a breeding ground for communist ideologies, the Kennedy administration decided to support Mobuto, who had strong arm tactics. In the words of Kennedy, “there was nobody in the world that had done more than the General (Mobuto) to maintain freedom against communism.”  In 1964, Adoula  fell to a military coup and this  led to the rise of Joseph Mobuto (later Mobutu Sese seko). After his rise to power, Mobutu installed a dictatorship. The US,  beacon of democracy, had a strong involvement in Mobuto’s rise to power, a dictator. The years 1965 – 1974 in Congo came to be known as the years of the second republic. During this period, Mobutu and his elites, representatives from the North and Northeast regions of the Congo “tried to introduce a centralized, authoritarian state. It had to contain, crush or buy in the centrifugal forces of contesting elites. Mobuto later declared a state of emergency, dissolved parliament and prohibited all political activities” (Hesselbein,25). Under Mobuto, economic institutions and political institutions served the elite. While the rest of the Congolese population was living in absolute poverty, Mobuto lived in mansions. He installed and led one of the most enduring dictatorships and had amassed wealth and a fortune estimated  at as much as $5 billion.

Political institutions determine the path of development that a society embarks on. Mobuto installed absolutist institutions, extractive political institutions,  and through these institutions extractive  economic institutions were set up.  Instead of lifting the Congolese population from poverty, it  enriched only the elites and augmented their power. “ Extractive political institutions concentrate power in the hands of a narrow elite and place few constraints on the exercise of this power. Economic institutions are then often structured by this elite to extract resources from the rest of the society” (Daron and Robinson, The Making of prosperity and Poverty). In the words of Daron and Robinson, in their book on  Why Nations Fail, “Congo experienced almost unbroken economic decline and mounting poverty under the rule of Joseph Mobuto… This decline continued after Mobutu was overthrown by Laurent Kabila. Mobutu created a highly extractive set of economic institutions. The citizens were impoverished, but Mobutu and the elite surrounding him, known as Les Grosses Legumes (the Big Vegetables), became fabulously wealthy”. The US-Soviet Cold war had set up a leader whose main interest was not of developing the Congo but enriching himself, his elites and his western allies who had put him in his position as the prime minister of the Congo. Although it is impossible to know whether Lumumba upon receiving support would have been able to unite Congo, bring about stability and change the course of the history of Congo , history shows that by not supporting a strong, legitimate institution, Cold war US policies in Congo set the country to failure. The policies rather created institutions only concerned in enriching those in power and their western allies. 


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1 Comment

  1. Dibo

    So informative thanks Benjie.r

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