60 years ago, a former personal possession gained independence

A map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Belgian Congo gained independence from the motherland on June 30th, 1960 as the Republic of the Congo. Until 1966, it was also known as Congo-Léopoldville after the old name of its capital. From 1971 to 1997, what had by then had adopted its current title Democratic Republic of the Congo was called Zaire.

Belgian King Leopold II (1835-1909), whose statue in Antwerp was recently removed, ruled the vast territory of nowadays 2,344,858 square kilometers from 1885 to 1908. As neither parliament nor government had supported the monarch’s plans in Africa, it became a personal possession called Congo Free State. He even managed that other countries, including the United States and European powers, recognized him as its proprietor. The State bought his property a year before his death, and it received the denomination that would last until the end of colonial rule.

Leopold amassed a huge fortune, based first on ivory, and then on rubber after the automobile and bicycle industries took off. His private army, consisting of mostly Black troops led by White officers, suppressed local rebellions with particular cruelty. The men were ordered to produce the severed hand of a rebel for each bullet expended and would sometimes cut maim a living person if they had shot and missed. It is estimated that under the despot’s misrule, up to ten million people died. Interestingly, to distract international attention from these real atrocities, during World War I Belgian and British propagandists attributed faked similar crimes to the Germans.

Patrice Émery Lumumba (1925-1961) was the independence leader who served as the Congo’s first Prime Minister from June until September 1960. He and first President Joseph Kasa-Vubu (1917-1969) tried to remove each other from power. After a stalemate, Chief of Staff of the Army Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (1930-1997) deposed Lumumba, who was later killed by other political rivals. Over the next five years, Kasa-Vubu presided over a succession of weak governments, until Mobutu seized absolute control and placed him under house arrest until he passed away.

The new leader, who in 1972 chose the bombastic name Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, amassed a personal fortune of about five billion US dollars through economic exploitation and corruption. The dictator fled into exile in May 1997, dying of prostate cancer in Morocco in September of the same year. His legacy consisted of a huge debt, uncontrolled inflation and massive currency devaluations.

Afterwards, Laurent-Désiré Kabila (1939-2001), Marxist revolutionary and self-proclaimed academic, made himself president. He suspended the Constitution and announced that elections wouldn’t be held until order was restored. Officially, one of his young bodyguards shot him dead in his office. Other sources point to a child soldier.

Joseph Kabila Kabange (born 1971) took office ten days after the murder of his father. He won disputed elections in 2006, when a new Constitution was finally approved, and in 2011. His second term was due to expire in December 2016, but in September of that year, authorities announced that first a new census would need to be established.

Although that remained an insurmountable task, polls did take place in December 2019. The election of opposition candidate Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo (born 1963), offspring of a former Prime Minister who fell out with Mubutu in the 1980s, marked the first peaceful transition of power since the country was established 60 years ago. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much on a continent haunted for decades by chronic instability and facing gigantic challenges.

P.D.: A cocktail was created in honor of Lumumba. Let’ see when the usual suspects discover «a veiled form of racism» and demand to have it banned.


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