The year 1960 was auspicious for European decolonization of Africa. In rapid succession, no fewer than 17 countries became independent.
One of them was the Central African territory previously known as the Belgian Congo. June 30 was its magic date. And given its vast natural resources, some people had high hopes.
Alas, things quickly turned sour. Within a couple of weeks, the new country was a hot mess.
First came an army mutiny, which led to rioting and looting. In response, Belgium deployed paratroopers to protect Europeans.
That was just the beginning.
On July 11, the richest province – Katanga – seceded.
Katanga’s leader, Moise Tshombe, was a proponent of a loose federal arrangement for the new tribally diverse country. But not everyone agreed.
Patrice Lumumba was one of the naysayers. He preferred a strong central government.
With 33 out of 137 seats, Lumumba’s party had emerged as the largest entity in the pre-independence national election. This enabled him to put together a coalition government disposed towards his vision.
The stage was set for civil war.
Tshombe was ambitious, adroit and in possession of a tribal power base in Katanga. He also had support from the Belgian government and the copper mining interests.
Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) jumped on the case.
A Security Council resolution passed on July 14 calling for complete Belgian withdrawal and the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force. Ireland was one of the countries that answered the call.
I remember it well, being a teenager and living just a few kilometres from the aerodrome at which the Irish peacekeeping contingent assembled. It was heady stuff.
Having been admitted to the UN in 1955, Ireland was still in the early stages of emerging from relative isolation. And the idea of deploying to stabilize a newly independent African state appealed to the national self-image of virtuous anti-colonialism.
At first, the UN force was neutral on internal Congolese matters. But it soon took sides, bringing Katanga to heel in 1963. No secession was to be permitted.
That, though, wasn’t the end of the new country’s travails.
It quickly descended into decades of dictatorship, corruption, kleptocracy and violence. And now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it remains a mess.
What went wrong?
Informed opinion blamed European colonialism for Africa’s general woes and the Belgians for the particular Congolese debacle. During the approximately 80 years of Belgian rule, they hadn’t exactly been model imperialists.
Three lines of criticism were especially prevalent.
The Belgians, it was said, had done virtually nothing to prepare the new country for independence. Yes, they’d constructed a thin layer of mid-20th-century infrastructure, but the skills and technical expertise required to run it were almost entirely European.
This fragility had deleterious consequences. For instance, almost 90 percent of the main road network became unusable within 20 years of independence.
Another criticism related to political legacy.
The departing colonial powers – Belgium included – sought to bequeath European parliamentary systems to the new African countries, regardless of whether they suited the local situation.
David Lamb was an American journalist who sympathetically covered sub-Saharan Africa for four years. He framed it this way: “At this stage most African countries are best served by benign dictators. Democracy can come later, if it is to come at all.”
Lamb, mind you, was also honest enough to recognize that the combination of dictatorial benevolence and wisdom was hard to find. Writing in 1980 when Africa had no shortage of dictators, he observed that “many countries are run by men who are little more than clerks with guns.”
Finally, there’s perhaps the most salient criticism of all.
Many of the new entities created by colonialism’s demise were artificial constructs that bore no relation to natural countries. The Belgian Congo, for instance, encompassed some 200 tribes and 75 languages. Cohesion and collective identity don’t come easily in such circumstances.
Lamb was clear-eyed about independent Africa’s many failings and optimistic about its future. Given time, Africans would sort it all out. It was their continent and they ultimately knew what was best for themselves.
That was in 1980, 20 years after the great liberation. Another 40 years have passed since.
If responsibility comes with empowerment, it correspondingly departs with the ceding of power. Maybe it’s time to let the Belgians off the hook for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.