Belgian Congo's Untold Tale
Mis à jour : mai 17
Written by Alexandre Neuville
As the son of a man who lived his entire childhood in DRC, who himself has been the son of a woman who lived the majority of her life there, I had to ask them first what their thoughts were about Belgian Congo. First, when I saw my grandmother, I decided to go with a broad question to open things up slowly: “Hey granny, I was wondering, how was it like living in DRC at the time?”. She answered to me: “Oh Alex, I can’t describe it. I can still feel and smell this red dirt, I mean this is just Africa, if I could I would have lived my entire life there”. I wasn’t surprised by this answer, to be honest, if you ask someone who lived in Africa, it is highly probable that they affirm they spent the best time of their life there. Then, I tried to go straight into her perception of the Congolese society: “We had great relationships with Africans. However, interactions between Whites and Blacks were infrequent. Nevertheless, every interaction was invariably fruitful, happening in a context of mutual friendliness and joy.” My grand-mother never understood why Congolese people chose to become independent: “Congolese people loved us, many Congolese we knew were sad that Congo became independent, it is not what they wanted, and they started to regret it”. When I came back from my grandmother's house, I asked my father his viewpoint. Here is what he said: “We (as Belgians), despite the atrocities Leopold II has inflicted to the Congolese people, provided strong institutions, a viable government, a delimited territory, and the values of democracy”. In other words, my dad was saying we have instilled in Africans notions of how to build a sovereign in effigy of the European values. Hence, Belgium provided a pathway to progress to the Congolese people, which would eventually lead them to a prosperous society similar to that of European countries. Two questions emerge from these familial discussions. The first one (which will be analyzed in this part) coming from my family: Did the Congolese people overthrow DRC’s stability by themselves? Or have the Belgians created a failed state through colonization? The second one (which will be analyzed in a second part) is the logical sequel to the first: To what extent has Belgium a part of responsibility for the long-lasting instability in DRC (Ranked in the top ten of most fragile states in the world since 2006) ?
As most people would argue, Belgium has created a State in Africa, supposedly with the same characteristics as the ones you can find in a sovereign European State: A clearly defined territory, a population, a government recognized within and by other nations states, and sovereignty (i.e., a supreme power to act within its territory and to control external affairs) (Fowler & Bunck, 1996). However, if indeed those characteristics have been implemented on paper, many flaws led to the current instability in DRC.
I. Territory and population
European states, including Belgium, have drawn borders to dispose of an equal share of African resources. When Heads of States gathered at the Berlin Conference in 1885 to divide Africa, borders were clearly marked to avoid any territorial conflict with other European States : “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other,” mused the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, in 1890, “only hindered by the small impediments that we never knew where the mountains and rivers and lakes were”.
When African States became independent, they haven’t redesigned their borders, why? Because, after 60 years of colonialism, European states had successfully applied their assimilation and differentiation policies. On the one hand, differentiation policies were mostly used to make former unified tribes, who at one point have been separated by new borders, perceive themselves as hostile groups. This happened through the reinforcement of every characteristic that could enlarge the already-widening gap between the different factions embedded in ethnic groups; such as resource competition (even if tribes were separated by borders, some resources were present on both parts of the border), ancient hatred (pointing out the historical differences between tribes), financial advantages, and/or different languages assimilation. When African nations declared independence, tribes which were formerly unified saw themselves as enemies belonging to different nations, separated by a tangible border (Gashaw, 2017).
On the other hand, assimilation policies were meant to gather subgroups of an ethnicity by reinforcing elements of common culture and ancestry, by uniformizing language, but also by suppressing the former differences they had. Ultimately larger homogenous groups were formed, which would be governed more easily in order to make political action from Belgian authorities more effective.
So, differentiation policies enhanced the borders that were drawn at the Berlin Conference as a concept of separation between an ethnicity and another, and suppressed the idea of having a unique ethnicity separated by the borders of colonialism. On the other hand, assimilation policies have smoothed the ethnic distinctions between ethnic groups inside DRC’s borders (Horowitz, 1985). Those policies have been deeply internalized in the colonized countries, that’s why borders were not rearranged at the independence.
Improper manipulation of ethnicity has been overused during colonization through assimilation and differentiation policies, but also by ranking ethnicities and creating a social stratification based on ethnic markers. It allowed colonizers to have loyal ethnicities working for them since they were privileged, and often they were a majority in terms of population. As such, unprivileged minorities had no capabilities for a rebellion, despite the Belgian authorities still being confronted to a rebellion before independence. (Blanton, Mason, & Athow, 2001). What European states did during colonization is called “ethnic instrumentalism”, it highlights elite manipulation or politicization of ethnicity as the foundational source of grievances which induce ethnic conflicts, and many European colonizers used this concept to rearrange populations and territories in their favour (Afa’anwi Che, 2016). It is also used by many militias’ chiefs in current regional conflicts in Africa to oppose or control ethnicities.
II. A government recognized within the country and by other nation states
During the 50’s, the Congolese people were not a homogeneous mass completely controlled by Belgian authorities. Right before independence, some Congolese had been finishing their education through the Belgian school system and reached adulthood at the same time. They were called the “évolués” and were the first Congolese to reach high levels of education. They were, therefore, able to analyze the policies aimed at assimilating the Congolese peoples, and even of creating divisions between them. The purpose of the Congolese institutions was to favorize Belgian interests, and the white controlled administration and limited the Congolese’s access to institutional means for expressing their beliefs (Young, 2015). Even the regional chiefs who were elected by the Belgian government to be the bridge between the people and the Belgian government had little power and were often used to further Belgian policies (Gibbs, 1991).
Therefore, these “évolués” created political parties to claim independence and overthrow the Belgian establishment. Patrice Lumumba was the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC)( Established in Stanleyville – Central Congo), and Joseph Kasa-Vubu became the leader of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) (established in Lower Congo) (Gordon & Hoskyns, 1965). After the 1958 uprising to take Stanleyville (Capital city at the time), Belgians claimed they couldn’t handle such a vastness of both the country and the demands for independence. Lumumba and Kasa-vubu were both democratically elected as respectively prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In other words, they were recognized by the people within, but weren’t recognized by other nation-states, nor by Western democracies. The leader of Katanga’s secessionist region was Mobutu Sese Seko who would eventually, through the support of Western countries, overthrow Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu to become himself DRC’s president. Mobutu’s regime has been defined by most academics as a tyrannical kleptocracy (parasitized by corruption), not even recognized by its own people, but unlike Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba’s regime, it was recognized by western nations states (Dizolele, 2014).
Belgium made a double mistake in matters of governmental recognition. The first one was not to stand up against the United Nations when the Kasa-Vubu-Lumumba government has not been recognized and not willing to be part of DRC’s transition to a Congolese-led government. The second one has been to support an uprising which led to a coup and the establishment of a dictature that lasted for thirty years. Belgium should, instead, have proceeded to renewed democratic elections because it was one of the only improvements towards a stable state building to be witnessed when DRC became independent.
Sovereignty is an odd characteristic of the State to analyze. It requires to be acquired by a group of people, and this acquisition needs to be recognized by the people who will subject themselves to the supreme power this group of people will have. While this supreme power is contradictory inasmuch it subordinates itself to another value - namely the rule of law, it needs to be internal and external (Fowler & Bunck, 1996). It demands a massive level of self-organization which could not be assumed when DRC became independent. In 1960, Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu immediately attempted to break away from Belgian authorities, and within weeks the Belgian elite who ran the state evacuated leaving nobody with the skills to run the government or economy. Of 5,000 government jobs pre-independence, just three were held by Congolese and there was not a single Congolese lawyer, doctor, economist or engineer. Congolese people were not used to have places of power, on top of not being able to use them to establish a viable state sovereignty.
This created a power vacuum, soon to be filled by Congolese people supported by foreign powers.
Lumumba’s socialist ideas had seen great support from Soviet Union, while the USA sought to shut down Soviet influence through its “containment” policy. Therefore, promoting Katanga and Mobutu was the US’s pathway to interfere in DRC physically and politically. Belgium had no other choice than to follow the US in what became another proxy of the Cold war. At this moment, supporting Lumumba in his efforts would have been perceived as the Western world committing to the Soviet Union, which was unimaginable (Weissman, 2014). Despite DRC’s independence, Belgium was still ubiquitously around. Not as a mediator or as a former colonizer who helps its former colony in the process of state-building, but rather as a partner of US’s interference in “Kasaï” and “Katanga” to extract its natural resources and to perpetuate their influence on DRC. However, Belgium came face to face with its inability to handle such a deep and large problem and hence became the pawn of UN-US led military intervention during the Congo crisis. This shows that by being prey to massive interference on the domestic political scene, Congo was unable to limit intrusion while it is precisely a characteristic of sovereignty to be able to prevent other nation-states interfering into domestic affairs.
Belgium has made another double mistake towards DRC’s sovereignty. The first one has been its unwillingness to prepare Congolese people for positions of power. By wishing to maintain a favorable hierarchy, it was obvious that the first government claiming for independence wasn’t capable of wielding state sovereignty since that power requires criteria of legitimacy, internally and externally. It was impossible for incompetent leaders to create that kind of comprehensive sovereignty. Secondly, Belgium could have behaved as a protector towards DRC, but its inability to prevent the UN to penetrate DRC’s territory has been a proof of its own failing sovereignty.