Colonial rule in the Congo began in the late 19th century. King Leopold II of Belgium, frustrated by Belgium's lack of international power and prestige, attempted to persuade the Belgian government to support colonial expansion around the then-largely unexplored Congo Basin. The Belgian government's ambivalence about the idea led Leopold to eventually create the colony on his own account. With support from a number of Western countries, who viewed Leopold as a useful buffer between rival colonial powers, Leopold achieved international recognition for a personal colony, the Congo Free State, in 1885. By the turn of the century, however, the violence of Free State officials against indigenous Congolese and the ruthless system of economic extraction had led to intense diplomatic pressure on Belgium to take official control of the country, which it did in 1908, creating the Belgian Congo.
Belgian rule in the Congo was based around the "colonial trinity" (trinité coloniale) of state, missionary and private company interests. The privileging of Belgian commercial interests meant that capital sometimes flowed back into the Congo and that individual regions became specialised. On many occasions, the interests of the government and private enterprise became closely tied and the state helped companies with strikebreaking and countering other efforts by the indigenous population to better their lot. The country was split into nesting, hierarchically organised administrative subdivisions, and run uniformly according to a set "native policy" (politique indigène)—in contrast to the British and the French, who generally favoured the system of indirect rule whereby traditional leaders were retained in positions of authority under colonial oversight. There was also a high degree of racial segregation. Large numbers of white immigrants who moved to the Congo after the end of World War II came from across the social spectrum, but were nonetheless always treated as superior to blacks.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Congo experienced an unprecedented level of urbanisation and the colonial administration began various development programmes aimed at making the territory into a "model colony". One of the results of the measures was the development of a new middle class of Europeanised African "évolués" in the cities. By the 1950s the Congo had a wage labour force twice as large as that in any other African colony. The Congo's rich natural resources, including uranium—much of the uranium used by the U.S. nuclear programme during World War II was Congolese—led to substantial interest in the region from both the Soviet Union and the United States as the Cold War developed.
Politics and radicalisation
An African nationalist movement developed in the Belgian Congo during the 1950s, primarily among the évolués. The movement was divided into a number of parties and groups which were broadly divided on ethnic and geographical lines and opposed to one another. The largest, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), was a united front organisation dedicated to achieving independence "within a reasonable" time. It was created around a charter which was signed by, among others, Patrice Lumumba, Cyrille Adoula and Joseph Iléo, but others accused the party of being too moderate. Lumumba became a leading figure within the MNC, and by the end of 1959, the party claimed to have 58,000 members.
The leader of ABAKO, Joseph Kasa-Vubu
, who later became the independent Congo's first President
The MNC's main rival was the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO),[d] led by Joseph Kasa-Vubu, who advocated a more radical ideology than the MNC, based around calls for immediate independence and the promotion of regional identity. ABAKO's stance was more ethnic nationalist than the MNC's; it argued that an independent Congo should be run by the Bakongo as inheritors of the pre-colonial Kingdom of the Kongo. The Confédération des Associations Tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT), a localist party led by Moïse Tshombe, was the third major organisation; it advocated federalism and primarily represented the southern province of Katanga. These were joined by a number of smaller parties which emerged as the nationalist movement developed, including the radical Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA), and factions representing the interests of minor ethnic groups like the
Alliance des Bayanzi (ABAZI).
Although it was the largest of the African nationalist parties, the MNC had many different factions within it that took differing stances on a number of issues. It was increasingly polarised between moderate évolués and the more radical mass membership. A radical faction headed by Iléo and Albert Kalonji split away in July 1959, but failed to induce mass defections by other MNC members. The dissident faction became known as the MNC-Kalonji (MNC-K), while the majority group became the MNC-Lumumba (MNC-L). The split divided the party's support base into those who remained with Lumumba, chiefly in the Stanleyville region in the north-east, and those who backed the MNC-K, which became most popular around the southern city of Élisabethville and among the Luba ethnic group.
Major riots broke out in Léopoldville, the Congolese capital, on 4 January 1959 after a political demonstration turned violent. The Force Publique, the colonial gendarmerie, used force against the rioters—at least 49 people were killed, and total casualties may have been as high as 500. The nationalist parties' influence expanded outside the major cities for the first time, and nationalist demonstrations and riots became a regular occurrence over the next year, bringing large numbers of black people from outside the évolué class into the independence movement. Many blacks began to test the boundaries of the colonial system by refusing to pay taxes or abide by minor colonial regulations. The bulk of the ABAKO leadership was arrested, leaving the MNC in an advantageous position.
These developments led to the white community also becoming increasing radicalised. Some whites planned to attempt a coup d'état if a black majority government took power. As law and order began to break down, white civilians formed militia groups known as Corps de Voluntaires Européens ("European Volunteer Corps") to police their neighbourhoods. These militias frequently attacked blacks.
In the fallout from the Léopoldville riots, the report of a Belgian parliamentary working group on the future of the Congo was published in which a strong demand for "internal autonomy" was noted. August de Schryver, the Minister of the Colonies, launched a high-profile Round Table Conference in Brussels in January 1960, with the leaders of all the major Congolese parties in attendance. Lumumba, who had been arrested following riots in Stanleyville, was released in the run-up to the conference and headed the MNC-L delegation. The Belgian government had hoped for a period of at least 30 years before independence, but Congolese pressure at the conference led to 30 June 1960 being set as the date. Issues including federalism, ethnicity and the future role of Belgium in Congolese affairs were left unresolved after the delegates failed to reach agreement.
Belgians began campaigning against Lumumba, whom they wanted to marginalise; they accused him of being a communist and, hoping to fragment the nationalist movement, supported rival, ethnic-based parties like CONAKAT. Many Belgians hoped that an independent Congo would form part of a federation, like the or British Commonwealth of Nations, and that close economic and political association with Belgium would continue. As independence approached, the Belgian government organised Congolese elections in May 1960. These resulted in an MNC relative majority.
The proclamation of the independent Republic of the Congo, and the end of colonial rule, occurred as planned on 30 June 1960. In a ceremony at the Palais de la Nation in Léopoldville, King Baudouin gave a speech in which he presented the end of colonial rule in the Congo as the culmination of the Belgian "civilising mission" begun by Leopold II. After the King's address, Lumumba gave an unscheduled speech in which he angrily attacked colonialism and described independence as the crowning success of the nationalist movement. Although Lumumba's address was acclaimed by figures such as Malcolm X, it nearly provoked a diplomatic incident with Belgium; even some Congolese politicians perceived it as unnecessarily provocative. Nevertheless, independence was celebrated across the Congo.
Politically, the new state had a semi-presidential constitution, known as the Loi Fondamentale, in which executive power was shared between President and Prime Minister in a system known as bicephalisme. Kasa-Vubu was proclaimed President, and Lumumba Prime Minister, of the Republic of the Congo. Despite the objections of CONAKAT and others, the constitution was largely centralist, concentrating power in the central government in Léopoldville, and did not devolve significant powers to provincial level.