Rethinking African Crises: Congo 1960, Ivory Coast 2010

I really do intend to write about things other than Ivory Coast. I really do. I thought about the many possibilities as I rumbled through the Mozambican countryside two days before Christmas for 600 km, riding shotgun aboard a Freightliner in the vain hope of reaching my Maputo hotel before the restaurant's closure (much of this city closes down during this season). I was aiming for my first meal since breakfast.

I want to get to my book recommendations for early 2011, the ones that didn't get put together in time to make it for the year-end glut of lists. I want to talk about China and Africa, the subject of a new book project I've begun work on. I want to talk about China itself, a subject about which there is always something to say.

I want to talk about health while traveling in the tropics.

I want to talk about being away from family, any and all family, on Christmas day, for the first time since 1978, when as a traveling college student I got stuck overnight in Rome at Noel and made it home a day late. In a couple of days, I'll celebrate my Christmas belatedly with a brother who lives in South Africa.

Before I can do any of this, though, I need to go back to the Congo, and the early history of independence-era African politics, which is my long, roundabout way of speaking again so soon of Ivory Coast. To get there, we must first go back to 1960 Léopoldville (renamed Kinshasa), and the betrayal of Patrice Émery Lumumba, Congo's first elected leader, and indeed its first leader at all, who survived (physically) all of 10 weeks after taking office.

Lumumba, a former beer salesman and postal clerk, has often been derided for a temperament that has been called erratic. Others try to dull the sharp edges of the tragedy that surround his story by saying he was ill prepared for his historical role to begin with, as if this alleviates any of the criminal circumstances that led to his atrocious murder. A point that is too often overlooked even as such allowances are made is that as a whole, the Congo had been no better prepared by its Belgian colonizers than Lumumba himself, whatever his weaknesses.

One could cite any number of facts that doomed the country from the start: Brussels, for example, had failed to train a single indigenous army officer, and by most counts the new country had less than a handful of lawyers.

I'm already digressing here, though. The point is that one should make no mistake about the fact that Lumumba, and in a very real sense, all of Africa was betrayed by the international community.

Whatever his shortcomings, Patrice Lumumba had an indisputable gift of the verb. Moreover, he powerfully incarnated a nascent sense of African nationalism. For the West, which was not accustomed to seeing Africans as mature creatures capable of making rational choices about their own interests, this was deranging.

Within hours of taking power, the Congolese Force Publique, the new country's poor semblance of an army, mutinied, and mineral rich Katanga Province, the state's principal source of income, seceded. Both occurred with Belgian encouragement and American acquiescence.

The United Nations provided protection for Lumumba, but treated the secession as an internal affair, and withheld its support for the country's territorial integrity. Taking ever-bigger risks to hold things together, the new leader flirted briefly with the Soviet Union, predicting the imminent arrival of Russian troops to support him. "If it is necessary to call upon the devil to save the country, I will do it without hesitation," he said.

Pushed by Washington, Congo's pusillanimous president, Joseph Kasavubu went on the radio to announce Lumumba's dismissal. The embattled prime minister retaliated 30 minutes later, calling for a popular uprising, and dismissing Kasavubu as head of state. Significantly, Lumumba won a vote of confidence in the new Senate.

With the backing of the CIA, Joseph Désiré Mobutu, the newly appointed head of the Force Publique announced the "neutralization" of the rival governments until the end of the year. This amounted to Africa's first coup d'état.

Jason K. Stearns, in his important forthcoming book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (PublicAffairs) describes Mobutu as "a sergeant, a trained typist and a journalist at the time of independence. Within two months he was chief of staff of the newly independent Congo's army." Very shortly thereafter, this bastard, very clearly Our Bastard, both then and for decades to come, would name himself field marshal and minister of defense.

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Howard W. French is the author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, and is writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.

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