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.

To resolve the Congo crisis, and put an end to this duel over legitimacy, the United States successfully pressured the United Nations to recognize a new Kasavubu-Mobutu government. On the very night this arrangement was being feted in Léopoldville, Lumumba snuck out of his UN-guarded compound and made a mad dash by road for the countryside, hoping to rally the nation to his cause. He was quickly captured, flown to Elizabethville in the far south, and savagely murdered under Belgian supervision. After prolonged and repetitive beatings, he and two close associates were executed by firing squad, and then had their bodies dissolved in a ditch filled with sulfuric acid.

Readers who would like to experience a sense of this story and of these times would do well to start with Raoul Peck's richly evocative 2002 film, Lumumba, which is widely available for rental. Although some might argue that it is somewhat overly sympathetic to the United Nations, which he served as representative in the Congo during this period, I would also strongly recommend Brian Urquhart's 2001 New York Review of Books article, The Tragedy of Lumumba.

Fast forward to today, through 40 tumultuous years in African history and in Ivory Coast, one finds both strong echoes and critical contrasts to the Congo crisis in the downward spiral of what had once long been West Africa's most prosperous and stable country. After losing an election in November, the longtime incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo chose to cling to power, against all evidence denying the victory of his rival, Alassane Ouattara. Like in Congo in 1960, the two camps have set up rival governments. Ouattara, like Lumumba, the man who incarnates legitimacy, is guarded and indeed kept alive by United Nations troops. Here, though, the parallels begin to fray and diverge.

Gbagbo, a former history professor turned opposition rabble rouser during the country's long early years of one-party rule has come to exemplify the old adage about tragedies that replay themselves as farce.

Despite his illegitimacy, like all African leaders who have sought to use nationalism to bolster their legitimacy, he is a lineal political descendant of Lumumba -- only now all that remains of this tradition is its cheap, shopworn hand-me-down version, whose sentiments have turned petty, vicious and xenophobic. Its demagogic essence is now reduced to racialism and crude appeals to ethnicity. Where Lumumba sought to rally the Soviets to his support, Gbagbo has reportedly stooped to recruiting former child soldiers from Liberia next door, a democratic country emerging from a long and gruesome civil war.

Where does a story like this, so full of historical parables and significance for the continent end? It is impossible to know. The United States and the significant European power here, France, have for once been on the right side of history in this matter, supporting the elected, but embattled leader. Both need to do more. Much more.

At a time when a fast-growing and increasingly economically relevant Africa is reappraising its relations with the world, starting with the embrace of China, each has a chance to remind the continent's billion-something inhabitants that the values of the West go beyond lofty rhetoric.

Look toward the United Nations, and to Africa's own institutions, though, for the most striking contrasts. The world body has long been caricatured as an irrelevant talking shop, but here unlike 1960, it has not chosen the easy way out. Extraordinarily last week, the general assembly stripped the Gbagbo government of its credentials and handed them to Mr. Ouattara. The Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) has denied the rump government access to the country's accounts. Finally, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States has issued its own muscular ultimatum.

"In the event that Mr. Gbagbo fails to heed this immutable demand of ECOWAS, the Community would be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people," said a statement by the group following an emergency Christmas Eve summit reminding the world of the distance traveled since a time when state politics in Africa resembled a fraternity of anti-democratic big men.

The phrase "Remember the Congo" was once a rallying cry for Africans fighting to build a viable future for their continent. Remember the Ivory Coast could soon be invoked to recall a turning point.