The Congo Crisis of 1960-1965: History, Causes & Effects
The 1960s was a turbulent era in Africa as many of the colonized countries began gaining their independence and adjusting to self-rule. Just a few weeks after winning its independence from Belgium, the Republic of Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, experienced a severe crisis that shook the country to its core and cost more than a hundred thousand lives, including the life of the first prime minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba. It also transformed the Republic of Congo into a one-party state (under the authoritarian rule of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu) that endured until 1997.
Below, World History Edu explores the major causes of the 1960 Congo Crisis, the key figures involved in the crisis, how it was resolved, and the effects on the country today.
The Congo Free State was established in 1885 and privately owned by King Leopold II of Belgium. However, due to the outcry by European countries and the United States on the atrocities committed against the locals during the extraction of ivory and rubber, the Belgian king reluctantly handed over Congo Free State to the Belgium government in 1908, which led to the formation of the Belgian Congo.
The Congo under the Belgium government led to the introduction of Christianity and education, which also led to the urbanization of the country and subsequently the push for self-governance by Congolese. The push for independence was not a walk in the park, it was plagued with resistance from the colonial master and tribal politics by the different ethnic groups in the country. The Congolese elites pushed for an independent Congo by organizing themselves into three main political parties;
The ABAKO (Alliance of Bakongo; French: Alliance des Bakongo) was founded in 1950 as an Association for the Bakongo people and it was led by Joseph Kasa-Vubu who would become the first elected president of the Republic of Congo.
The Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) was established in 1958 and it sought a centralized Congo and immediate withdrawal of the Belgium government. It was led by Albert Kalonji and Patrice Lumumba.
The Confederation of Tribal Association of Katanga people (CANAKAT) was formed in 1958 and sought the protection of the rich Katanga Province. It was pro-western and was led by Moïse Tshombe and Godefroid Munongo.
Congo’s struggle for independence
In January 1959, the call for independence turned aggressive as a protest from ABAKO got out of hand and turned into a bloody riot that took several days to resolve. Hundreds of lives were lost as a result of the riots.
The scream for independence rattled the Belgian government and King Baudouin promised independence would be given without delay and irresponsible rashness. The following year, the Congolese political elites were invited for a round table conference in Brussels and all the demands of Congolese leaders were granted. It was agreed that elections were to be held in May 1960 and the country became an independent nation in June 1960.
The elections showed how divided the country was, as ABAKO and the MNC were tied and had to come to a compromise with Joseph Kasa-Vubu becoming the president of an independent Congo and Patrice Lumumba becoming its first head of government.
The Belgians handed over power officially to the new Congolese government on June 30, 1960.
Causes of the Congo Crisis
Just a week after independence was declared, the Congolese soldiers of Force Publique (a white militia group) rebelled against the force because the commander, Lt. General Emile Janssens, refused to allow promotions and salary increases for the Congolese members of the force.
This mutiny soon led to widespread violence across racial lines in the country. Due to the murders of Belgian officers, the Belgium government deployed its own troops to restore peace and evacuate its citizens without the approval of the new Congolese President or Prime Minister.
The newly christened government sought the help of the United Nations to restore order to the country and the eviction of Belgian troops. The Belgian troops evacuated over 850,000 Belgians that were living in Congo; sadly, this was not the end but rather the beginning of the Congo Crisis. Colonel Mobutu took control of the army and saw to the promotion of certain officers to gain their allegiance.
The Main Cause
Following the unrest, the resource-rich province of Katanga, led by Moïse Tshombe, seceded from the DRC. The Katangan rebels were allegedly backed by Belgian support. The South Kasai province, led by Albert Kalonji, Lumumba’s former ally, followed suit and seceded.
With support from the United States government, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force but they refused to interfere in the Congolese government’s fight with the secessionists as they viewed this as an internal conflict.
This forced Prime Minister Lumumba’s hand to seek help from the Soviet Union, which angered the United States government. The U.S. and its western allies hoped the new Congolese government would be pro-west.
The arrival of a thousand Soviet advisors distanced Lumumba from the other members of the government, who feared the implications of involving the Soviet Union. This caused relationships between President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Patrice Lumumba to sour.
With support from the Soviets, Congolese troops launched an aggressive attack against South Kasai, resulting in the deaths of many civilians and thousands of Luba civilians fleeing their homes.
The United States feared Congo’s relationship with the Soviet Union would lead to the spreads of communism in Africa. Therefore, Patrice Lumumba became a threat that simply had to be removed from power.
Kasa-Vubu announced the dismissal of Prime Minister Lumumba. Lumumba also tried to dismiss the President but did not get the support, resulting in a constitutional deadlock.
It is alleged the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) sought the help of an agent in the person of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu to get rid of the Lumumba threat. There is no evidence to back this claim, however, Mobutu executed a bloodless coup d’état in September 1960 to avoid a civil war. Upon assuming of power in the country, the military leader ordered the Soviet advisors to leave the country immediately.
Deposed Prime Minister Lumumba was placed under house arrest with the UN peacekeepers as his guards. The arrest of Lumumba resulted in the emergence of another rebel government in Stanleyville by Antoine Gizenga in November of 1960.
Lumumba’s removal allowed for the negotiation of a truce between the central Congolese government and the Katanga secessionists.
Patrice Lumumba, with the help of his loyalist, escaped house arrest and fled to the rebel-backed Stanleyville. Unfortunately, he was captured on December 1, 1960, and taken to the capital, Léopoldville.
The Soviet Union petitioned the United Nations Security Council for Lumumba’s release and immediate restoration as the Prime Minister. The Soviets also called on Mobutu’s troops to disarm. The petition was voted 8 against and 2 in favor.
Assassination of Patrice Lumumba
Following the resolution, Lumumba was tortured and taken to Katanga, where he was handed over to Tshombe’s forces and was executed on 17 January 1961.
News of Lumumba’s execution was met with outcry and protest in major cities like New York and London, and the Belgium embassies in Yugoslavia and Belgrade were attacked.
Cease-fire negotiations and the death of Hammarskjöld
The battle to end the secession of Katanga province continued despite the execution of Lumumba because the re-appointed president Kasa-Vubu and Moïse Tshombe could not reach an agreement. In September 1961 some UN peacekeepers were kidnapped by Katangese forces and held prisoners.
The then-UN secretary Dag Hammarskjöld decided to fly to Congo to broker a cease-fire between the two factions and effect the release of the peacekeepers. Unfortunately, the plane carrying the UN secretary and his delegates crashed, killing all onboard.
Secretary-General U Thant, Hammarskjöld’s successor, ordered the UN troops to step up its efforts. Ultimately, the captured peacekeepers were released in October. The UN troops launched an offensive with the Congolese army and took over regions of the Katanga province.
By January 1963, Moïse Tshombe had surrendered and fled the country. This resulted in the end of the war between the central government and the Katangese secessionists.
The Simba Rebellion
After the end of the conflict, President Kasa-Vubu appointed the exiled former leader of Katanga province Moïse Tshombe interim Prime Minister. However, this did little to quell the discontentment among the Congolese. There were agitations by Lumumba loyalists spearheaded by Pierre Mulele, which led to the Kwilu Rebellion of 1964. Soon the rebellion, which was termed the Simba Rebellion, spread to western Congo. The fighters called themselves “Simbas”, meaning lions.
Simba rebels, who were primarily comprised uneducated young men, sought to overthrow the central Congolese government not because they were loyal to Lumumba but because they wanted better opportunities for themselves. With the backing of the Soviet Union and China, the rebels founded a new state called the People’s Republic of the Congo, and trade unionist Christophe Gbenye was voted president.
The new state was also supported by Tanzania and Cuba, who supplied the rebels with 100 troops led by Che Guevara. The Simbas gained ground initially but were soon met with opposition from the Congolese Army and mercenaries who fought for Tshombe.
Desperate for global attention, the Simbas kidnapped and held over 500 Belgians hostage. This move by the rebels turned out to be a huge mistake because this prompted the Belgium government to send their troops to recover the hostages. The majority of the hostages were evacuated, about 75 of the rebels lost their lives, and a thousand civilians lost perished as well.
End of the Congo Crisis
Following the suppression of the rebellions, elections were held in March 1965, but once again due to political differences and ethnicity, there was a deadlock between Tshombe’s party and President Kasa-Vubu. Instead of compromising Kasa-Vubu sacked Tshombe as Prime Minister and appointed Évariste Kimba; once again, history was repeating itself.
Army leader Mobutu launched a second bloodless coup in November 1965, but this time, he consolidated power for himself, promising to restore power to a democratically elected government in five years but he never did.
The office of the prime minister as well as parliament was abolished and the DRC was plunged into decades of kleptocracy and autocracy from 1965 to 1997, when Mobutu was finally deposed.
Effects of the Congo Crisis
- The scars of the Congo Crisis run deep because it has resulted in years of ethnic unrest in the Congo, especially among the Luba people of the south-central region. There was a rise in insurrection from the 1970s to the 1990s.
- There is this palpable feeling among many Congolese that the Congo Crisis was never truly resolved and the murder of Patrice Lumumba set the nation into a period of darkness and hardship.
- The first major crisis in sub-Saharan Africa had a ripple effect on other African countries in the 1960s, including the Chadian Civil War and the Nigerian Civil War.
Did you know?
It is important to note that in 2002 the Belgium government apologized for its role in the arrest and execution of Patrice Lumumba. The golden tooth of Patrice Lumumba was returned to his family by the Belgium government in June 2022. The former leader was also given a state funeral by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One wonders if the call for independence in the Republic of Congo was premature; did the country need more time to understudy its colonial master? Were the superpowers really to blame for this conflict, or was it caused by the sheer diverse nature of the country, a feature that should be a strength, but unfortunately worked against Congo? No matter your stance, we all agree that the Congo Civil War without a shred of doubt was one of the darkest periods of the central African country, and the ghost of the crisis continues to haunt Congolese even to this day.