The Demand for Independence

1958 1960

In 1958 general elections in Belgium brought a new government into power. The Minister of Colonies was renamed the Minister of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda Urundi, and his first act was to announce a policy of 'decolonization'. This was followed by the appointment of a parliamentary committee to formulate a definitive plan. Before its work could be completed new developments intervened. On 28th August General De Gaulle, speaking at Brazzaville, made his famous offer of complete independence to any French dependency that desired it. His speech, delivered just across the river from Leopoldville, was naturally not lost on the Congolese. Two days later the leaders of various political movements sent a collective letter to the Minister, demanding immediate and far reaching political reforms.

By now the tide of nationalism was running so strongly that every concession made to it was made to look like some puny obstacle which scarcely delays the flood before being engulfed, It was not due to any feeling of oppression among the people, or any popular anti Belgian sentiment. The vast majority of Congolese had not the faintest idea of what all the argument was about. The movement was led by a few hundred evolues, who, seeing that the white man's grasp was slipping in every other African country, were determined not to be left behind in the race for power. And once it began to look as though they might succeed, every ambitious African was eager to climb on the nationalist band wagon. During the latter half of 1958 innumerable new parties came into being, some of which later amalgamated. Most of them were of a local, tribal or regional character, There was not, in fact, and never has been in the Congo, any truly national party, although several have claimed that title. The country was much too large, and the time given it much too short, for any leader to emerge who could have created one. The politicians were known in their own fiefs, but outside, with a few exceptions, they and their parties were simply names.

What did emerge and was to appear still more clearly from the elections was the strength of the regional or tribal as opposed to the nationalist sentiment. The revolt of the Congolese was not only against white supremacy, but also against rule by foreigners; and by 'foreigners' they did not mean Belgians, who would eventually be leaving anyhow, but Congolese from other provinces and other tribes appointed by the central government to administer them, or sent to keep them in order as members of the Force Publique.

It was the policy of the Belgians to garrison the provinces with soldiers from another part of the Congo, who would not therefore have to take action against their own tribesmen.

In other words the so called 'nationalist' movement was also a movement against government from the centre, and a protest against the artificial unity imposed by colonialism in defiance of natural ethnical and linguistic divisions.

To think this unity would survive after the departure of the colonial power was as unrealistic as to expect the Roman Empire (which in Europe was no bigger than the Congo) would remain united after the withdrawal of the legions. It was the failure of the Belgians to see that it could not do so, when devising a constitution for an independent Congo, that largely explains the breakdown of all government subsequently. The Congolese are not a nation but a congeries of nations; their 'nationalism', which in any case only affected a small minority, consisted of a common desire to take over the white man's job as a means to enjoying his higher standard of living. Once this was achieved it ceased to have any meaning for people whose sense of nationhood was confined to a tribe.

During the summer of 1958 many of the leading Congolese were invited to Belgium to see the Brussels Exhibition. They found, of course, that in Europe the attitude of the whites they met was very different from that of the colonists. (It is always easy for the metropolitan European to be generous in his ideas of how a colony should be treated; he does not have to live with the problem his idealism creates. To proclaim that all races are equal costs nothing in a country where there is only one.) The Congolese were entertained, made much of by their hosts, and discovered that, especially in Belgian left wing circles, there was plenty of support even for their most extravagant aspirations. They returned to the Congo with the dangerous knowledge that whites dislike other whites much more than blacks, and could be played off against each other.

Another event which greatly encouraged the nationalists was the conference of African independence movements held at Accra in December. Of the three Congolese politicians who attended one was Patrice Lumumba, leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (M.N.C.). This was to become the largest of the parties to find support in all parts of the Congo, mostly from tribal minorities, in contrast to the regional parties, such as Abako in the Lower Congo, and Conakat in Katanga, which represented the predominant ethnic group in their region. It stood above all for preserving the unity of the Congo and denounced tribalism and regionalism as symbols of reaction. Lumumba himself was of humble origin, born in the bush, and educated at a Catholic mission. He had been employed as a post office clerk until dismissed for embezzlement, and had then gone into politics, for which he had a natural gift. A fiery orator with every demagogic trick at his command, he had also a certain personal magnetism and charm, which seduced many Belgians as well as Africans. But he lacked real powers of leadership, and was also completely unstable, at one moment denouncing all colonialists, and the next swearing undying friendship to Belgium. At Accra he scored a personal success and returned convinced of his destiny to lead the Congo to freedom. Thanks to the publicity he had acquired through the conference his party won many new adherents.

The unrest produced by all this political activity, and by the general uncertainty in the future, came to a head in January 1959, when violent riots broke out in Leopoldville. The cause was partly economic: as a result of the recess in America there was considerable unemployment. Many of the rioters were youths who had never been in work, and who had taken to petty crime for a living. They were the prototype of the teenagers afterwards enrolled in such organizations as the Jeunesse Baluba and Jeunesse M.N.C., which became notorious for their terrorist activities. Trouble started when a meeting of Abako was banned. To disperse the demonstrators police used fire arms. The excitement spread to the native townships; there were attacks on Europeans and widespread disorder, in which schools, churches and hospitals were set on fire. Before order was restored nearly a hundred people were killed, about half of them Europeans. Many other Europeans were saved by the action of individual Africans in hiding them from the mob.

A Government statement on the future of the Congo was due at about this time. It was expected to announce an acceleration in the advance to self government, short of complete independence. It was the rioting which probably tipped the balance in favour of going the whole hog. On 13th January King Baudouin broadcast a message in which he declared: 'It is our firm intention without undesirable procrastination but also without undue haste to lead the Congolese populations forward to independence in prosperity and peace.' Simultaneously a new programme was announced. Elections for communal and territorial councils by universal suffrage would be held at the end of the year. These councils would elect the Provincial Councils early in 1960. The Government Council was to be replaced by a General Council, which would later assume the function of a House of Representatives, while there was also to be set up a Conseil de Legislation as embryo of a future Senate, consisting of elected representatives of the six Provincial Councils.

This was a plan of transition between colonial rule and self government, such as has been adopted in most of the British colonies. No term for it was officially announced, but it was generally assumed that four or five years would be needed for a smooth transfer of power. At the end of this the Congolese were themselves to decide whether they wanted complete independence.

The new plan was at first accepted by all the parties except Abako; but in June a declaration issued jointly by eight of the political groups requested independence in 1961. Going one better, M. Lumumba's M.N.C. demanded it for 1960. Further rioting in October, this time in Stanleyville, on his own territory, was followed by the arrest and imprisonment of Lumumba.

The situation was now rapidly deteriorating. Tribal fighting broke out in Kasai and elsewhere, while in the Bas Congo there were manifestations of civil disobedience, including widespread refusal to pay taxes. Everywhere authority was being undermined, the wildest rumours circulated, and the whites began to send their women and children home.

In a desperate attempt to stop the rot, the Belgian Government summoned a Round Table Conference in Brussels. The conference opened in January 1960, and was attended by the delegates of fourteen Congolese political parties and the representatives of the traditional chiefs in the six provinces. On the Belgian side, in addition to members of the Government, there were representatives of the three parliamentary parties.

To a rational being the latest events would merely have confirmed that the colony was far from ready for self government. They had, for example, revealed profound differences, both political and ethnic, which had not hitherto been apparent under the colonial regime Besides the hereditary mutual fears which divided members of neighbouring tribes, there was a deep gulf between the traditional authorities, whose word was law for 80 per cent. of the population, and the new leaders of the evolue' type, who had broken away from the tribal order and regarded it as the greatest obstacle to social progress. The more conservative chiefs thoroughly distrusted the politicians. and were far from enthusiastic about independence if it meant putting such people in power. So much magic, however, had become attached to the word independence, as a result of the promises made by the parties of unlimited wealth for everyone, that no African could openly oppose it, or even propose delay. without incurring the charge of being a tool of the white man in other words an 'imperialist stooge'.

The Belgian Government, recognizing the dangers of a premature withdrawal, came to the conference prepared for a shortening of the transition period, but not for its total elimination. Before, however, they had time to put a new plan forward, they were confronted by a unanimous demand for independence, not in three or two years, but immediately. The demand was not based on any reasonable argument; nobody had suggested that the Belgians were insincere in their promises, or that hardship to anybody would result from postponing independence for a few years longer. On the contrary every sensible person, including many Africans, knew that delay was imperative in order to avoid the worst consequence. But no Congolese party, once the bidding for votes had begun, could afford to compromise on the date without the risk of losing ground to its rivals.

In face of the demand the Belgian Government had two choices; to refuse and to be prepared to enforce their refusal by force; or acquiesce and make the best of it. They chose the latter. It is tempting to say now that they should have opted for refusal, but this would have been to ignore the state of public opinion in Belgium, strongly opposed both on ideological and practical grounds to the use of force in its colony; and still more the state of world opinion, as exemplified by the anti colonialism of America and the United Nations. Belgium is a small country, traditionally neutral, hardly in a position to defy such powerful forces. Moreover her allies, as experience has shown with their 'I'm all right, Jack' attitude, could not be trusted to support her had she become involved in a quarrel with her colony. Disastrous as her decision appears in the light of history, it is difficult to see any democratic government in the same circumstances taking any other.

There was this too to be said for unconditional surrender; it was calculated to evoke the maximum of good will in the Congolese. A compromise reached by moderate men is always liable to be undermined by extremists. By giving way completely the Belgians took the wind out of their sails and made it impossible for them to refuse their co operation. At the same time they could expect some gratitude for the 'generosity' of their gesture. So the Belgians reasoned, and it is a point of view with which one is bound to feel sympathy, especially when one imagines the storm of protest which would have burst on their heads from the anticolonialists had they held out for what they considered to be right.

It was also by making at the start the largest concession that they were able to create a favourable atmosphere for discussing the question of their future relations with the Congo. In their exhilaration at the prospect of immediate independence, the Congolese were only too willing that their former masters should continue to be employed in the administration and public services, until such time as there were sufficient trained Congolese to replace them. Thus it seemed that the shock of change would be cushioned, and the danger of an administrative collapse through inexperience averted.

Once the decision to grant independence by the summer had been taken, there was no great difficulty in steering the conference to a successful conclusion. The main difference arose over the constitution. The majority of the Congolese parties, representing regional or tribal interests, were in favour of giving a large autonomy to the provinces, in other words of federalism. It was only the M.N.C. of Lumumba, and its allies, chief of which was M. Gizenga's Parti Solidaire Africaine (P.S.A.), which wanted a strongly centralist State. For the Belgians, however, who had always governed the colony from Leopoldville, and never found any difficulty in doing so, it seemed natural to preserve the administrative structure which had succeeded so well in imposing unity on the Congo. They failed to see that this had been maintained hot at the wish of the Congolese, but only with their tacit acquiescence; that once the will which had created it was removed there would be nothing to support it short of force; and that the willingness of the Congolese to submit to authority, if it were not Belgian authority, extended to their local chiefs and leaders but no farther. They therefore threw all their weight on the side of the unitary principle and were able to carry the day.

The result was an agreement to give the Congo a constitution which provided for strongly centralized government; a central legislature, consisting of chamber and senate, and provincial governments and assemblies with restricted powers in local matters. These provisions and all others necessary to enable a sovereign State to function were embodied in a law called the Loi Fondamentale, enacted by the Belgian Parliament, and promulgated by the King on 19th May 1960.

The conference completed its work on 20th February. The proceedings closed with an exchange of congratulations between the Belgians and Congolese, and the expression of mutual good will and hope of continued collaboration. It had been agreed that in dependence should be proclaimed on 30th June in barely four months' time and that meanwhile elections should be held for the Chamber of Representatives, the Provincial Assemblies and the Senate. A further conference was to take place on economic matters and a Treaty of Friendship, Assistance and Co operation to be drawn up for signature by Belgium and a sovereign Congo.

As part of its aid to the young republic, Article 2 the most important in the treaty declared that 'the Belgian Government would place at the disposal and under the authority of the Congolese Government ... personnel in the fields of administration, justice, defence, culture, science and education'. The treaty also laid down that the Belgian troops to be stationed at military bases in the Congo would only be used at the request of the Congolese Government.

From the end of the conference events moved at a precipitate rate. In its headlong gallop to independence it looked more and more as if the Congo were being run away with. So many things happened in the midst of so much confusion that incidents were overlooked whose significance should have been a warning not that at this stage it would have made any difference.

Thus on 13th May fighting broke out between Lulua and Baluba tribesmen in Leopoldville an extension of the tribal war that had already started in Kasai. When the military were called in to restore order, the reaction of Lumumba was to demand the immediate withdrawal of the Belgian authorities. This was the man whom a few weeks later they were to appoint as Prime Minister! The pattern of future events was already emerging; failure of the Congolese leaders to control their own people, and blaming of the consequences on the Belgians.

On 22nd May the election of the Chamber resulted in the M.N.C. (Lumumba) heading the list with thirty five seats out of a total of 137.

The P.N.P. (Parti National du Progre's), a moderate party representative of the Traditional Chiefs, came next with twenty two seats, while M. Gizenga's P.S.A. (Parti Solidaire Africaine) was third with thirteen. The remaining seats were divided more or less regionally, twelve going to Abako (Lower Congo), eight to Conakat (Katanga, party of M. Tshombe), and seven to Balubakat (Northern Katanga). Thus although the unitary party of Lumumba was the largest, it was heavily outnumbered by the aggregate of those with the opposite tendency.

The month of June was spent in feverish negotiations to set up a Congolese Government against the deadline of 30th June. M. Ganshof van der Meersch, a distinguished Belgian jurist, had been appointed Minister Resident with full powers to make the necessary arrangements. The two outstanding candidates for the post of Prime Minister were Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu, President of Abako. The latter had much the greater influence in Leopoldville and the Lower Congo, besides being a more sensible politician, but because of his separatism he had made himself unpopular in Brussels and the choice therefore fell on his rival.

On 13th June the Congolese Parliament met for the first time, but failed to give a vote of confidence to Lumumba. Kasavubu was then sent for and invited to form a government. When the names of the ministers were announced, it was found that Lumumba was not among them. Thereupon the M.N.C. leader declared that he would form a separate government, and that any ministry without himself in it would be a Belgian puppet unrepresentative of the Congolese people. On the 21st Kasavubu had to admit defeat and Lumumba was summoned again. Two days later he presented his ministry twenty three ministers, ten secretaries of state, four ministers of state drawn from fourteen parties. He himself became Minister of Defence, besides Prime Minister, and nine other posts in the ministry went to members of his party. The next day the Chamber and Senate voted approval by large majorities, and in the same stance elected Kasavubu as Head of State.

Meanwhile there were plenty of indications that decisions taken in Leopoldville had little chance of being accepted in the provinces. For the Congolese living outside it the capital spelt superior authority, and whether this was exercised by black or white made little difference; it was something they had finished with. On 13th June, at a meeting of Abako in Leopoldville, it was decided to set up an autonomous government in the Bas Congo. It was only after the intervention of the Governor of Leopoldville that the delegates agreed to postpone any action till after 30th June. On the previous day M. Tshombe, leader of the majority party in Katanga, had telegraphed the Belgian parliament demanding a revision of the constitution.

Thus the portents were already threatening when at noon on 30th June the King of the Belgians entered the Palais de la Nation in Leopoldville to hear the proclamation of the Congo's independence. At so solemn a ceremony it was to be expected that the voice of rancour would for once at least be stilled; but the hope was dashed when, following a homage to Belgium by Kasavubu, Lumumba rose and delivered a violent anti colonialist tirade. The offensive impression this made on blacks and white alike, especially in the presence of a popular young monarch, who was entitled both by his constitutional position and his character to be spared it, was barely erased by a second speech delivered at a State banquet on the same day, in which the Prime Minister made some amendment for his outburst by paying a belated tribute to the Belgian achievement.

Belgium [he declared] has recognized our independence without delay and without restriction, thanks to the realist policy of its chiefs, which do honour to Belgium. We trust that this policy will lead to a durable and fruitful collaboration between our two peoples, henceforth equal and linked by friendship. I raise my glass to the health of the King of the Belgians. Long live King Baudouin. Long live Belgium. Long live independent Congo.

At midnight the Belgian flag was hauled down for the last time in front of the Residence of the Governor General. As the symbol of sovereignty floated to the ground, an onlooker remarked:

'That's the end of colonialism.'

'Let us hope,' his companion replied, 'that it's not the end of the Congo too.'

From the native townships the din of exploding crackers, tom-toms, and garish music continued into the early hours.


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