Modern history



A Belated Decolonization, a Sudden Independence


AND THEN, SUDDENLY, IT WENT LIKE LIGHTNING. In 1955 not a single native organization dreamed of an independent Congo. Five years later that political autonomy was a fact. The speed at which it took place stunned almost everyone, not least of all the Congolese themselves. The Belgian colonialism to which they were subjected, after all, was permeated with the idea of gradual change. Step by step, Congo was to be withdrawn from its archaic origins in order to enter the modern age. As far as the Belgians were concerned, the finish was not nearly in sight. Yes, the country had been on the right path ever since World War II, but the “civilizing work” was not even halfway done. “Independence?” Sacred Heart missionary and future archbishop Petrus Wijnants sneered to his congregation in 1959. “Perhaps within seventy-five years, but certainly not within fifty!”1

But things would turn out differently. Gradual change made way for a stampede, doddering progress for chaos. Who were the ones responsible? No one in particular. Or rather everyone. This high-speed decolonization was not the work of any one specific person or movement, but of an extremely complex interaction between the various players. It was like a game of Ping-Pong that begins calmly, with a slow tapping of the ball back and forth, and then suddenly accelerates into a nervous rally full of focused volleys, lazy lob shots, grim smashes. and sly feints. Faster and faster the ball flies, so quickly that it becomes unclear for players and onlookers alike exactly what is happening where and when. No one can follow it anymore, no one has an overview, but everyone knows: it can’t go on like this much longer. And that is how things went in Congo too. The only difference being that there were more than two players and actually more than one ball. During the process of decolonization, it was not simply a matter of the Congolese against the Belgians; the blocs were not that monolithic. On the Congolese side there were évolués, clerics, soldiers, workers, farmers. The ambitions of people from Bas-Congo were not identical to those from Kivu or Kasai. The dreams of those in their thirties were not those of people in their sixties. But sooner or later they all came to the Ping-Pong table. On the Belgian side one had not only the Belgians in the colony, but also the Belgians in the mother country. There were European liberals, Catholics, and socialists. The church and the royals had interests different from those of the industrialists or the trade unionists. In Congo itself, colonial officials desired different things than did plantation owners in the interior or missionaries in the jungle. All these special interest groups stood shoulder to shoulder, back to back, and face-to-face. And then there were the supporters: Russia, America, and the United Nations stood shouting loudly from the grandstands, surrounded by young states such as Ghana, India, and Egypt. The players didn’t know whom to listen to first, but the Congolese players—as underdogs—clearly received the most encouragement.

And then there all those balls on the table: at least three, in fact. Did people really want independence? And if so, when did they want it? And what was this independent Congo supposed to look like? The latter question had to do not only with the country’s internal organization (unitary or federal?) but also its external relations with Belgium (complete autonomy or still some form of federative ties?). The answers to these three questions led to widely divergent standpoints. On one side of the Ping-Pong table, for example, there might be the call for unconditional and immediate independence, whereby all ties with Belgium were to be severed and Congo would remain unified, while on the other side one had the advocates of gradual decolonization, with enduring ties with the mother country and great autonomy for the various provinces. And between them lay a whole gamut of standpoints.

It was as though an entire world championship of Ping-Pong was being played at the same time on one and the same table. The result was squabbling, irritation, tension, belligerence, euphoria, despair, and madness. And fast play, of course. The rules changed all the time. The only way to keep a cool head was to stay focused, to reduce awareness to one’s own field of vision, to stick to one’s own tactics, to pay attention only to one’s own game. All those involved did precisely that. But another expression for focus is tunnel vision, and it was precisely that which led to folly, on the part of each and every player. The tragic decolonization of Congo was a story with many blind spots and only a little lucidity from time to time. But then, hindsight is golden.

THE YEAR IS 1955, and we are still at the home of Jamais Kolonga. After King Baudouin’s visit, Jamais Kolonga’s father began receiving frequent visits from an impeccably dressed évolué. “Kasavubu came here every day, here, to this yard.” He pointed to the old, crumbling cement floor. “He would come in the morning and in the evening to talk with my father. I served him wine. Kasavubu was a true gentleman.” In photos from that day, the man’s sophisticated allure is indeed plain to see. The neat suit, the fashionable glasses, eyes that seem more to smile than to laugh out loud. Whispered rumor had it that one of his ancestors was Chinese and had worked on the railroad between Matadi and Kinshasa in the 1890s. Hence those eyes, people thought.

Joseph Kasavubu was born forty years earlier in Bas-Congo, in a village a hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles) north of Boma, at the edge of the Mayombe forest. He learned to read and do arithmetic at the Scheutist mission school, and because he was good at it he was allowed to go to the minor seminary, with a view to possible priesthood. He studied Latin and French there and at eighteen was admitted to the seminary at Kabwe in Kasai. It was the first time he had been outside of Bas-Congo. After studying philosophy for three years, he came to the conclusion that his calling lay elsewhere. He left the seminary, became a teacher, then a clerk, and finally a civil servant, but that hint of sacerdotal unction never left him. He would never become the sort of inspired orator Patrice Lumumba was. His voice was brittle and high, his tone rather more uniform and boring. It was not easy for him to seize an audience’s full attention. He was unmistakably intelligent, but that intelligence was more the result of hard work and plodding reason than of any inborn brilliance. By means of frequent conversations with others of like mind he molded his preferences into clear standpoints. Once those had been established, however, he possessed the skill to express them with great conviction.

Like so many young people, he moved to Léopoldville during the war. At the age of twenty-five he started work as administrative assistant for the colonial administration’s finance department. With that position, he became a part of the new, black urban elite. After work he would talk with people like Kolonga’s father about the status of the Bakongo language and culture in Léopoldville. That they were the original inhabitants of the area around the capital was something on which they fully agreed and they were upset by the fact that it was not their language but Lingala, the language of the Bangala who lived in the jungle upriver, that was becoming the city’s lingua franca. The Bakongo had been the first ones here, hadn’t they? And didn’t they live here in greater numbers? So why should Lingala be the language used in the schools? Wasn’t there something like a “right of occupancy”? That slogan was a golden find: a term taken from nineteenth-century colonial rhetoric, downloaded directly from the Berlin Conference, but Kasavubu applied it to the urban situation of the 1940s and 1950s.

They also mulled over social and racial issues. How could it be that the whites earned so much more than the évolués, even more than those who held a registration card? Here too Kasavubu kneaded his indignation into a bold slogan: “à travail égal, salaire égal”: the same work, the same wages. Tough words for a man who spoke so timidly.

Kasavubu joined the capital-city chapter of Adapes, the Scheutist alumni association. After the war he became the association’s general secretary, a function he would hold until 1956 and to which he owed a great many contacts with the city’s young elite. At the time, the alumni club had somewhere between fifteen and eighteen thousand members.2 In 1955 Kasavubu was also appointed chairman of the Abako, the tribal association that had for several years already been promoting the Bakongo language and culture in Kinshasa. His period of tenure saw a radical turnabout. Kasavubu would transform the Abako into an explicitly political club. With that, the cornerstone was laid for the politicization of the évolués and, in fact, for the start of decolonization.

There was also another event that made 1955 a pivotal year, although no évolué in the Belgian Congo would have suspected it at the time. It took place, after all, in Belgium and the Netherlands. In December of that year, the magazine of the Flemish Catholic Workers’ Federation, De Gids, ran an article entitled “A Thirty-Year Plan for the Political Emancipation of Belgian Africa.” The author was Jef Van Bilsen, a correspondent for the Belga press agency who had worked for a long time in Congo and taught at the colonial polytechnic. The article argued that the colony should finally set about the business of cultivating an intellectual upper crust. A generation of engineers, officers, physicians, politicians, and officials would have to be brought into readiness so that by the year 1985 Congo could more or less stand on its own two feet.3

Unlike what is often claimed, Van Bilsen’s plan did not meet with full opposition from the word go. Sympathetic consideration was given to it in both Belgium and Congo, even outside more progressive circles. His notion of slow emancipation, after all, harmonized well with the policy of gradualism that the colonial trinity had been advocating for decades. His thirty-year plan would do for politics what the ten-year plan of 1949 had done for the infrastructure and economy: modernize the country, slowly but surely. He did not break away from the existing paradigm, but thought it through to its final consequences. That he set 1985 as a deadline suddenly made the whole thing quite concrete, but even then he was not thinking in terms of complete independence: after that date Belgium and Congo would still be bound together by the crown and would form a sort of federation of states, a commonwealth à deux, as it were.

The article appeared in a French translation in early 1956, and that set the ball rolling. Copies of the publication began circulating in the native districts of Léopoldville, the neighborhoods from which thousands of people went out each morning, often barefooted, to work in the department stores, soap factories, or breweries of the Europeans, the neighborhoods to which évolués came home each evening after their shift as typist or clerk for a white patron (boss), the neighborhoods where a few people talked late into the night about the state of the world, over a glass of Portuguese wine. Why did the boss always call you Victor or Antoine, and never Monsieur Victor or Monsieur Antoine? Why did every white person say tu to you and never vous, even when you wore cufflinks and a white collar? In those select circles, Van Bilsen’s essays became a hit. A white person who thought aloud about the political emancipation of the blacks: was that really possible? A plan that spoke of higher education and new opportunities: was this some kind of dream? It was as though a ray of sunlight had broken through the massive cloud cover of their lives. Did this mean that this state of affairs was not going to last forever?

It was, in fact, nothing but a pamphlet, but it put Kasavubu in a very bad mood when he read it. Conscience Africaine was the title, the July–August 1956 issue. This low-circulation magazine of Catholic origin, which appeared sporadically and had existed for only a few years, was run by Joseph Ileo, a man from Équateur. The six editors included quite a few alumni of Tata Raphaël’s school; one of them held a certificate of civil merit, another even had a registration card. The issue in question was taken up largely by a long and anonymous article with the bold title “Manifesto.” The writers had clearly read Van Bilsen’s plan, Kasavubu saw that right away. “The next thirty years will be decisive for our future,” he read. “The Belgians must realize, above all, that their dominion over Congo will not last forever.”4 Entirely in line with Van Bilsen, the text spoke of political emancipation and gradual change; it made a plea for a joint Belgian-Congolese initiative and spoke of a fraternal atmosphere that would put an end to all forms of racial discrimination. After all, hadn’t young King Baudouin himself set the good example during his visit? The text continued: “We ask the Europeans to abandon their attitude of disapproval and racial segregation, to avoid the ongoing aggrievement to which we are subjected. We also ask them to abandon their condescending attitude, which is an offense to our self-respect. We do not like to be treated as children all the time. Please understand that we are different from you and that, even as we assimilate the values of your civilization, we also wish to remain ourselves.”5 The évolué no longer wanted to simply hanker after the white lifestyle, as he had been doing for years, but now wished to rely on his own capabilities as well. And then, in block letters: “We want to be civilized Congolese, not ‘Europeans with a black skin.’”6

Kasavubu felt sick. Not because he disagreed with these statements, far from it. It was having to read somewhere else what he had been thinking for years, that was what galled him. What’s more, almost the entire editorial board of Conscience Africaine came from Équateur, while he, Kasavubu, had just become chairman of country’s largest Bakongo association. Were these Lingala-speakers, these Bangala, now going to take the lead in the capital when it came to political ambition as well? Although it is not widely known, ethnic rivalry in the big cities played as great a role in decolonization as did the aversion to foreign rule, no matter how artificial many of these “tribes” really were. These “Bangala” who so annoyed Kasavubu were, as a homogeneous tribe, an invention of the Bureau International d’Ethnographie (they were, in fact, a crazy quilt of cultures in the equatorial jungle; there had never been any inclusive tribal bond). But, thanks to the mission schools, this ethnographic figment from the 1910s was very real in the Kinshasa of the 1950s.7 The Bakongo had no desire to yield pride of place to the Bangala.

Within the next few weeks, Kasavubu summoned the members of the Abako to examine the Conscience Africaine manifesto and comment on it. Their “countermanifesto” appeared in August 1956. It was intended to surpass the first text and preferably to pulverize it. The tone was much more radical and the content unequivocally revolutionary. With regard, for example, to the thirty-year plan advanced by Van Bilsen and Conscience Africaine? “We, for our part, we do not wish to participate in carrying out this plan, but only in doing away with it; its execution would lead to only more delays for Congo. In essence, it is nothing but that same old lullaby. Our patience is more than exhausted. The time is ripe, and therefore they must grant us that emancipation this very day rather than postpone it for another thirty years. History knows no belated emancipations, for when the hour has come the people will no longer wait.”8

That part about “the people” was, of course, exaggerated. Kasavubu did not have the Congolese people behind him, and even large sections of “his” Bas-Congo had never heard of him. He spoke, at best, on behalf of the Kikongo-speaking évolués of the capital. In colonial circles, however, this text exploded like a bomb. It was the first time that a group of Congolese had so openly called for more rapid emancipation. A federation of states obviously did not appeal to them at all. And the colony’s unity did not seem particularly sacred to them either: they seemed only to be standing up for Bas-Congo. Many colonials went into a tizzy. They spoke of “madness,” of “a race toward suicide” and a “racism worse than that which they claim to be combating.”9 Jef Van Bilsen became the whipping boy. It was he who had opened Pandora’s box, they felt.

For the colonials this call for independence came like a shot out of the blue, which says a great deal about the closed world they inhabited. Following World War II, after all, a first wave of decolonization had already swept Asia. Within the space of only three years, between 1946 and 1949, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon, and Indonesia had become independent. That same spark jumped the gap to North Africa, where Egypt threw off the British yoke, and Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria began agitating for greater political autonomy. Figures such as Nehru, Sukarno, and Nasser maintained close contact. In 1955 that relationship had culminated in the seminal Bandung Conference on Java, an Afro-Asian summit where new countries and countries longing for independence unanimously relegated colonialism to the scrapheap of history. “Colonialism in all its forms is an evil which should speedily be brought to an end,” the closing statement read.10 No Congolese delegation was present at Bandung, but there was one from neighboring Sudan, which became independent a few months later. In addition, after the conference, radio stations on Egyptian and Indian soil began broadcasting the message of anti-imperialism. On the shortwave frequencies, people in Congo could listen to La Voix de l’Afrique from Egypt and All India Radio, which even featured broadcasts in Swahili.11 The message was spread by means of a technical innovation: the transistor radio. The introduction of this tiny, affordable piece of equipment had major consequences. From now on, people no longer needed to stand on market squares and street corners to listen to the official bulletins from Radio Congo Belge, but could remain in their living rooms, secretly enjoying banned foreign broadcasts that kept repeating that Africa was for the Africans.

TO DEAL WITH THE GROWING UNREST, Brussels decided at last to introduce a nascent form of participation. For ten years politicians had been squabbling over possible forms of native involvement in the cities, but in 1957 a law to that effect was finally passed. The native boroughs of a few large cities were to have their own mayors and city councils. On the lowest administrative rung, therefore, actual power was being granted to the Congolese for the first time. From experience the administrators had already seen that informal neighborhood councils could be effective in solving local problems, particularly when their members were chosen by the community.12 From now on those members would be chosen in formal elections, although the borough mayors continued to be answerable to a Belgian “first mayor.” The first elections in the history of the Belgian Congo were held in late 1957, but were limited to Léopoldville, Elisabethville, and Jadotville. Only adult males were allowed to vote.

Congo, at that point, was one of the most urbanized, proletarianized, and well-educated colonies in Africa. No less than 22 percent of the population lived in the cities, 40 percent of the active male population worked for an employer, and 60 percent of the children attended primary school.13This situation was both new and precarious. Wages had risen spectacularly during the early 1950s, but from 1956 on, that growth had stagnated; there had even been a major reversion. The fall of raw material prices on the international market (due to, among other things, the end of the Korean War) put a brake on the economy. Unemployment began to appear in the cities.14 Soon there were some twenty thousand jobless people in Kinshasa.15 Those who had lost their jobs moved in with family members who still had an income. The houses and yards of the cité became overcrowded.16 Little bars began popping up all over. Alcoholism and prostitution increased proportionately, for when life is hard, morals become easy. It was in this atmosphere of unrest that the first elections were held.

That only adult men were allowed to vote did not mean that the women and young people were politically apathetic. It is precisely in these circles that one saw around that time the rise of alternative displays of social involvement: the moziki and the bills. The former were women’s associations in which successful women gathered to save money and talk about the latest fashions. That might sound banal. At their parties the members of these associations all dressed in the same new, luxurious materials. But these customs also constituted a form of social commentary. The moziki had names like La Beauté, La Rose, and La Jeunesse Toilette, in French, for that was the language of social prestige. It was their way to respond to the gap between the sexes. They adopted the idiom of the male évolués and affirmed their own social progress. The members were social workers, teachers, or merchants. Victorine Ndjoli, the woman with the driver’s license, and a few of her friends set up La Mode: “We were influenced by the European fashions we picked up from the mail-order catalogues. Those French names proved that we had been to school, that we were civilized. Women were only given the right to learn French quite late, so speaking it was a way to place ourselves on the same level as the men.”17 The radio announcer Pauline Lisanga also belonged to a moziki.

Many of these clubs aligned themselves with one of the city’s popular orchestras. The word moziki, by the way, comes from music. Victorine Ndjoli’s La Mode was an unqualified fan of OK Jazz, the Orchestre Kinois led by François Luambo Makiadi, nicknamed Franco. Makiadi is still considered the greatest guitarist and composer of Congolese rumba and, in a less Anglocentric history of black music, would take his rightful place beside the likes of B. B. King, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. Franco de Mi Amor was what they called him, le sorcier de la guitare (the wizard of the guitar), Franco-le-Diable. Victorine and her lady friends went to his shows (later he even married one of them) where they drank mazout, beer mixed with lemonade. It had to be Polar beer, though, because that was made by Bracongo, the brewery where around that same time a young man by the name of Patrice Lumumba became an employee. “I was for Lumumba, we supported his MNC,” Victorine said. In a city where the Abako ruled the roost, that choice was hardly self-evident. “When he died, we all went into mourning.”18 Women were not allowed to vote, but fashion, music, nightlife, drinking, and dancing took on political portent. They voted with their glasses. Primus, the beer brewed by the competition, was the one Kasavubu’s supporters drank.19

And then there were the young people. After half a century of birth deficit, population figures began rising significantly from the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1960, 2.5 million babies were born in Congo. On the day of independence the country had some 14 million inhabitants. Congo was getting younger all the time: in the mid-1950s, 40 percent of the population was under the age of fifteen.20 Young people became a category of major importance, not only demographically, but also in society and politics. The billswere the colony’s first youthful subculture.21 What the nozems were to Amsterdam, the zazous to Paris, and the rockers to London, the bills were to Léopoldville. They took their inspiration from the Westerns screened in the cité. As the name suggests, their hero was Buffalo Bill. They spoke an argot of their own, hindubill, and had their own dress code: scarves, jeans, and turned-up collars that were a reference to the Far West and mocked the impeccable évolués. This latter group, in turn, voiced great concern about how young people were going to the dogs. Unwholesome movies were to blame:

Restraints must be imposed on the movie theaters. Detective and cowboy movies are extremely popular. All of those scenarios demonstrate to the audiences, who are largely young people and often even children, how to go about stealing, killing, and, in a word, doing wrong.

When one sees the posters and billboards, one sometimes feels as though one has entered the realm of boorishness and sensuality.

How are we to teach our sons and daughters modesty, goodness, charity, self-respect, and respect for others? The great evil is housed in the movie theaters.

What else does one see in those alcoves but the most erotic films consisting of the most lustful scenes, to which extremely sensual music is then attached?

One evening I attended a showing. There were, altogether, ten adults in the theater. The rest? . . . Children between the ages of six and fifteen. The theater was full of these “lads.” A hellish noise . . . The boys bounced with impatience. The screen lit up . . . A cowboy movie . . . Applause . . . Shouts of joy . . . A love story . . . Kissing going on everywhere and shouts of “ha” from every corner . . . Then came the fistfights and the gunfire that elicited indescribable rapture . . . . Two ugly movies . . . After the show began the reenactment of what we had been watching on the screen for the last two hours. Young girls leaving the theater were accosted and kissed on the cheeks . . . . The boys followed each other with sticks and imitated the sound of a pistol, in emulation of the cowboys . . . . See here the moral lesson provided by that evening’s showing . . .


Let us cherish no illusions. The movie theater will become a school for gangsters in the Belgian Congo, unless the screening of certain films is banned in the cité or the centres extra-coutumiers.22

The bills were seen as hooligans who took to thievery, debauchery, and the use of marijuana. Juvenile delinquency in the cities did increase during this period, but almost never involved anything more than the theft of a basket of papayas or in the worst cases a bicycle, as opposed to serious crime.23 Still, this was something new. Parental authority was crumbling, the prestige of the évolué was being mocked, the influence of the traditional chief had vanished long ago. The bills created a world of their own. They split up into gangs, each with its own territory in the city, and those territories were rechristened with names like Texas or Santa Fe. Explicit political interest was quite foreign to the bills, but they generated a volatile atmosphere of rebellion and resistance.

On Sunday, June 16, 1957, sixty thousand spectators crowded into Raphaël de la Kéthulle’s Stade Roi Baudouin to watch a historic soccer match: F.C. Léopoldville, forerunner of the first national team, against Union Saint-Gilloise of Brussels, one of the most successful teams in the history of Belgian soccer.24 This was something new. For the first time, a Congolese team would play against a Belgian team in the colony. It was to be a fierce match with a rowdy ending. The referee was a Belgian army officer and his calls caused resentment. When he blew off two Congolese goals for offside violations, the crowd reacted furiously. The final score was 4–2 in the Belgians’ favor. The supporters shouted that the match had been rigged. Upon leaving the stadium, bills, workers, the unemployed, hoodlums, angry mamans, and schoolchildren vented their rage on the surroundings. There was screaming, blows were dealt out. Youth gangs and onlookers rushed in to join the fracas. Stones hailed down on the cars of white colonials trying to leave the stadium. They had never experienced anything like it. Soccer was supposed to keep the masses docile, wasn’t it? The police should have intervened. At the end of the day, the toll was forty persons wounded and fifty cars damaged.

This mounting tension resounded loudly in the elections held on December 8, 1957. It was an enormous popular success: 80 to 85 percent of all eligible voters turned out. The Abako did an outstanding job in Léopoldville and succeeded in winning the votes of many who were not even Bakongo. It took 139 of the 170 seats on the municipal council. Of the eight native mayors, six belonged to Abako. In Elisabethville, the migrants from Kasai, the largest population group in the city, won a large portion of the votes. The Union Congolaise, a Catholic, pro-Belgian association ofévolués, also achieved sound results. Nine white candidates were elected as well.25

For Brussels, the successful and orderly elections rang in the start of the controlled democratization of the colony. Local elections were now to be held in other places as well, followed by provincial and later national ones. But it was too late for such gradual change, Kasavubu felt. In his acceptance speech as mayor of the borough of Dendale in Léopoldville, he did precisely what Lumumba would do in 1960 at his inauguration as prime minister: he gave a fiery speech.

Democracy is not in place as long as people, in order to contain democratic action, still appoint officials rather than elected representatives of the people. Democracy is not in place when the police includes no Congolese constables. The same goes for the army: we have neither Congolese officers nor Congolese supervisors in the medical service. And what then of the top levels in education and the inspectorates? There is no democracy as long as suffrage is not universal. The first step, in other words, has not yet been taken. We call for general elections and internal autonomy.26

Those words earned Kasavubu a government reprimand, but that hardly fazed him. The office of mayor, in addition to a comfortable salary, also earned him a great deal of respect from the local population. And so he went on campaigning. The elections did not serve as oil on troubled waters, but in fact fueled the fires of unrest.

AND THE TIME BOMB WENT ON TICKING. 1955: the Abako turns to politics. 1956: publication of the manifestoes of Conscience Africaine and the Abako. 1957: the municipal elections and the start of the malaise. But the year of the great turnaround was 1958. The immediate cause, however, was cheery and took place in an atmosphere of heartfelt fraternity: the world’s fair in Brussels. There was nothing to indicate the potentially revolutionary effect of an easy-going tour of the pavilions at Expo 58. But that is how it turned out. The world’s fair left Belgium with the protomodern monument of the Atomium, and Congo with an acute hankering for autonomy.

Jamais Kolonga confirmed that. For several years already, small groups of évolués had been allowed to take educational trips to Belgium, but now hundreds of Congolese, including a large group of soldiers, were invited for a few months’ stay to visit the Expo. It seemed like a sort ofWiedergutmachung (reparation) for the three hundred Congolese who had been put on display at Tervuren in 1897. There was a Congolese village this time too, in the shadow of the Atomium, but most of the guests from the colony were there as visitors. “My father was allowed to go to Belgium in 1958,” Kolonga told me. “He was very impressed by what he saw. Europeans who washed dishes and swept the streets, he didn’t know that existed. There were even white beggars! That was a real eye-opener for him.”27 What a contrast with the image of Belgium he knew only from the missionaries’ stories and his superiors’ attitude! The white man was not an unapproachable demigod. That did not come as a disappointment; on the contrary, it gave him hope. This meant there was room for social development, in Africa too. What’s more, the Congolese saw that they were welcome in the restaurants, cafés, and movie theaters of Brussels—yea, even in its brothels, it was whispered.28 That too was very different from the daily segregation they experienced in the colony.

The visitors to the Expo not only discovered a different Belgium, but they also discovered each other. People from Léopoldville spoke for the first time with citizens from Elisabethville, Stanleyville, Coquilhatville, and Costermansville. Their country’s vastness and the restrictions on travel had meant there was little contact between the various regions. Farmers migrated to the city, but urbanites seldom or never moved to other cities. During those months in Belgium, however, the visitors exchanged anecdotes, talked about the situation at home and dreamed of a different future. During the Expo, a number of évolués were also approached by Belgian politicians and trade union leaders, from both the Left and the Right. That too fostered a growing political awareness.

But Longin Ngwadi, nicknamed “The Rubber Band,” the star soccer player for Daring who had become boy to Governor General Pétillon, had less luck. When I interviewed him in Kikwit he told me that he had been allowed to go along to Belgium in 1958, but had never seen the Expo. “We went by plane. I went along as Pétillon’s houseboy. I stayed in Namur and had to cook and do the laundry. Pétillon went to the world’s fair to look at all the merchandise. Copper, diamonds, everything from Congo, everything from every country.” But while the governor general was dining in Brussels with the duke of Edinburgh and the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Longin remained behind in the kitchen in Namur. “I ate well there. I used a knife and fork. I had watched the others to see how that worked. Madame de gouverneur used to burst out laughing when I ate the wrong way. Things were very good in Belgium. I got lots of presents. I heard about trains that disappeared under the ground and about the big seaport. Namur was an intelligent village, just like Kikwit.”29

Pétillon found the whole Expo idea ill-advised. Send three hundred Congolese to Brussels and expose them for months to the indoctrination of some of these Belgian types? “In the jumble of the crowds and the exuberance of the Expo, they could do exactly as they pleased. They succeeded in their hideous task of undermining and poisoning, even among the soldiers of the Force Publique. It is horrible to think that this happened under the very eyes of the Belgian government, which did not seem to realize that Congo was more or less descending into a prerevolutionary state.”30 As a man of action, he raised vociferous objections. Which was precisely why, during this same official trip, he was asked to remain in Belgium and become the new minister of colonies. His predecessor, Auguste Buisseret, one of the rare liberals to occupy that post, had followed an all-too-idealistic course—among other things, by introducing secular education in the colony. That had breached the hitherto-closed ranks of white authority, according to all those who stood to profit from a subjugated Congo. A technical supervisor was needed: better a fieldworker than a quibbler. King Baudouin applied his influence, Pétillon accepted the job, but after only four months he threw in the towel. Longin never got to see the Atomium.

One Congolese visitor who was able to admire the structures of steel and pre-stressed concrete at the Expo was a twenty-eight-year-old man from Équateur. The son of a cook at the Capuchin fathers’ mission, he had attended primary school with the Scheutists in Léopoldville. After one year of secondary education he joined the Force Publique. He became a secretary—bookkeeper—a typist, and in 1954 he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. The typing appealed to him. Working on his military typewriter, he began writing articles under a pen name for colonial publications likeActualités Africaines. In 1956 he left the army to become a full-time journalist. Two years later he was chosen to go to Brussels. At the Expo he cut a rather nondescript figure; a lanky, timid man who peppered his conversations with Europeans with the stopgap “n’est-ce pas?” (isn’t that so?). He was courteous enough, to be sure, but otherwise only rather awkward. His name: Joseph-Désiré Mobutu.

The final months of 1958 were exceptionally turbulent. The Expo visitors returned to Congo, the war of independence in Algeria was coming to a head, and Morocco and Tunisia had already thrown off the colonial yoke. Closer to home, neighboring Sudan was transformed from a British colony into an autonomous state, and in Brazzaville French president Charles de Gaulle spoke the historic words: “Those who want independence must come and get it!” It was intended as a provocation (for anyone responding to the invitation immediately lost all support from France), but the Belgians across the river choked on their coffee when they heard that on the radio.31 In the working-class districts, however, a cheer went up.

On October 10, 1958, the Belga wire service in Léopoldville received a press release announcing a new political party. That in itself was nothing special. Other parties had been set up in Congo that same month: the Cerea (Centre de Regroupement Africain) in Kivu and Conakat (Confédération des Associations Tribales du Katanga) in Katanga. Every region suddenly seemed to want a party of its own: the electoral success of the Abako had escaped no one’s notice. What was new, however, was the communiqué’s radically national approach. That was reflected even in the organization’s name: Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). The new party’s platform included the resolution to “fight vigorously against all forms of regional separatism,” as being “irreconcilable with the greater interests of Congo.” The Abako had bemoaned only the fate of Bas-Congo, but the MNC resolutely struck a national chord. Congo had to be liberated from “the grasp of imperialistic colonialism, with an eye to the country’s independence, within a reasonable period and by means of peaceful negotiations.”32 For the first time, there was a native political movement that viewed Congo as an entity. The list of names at the bottom of the communiqué included people from various tribes and different parts of the country. There were Bakongo, Bangala, and Baluba, people of the Catholic, liberal, and socialist persuasions, trade union members and journalists. The name of the self-appointed party chairman was Patrice Lumumba.

Lumumba was born in 1925 in Onalua, a village in Kasai. In ethnic terms, he belonged to the Batetela, the tribe that had led the great mutiny during the Arab campaigns in the late nineteenth century. Lumumba’s father was a poorly educated Catholic known for his volatile temper and stubborn nature. A man who brewed his own palm wine and drank it himself. Lumumba went to school at Protestant and Catholic mission posts and, after a time spent crisscrossing the interior during the war years, moved to the big city: Stanleyville. There he found work as a minor administrative official, then as a postal clerk. The colonial post office sent him for training to Léopoldville, where he improved his paltry French and acquired an insatiable hunger for knowledge. Back in Stanleyville he became a fervent reader, working at the library as a volunteer and never missing a reading or cultural evening. In 1954 he acquired the much-coveted registration card. His self-confidence grew by leaps and bounds. He became extremely active in the town’s club life, and seemed to have no trouble juggling a whole series of board positions. He was chairman of the association of postal workers, led the regional branch of the APIC trade federation, maintained contacts with Belgian liberal parties and became chairman of Stanleyville’s Association des Évolués.33 He had a reputation for being able to get by on two or three hours sleep each night.34 In addition to his busy schedule of meetings, he wrote political analyses. He began submitting articles to newspapers such as Le Croix du Congo and La Voix du Congolais, and even set up his own periodical: L’Écho Postal. All who met him in those days in Stanleyville were impressed. Lumumba was quick and acute, zealous and energetic. He had the gift of the word and the power of his convictions. With his spectacles, bow tie, and—a rarity among African men—his beard, he made an intelligent and attractive impression on many. The fact that he was fairly bursting with ambition was camouflaged by his charm and glibness, though he had the tendency at times to say what he knew the listener wanted to hear. At some moments, this made him seem a bit like a chameleon.

In 1955, the year that Kasavubu became chairman of the Abako, Lumumba steered Stanleyville’s Association des Évolués in a more political direction. This made him the city’s most influential Congolese. During a reception in the provincial governor’s garden at the time of King Baudouin’s visit, he succeeded in talking to the king for ten whole minutes. Amid the bougainvilleas at the river’s edge he explained to the young king, his compeer, a few of the problems encountered by the native population. Baudouin listened attentively and asked questions. A true conversation took place. The rumor of that meeting spread like lightning through the streets of Stanleyville. Lumumba’s popular status was established for good. Soon afterward he was invited to join a study trip to Belgium by young, promising Congolese, a trip during which he praised the benefactions of Leopold II and Belgian colonialism without a hint of irony.35 But after his return, after eleven years of faithful service at the post office, he was prosecuted for forgery and embezzlement. Later, he would say: “Did I do anything but take back a little of the money that the Belgians had stolen from Congo?”36 After serving a twelve-month prison term he left for Léopoldville. He took a job with Bracongo, the brewers of Polar beer, and became the brewery’s commercial director, a position that provided him with a salary better than that earned by many whites. He led Polar beer into the fray with its competitor, Primus. Lumumba passed out bottles of beer in the working-class neighborhoods. Here too, his flux de bouche (eloquence—or glibness) worked wonders. He brought beer and promised freedom. He quenched the thirst of the masses, but left them longing for more. Emancipation began with a free pint. Polar prospered and Patrice became famous. As time went by he became acquainted with a whole slew of young intellectuals. Unlike these acquaintances, however, he was familiar with large parts of the colony; before arriving in the capital he had lived in three of its six provinces. For Lumumba, therefore, the ethnic frame of reference was of lesser relevance. There were, after all, not many Batela living in Léopoldville. He preferred to “struggle on behalf of the Congolese people,” as that notorious press communiqué had said.37

In Kisangani, the former Stanleyville, I had the privilege of speaking with several people who had supported Lumumba from the very beginning. Eighty-year-old Albert Tukeke came from the same area; their mothers were even related. Like Lumumba he had worked for the post office and had received his schooling in Léopoldville. He became a counter clerk in Elisabethville, where he learned a great deal about colonialism, the hard way. “Whenever a European would come into the post office, he would never wait in line. He simply said: ‘Clear the counter!’ They always had that rude way of putting things. We were young and couldn’t talk back. If they needed something they would say: ‘Isn’t anyone here?’ By ‘anyone,’ they meant a white person. That hurt.” Colonialism was not only a huge international system, it also consisted of thousands of little humiliations, of telling turns of phrase and subtle facial expressions. Lumumba denounced that resolutely, Albert Tukeke remembered. “Lumumba was a man like everyone else, who simply demanded rights for black people. But his personality, his insight and vision were very different. He had traveled a hundred kilometers by the time others had covered only one. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Batela.”38

Jean Mayani was a warm supporter who spoke just as fervently of Lumumba in 2008 as he had in 1958. I listened to him for one whole morning at his house in Kabando, a borough of Kisangani. As early as 1959 he had served as MNC party secretary for his district; one year later he was Lumumba’s chief deputy during the municipal elections. Mayani spoke clearly and analytically:

Listen, there was no extreme racism back then, but there was a clear division. In the shops, in the neighborhoods, in the schools, and even in the graveyards there was a form of apartheid. We were very impressed by the évolués who had a certificate of civil merit or a registration card. They enjoyed social advantages, they went to the European schools. But still, what a difference with the colonial policies of the French! The blacks in the French colonies could go to France to study. [Léopold Sédar] Senghor [later president of Senegal] was a member of parliament in Paris and became a deputy minister. So I was very interested in the MNC’s arguments. In 1958 I was one of the first supporters here in Kisangani. I still remember the first meetings in the cité. We met at bars and sports parks. Lumumba talked about the history and the outrages of colonization. He was truly, unbelievably courageous. He told things the way they were: the suffering, the banishment of Kimbanguists, the racial hatred, the lack of humanity, the forced labor in the mines, road construction, and the railroad. The crowds became completely enraptured by a leader like that.39

Old Raphaël Maindo agreed completely. He thought back to those days nostalgically. “When Lumumba spoke, no one wanted to go away. Even when it was raining, even at night, the people stayed and listened.” Unlike Jean Mayani, he had not been a party leader, but a grassroots militant: he sold membership cards. “That was very easy. Everyone wanted one. Even women joined. I held membership card number 4. They cost twenty francs, the same price all over the country. We traveled everywhere, sometimes seven hundred kilometers (430 miles) away. We had cars.”40 For many Congolese, buying one of those cards was more than a political act, it was an impassioned form of self-confirmation and pride.

In December 1958 Lumumba went to Ndijili, Léopoldville’s airport. He was on his way to the Ghanese capital of Accra. One year earlier Ghana had become the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence. President Kwame Nkrumah enjoyed a heroic status that extended from Senegal to Mozambique. He was the embodiment of Pan-Africanism, the dream of a free and peaceful Africa joined in solidarity, which was why he had called together leaders and thinkers from all over the continent. Kasavubu went to the airport too, but the customs service—probably with forethought—balked at accepting his vaccination card: the colonial government had not forgotten his incendiary speech at the mayoral inauguration. Lumumba and two of his confidants were the only Congolese representatives in Ghana. The Accra Conference made a deep impression on him, more than any book he had read. He spoke there with intellectuals and activists and saw that they were interested in what he had to say. He encountered Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, the future presidents of Tanzania and Zambia respectively, and [Ahmed] Sékou Touré, the first president of Guinea-Conakry. The social-climbing évolué of yore became a self-aware African, proud of his roots, his country, and the color of his skin. The Belgian Congo seemed to Lumumba more and more like an anachronism that kept the people under its thumb for no valid reason. He would liberate his country from fear and shame.

IT IS JANUARY 4, 1959, and it is bitterly cold in Brussels. A quiet Sunday morning, frozen solid. The streets are covered in a treacherous layer of sleet. There is almost no traffic. Down the chic tree-lined streets of Elsene, close to the abbey of Ter Kameren, a car rolls slowly past the stately homes. Behind the wheel is Jef Van Bilsen, the man whose thirty-year plan has—according to many—unleashed the hounds of hell. But he is also the Belgian with the best contacts among the Congolese elite. Almost no one is better informed about what is going on among the évolués than he. Early that same morning, he had received a call from Arthur Gilson, the Belgian minister of defense, with the urgent request to come to his home. Gilson has spent the entire weekend after New Year’s fretting over the text of a government white paper. During the final months of 1958, a government task force had traveled throughout Congo, taking inventory of the population’s wishes. A laudable initiative, except for the fact that there was not a single Congolese in the group. Their report was nonetheless intended to result in a forceful statement that would outline the foundations for a new colonial policy. A number of cabinet ministers had reviewed the text during the Christmas holidays, but were stymied. As was the defense minister. Perhaps Van Bilsen could take a look at it? On that peaceful Sunday morning in the minister’s study, Van Bilsen tries to explain that such a crucial statement is useless unless it speaks of independence and proposes a concrete date on which that is to take place. The minister is flabbergasted. “What followed was a discussion, or something that more closely resembled a mummery, concerning what was deemed desirable from a Congolese point of view and what was feasible from a Belgian point of view,” Van Bilsen says later.41 The deadlock remains unresolved. Without having achieved what he came for, he shuffles back to his car.

It is January 4, 1959, and it is blazing hot in Léopoldville. The rainy season is not over, not by a long shot; the air is sticky and close. At the governor general’s residence, everything is being prepared for the annual New Year’s reception in the garden.42 Glasses are being polished, tasks handed out. The new governor general’s name is Rik Cornelis, he does not yet know that he will be the last. Some Belgians are still in bed, sleeping in after a late night of dancing at the Palace or De Galiema. Others are enjoying a breakfast of bread and strawberry jam. The more adventuresome among them have already been for a swim, or played tennis at the cercle sportif (country club). It is going to be a stylish reception. A few Congolese have also been invited, as is fitting within the philosophy of the Belgian-Congolese Community. A few of the native mayors will be there. In his New Year’s address, the governor general will undoubtedly talk about the major challenges of the coming year. The champagne will flow, the crystal will gleam. Speakers will “express hope” and “underscore faith,” and many will speak of “mutual understanding,” all of course “in a spirit of friendship.”

It is January 4, 1959, and a few kilometers across town, in Bandalungwa, a housing tract recently built for for évolués, Patrice Lumumba has been invited to dine at the home of a new friend. During his time in prison, he had regularly read articles in the newspaper Actualités Africaines by a certain Joseph Mobutu, the soldier who became a journalist and visited the Expo. After his release, Lumumba makes friends with him. He goes to visit his home regularly and enjoys the splendid meals Mobutu’s wife makes for them. During this Sunday lunch, the two make plans for that afternoon. At two o’clock, at the YMCA in the center of the cité, they know that the Abako has planned a meeting. Last week, Lumumba spoke to a crowd of seven thousand listeners about his trip to Accra. It was his best performance yet. The people were wildly enthusiastic. Afterward, the crowd had chanted “Dipenda, dipenda!” a corruption in Lingala of the word “independence.” That is probably why the city’s first mayor, the Belgian Jean Tordeur, has decided at the last minute to ban today’s meeting. A security measure; he doesn’t feel like dealing with rabble-rousers. Lumumba and Mobutu decide to go and take a look anyway. They don’t have a car, but Mobutu has a scooter. That is the image on which we will freeze: Mobutu and Lumumba, together on the scooter, two new friends, the journalist and the beer marketer; one is twenty-eight, the other thirty-three. Lumumba is sitting on the back. They ride together in the muggy afternoon air and talk loudly, to be heard above the sputtering of the exhaust.43 Two years later, one of them will help to murder the other.

It is January 4, 1959, and the crowd is flowing into the Stade Roi Baudouin for a major match in the Congolese soccer competition. The huge stadium is only a few hundred meters from the YMCA. Twenty thousand supporters have come from far and near.44They are wearing colorful shirts andpagnes. Some of them have feathers in their hair and stripes painted on their faces, like in the old days, broad white stripes of clay that glisten in bright contrast to their cheeks and foreheads. They dance defiantly, wide-eyed. It is frightening to see. The steep concrete grandstands around the field fill with people and rhythmic beats. There are tom-toms and drums, whooping and screeching. It’s as though there’s a war on. It’s like the banks of the Congo in the 1870s, when Stanley and his men first sailed by in their metal boat. The throb of the war drum, the thousands of enraged voices, the dancing that grows wilder all the time, the eyes of the warrior. In the catacombs of the stadium the players tighten their shoelaces and slide shin guards into their socks. Elsewhere in the city, at the governor’s residence, the champagne bottles have been removed from the cooler and are lined up, sweating in the sun.

It is still January 4, 1959, and on Avenue Prince Baudouin, close to the YMCA, Kasavubu tells the drummed-up crowd that the meeting, unfortunately, has been canceled. There are loud murmurs and protest, pushing and shoving. As a pacifist and admirer of Gandhi, he urges his supporters to remain calm. That seems to work, even without a microphone. He is the leader, he is the chief, he is the mayor. Relieved and reassured, he returns home.

But it is January 4, 1959, the day that everything changes, although you wouldn’t say so yet. Congo is going along with the times, it seems. Léopoldville is the second city in the world with a gyrobus, an electric bus with antennae on the roof that charges its motor at the stops. The first city with such futuristic public transport was in Switzerland, but now these buses zoom around the cité too.45 A few thousand Abako supporters remain moping around the spot where their meeting was to have been held. A white gyrobus driver gets into an argument with one of them and raises his fist. Futurism meets racism. Right away, the blows rain down on him. The genie has left the bottle. There are fistfights, there is shoving. The police arrive, black constables, white commissioners. It’s because of New Year’s, the police think, the people are still drunk or already broke, one of the two. Two commissioners deal out punches. That is not a good idea. “Dipenda!” the cry goes up. “Attaquons les blancs! Let’s get the white men!” Panic breaks out. The police fire warning shots in the air. Farther along, one of their jeeps is overturned and set on fire. At that moment the soccer stadium empties out—commotion, ecstasy, frustration, sweat—and the supporters join in with those who had been waiting to attend the Abako meeting. Soccer is gunpowder. In 1830 Belgium became independent after an opera performance; in 1959 Congo demands independence after a soccer match. A scooter comes racing up, with two young men on it. They can’t believe their eyes. In the last few years, both of them have worked their way up by educating themselves, but now they see the rage of the masses from which they have withdrawn. They no longer look down on them, asévolués are wont to do, but feel a sense of solidarity. The elite and the masses have found each other at last.

Léopoldville at that moment has four hundred thousand inhabitants, twenty-five thousand of whom are Europeans. There is a bare-bones police force of only 1,380 officers.46 There is no national guard. The very next level of law enforcement is the army. The city’s barracks house some twenty-five hundred troops, but they have been trained to wage war abroad, not to repress uprisings among their own people. The police do their best to handle things, but within a few hours the entire cité is in an uproar. Cars belonging to white people are covered by a downpour of stones. Windows shatter. Fires break out everywhere. The police turn their guns on the demonstrators. Puddles of dark blood gather on the asphalt, reflecting the flames. Thousands and thousands of young people begin looting. All things Belgian become their targets. Catholic churches and mission schools are vandalized; neighborhood centers where sewing classes are held are stripped. Around five o’clock, a few youth gangs descend on the shops belonging to the Greeks and the Portuguese, places where the people otherwise do their shopping. The looters strike ruthlessly and run off with meters of floral fabrics, bicycles, radios, salt, and dried fish.

At the governor general’s New Year’s reception, the telephone rings. “Ça tourne mal dans la cité. Things are getting ugly down in the cité.” Heavy rioting has broken out in a zone ten or twelve kilometers (about 6.2 to 7.5 miles) long. The city’s European district has been locked down. The army moves in, first with tear gas, then with guns. Demonstrators are being mowed down. “That was like using a hammer to kill a mosquito,” people realized afterward.47 Some of the colonials, however, are so furious that they take their hunting rifles down off the wall to go out and “help.” Years of piled-up contempt and fear, especially the latter, burst loose. At around six, when darkness falls, relative calm descends on the city. The fires smolder on. At the European hospital, dozens of white people show up for treatment. Outside, before the door, their elegant cars are parked in the darkness, dented, scratched, and ruined. At the villas, for the first time in years, the women have to do their own cooking: the boy has disappeared completely.

The next day, many of the Belgians feel more resigned than outraged. “We completely lost face,” they tell each other on Monday morning.48 Some of them begin stocking up on canned sardines and vegetable oil, others book one-way tickets with Sabena for Brussels. The army takes three or four days to get the city back under control. The final toll is unbearable: forty-seven fatalities and 241 wounded on the Congolese side, according to the official figures at least. Eyewitnesses speak of two hundred, perhaps even three hundred people killed.

It was January 4, 1959, and things would never be right again.

“A FEW DAYS LATER I flew to Brussels aboard a DC-6,” Jean Cordy told me in the fall of 2009 at his service flat in Louvain-la-Neuve. In 1959 he had been the principal private secretary to Governor General Cornelis. “My directives were clear: I was to convince the Belgian government to include the word independence in their long-awaited policy paper. The governor general had said this was an opportunity we should absolutely not miss. I also visited the king and told him that Belgium had to refer to independence.”49

On January 13, 1959, more than a week after the riots, both the policy paper and a royal statement were publicized. The ministerial text was fuzzy, technical and incoherent, but Baudouin’s speech was both apt and crystal clear. A tape recording of his message was sent to Congo and immediately broadcast on the radio. Fishermen on the beach at Moanda, farmers amid the sugarcane, workers covered in the dust of the cement factory, seminarians immersed in their books, nurses washing their hands, village chieftains in the interior, helmsmen on the riverboats, nuns weeding their gardens, the elderly, and the adolescent listened to their transistor radios and heard their beloved king pronounce the historic words: “Our decision today is lead the people of Congo in prosperity and peace, without harmful procrastination but also without undue haste, toward independence.”50

People could hardly believe it. This was too good to be true! As they drove through the villages of Bas-Congo, the truck drivers honked their horns and sang loudly out the window:

Independence is coming.

Independence will soon be ours.

Mwana Kitoko [Baudouin] has said so himself.

The white chiefs have said so too.

Independence is coming.

Independence will soon be ours.51

But this exuberance did not mean that Congo was back to business as usual. Unrest continued and extended far into the countryside. In regions with a long tradition of protest, like Kwilu and Kivu, things were rumbling once again. In Kasai a conflict arose between the Lulua and the Baluba, and there were mass demonstrations in Bas-Congo. After the riots on January 4, the Abako was disbanded by decree, and Kasavubu, along with two other leaders, was sent to prison for a time (they would later be released by Maurits Van Hemelrijck, the new Belgian cabinet minister charged with overseas affairs). This only increased Kasavubu’s fame in the interior, while the attitude toward the colonizer was becoming increasingly grim. Kasavubu had issued a call for civil disobedience and peaceful resistance. Secretary Jean Cordy, one of the only white, card-carrying members of the Abako, traveled through the province in July 1959 with interim governor general André Schöller. “Suddenly, the people’s support for Kasavubu had become absolute. No one talked to the authorities anymore. ‘Kasavubu is our leader, negotiate with him,’ is what they told us. They simply didn’t react, not even when I spoke to them in Kikongo. I had never run into anything like it before, and I had been in Congo since 1946. The bridges had been torn down, despite the statements on independence from the king and the government, despite Van Hemelrijck’s visit. The dialogue was over. Their silence felt very, very strange.”52

The prospect of a political turnaround aroused in many the ambition to govern. New parties arose everywhere. In late 1958 there had been only six; eighteen months later there were a hundred. Each week saw the birth of a new movement, with names like the Union Nationale Congolaise, the Mouvement Unitaire Basonge, and the Alliance Progressiste Paysanne. It rained abbreviations (Puna for the Parti de l’Unité Nationale, Coaka for the Coalition Kasaïenne, Balubakat for the Baluba of Katanga); the acronyms sometimes had more letters than the party did members.

Who were these political leaders? Time and again one saw that they were relatively young men with a secondary school education. They formed the country’s intellectual upper crust and and lived in the cities, to which they had moved as young people. Often they were active in alumni or cultural associations and nurtured their interest in politics by means of readings and debates. Admittedly, their tone was often more acute than their insight, and their knowledge of actual developments came in second to their drive. With a few exceptions, their party platforms were meager.53

One characteristic, however, cannot be overemphasized. Despite their urban surroundings, their tender years, and modern lifestyle, this budding political generation cherished ties with something that seemed to come from long ago and far away: the sense of tribe. That seems contradictory, but it is not. The sense of ethnic identity was an urban feeling par excellence. Only in contrast with others did one start to think about one’s own origins. The young and upcoming politicians hooked up with the existing ethnic organizations and modernized them. Following the tribal tack was, in terms of political strategy, a smart move: it allowed you to reach the masses. There was gain to be found in hammering on the fact that you were a proud Tshokwe, Yaka, or Sakata. Besides a larger constituency, it also guaranteed a greater chance of being heard by the various levels of colonial government. Kasavubu spoke for the Bakongo, Bolikango stood up for the Bangala, Jason Sendwe for the Baluba from Katanga, Justin Bomboko for the Mongo people, et cetera. Tribal rhetoric allowed a young elite to step forward as spokesmen for their communities.54

Understandably enough, this jeunisme (leadership by the younger generation) did not please the chiefs in the interior, some of whom still exercised a certain degree of influence over their migrant communities in the cities. And what was happening here was, indeed, quite revolutionary. In large parts of Central Africa, authority was traditionally based on age. Age meant respect. Now, suddenly, there was a generation of twenty- and thirty-year-olds competing for power and, in so doing, also competing for the people’s favor. They had little choice, for the Belgian government had decided to introduce universal suffrage. “With the introduction of universal suffrage,” the chief of the Bayeke in eastern Congo said, “the traditional authority will be completely undermined and is doomed to disappear.” And he was right: after 1960, a relatively young generation assumed the reins in Congo. They had proved to be the only ones capable of understanding the game of democracy and playing it successfully. The great chief of the Lunda, the inhabitants of a former kingdom along the border between Katanga and Angola, called universal suffrage an “unforgivable aberration.”55

But the most famous Lunda of those days, and in fact in the entire history of Congo, was someone else: Moïse Tshombe. In 1959—he had just turned forty, he lived in the city and had studied bookkeeping—he accepted leadership of a new political party, the Conakat (Confédération des Associations du Katanga). A family fortune had left Tshombe well-to-do, but he himself was a not particularly successful businessmen, with a look that was often misinterpreted as brooding. He came from a prestigious Lunda family, his father was a rich trader, he himself married one of the daughters of the great Lunda chieftain. Tribal pride was not foreign to Tshombe (for a time he had led the most important Lunda association in Elisabethville), but he did not oppose universal suffrage. The Conakat was a political party that used democratic means to obtain more rights for the original inhabitants of Katanga, such as the Lunda, the Basonge, the Batabwa, the Tshokwe, and the Baluba (although not the Baluba from Kasai: they were “newcomers”). Due to the decade-long import and immigration of workers, primarily from Kasai, the original population felt threatened; in Elisabethville, the Baluba from Kasai had even won the 1957 elections. Tshombe wanted more power for the “true” Katangan tribes. His Conakat in that way greatly resembled Kasavubu’s Abako; both movements advanced the interests of the city’s original inhabitants (although the Abako was monoethnic), both desired a return to far-reaching regional autonomy and both dreamed—unlike Lumumba—of a federal, highly decentralized Congo. Bas-Congo and Katanga, if need be, might even become independent states. But when it came to the future role of Belgium, they also entertained fundamental differences: the Abako was radical and anticolonial, particularly after the January riots; the Conakat, on the other hand, was not out to burn any bridges. Tshombe, who was surrounded by Belgian advisers, dreamt of a calm and orderly independence, but continued to believe in the idea of a Belgian-Congolese Community. “If we call for independence, that is not to chase away the Europeans: on the contrary. We want to continue working together with them, hand in hand, to build this country’s future.”56

Amid the profusion of political parties there ran only two major fault lines. First of all, was one radical or moderate? Radical meant that you were in favor of rapid decolonization and a total rupture with Belgium. And, second, did one think in federal or unitary terms? The Abako (Kasavubu) was radical and federalist; the MNC (Lumumba) was radical and unitary; the Conakat (Tshombe) was moderate and federalist. All the other parties could also be characterized along these same lines.

LUMUMBA REALIZED that political sectarianism was not a good idea. So in April 1959 he called together eight political parties in Luluabourg (Kasai) for the purpose of joining forces. It was Congo’s first political congress, a sort of mini-Accra. Jean Mayani, the man who had been one of Lumumba’s earliest supporters, was present. In his living room in Kisangani he told me: “I went there as party secretary for my borough. All the nationalist parties were there. The Cerea from Kivu, Sendwe’s Balubakat from Katanga, the Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA) from Kwilu, Kasavubu’s Abako. Really, everyone was there. Lumumba had almost three-quarters of the population backing him.”57 The Cerea opposed white supremacy in eastern Kivu province. The Balubakat stood up for the rights of the Baluba in Katanga, in direct opposition to Tshombe’s Conakat. The PSA was active in Kwilu, but would soon gain a national reputation with such major figures as Cléophas Kamitatu and Antoine Gizenga.

Lumumba wanted the parties to jointly propose a date for independence. In his speech, King Baudouin had promised that it would arrive “without harmful procrastination but also without undue haste,” but when did procrastination become harmful and when was haste undue? It would be a huge step forward, Lumumba realized, if the Luluabourg congress could agree on a date. What’s more, it would also be a major triumph for him: the initiator’s kudos would be bestowed on him and he would be recognized as the country’s most important political figure. His own suggestion was: January 1, 1961. Did anyone object to that? “Why such a hurry?” one of the delegates remarked. “Is the world going to come to an end on January 1, 1961?” Whereupon Lumumba snapped back: “You speak like a colonial.”58 Two years seemed like plenty of time to prepare the switch to the new system. That was how it had gone in Ghana too. In a time of weak party platforms and budding political leaders, there was little time for nuance and reflection. Anyone who called, even apologetically, for more gradual change was laughed off the platform as a colonial flunky. The parties became entangled in a symbolic, unparalleled game of ante-up. Rhetorical bravura was valued more highly than pragmatic sense. Rapid and unconditional independence became a goal in itself, even an obsession; people were ready to throw away the baby with the bathwater, if need be. “Better poor and free than rich and colonized.”59 Slogans like that were extremely popular. But what else could one expect? None of those present, with the exception of a few shantytown mayors, had ever been given a political mandate. Administrative experience, realism and an eye for planning were completely lacking. They were all just muddling along. And no one wanted to lag behind. This, however, happened to be about the future of a country the size of Western Europe.

It was not only sucking up when the great chief of the Luanda welcomed the governor general and the Belgian minister to his district with the words: “We do not want you to make decisions under pressure from loud-mouthed minorities. We do not understand the hurry many are in to achieve independence. We solemnly confirm that we, too, desire independence, but not yet. We need a great deal of help and support to arrive at normal development. All needless haste could once again plunge our country into the poverty and misery of the past.”60

What seemed like a reactionary standpoint at the time was a widely heard lament in Congo in the year 2010, a lament prompted by all the recent misery. Many young people blamed their parents for having demanded independence at all costs. On the street in Kinshasa, someone once asked me: “How long is this independence of ours going to last, anyway?” As a Belgian, I had heard it countless times: “When are the Belgians coming back? After all, you’re our uncles, aren’t you?” That was often meant as flattery, but sometimes there was more to it. Even Albert Tukeke, the man from Kisangani who was a distant relative of Lumumba’s, said at the end of our conversation: “We shouldn’t have become independent so quickly. But after the war, you know . . . there was that urge. If it hadn’t all happened in such a hurry, we wouldn’t have been faced with all these shortcomings.”61

Head-over-heels decolonization was the result of symmetrical escalation with the colonial government and a symbolic and continuous raising of the stakes among the various political parties. The killing of a few dozen of Lumumba’s supporters during riots in Stanleyville did nothing to improve the situation. The proud Lumumbist Jean Mayani said of that: “After the congress, the colonial powers interpreted the MNC’s demands as a form of racial hatred and xenophobia that was being turned against the Belgians.” It took a bit before I realized that, in the colonial vocabulary, xenophobia was a trait ascribed to the Congolese. “The Force Publique dealt repressively with Lumumba’s partisans. Twenty people were killed in Mangobo, a borough in Kisangani. Lumumba was arrested and thrown into prison. It was just like the January 4 riots in Kinshasa.”62

Municipal elections were held in late 1959, but boycotted by the Abako, the MNC, and the PSA. The parties were no longer interested in transitional measures and slow processes. The important thing now was immediate independence, and nothing else. Belgium hoped that gradual democratization would win the people’s favor, but things turned out differently. The tensions had risen too far. The first elections had been organized in 1957, in the hope that that would placate the men of Conscience Africaine and the Abako. But it had the opposite effect. After the January 1959 riots, the Belgians promised independence, but not even that could smooth the feathers that had been ruffled. The colonizer thought it was doing the right thing, but struck out each time. That resulted in 1959 in the loss of a great deal of valuable time and goodwill; assets that could have been used to prepare well for independence. Rather than try to slap together an improvised, well-intentioned policy, perhaps the time had come to finally ask the Congolese themselves what they wanted.

ON JANUARY 20, 1960, a group of some 150 men in winter coats gathered at the Palais des Congrès in Brussels—about sixty Belgians and some ninety Congolese. The idea was to spend one month discussing, frankly and on an equal basis, a number of touchy issues. Hence the name: it was to be a “round table conference” (even though the tables were actually arranged in a rectangle). The Belgian Socialist Party, part of the parliamentary opposition at the time, was pleased with the initiative. The Belgians were represented by six cabinet ministers, five members of parliament, and five senators, accompanied by a few dozen advisers and observers. The politicians had little on-the-ground knowledge of the colony; “dry-season pilgrims” was how the Belgians in Congo itself referred to them mockingly. But many of them were rather smitten with the United Nations’ new-fangled ideology of decolonization. The Congolese delegates came from the major political parties (Kasavubu, Tshombe, Kamitatu among them) and included a dozen tribal elders to represent the traditional authorities. Just before the conference began, the Congolese delegates gathered to form a common front that would bridge the interparty rivalries, ethnic tensions, and ideological fault lines. They did not want this conference to turn into a messy game of Ping-Pong; they wanted to act as a single player. L’union fait la force—united we stand, divided we fall: Belgium had at least taught them that much. This sudden coalition came as a great surprise to the Belgian politicians, divided as they were between Catholic, Liberal, and Socialist sociopolitical blocs, between cabinet and parliament. Many of them were ill-prepared. There was no agenda, no government standpoint. After all, this meeting was not meant to decide anything, was it?

During the first five days of the round-table conference, however, the common Congolese front achieved three crucial victories. First, they were able to convince the Belgians that Patrice Lumumba, who had been imprisoned after the Stanleyville riots, should not be absent. Without him, they stated, the conference was not representative and might merely fan the flames in Congo. Deciding to play it safe, the Belgians had Lumumba released from prison and flown to Brussels. The second major victory: the Belgian delegates had to promise that the resolutions of the conference would afterward be molded into draft bills that would then be sent to both parliament and the senate. The Congolese knew all too well that they had no legislative power, but this gave them the guarantee that the decisions made would not end up at the dead-letter office. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this particular victory: what had begun as an informal colloquium in this way became a summit meeting of far-reaching portent. The third victory was even more conspicuous: the date! The Belgians had hoped to knock around a few ideas about the political structures of a Congo that would become independent at some point in the future, but for the Congolese delegates there was one question that went before all others: when?

On the fifth day of the round-table conference, even before Lumumba arrived, a discussion took place between Jean Bolikango, leader of the common front, and August De Schryver, acting minister for Congo, that most closely resembled the process of haggling and undercutting at a Kinshasa street market. January 1, 1961, the date only dreamed of back in 1958, had meanwhile become superseded. Things could not go quickly enough. In accordance with the old Flemish motto “you never know until you ask,” Bolikango made the first bold move and proposed June 1, 1960. The Belgians were astounded: but that was barely four months away! What could they say to that? Their counterproposal was July 31. A two-month respite. Given, it wasn’t much, but it was all right. Shall we make it June 30 then? Split the difference? Going, going, gone! On June 30, 1960, Congo would become independent. The die was cast. In the Palais des Congrès, an applause went up from the Congolese and Belgian delegates. No one in the Congolese delegation had thought it would be so easy; they were all flabbergasted.63

What was going on here? Had the colonizer, in an unguarded moment, given away independence? No. The round-table conference had indeed gained more momentum than first intended (as was the case with almost every initiative in Belgian colonial politics after 1955) and the Belgian delegation was indeed badly prepared, but this was no rash decision. In the context of the moment, Belgium had only two options: either to reject the common front’s demand, which would almost surely have led to massive rioting, or to agree to the request and hope that things would not get out of hand.64 There was no time for calm negotiations. The choice, in other words, was obvious enough. There were enough Belgian soldiers stationed at the military bases at Kitona and Kamina, but Belgium was not at all in favor of a conflict model. A bloody struggle for independence had been raging in Algeria for the last six years. There was absolutely no majority to be found in the Belgian parliament for a military show of force. The United Nations Charter and the anticolonial standpoints of the United States and the Soviet Union also gave Belgium little room to maneuver on the international scene. Fight off independence? That was possible, but only at the cost of a risky undertaking in the colony and moral isolation from the international community. In 1960 no less than seventeen African countries were to gain independence; Belgium could not lag behind. The only European countries with no intention of releasing their large African holdings were the southern European dictatorships: Salazar’s Portugal, which refused to surrender Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and the Cape Verde Islands, and Franco’s Spain, which still clung to Equatorial Guinea. Apartheid South Africa had no plans to let go of Namibia either. Belgium could agree to the date of June 30, 1960, because it knew that, even after that, it would continue to be involved in policy making, the army, and the economy. Top officials would act as ministerial advisers, white officers would remain in service, the big companies would remain Belgian, and missionaries would carry on teaching.

At the Plaza Hotel in the heart of Brussels, the atmosphere was euphoric. All kinds of things still had to be talked about, of course (that Congo would become a republic, that the ties with the Belgian royal family would be severed, that it would become a unitary state, that the provinces would receive powers of their own: none of this had been established yet), but the loot had been dragged in, the cat was in the bag! Joseph Kabasele’s African Jazz orchestra, which had had such success with its song about Jamais Kolonga, had accompanied the delegates to Brussels. Even negotiators in three-piece suits have to be able to dance after the plenary sessions.

Charly Henault still remembered it clearly. He was African Jazz’s drummer for years, but a Belgian nonetheless. “I was white, but what did I care? I was a drummer in a land full of drummers,” he told me when I found him one drizzly day at his home in eastern Belgium. He was deathly ill and stayed in bed; the memories were becoming washed out. “The round-table ball was held at the Plaza, yeah . . . . The joy, the euphoria . . . Kabasele called the politicians by their first names. They all loved him . . . . A man with class, in his powder-blue tuxedo with black piping. Very chic . . . He loved women and he loved making jokes . . . . One time I even hid his pajamas!”65 Besides all the fooling around, at the Plaza the band made a start composing the song that would soon become the biggest hit in Congolese music: “Indépendance Cha-Cha.” The lyrics, in Lingala and Kikongo, celebrated the newly won autonomy, praised the cooperation between the various parties and sang of the great names in the struggle for independence: “Independence, cha-cha, we took it / Oh! Autonomy, cha-cha, we got it! / Oh! Round table, cha-cha, we won it!” After 1960 Congo would adopt a number of national anthems, under Kasavubu, under Mobutu, under Kabila: pompous compositions with pathetic lyrics, but throughout the past half-century there has been only one true Congolese anthem, one single tune that right up until today makes all of Central Africa shake its hips: that playful, light-footed and moving “Indépendance Cha-Cha.”

JUNE 30 IT WAS. The round-table conference ended on February 20, 1960, with only four months left in which to knock together a country. The to-do list was impressive. A transitional government had to be formed, a constitution written, a parliament and senate established, ministries expanded, a diplomatic corps appointed, provincial and national elections organized, a cabinet put together, a head of state chosen . . . and that was only the country’s political institutions. A national currency also had to be created, and a national bank, in addition to postage stamps, driver’s licenses, license plates, and a land registry office.

A great many Belgians in the colony were leery of this mad rush. They were afraid that the colony, which had been worked on so carefully for seventy-five years, would go down the tubes in a few months’ time. Many of them began sending their savings, their belongings, their families home. Others migrated to Rhodesia or South Africa. During the first two weeks of June, four times as many passengers left from the airport at Ndjili than in the same period the year before. Sabena had to organize seventy extra flights, the boats to Antwerp were brimming over.66

The run-of-the-mill Congolese, on the other hand, was enjoying it immensely. He believed that a golden age was on its way, that Congo would become prosperous from one day to the next. That, after all, was the promise made him in the dozens of pamphlets circulating around the country. Almost all the parties were making promises that could never be kept, promises that were sometimes grotesque, sometimes downright dangerous.67 “When independence arrives,” an Abako broadsheet read, “the whites will have to leave the country.” That was definitely not one of the conclusions of the round-table conference. “The goods left behind will become the property of the black population. That is to say: the houses, the shops, the trucks, the merchandise, the factories, and fields will be given back to the Bakongo.” Little wonder then, with such inflammatory texts, that farmers in Bas-Congo expected nothing short of boundless liberty: “All laws will be abolished, we will no longer have to obey the traditional chieftains, nor the elders, nor the officials, nor the missionaries, nor the bosses . . . . .” In that longing for a sudden, radical turnabout one heard echoes from the days of Simon Kimbangu. Independence itself became a sort of messianic moment that would bring with it “life, health, joy, good fortune and honor.” Kasavubu and Lumumba, both of whom had spent time in prison, grew to became prophets and martyrs. In Kasavubu people saw the resurrection of the king of the old Kongo Empire, while dynamic Lumumba was compared to the Sputnik satellite! Simple people looked forward to nothing less than a cosmic turnabout. Employment and taxes would disappear. Some of them even assumed that, from then on, “the black will have white boys” and that “everyone will be allowed to pick out a white woman for themselves, because they will be left behind and redistributed, just like the cars and other things.”68 A few hucksters took advantage of that naïveté and began selling white people’s homes for the trifling sum of forty dollars . . . . Gullible souls, not realizing they had been swindled, knocked on the doors of white villas to ask whether they could come in and take a look at their new property. Some of them even asked to inspect the woman of the house, because they had just paid twenty dollars for her as well.69

On a macroeconomic scale, a number of things had to be arranged too. Colonial industry, after all, was intertwined in numerous ways with the colonial state, which would soon cease to exist. To deal with that, a second round-table conference was held in Brussels. This time, the political parties in Congo attached far less importance to the meeting. Independence was the most important thing, they figured, and they had secured that. Besides, it was already late April and everyone was busy campaigning for the upcoming elections in May. None of the heavyweights had time to leave Congo for any period. Young party members went to Brussels in their stead, where they were assisted by a few Congolese who had studied in Belgium.

One of those delegates was Mario Cardoso. Today he is the deputy vice president of the Congolese senate. He invited me out to lunch in Kinshasa at the restaurant of the stately Memling Hotel.

I was the third student from Congo allowed to study in Belgium. Every year, Raphaël de la Kéthulle would send one of the Scheutists’ students to the university at Louvain. The Jesuits felt that they should educate people in their own country, but the Scheutists wanted to show that they had pupils who could stand comparison with Belgian students. The first one to go was Thomas Kanza, in 1951. He studied psychology and education. In fact, he had been hoping to study law, but the governor general had forbidden that, out of fear for subversion. The next year it was Paul Mushiete. He studied psychology and education too, and sociology alongside that. My turn came in 1954. What I really wanted was to attend the military academy, but that wasn’t allowed, so I also went for psychology and education. In 1959 I came back to Kinshasa and became an assistant at the University of Lovanium. I was planning to become a professor, but Lumumba asked me to go to the economic round table. I was the head of the MNC delegation, the Lumumba caucus.

The party had split in the meantime: there was Lumumba’s MNC-L, which was unitarian, and the MNC-Kalonji, which advanced the interests of the Baluba in Kasai. “There was an awful lot of suspicion at that conference. The Belgian delegation included gentlemen who had been our professors. We had to negotiate with them. That was no mean feat. The talks were about the future status of the colonial companies, but everything seemed to have been decided beforehand.”70

The economic round table was, above all, an attempt on Brussels’ part to save the furniture. Belgium wanted to safeguard its business interests in Congo and felt that Belgian companies should be free to decide where their registered office would be after 1960.71Cardoso was still bitter about that: “The companies were allowed to decide whether to continue under Congolese or Belgian law. That measure was forced down our throats as a foregone conclusion.” Most companies chose for Belgium, fearing as they did fiscal instability in Congo or, even worse, nationalization. From the time of Leopold II on, Congo had been a test plot for the free-market economy. Companies there enjoyed a generous fiscal regime with almost no government interference. Huge conglomerates, with the Generale Maatschappij in pole position, had experienced a period of unbridled capitalism. Even in those cases where the colonial state was the major shareholder, for example the influential Comité Spécial du Katanga, the government left the actual running of affairs to the businessmen. With independence on the horizon, many business leaders now feared that their days of autonomy and excellent relations with the government were numbered. They remained active in Congo, but chose for a registered office in Belgium, effectively placing their company under Belgian rather than Congolese governance. That transfer cost the Congolese treasury a vast amount of tax revenue.

During this second round of talks, the status of the “colonial portfolio” came up as well. The term referred to the huge package of shares the Belgian Congo held in many colonial companies (mines, plantations, railroads, factories). What was to be done with that? As soon as the Belgian Congo became Congo, those shares would obviously become the property of the new state. The Belgian politicians and business leaders didn’t think that was a good idea. They convinced the Congolese delegates that it would be better if those government participations were taken away from the state and transferred to a new Belgian-Congolese development company. It was a sly way to keep a hand on the purse strings.72 Here too, Congo paid for its delegation’s lack of economic experience. People who had been allowed to study only psychology were being asked to made crucial macroeconomic decisions. “Second-rank figures,” then-prime-minister Gaston Eyskens opined.73 One of them was the journalist Joseph Mobutu. He had been sent to negotiate by his friend Lumumba, and the experience was to haunt him for the rest of his life. He said of it later:

And there I sat, a silly, unmannered journalist, at the same table with the great white sharks of Belgian finance! I’d had no financial training whatsoever, and the other members of my delegation, who represented the other Congolese movements, hadn’t either. It is not one of my fondest memories. From April 26 to May 16 we negotiated inch by inch, but I became like one of those cowboys in a western who lets himself be bamboozled time and again by professional con men. We talked until late at night, and the next day we discovered that the Belgian parliament had meanwhile made decisions that rendered the negotiations obsolete. We had to fight for everything . . . . Of course we let ourselves be rolled. Our partners in the discussion used a whole series of legal and technical ruses to successfully safeguard the hold which the multinationals and the Belgian capitalists had on the Congolese pocketbook.74

The worst was yet to come, but only a few weeks later. On June 27, 1960, three days before independence, the Belgian parliament—with the endorsement of the Congolese government, no less—disbanded the Comité Spécial du Katanga.75 Congo could not have made a worse blunder! With that, the new state lost control over mining giant Union Minière, the motor of the national economy. How could that have happened? The CSK was essentially a public enterprise that awarded concessions in Katanga to private companies in return for shares. It held a majority share in Union Minière and therefore the power of control. Historically, that right to a government say in the company’s dealing had rarely been used: the colonial state had always relied on the competence of the business world. Now that Congo was on the point of becoming independent, however, there was a chance that the new state would actually involve itself in the activities of Union Minière and all its subsidiaries. By disbanding the CSK, that possibility was effectively blocked. In all their disaffection with the Moloch of Western capitalism, the Congolese delegates to the economic round table had no problem with that, and Lumumba’s new government would soon adopt that same line of reasoning . . . . Congo remained a part owner, but as minority shareholder had far less power and received far less of the profits than the big Belgian trusts, such as the Generale. In that way it not only missed out on many millions of dollars, but also on the opportunity to let the industry work in the service of the country itself.

Dancing with ignorance, the country moved toward the precipice of independence. The political keys were already in its pocket, but the economic ones were now safely tucked away in Belgium. Nevertheless, one day after this unbelievably cunning move, the two countries signed a “pact of friendship” that spoke of aid and assistance.

FINALLY, IN LATE MAY, the long-awaited national elections were held. The turnout was huge, the results predictable. After Patrice Lumumba’s MNC, the biggest winners were the regional parties, with or without separatist tendencies. The Abako won in Bas-Congo, Conakat in southern Katanga, and Balubakat in the north, Kalonji’s MNC in Kasai, Cerea in Kivu, and the PSA in Kwilu. The latter two were not true tribal parties, but provided the ethnically highly splintered regions of Kivu and Kwilu with a sort of super-tribal élan. The electoral map of Congo in 1960, therefore, was largely identical to the ethnographic maps drawn up by the scientists half a century before. This tribal reflex should not be seen as atavistic. Were pan-European elections to be held in Europe today, after all, there is a great chance that most of the French would vote for a Frenchman and most Bulgarians for a Bulgarian. In a vast country like Congo, where the greatest part of the population had no more than a primary school education, it should come as no surprise that many voted for candidates from their own region. The three strongest figures to come out of the elections were Kasavubu, Lumumba, and Tshombe. Kasavubu held sway over the western part of the country, Lumumba over the northwest and center, and Tshombe over the far south. That corresponded with the major cities: Léopoldville, Stanleyville, and Elisabethville. The smaller parties divided among themselves the countryside that lay between.

This fragmentation made it no easier to form a representative coalition government. No one party had an absolute majority (Lumumba’s resounding victory only secured about one-third of the parliamentary seats from five of the six provinces; he made absolutely no headway in Katanga), and even a rudimentary coalition with only a few partners was ruled out. The negotiations were going to take a long time. What’s more, the Belgian government was quite disappointed to see that Lumumba, whom they considered a seditious demagogue, had been able to win over so many voters. This concern went so far that Brussels even appointed a new minister resident, W. J. Ganshof van der Meersch, and sent him to Congo to supervise the formation of a new government. In his wake, new Belgian troops were also sent to the colony. Lumumba had little patience with these demarches and made no effort to disguise it. The two men irritated each other no end. Kasavubu was the first to be appointed to try and form a new government, but when that failed the job was given to Lumumba. He was faced with the almost impossible task of bringing together all the widely diverse individuals into a single political team. Up until one week before independence, the new minister resident still had hope that Lumumba would not become prime minister.

But on June 23 the first Congolese cabinet became a fact. It numbered twenty-three ministers, nine deputy ministers, and four ministers of state, posts that were divided among no less than twelve political parties. The way things go with difficult compromises, this feat produced more shouts of pain than of joy. Bolikango, the gray eminence from Équateur who had led the common front in Brussels, saw the office of president slip through his fingers at the last moment. Lumumba, after all, needed the support of the Abako, and received it by means of a compromise: if Kasavubu would repress his separatist urge, he could become the head of state. Lumumba, the big winner, therefore, did not become president himself, but only prime minister, even though his party had won 33 of the 137 parliamentary seats and Kasavubu’s only 12.

Tshombe realized at last that he had missed the boat and that his party would have to make do with one ministerial post and one deputy minister. His Katanga accounted for the lion’s share of the nation’s income, but was receiving little in return: that stung. Sooner or later, it would have to have repercussions. The parliament, too, was hesitant: the new cabinet was only barely ratified by the elected representatives.76 In the early days of the Lumumba cabinet, therefore, there was nothing like the collective effort of a government team providing unified support for a political project.

The team that was installed was not only heteroclite and petulant, but also extremely youthful. Seventy-five percent of them were under the age of thirty-five. The youngest was only twenty-six years old. That was Thomas Kanza, the first Congolese to obtain a university diploma. He became the new ambassador to the United Nations, certainly no sinecure in the first months after independence. The oldest cabinet minister was Pascal Nkayi, but he was only fifty-nine. He was made finance minister, after a lifetime as clerk to the post office administration. A new elite also held primacy in the parliament: only 3 of the 137 seats went to traditional chiefs.77

The first government of Congo inherited from Belgium a country with a well-developed infrastructure: more than fourteen thousand kilometers (nearly 8,700 miles) of rails and more than 140 kilometers (about eighty-seven miles) of highways and streets had been built; there were more than forty airports or airfields and more than a hundred hydroelectric and power plants and there was a modern industrial sector (Congo was world leader in industrial diamonds and the world’s fourth largest copper producer). In addition, a start had been made with general health care (three hundred hospitals for natives, plus medical centers and birth clinics) and the country enjoyed an extremely high degree of literacy (1.7 million primary school pupils in 1959)—achievements that were truly striking in comparison with other African colonies.78 What’s more, the army had had major successes in both world wars. But there is more to life than infrastructures. Thomas Kanza, the fresh-faced cabinet minister who had studied psychology, knew that for many Africans those successes were only relative: “Unlike what most Europeans were willing to admit, they had suffered more under the lack of sincere sympathy, respect, and love from the colonizers than from any lack of schools, roads, and factories.”79 Besides, what were you supposed to do with a fully appointed country if no one knew how to run it? On the day of its independence, the country had sixteen university graduates. And although there were hundreds of well-trained nurses and policy advisers, the Force Publique did not have a single black officer. There was not one native physician, not one engineer, not one lawyer, agronomist, or economist.

“BELGIUM HAD NO EXPERIENCE WITH COLONIZING,” Mario Cardoso said during our elegant lunch at the Memling, “but it had even less experience with decolonization. Why did it all have to go so quickly? If they had waited five years, the first batch of Congolese officers would have finished their training. Then there would have been no mutinies in the army.” Between 1955 and 1960 the colonial regime had searched feverishly for reforms that could stem the tide of major social unrest, but it was too little and too late. And so the process of decolonization became a runaway locomotive and no one could find the brake. By bowing too late to the understandable demands of a frustrated elite, Brussels released a play of forces that far exceeded its own ability to control. But the same applies to that same young elite, which not only pinpointed and canalized the social dissatisfaction of the lower classes, but also whipped it up and magnified it until it took on proportions that it, too, was unable to handle. The chronology of events brought to light a paradox that could be noted at best, but not resolved: the decolonization had begun much too late, independence came much too early. Disguised as a revel, the breakneck emancipation of Congo was a tragedy that could only end in disaster.

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