Modern history





The Turbulent Years of the First Republic


EVERYONE KNEW THERE WOULD HAVE TO BE A GOOD DEAL OF improvising during that first period after independence. That things would not run smoothly as burnished silk was only to be expected. But that Congo, during the first six months of its existence, would have to deal with a serious military mutiny, the massive exodus of those Belgians who had remained behind, an invasion by the Belgian army, a military intervention by the United Nations, logistical support from the Soviet Union, an extremely heated stretch of the Cold War, an unparalleled constitutional crisis, two secessions that covered a third of its territory, and, to top it all off, the imprisonment, escape, arrest, torture, and murder of its prime minister: no, absolutely no one had seen that coming.

And it would take a long time for things to get better. The period between 1960 and 1965 is known today as the First Republic, but at the time it seemed more like the Last Judgment. The country fell apart, was confronted with a civil war, ethnic pogroms, two coups d’état, three uprisings, and six government leaders (Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Ileo, Justin Bomboko, Cyrille Adoula, Moïse Tshombe, and Évariste Kimba), two—or perhaps even three—of whom were murdered: Lumumba, shot dead in 1961; Kimba, hanged in 1966; Tshombe, found dead in his cell in Algeria in 1969. Even Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary general of the United Nations, the man who headed a reluctant world government, lost his life under circumstances that still remain unclear—an event unparalleled in the history of postwar multilateralism. The death toll among the Congolese population itself during this period was too high for meaningful estimates.

Congo’s First Republic was an apocalyptic era in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Both politically and militarily, the country was plunged into total, inextricable chaos; at the economic level, the picture was clearer: things simply went from bad to worse. Yet Congo had not fallen prey to wild irrationality. The misery of the first five years was not the product of a renaissance of barbarism, of the revival of some form of primitivism repressed during the colonial years, let alone of any opaque “Bantu soul.” No, here too the chaos was a result more of logic than of unreasonableness, or rather of the collision of disparate logics. The president, the prime minister, the army, the rebels, the Belgians, the United Nations, the Russians, the Americans: each of them wielded a form of logic that seemed consistent and cogent within the confines of their own four walls, but which often proved irreconcilable with the outside world. As in theater, tragedy in history here was not a matter of the reasonable versus the unreasonable, of good versus bad, but of people whose lives crossed and who—each and every one of them—considered themselves good and reasonable. Idealists faced off with idealists, but when believed in fanatically all forms of idealism lead to blindness, the blindness of the good. History is a gruesome meal prepared from the best of ingredients.

The turbulent first five years of Congo can be divided into three phases. The first ran from June 30, 1960, to January 17, 1961, the day on which Lumumba was murdered. During the first six months, the house of cards of the colonial state collapsed, and “the Congo crisis” dominated world news week after week. The second phase coincided with the years 1961–63, and was marked primarily by the Katangan secession. It ended when the rebel province, after forceful UN military intervention, rejoined the rest of the country. The third phase started in 1964, when a rebellion broke out in the east and spread across half the country. The central authorities regained control of the territory only with the greatest of difficulty. The year 1965 was to have witnessed a return to normalcy, but ended unexpectedly on November 24 with Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coup d’état, a putsch that defined the country’s history. Mobutu remained in power for the next thirty-two years, until 1997. That was the so-called Second Republic, a regime that, strictly centralized at first, ultimately developed into a dictatorship.

The First Republic was characterized by a jumble of the names of Congolese politicians and military men, European advisers, UN personnel, white mercenaries, and native rebels. Four of those names, however, dominated the field: Joseph Kasavubu, Lumumba, Tshombe, and Mobutu. In terms of complexity and intensity, the ensuing power struggle between them was like one of Shakespeare’s history plays. The history of the First Republic is the story of a relentless knockout race between four men who were asked to play the game of democracy for the first time. An impossible mission, all the more so when one considers that each of them was hemmed in by foreign players with interests to protect. Kasavubu and Mobutu were being courted by the CIA, Tshombe at moments was the plaything of his Belgian advisers, and Lumumba was under enormous pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations. The power struggle among the four politicians was greatly amplified and complicated by the ideological tug of war taking place within the international community. It is hard to serve democracy when powerful players are constantly, and often frantically, pulling on the strings from above.

What’s more, none of these men had ever lived under a democracy in their own country. The Belgian Congo had had no parliament, no culture of institutionalized opposition, of deliberation, of searching for consensus, of learning to live with compromise. All decisions had come from Brussels. The colonial regime itself was an executive administration. Differences of opinion were kept hidden from the native population, for they could only undermine the colonizer’s prestige. In his seemingly unassailable omnipotence, the highest authority, the governor general with his white helmet decked out with vulture feathers, seemed more like the chieftain of a feudal African kingdom than a top official within a democratic regime. Is it any wonder then that this first generation of Congolese politicians had to struggle with democratic principles? Is it strange that they acted more like pretenders to the throne, constantly at each other’s throats, than like elected officials? Among the historical kingdoms of the savanna, succession to the throne had always been marked by a grim power struggle. In 1960 things were no different.

And in fact, wasn’t it all about who was going to take over from King Baudouin? Kasavubu was the first and only president of the First Republic. The dress uniform he had designed for himself was an exact copy of Baudouin’s. Léopoldville and Bas-Congo supported him en masse. Only rarely was his position as head of state openly called into question, but in 1965, Mobutu—whose own ceremonial uniform later proved to be a copy of Baudouin’s as well—shoved him aside.

Lumumba’s power base lay to the east, with Stanleyville as its center. He was the most popular politician in Congo, but he resented having to bow to Kasavubu as president. He would only survive the first six months of the First Republic, but after his death his intellectual legacy continued to play a major role in Congolese politics.

Tshombe was perhaps even more resentful. His party had received the short end of the stick during the formation of the new government. He himself had no choice but to settle for the position of provincial governor general of Katanga in Elisabethville. And even though that position—in terms of square kilometers and industrial importance—was comparable in weight to that of a German chancellor in a united Europe, he had to face the fact that the true center of power lay elsewhere, in Léopoldville.

On the day of independence itself, Mobutu, finally, was the least significant of the four: he was Lumumba’s private secretary. He had no major city backing him, as the other three did, let alone a powerful people like Kasavubu (among the Bakongo) or Tshombe (among the Lunda). He came from a small tribe in the far north of Équateur, the Ngbandi, a peripheral population group that did not even speak a Bantu language like the rest of Congo. At twenty-nine he was also the youngest of the group (Kasavubu was forty-five, Tshome forty, Lumumba thirty-five). But five years later he was lord and master. He would develop into one of the most influential persons in Central Africa and one of the richest men in the world. The classic story of the errand boy who becomes a Mafia kingpin.

DURING THE FIRST ACT OF CONGO’S INDEPENDENCE, Patrice Lumumba was incontestably the pivotal character. All eyes were turned on him after his inflammatory speech during the transfer ceremony. When the curtain went up on the Congolese drama, he was a dynamic people’s tribune, adored by tens of thousands of common folk. Only a few scenes later he was despised, spit upon, and forced to eat a copy of his own speech.

July 1960. The dry season. A cobalt blue sky. The independence party had lasted four days. The army, the Force Publique, kept order as always. The newly independent Congo may still have been sailing against the current—the political institutions may still have been in their infancy, governmental experience may have been null, the challenges were perhaps enormous—but the armed forces were solid as a rock. The officers’ corps was still Belgian: a thousand Europeans maintained command over twenty-five thousand Congolese. The chief commander was still General Émile Janssens, the man who had so rigorously quashed the 1959 riots. Without a doubt the most Prussian of all Belgian officers, he was a great soldier with a rigid mind: discipline was sacred to him, protest was a defect, chaos the sign of weak character. He had to put up with being answerable to Lumumba, who was not only prime minister but had also been made minister of national defense. Concerning him, Janssens would later write: “Moral character: none; intellectual character: entirely superficial; physical character: his nervous system made him seem more feline than human.”1 That was how things lay: Congo was independent, true enough, but the Belgians not only ran things economically, they also maintained a total grip on the military apparatus.

Fireworks had graced the night sky on Thursday, June 30, but by Monday, July 4, things were already awry. Congo’s existence as a stable country lasted only a few days. During the afternoon parade at the Leopold II barracks, a few soldiers refused to obey orders. General Janssens intervened and did what he had always done in such cases: demoted the recalcitrant elements on the spot. This time, however, that move backfired. The next day some five hundred soldiers gathered in the mess hall to express their dissatisfaction. The soldiers were tired. For the last eighteen months they had been zigzagging across the country, putting down minor insurrections. They yearned for opportunities for advancement within the military hierarchy, for better pay and less racism. Shortly before independence, they had written:

No one has forgotten that within the Force Publique we, the soldiers, are treated like slaves. We are punished arbitrarily, because we are Negroes. We have no right to the same advantages or facilities as our officers. Our two-person rooms are extremely small (7.5 m2 [about 79 square feet] of floor space) and have no furnishings or electricity. We eat very little and our food in no way complies with the rules of hygiene. The wages we are given are insufficient to meet the current cost of living. We are not allowed to read newspapers published by blacks. One need only be caught with a copy of Présence Congolaise, Emancipation, Notre Congo . . . to receive two weeks in the brig. After this unjust punishment one is then transferred to the disciplinary camp at Lokandu, where one is taught to live in military fashion . . . . In the Force Publique our officers live like Americans; they have better housing, they live in big, modern houses, all furnished by the Force Publique, their standard of living is very high, they are arrogant and live like princes; all this in the name of prestige, because they are white. Today it is the unanimous desire of all Congolese soldiers to have access to positions of command, to receive a respectable salary and to put an end to every form of discrimination within the Force Publique.2

Radical military reforms were needed to counter so much frustration, but General Janssens had no intention of countenancing them during the tumultuous months before and after independence. The first batch of Congolese officers was in training at the Royal Military School in Brussels, and a school for noncoms had been set up at Luluabourg. Within a few years those men would be on active duty, but until then everything would remain the same. On Tuesday morning, July 5, Janssens went to the Leopold II barracks and gave his troops an unambiguous lesson in military discipline: the Force Publique was there to serve the country, that’s how it had been in the days of the Belgian Congo and that’s how it would be now. To underscore his message, he wrote in big letters on the chalkboard: “Avant l’indépendance = après l’indépendance” (before independence is the same as after independence). That was not a good idea. The slogan stuck in the soldiers’ craws. They had watched as Congolese civil servants, from one day to the next, were assigned top administrative positions, they had seen how well the politicians did by themselves during the big turnover. One of the new parliament’s first acts, after all, had been to decide that they had a right to a 500,000 franc honorarium, almost twice the amount earned by their Belgian colleagues.3 The soldiers awoke with a start to the fact that independence was doing them very little good.

The mutiny within the army is often explained by referring to Lumumba’s inflammatory speech. But that remains questionable: the soldiers were as angry with their own fresh-faced politicians as they were with their white superiors. They wanted to vent their rage not only on General Janssens, but also on Lumumba himself! To them he was not so much a hero as a defense minister who had never served, an intellectual in a dress suit and bowtie who was out to cut a dashing figure while their fate remained unchanged, despite all his glorious promises.4

That very same day, July 5, the mutiny jumped the gap to the garrison town of Thysville, barely a two-hour drive from the capital. Things there took a much more violent turn. Hundreds of soldiers rose in revolt. They beat up their officers and forced them, with their wives and children, to take refuge in the mess hall. Meanwhile, the soldiers occupied the munitions dump. Outside the barracks, along the road to the capital, heavy rioting was seen in the Madimba-Inkisi district. This time the soldiers did not turn on their white officers, but on white civilians. A number of European women were subjected to sexual violence. One of them was raped sixteen times within a five-hour period, in the presence of her husband, mother, and children.5 The rumors reached the capital only a few days later.

Meanwhile, Lumumba did all he could to stop the mutiny in his army. He took three successive measures, each with the best of intentions, but also with consequences far beyond what he could oversee. On July 6, in the company of General Janssens, he inspected the troops at the Leopold II barracks. On that occasion he promised to promote each soldier in rank. “The private second class will become a private first class, the private first class will become a corporal, the corporal will be a sergeant, the sergeant will become a sergeant first class, the sergeant first class will be sergeant-major, and the first sergeant-major will become adjutant.”6 It did not have the desired effect. “Lokuta!” the soldiers shouted, “lies!”7 They weren’t about to be appeased that easily. For them, it was all about the officers’ corps.

Two days later, Lumumba took things a step further. He dismissed General Janssens and appointed Victor Lundula to replace him as chief commander of the armed forces, with Mobutu as his chief of staff. The Africanization of the army top brass, that should boost the troop’s morale, shouldn’t it? Then he moved on without hesitation to his third measure: the accelerated and drastic Africanization of the officers’ corps. The soldiers were allowed to nominate their own candidates. In this way, at one fell swoop, sergeants and adjutants became majors or colonels. And to emphasize this break with the past, the Force Publique was now given a new name: the Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC).

These decisions did help to calm things down a bit, but the final result was disastrous: after only one week, the newborn Republic of Congo no longer had a functional army. The new state’s most solid pillar had toppled. In today’s demilitarized Europe, where the NATO invisibly safeguards its members, it is hard to imagine the importance of a standing army for a nascent state. The state can only become a state when it assumes the monopoly on violence (be that social, tribal, or territorial). In the turbulent Congo of the 1960s, the army was vitally important. But the Force Publique, the colonial army that could look back on crucial victories in the first and second world wars, was reduced in the space of one week to an unruly mob. The supreme command was now in the hands of two reservists: Lundula, the mayor of Jadotville, who had served as a sergeant-medic fifteen years earlier, and Mobutu, a journalist who had worked for a spell as a sergeant-bookkeeper and had recently become Lumumba’s confidant. Once the two men had driven together through the streets of Léopoldville on a scooter, now they were the prime minister and chief of staff of a vast country with a ragtag army. That Mobutu might also be the confidant of the Belgian and American intelligence services was a suspicion Lumumba refused to entertain. It was a refusal that would soon cost him his life.

Lumumba’s attempts to mollify the mutineers remind one of Belgium’s attempts to pacify social unrest in the 1950s: confronted with a rebellious element in society, he also made too-hasty decisions that consisted of important concessions meant to buy social stability. But once again, the result was the exact opposite of what was intended. The resentment was not dammed, but actually continued to spread.

“OUR WOMEN ARE BEING RAPED!” The rumor spread like wildfire through Congo’s European community. On July 7 a train full of Belgians who had escaped Thysville arrived in the capital. For many, their stories went beyond even the worst nightmare scenarios. Some of them had been spit upon, humiliated, and jeered at; many of them felt threatened. But it was the rumor of sexual violence that caused the most panic. In colonial society there was no greater gap than that between the African man and the European woman (the reverse, contact between a European man and an African woman, was a matter of course). Jamais Kolonga had become a national celebrity by dancing with a white woman. Longin Ngwadi had told King Baudouin that he wanted to marry a European. Before 30 juin, naive souls had believed that they could buy a Belgian home and a Belgian wife. The white woman was inaccessible, and it was for that very reason that she generated such intense curiosity. In the late 1950s a Belgian colonial was privy to a humorous, yet telling, incident:

The post office at Katana had a native postmaster. One day the postmaster came to me and said: “Sir, they have cheated me.” And I replied: “Tell me what you mean.” “Well, sir (all this was said in Swahili), look here, I have a catalogue from the Au Bon Marché in Brussels and look at this picture here. (The picture showed a lovely girl with a beautiful bra.) I ordered it, and do you know what they sent me? An empty bra.” Our postmaster told me later that he had thought he would get the girl along with it; the price was much more reasonable than that for the dowry of a native woman.8

White females in colonial Congo were almost always married women or nuns. Their sexual availability was negligible. Sexual violence after independence was a brutal way to nevertheless claim the most unattainable element in colonial society and to deeply humiliate the former rulers. Clichés abounded on both sides: if the white woman was a semimythical being for many Congolese men, then many Europeans still had semimythical conceptions of African sexuality. The clichés influenced the events. The rapes were hideous, but their frequency stood in no proportion to the panic they caused among the Europeans. Everyone was goading everyone else with horror stories.

Not a single European had been killed, but the result was a large-scale exodus. An estimated thirty thousand Belgians left the country within a few weeks.9 Between Léopoldville and the Beach, cars were backed up for kilometers to catch the ferry to Brazzaville. Lots of Volkswagen beetles, lots of pickups, lots of Mercedes with with the CB sticker (for Congo belge) still on their bumpers . . . Elsewhere the cars were simply left behind. Before independence, Brussels had asked as many Belgians as possible to remain at their posts in the colony—young Congo would be badly in need of their expertise—but two weeks later Belgium was advising its citizens to return home, or at least to bring their wives and children to safety. Sabena organized an airlift that within three weeks took tens of thousands of Europeans out of Congo. It was a hallucinatory withdrawal. Some ten thousand civil servants, thirteen thousand private-sector workers, and eight thousand colonists (plantation owners) left the country.

We know today that this mass psychosis bore no relation to the actual danger. It was like a movie theater emptying out after someone has shouted “Fire! Fire!,” while in reality the flames are limited to an overfull ashtray. “See what I mean, look at that fire!” the moviegoers shout on their way to the exit, apparently not realizing that the fire is being fed precisely by the draft they are creating themselves. The situation was serious, without a doubt, but there was no reason for a general evacuation. But reason had gone out the window. At a certain point, every wave of panic achieves an energy that can no longer be tempered. Just as the barracks at Luluabourg had been vacated in 1944 due to irrational fear of a vaccination campaign, so too did the European inhabitants of Congo leave the country due to a misjudged security risk.

But there were also those who kept a cool head. In the village of Nsioni in Bas-Congo, I spent a few days in 2008 with the old physician Jacques Courtejoie. As a child in Stavelot (in the Belgian province of Liège), he had witnessed the Ardennes Offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) in 1944 as it passed within three hundred meters (about four hundred yards) of his parents’ home. A lesson in level-headedness. He had lived in Congo since 1958, always on his own, always unmarried, as a missionary of science, a one-man repository of humanism, dedication, and optimism. He had educated and trained half a dozen people from that same area; he gave them responsibility and self-assurance. The booklets and posters with medical information they made together were distributed all over Congo: books about tapeworms, eye disease, and domestic rabbit breeding; posters with information about washing one’s hands, tuberculosis, and breastfeeding. Rarely had I seen a man serve the cause of human dignity so straightforwardly and under such difficult circumstances. An unsung Dr. Albert Schweitzer. From the very first day of his stay in Congo, Courtejoie had been averse to colonialism. “In July 1960 I heard the reports on the radio. Panic was breaking out everywhere, everyone was running away. I tried to stay calm and rational. I really saw no reason why I should leave.” He was one of the few who stayed. After three months of independence, Congo had only 120 physicians.10

There was so much irrational fear at the time. For example: two months after independence, I went to dinner at the home of a white regional administrator. He came home late, because he’d been to a political meeting of the Abako. When he got home, his wife said: “I certainly hope you didn’t shake Kasavubu’s hand!” I can still hear the way she said that. Even by that time, people still thought Africans were dirty! And two months later that man became the president of Congo! That’s what the mood was like back then. A black person was never allowed to go along in the car, at most in the back of a pickup, even when the person in question was sick or pregnant. One time I even saw them make the elderly mother of a black priest travel in the back of the truck, even though she was seriously ill. Here in this area, the whites never sat down at the table with black people.”11

Courtejoie still combats prejudice every day. Whenever he goes out with his staff members, everyone piles into the jeep until there’s no more room. During lunch breaks he shares their manioc loaf and eats with them from the same can of sardines.

Many Europeans ran away with the idea that they would come back a few months later, when everything had calmed down. But they did not. Among Belgian ex-colonials, proud as they were of their own achievements, this caused a great deal of bitterness. Many of them sincerely felt that they, as subjects of a little country, had outdone themselves and displayed great dedication and boundless drive. In the 1980s Vladimir Drachoussoff, the agronomist who kept such a fascinating diary during World War II, remembered “the joy of helping to develop a huge country that is today foreign but which we experienced intensely as our own.”12 The colony had offered many opportunities that would have been beyond their reach in Europe, it was their most cherished homeland. Now it had become a foreign country. Thomas Kanza, the first man with a university diploma in Congo and a very young cabinet minister under Lumumba, displayed amazing insight into their state of mind when he wrote: “Almost all of them had achieved more in Africa than they would have in Europe, because the opportunities to take initiatives, to display their skills, their energy, in short to confirm their personality, were greater abroad than they were there.”13 Leaving Congo therefore also meant giving up a dream, a dream of self-fulfillment that, for many of them, went hand in hand with a paternalistic ideology. Drachoussoff, once again, was completely frank about that: “Our paternalism was solid and serene: we were deeply and sincerely convinced that we were not only the bearers of a more modern civilization, but of civilization as such, of the rule and standard for all of the peoples on the earth . . . . Almost all of us were proud of being European and we approached the world around us as builders and designers, with the will to mold and to transform, and the conviction that we had the right to do so.” Of course that calm self-confidence also had a dark side, he realized. The sudden hostility between white and black had not appeared out of thin air: “An understandable but dangerous sense of superiority had influenced the daily practice of colonization . . . . The ‘civilizers’ dearly wanted to protect and to educate, as long as it went from top to bottom and the pupils remained respectful and obedient. None of us escaped completely from that God-given hierarchy that expressed itself among the mediocre in the form of straightforward racism and provided the more magnanimous with a good conscience.”14

If that exodus was frustrating for the whites, for the young country itself it constituted a second heavy blow. To put it simply: after one week Congo was without an army; after two weeks it was without an administration. Or, to put it more accurately: it was without the top layers of an administration. Of the 4,878 higher-ranking positions, only three were occupied by Congolese in 1959.15 Suddenly, people with a simple education now had to assume important roles within the bureaucracy, roles that were often far beyond their ability. The army was crucial for maintaining order, the administration for the operations of the state. In Kisangani, I talked about this with the very colorful Papa Rovinscky, the nickname of Désiré Van-Duel, which was in turn also a Belgian-sounding alternative for his true African name: Bonyololo Lokombe. When one’s country changes names four times in one’s lifetime, why not adapt your own from time to time? Papa Rovinscky welcomed his visitors with music. He played the slit drum and the gong, and was still able to broadcast messages in the language of his tribe, the Lokele, over great distances. “The white man has arrived and is sitting in the easy chair,” he drummed out on his bush telegraph, as soon as I had pulled out my ballpoint and notebook. On his living room wall he had hung the handwritten story of his life and his curriculum vitae. He had noted the names of the thirty-five children he had sired by nine different women, “dont 8 cartouches perdues” (including eight near misses). He described himself as an “independent journalist and deacon, a born national and international historian, an external staff member of the communicational class [I have no idea what he meant by that, but it sounded good], peace artist and multidimensional griot.” But today, at the age of seventy-three, he mostly lived from building coffins, primarily for children, which were in great demand. In Congo, one out of every five children dies before the age of five. Before independence he had worked as a stenographer and typist for the colonial administration. He could touch-type (“My fingers had eyes”), but after independence he was suddenly pitchforked into the job of first municipal secretary of Tshopo. “There were only a few whites, the rest of the city managers were black. None of them were ready for it. The mayor put together a team. Because I could take stenography and type, I became the municipal secretary. I had to take the minutes of the city council meetings. That was very difficult for me! I’d had no training at all!”16

The Belgian exodus had major economic consequences too. During the second half of 1960 the export-oriented farming sector suffered a drastic dip. Cotton, coffee, and rubber, ready for harvest, were no longer being exported. The crops stood rotting in the fields. Exports of cacao and palm nuts fell by more than 50 percent.17 Other sectors highly dependent on European know-how suffered as well: forestry, road construction, transport, and the service sector. Mining was the only industry that remained more or less stable. Unemployment rose sharply. Those who had served as boy, cook, or maid to a white family were suddenly out of work. Tens of thousands of employees on the plantations, at the sugar refineries, soap works, and breweries lost their jobs. In the long run, industrialized agriculture made way for more traditional forms. People once again began raising manioc, shucking corn, and collecting locusts, they once again turned to family when they became hungry. The nuclear family, the évolué’s ideal and the object of tireless promotion by the missions, would gradually make way for the extended family, the broad network of uncles, nephews, and nieces on whom one could fall back in times of scarcity.

THE UPRISINGS OF 1960 affected not only the army, the administration, and the economy; they also led to armed conflict. On July 9 the first casualties fell in Elisabethville: five Europeans, including the Italian consul, were murdered. This was the bloody limit, Belgian Defense Minister Arthur Gilson decided that same evening. Going against the advice of Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Wigny and without informing the Belgian ambassador in Léopoldville beforehand, he gave the green light for military intervention.18The lives of countrymen were at stake, he reasoned. Early in the morning of July 10 Belgian planes took off from Kamina airbase with troops for Elisabethville. Paratroopers were dropped over Luluabourg that same day to free the Belgian nationals.

It was, in every way, an ill-fated move.

A few weeks before independence, Belgian soldiers had already been stationed at the Kitona and Kamina military bases. According to the “agreement of friendship” signed by both countries, Belgium was to provide military support for an independent Congo, but only at Léopoldville’s express request; that is to say, at the request of Defense Minister Lumumba. That was absolutely not the case here. Brussels hid behind the argument that the intervention was meant only to protect Belgian nationals, yet the liberation of Belgians soon made way for the occupation of large parts of the former colony. Now that the Congolese army was in disarray, Belgium decided to maintain order (and the economy) on its own; what had taken three-quarters of a century to build must not be razed in a month. That was understandable, but foolish. Belgium should have limited itself to protecting its own citizens and then turned to the United Nations to handle the rest. As it was, its self-willed intervention now boiled down to nothing more than the military invasion of a sovereign, independent country. In Katanga, Belgian soldiers forcibly disarmed Congolese troops who had not even been mutinying! Seemingly without much awareness of the fact, the kingdom of Belgium was carrying out an offensive of its own on foreign soil for the first time since 1830.

Kasavubu and Lumumba were inclined, at first, to turn a blind eye to the Belgian actions—there were, after all, Belgians in danger—but one day later reversed their well-disposed stance. Which was entirely justified. On July 11 the real story made itself known—two times, in fact. First, on that day two Belgian naval vessels shelled the port city of Matadi. That had nothing more to do with the protection of Belgian nationals, almost all of whom had been evacuated, but with the taking of a strategic harbor. Second, and vastly more important, on that same day Tshombe declared the independence of Katanga and immediately received Belgian support. At that same time Kasavubu and Lumumba were traveling around the country, dealing in a diplomatic way with uprisings. They were just as concerned about their country’s disintegration as Belgium was. In Bas-Congo, individuals including borough mayor Gaston Diomi and Charles Kisolokele, one of Simon Kimbangu’s sons, carried out brilliant and courageous work in containing the mutiny. Successful domestic initiatives, therefore, were already being taken. When the president and the prime minister heard about the Katangan secession they flew to the province, but the Belgian commander, Weber, refused them permission to land at Elisabethville. That, of course, created a lot of bad blood: the numbers one and two of the democratically elected government were being denied access to their country’s second largest city! By a foreign officer who had entered the city only the day before!19

Kasavubu and Lumumba inferred right away that Belgium was behind the Katangan secession. An understandable assumption, but not entirely correct. The Belgians and Katangans had long maintained excellent contacts, but it would not be right to claim that Brussels had helped plan the province’s secession.20 In fact, the Belgian government had been unpleasantly surprised by Tshombe’s rash deed. On the ground, however, great rapport immediately arose between the Katangan leaders, the Belgian soldiers, and the management of Union Minière. Belgian soldiers disarmed Lumumba’s troops and immediately helped to form a new, Katangan army, the Gendarmerie Katangaise. Brussels never formally recognized the Katangan state, but in actual practice Tshombe could count on massive Belgian support. The Belgian national bank even helped to set up the central bank of Katanga.21 The Belgian court, too, was well disposed toward the rebel province. King Baudouin held Tshombe in much higher esteem than he did Lumumba. He wrote to him: “An eighty-year association, like that which unites our two peoples, is far too fervent and fond a link to allow it to be disbanded by the hateful policies of one single individual.” In the definitive draft, that word “hateful” was scrapped. That he was referring to Lumumba was clear enough already.22

With its military intervention, Belgium meant to restore order, but the move resulted in total escalation. The history of Congo between 1955 and 1965 is nothing but a series of attempts by various governments to contain unrest; attempts that resulted again and again in even more unrest. But this time the Belgian authorities had added an inordinate amount of fuel to the fire.

In July 1960 four Belgian Harvard fighter planes began patrolling the skies above a restless Bas-Congo, picking out specific targets for strafing and missile attacks. Within six days, one had crashed and another had been shot down. The other two had bullet holes in wings and fuselage.23 The badly wounded pilot of the plane that was shot down was murdered by Congolese soldiers; his body was thrown into the Inkisi.

Deputy regional administrator André Ryckmans, son of the former governor general, was shot and killed as well. One of the brightest minds of that day’s administration, he was a man who felt very much at ease in the villages.24 Anyone hearing him speak Kikongo would have sworn he was African. His feeling for the Congolese perspective was unparalleled. Old Nkasi remembered him as one of the few truly amiable whites. But when Ryckmans went to negotiate with the mutineers over the release of a number of white hostages, he was murdered before the eyes of an angry mob. The lynching of one of the most brilliant and empathic minds in the administration by a furious mob can only be seen as an indication of how badly the Belgian military intervention had ruined things.

“Monsieur André, oh yes, I knew him,” Camille Mananga said with a smile when I met him in Boma. “He was a real Congolese. He considered himself Congolese too. But they killed him, at the bridge over the Inkisi.” I asked what he remembered of the Belgian military operation. Without missing a beat, he replied: “I was in Boma. The Belgian soldiers from the Kitona base had come to disarm the army. The airfield was full of tanks. It was early in the morning, I was on my way to work. I was a government clerk back then, a minor civil servant. The town was full of soldiers. A Belgian stopped me. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked. ‘I work for the regional administration,’ I said. ‘Go back home,’ he said, ‘the Belgians have occupied the city.’ But I just kept walking, I was too curious to go home. It was the first time in my life that I had seen a tank. I went to take a look. The Belgians didn’t stay long, but it was an occupation, nothing more and nothing less.”25

Peace, in other words, did not return. All over the country, violence against Belgians increased. Civil servants and plantation owners were beaten with clubs, whips, and belts. Some were forced to drink urine or eat spoiled food. Catholic nuns had to undress in public and were tied up. Soldiers asked them why they weren’t members of Lumumba’s party, and whether they slept with the priests. Others suggested putting a hand grenade in a white woman’s vagina. Humiliation was an end in itself. In the period between July 5 and July 14, approximately one hundred European men were assaulted, an equal number of women were raped, and five whites were killed.26 Belgium had granted Congo independence in order to avoid a colonial war, but got one anyway. And it was its own stupid fault.


Signed: Joseph Kasavubu and Patrice Lumumba. With this telegram, the president and prime minister of Congo called in the support of the United Nations on July 12, one day after the Katangan secession. At that point the United Nations was a relatively young organization, with only four short-lived observer missions to its name during its fifteen-year existence. Its secretary general was Dag Hammarskjöld, the son of a former Swedish prime minister and a man imbued with a Protestant sense of duty. Kasavubu and Lumumba had all their hope fixed on the United Nations. Their country had been a member for less than a week.

That same evening Hammarskjöld called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. In the austere meeting room in New York, the delegates spent the whole night discussing the recent developments in Congo. The Soviet Union called for total compliance with Kasavubu and Lumumba’s request. The other members agreed to the need for intervention, but were hesitant to reprimand Belgium. The secretary general felt that an international task force should serve primarily to keep the peace and not so much to carry out the Congolese government’s orders. He also refrained from passing judgment on the Belgian invasion of Congo. Poland and Russia felt that the Belgians, as aggressors, should leave the country immediately. A little before 4 A.M. UN Resolution 143 was approved. The Security Council called on “the Government of Belgium to withdraw its troops from the territory of the Republic of Congo” and decided to send in peacekeeping forces.28 The operation, known under the name ONUC (Opération des Nations Unies au Congo) was at that point in history the biggest UN mission ever.

But the UN resolution did not please Lumumba. It contained no denunciation of Belgium and the text said nothing about the Katangan secession. He had expected a much more assertive stance from the Security Council. He had hoped that the UN “blue helmets” would take over the work of his hobbled army, that they would drive out the Belgian soldiers and bring about the reannexation of Katanga. The resolution did not provide for that. It was like calling for the police during a major riot and having the fire department show up. Useful, but not enough. That was why he, along with Kasavubu, asked for help from the country in the Security Council that had shown the most sympathy for his cause: the Soviet Union. On July 14 Congo severed all diplomatic ties with Belgium and contacted Moscow:


It would be hard to overstate the importance of this move. At a single swoop, this telegram opened a new front in the Cold War: Africa. Until then, the tension between East and West had been played out largely in Eastern Europe and Asia (Korea and Vietnam). Now, suddenly, Africa was the focal point of attention. The telegram had barely been sent to Russia before it was leaked to the CIA. Its contents caused great nervousness in Washington: was Congo actually asking the archenemy for assistance?

In 1960 seventeen African countries had gained independence. The result was a new scramble for Africa. Unlike in the nineteenth century, this was not about Western European powers in search of overseas colonies, but about the victors of World War II trying to expand their spheres of influence around the globe. Economic interests still played a major role, but ideological, geopolitical, and military factors were much more decisive. Congo was the first African country to become involved in the tug of war between the two new superpowers. Not only was it a huge and strategically located country from which all of Central Africa could be controlled, but it also had crucial stores of raw materials for the production of weapons. The Americans knew all too well that it had won World War II with the help of uranium from Congo, and that cobalt, an ore used in making missiles and other weapons, was found in only two spots in the world: Congo and Russia itself.30 To leave Congo to the Russians would seriously compromise America militarily.

Did Kasavubu and Lumumba realize the impact their telegram had? Most probably not. Inexperienced as they were, they were simply trying to obtain foreign assistance in solving a conflict concerning national decolonization; in doing so, however, they had opened the Pandora’s box of global conflict. A great deal of ink has been spent on Lumumba’s supposed communist sympathies. The contacts with Russia in that regard are often seen as proof of his Bolshevist disposition. But that is not correct. Economically, Lumumba leaned more toward classical liberalism than communism. He held no truck with the collectivization of agriculture or industry; he counted more on private investments from abroad. What’s more, Lumumba was a nationalist and not an internationalist, as would have behooved a good communist. Despite all the Pan-Africanism, his frame of reference was Congolese through and through. The notion of proletarian revolution was foreign to him as well. As an évolué he was part of the newborn Congolese bourgeoisie; he had no desire to overthrow his own social group. What’s more, he had also turned to America to help solve his country’s problems. And it is often forgotten that he wrote his request to Nikita Khrushchev along with Kasavubu, who was anything but a communist. Even Khrushchev realized that: “I could say that Mr. Lumumba is as much a communist as I am a Catholic. But if Lumumba’s words and actions overlap with communist ideas, I can only be pleased.”31

Nor was the request to Moscow prompted by Lumumba’s fickle nature, his suspicious turn of mind, his unreasonable behavior or any other personality trait that people thought they detected in him. Lumumba did indeed have a reputation for being irritable and capricious, but reading the telegrams to the United Nations and Russia today, one feels a very different psychological register: panic. Panic accompanied by total outrage, a great fear of losing control and the fear of being murdered. We should not forget that Kasavubu and Lumumba had occupied no major political positions before being placed at the helm of their country. Kasavubu had been mayor of a borough in Léopoldville; Lumumba’s very first political appointment was that of prime minister. After two weeks of independence, they lost their grip on events. It was as though they had just received their driver’s licenses and suddenly found themselves in the cockpit of a jet fighter that was about to crash. Confronted with Belgium’s unsolicited military intervention, they did what they thought best at that fearful moment: quickly called for assistance from whoever was ready to help. And Russia was more than ready. One day later, in an extremely enthusiastic letter, Khrushchev let them know that, should the “imperialist aggression” of Belgium and its allies continue, the Soviet Union would “not hesitate to take resolute measures to end that aggression.” His country, after all, could only sympathize with “the heroic struggle of the Congolese people for the independence and integrity of the republic of Congo.” To which he added: “The Soviet Union’s demand is clear: hands off of the republic of Congo!” Saying that, he conveniently forgot how the Russian army had ground Hungary beneath its heel four years earlier.32

Hammarskjöld understood the threat of a global conflict and succeeded in getting peacekeeping forces to Congo within the next forty-eight hours: on July 15 the first Moroccan and Ghanian contingents arrived, followed by other African troops from Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Mali. Meanwhile, Russia sent ten Ilyushin transport planes to Congo with trucks, food, and weapons. America considered bringing NATO forces into play, but that could have unleashed a second Korean conflict or even a new world war. Washington therefore chose to exercise influence through two more discreet channels: the United Nations and the CIA: the path of diplomatic lobbying in New York and that of clandestine influence in Léopoldville. Larry Devlin, head of the American intelligence service in Congo, had access to huge funds for the purpose of nudging Congolese politicians in a direction favorable to America. Kasavubu and above all Mobutu were to become his minions.33

Through my talks with Jamais Kolonga, I gained a picture of those tumultuous days. One of his anecdotes was very telling. In late July, Lumumba decided to go to America to negotiate with the United States and the United Nations. The usual protocol, under which such an official state visit is carefully arranged by top officials on one side and diplomats on the other, was thrown to the wind. A member of Lumumba’s staff went to the American embassy in Léopoldville and demanded on the spot that twenty-four visas be issued for the prime minister and his retinue. More than one eyebrow was raised at that. There was no program, no protocol, no appointments had been made.34 “I went to Ndijli airport to wave goodbye,” Kolonga said. Since June 30 he had been working for the prime minister’s press department. The people he met there included Mobutu, Lumumba’s secretary.

A brass band played, the door of the plane closed, the stairs were rolled away. But inside the plane, Lumumba realized that he lacked a press attaché. The door opened again and Lumumba pointed to our little group. Who was he pointing at? At me? At the person beside me? None of us could figure it out. “C’est vous!” he shouted, pointing at me. I walked over to the plane. I had to go along. All I had with me was a Parker pen and a notebook. No clothes, except for the green suit I was wearing! No passport, no visa, I went on board without any baggage. But when it was over I came back with two full suitcases and a shoulder bag. And in the meantime I had seen Dag Hammarskjöld at work at the United Nations.35

This nonchalance was characteristic of the spirit of improvisation that reigned within the young Congolese government. It was one of the reasons why Lumumba did not make a good impression during his visit. With no appointment having been made, President Eisenhower refused to receive him. At the United Nations, officials were annoyed by the way Lumumba “made impossible demands and demanded immediate results.”36 C. Douglas Dillon, U.S. deputy secretary of state at the time, complained about his “irrational, almost ‘psychotic’ personality”: “He never looked you straight in the eye, he looked up at the sky. And then came this huge flood of words . . . . His words were never related to what we were trying to talk about. You got the feeling that he, as a person, was possessed by a fervor I can only describe as messianic. He simply wasn’t rational . . . . The impression he made was extremely negative, this was someone you couldn’t work with at all.” His asking a top State Department official to arrange a blonde call girl for him did not make a good impression either.37

AFTER ONE MONTH this was the situation in Congo: the army had been tossed topsy-turvy, the administration decapitated, the economy was on the blink, Katanga had torn itself away, Belgium had swept down on the country, and world peace was being threatened. And all this because, at the outset, a few soldiers in the capital had demanded better pay and a higher rank.

Meanwhile, Lumumba had burned many of his bridges. After his speech against Baudouin and his dismissal of General Janssens, Belgium had had it with him. After the telegram to Khrushchev and his trip to America, the United States was finished with him. The United Nations’ patience was running out as well, while in his own country his high-handed dealings had estranged him from Kasavubu. Western diplomats, advisers, and intelligence personnel drove a wedge between them. Each and every one of them chose Kasavubu’s side and recommended that he drop Lumumba. In August 1960 Lumumba was a lonely man, supported only by the Soviets.

What’s more, his wrath had only grown. On two occasions the UN Security Council had called upon Belgium to withdraw from Congo (on July 22 that was to happen “quickly,” on August 8 even “immediately”), but Belgium refused to budge as long as the blue helmets could not guarantee its subjects’ safety.38 It was not until late August, none too early, that all ten thousand Belgian soldiers had left Congo. In Lumumba’s eyes the United Nations was toothless, at best. Perhaps even pro-Western.

On August 8, to top it all off, the southern part of Kasai province declared independence as well. After Katanga, the diamond province was Congo’s most important mining area. Albert Kalonji had himself crowned king. A former supporter of Lumumba, with whom he’d had a falling-out before the elections, he had missed out on a ministerial post in the new national government. His secession, however, was ethnically motivated as well. Kalonji stood up for the Baluba, the inhabitants of Kasai who had gone to work in the mines of Katanga in great numbers and were hated there as immigrants and fortune hunters. In Kasai itself, the Baluba faced off against the Lulua; violent clashes had become commonplace. By proclaiming a new nation, Kalonji hoped to create a homeland for the Baluba. Tshombe supported the initiative and he and Kalonji even decided to establish a confederation.

Together with Katanga, newly seceded South Kasai accounted for one-quarter of Congo’s territory, and the wealthiest quarter at that. For a unitarian like Lumumba, that was unacceptable. What’s more, Jean Bolikango was also thinking about withdrawing Équateur from the republic. That was no coincidence: Tshombe, Kalonji, and Bolikango considered themselves the ones duped most badly during the government’s formation, because they had not received a ministerial post. Lumumba wanted to act but could not count on the UN emergency forces, seeing as they had done nothing to stop Katangan independence. As defense minister, therefore, he sent the renovated Congolese army to the rebellious diamond province. But the government army was broke and led by officers who had been promoted two months earlier without any preparation.

The results were horrific. Kasai in late August of that year was the scene of senseless confrontations that led not to victories, but to massacres that claimed thousands of civilian lives. During an attack on a Catholic mission where noncombatant Baluba had gone for refuge, more than fifty people were slaughtered, including women and children. In addition to the machine gun, the government soldiers also wielded the machete. UN Secretary General Hammarskjöld expressed his abhorrence and suggested that the Baluba were the victims of genocide. He called it “one of the most flagrant violations of rudimentary human rights, [which has] the earmarks of a crime of genocide.”39 Lumumba had now completely blown his chances with the United Nations as well.

ALL THIS TIME, Kasavubu had remained pretty much in the background. But on September 5, 1960, he seized the opportunity to do what many Western advisers had been prompting him to do: he removed Lumumba from office. Article 22 of the Loi fundamentale, the new country’s provisional constitution, gave him the power to do that: “The head of state appoints and dismisses the prime minister and the cabinet ministers.”40

For those listening to the national radio station, it must have been one of the strangest evenings in the history of the government broadcasting service. Just after eight o’clock that evening, the normal programming—a radio course in English—was interrupted and they heard the high voice of President Kasavubu saying that he had just removed the prime minister from office. All around the cité, in the working-class neighborhoods and in inland villages, the Congolese people were hearing that Lumumba was no longer their prime minister, that he had been replaced temporarily by Joseph Ileo, a political moderate who had written the 1956 manifesto in Conscience Africaine. Then, to their amazement, less than an hour later, the listeners heard Prime Minister Lumumba announce in his staccato French that he, in turn, had just dismissed President Kasavubu! So much confusion—the rules of English grammar were nothing in comparison! As if Congo didn’t have enough on its hands already with a military, administrative, economic, ethnic, and global crisis, it now received a constitutional crisis to boot.

Lumumba appealed to Article 51 of the provisional constitution, which stated that “only the Parliament and the Senate can provide authentic clarification of these laws.”41 It was a wise gamble, for on September 13 the parliament confirmed its faith in Lumumba and refused to recognize Ileo as the new prime minister. President Kasavubu was put to shame so badly that the next day he sent the parliament into recess for a month.

The imbroglio was now complete. Congo was being ruled not by government, but by arguments. National interest was made subordinate to power struggles. And in the midst of this chaos, Colonel Mobutu, the army’s chief of staff, stepped forward to put an end to the squabbling. That very same day, September 14, 1960, he carried out his first coup d’état, with the approval and support of the CIA. He told the press that the army would be taking over the reins until the end of the year. Lumumba and Kasavubu were “neutralized.” But whereas Kasavubu was ultimately allowed to stay on as a sort of figurehead president, Lumumba was placed under house arrest in his capital city residence. The friendship between Mobutu and Lumumba was over for good.

Mobutu placed national policy making in the hands of a team of young university students and graduates, a move intended to counter the lack of expertise in Lumumba’s government team. Mario Cardoso, who had attended the economic round-table meeting and was popular among the Congolese students in Belgium, told me the following: “Colonel Mobutu asked the students and academics to come back from abroad and apply their knowledge in the service of the country. We would not be given the title of minister, but of commissioner general. We were to become apolitical administrators, we would not represent any party, tribe, region, or village. We had a diploma, and that was enough.” Within that council of commissioners general, Cardoso was charged with education. Justin Bomboko, charged with foreign affairs, was the chairman and served as de facto prime minister. This situation was to last only a few months. “We were a transitional government. Mobutu only wanted to restore order, because the fighting between Kasavubu and Lumumba just wouldn’t stop.”42

This government of academics did not please everyone, not by a long shot. Lumumba repeated his claim to be the only democratically elected prime minister of Congo. The Belgian government, on the other hand, was only too glad to see him removed and maintained warm relations with the young commissioners. Many of them had studied in Brussels or Liège. Any return to the political arena by Lumumba was to be blocked at all costs, even physically if need be. Two Belgian military men, operating under the protection of Minister of African Affairs Harold d’Aspremont Lynden, made preparations to kidnap or murder Lumumba.43 In addition, U.S. president Eisenhower personally ordered the CIA to liquidate Lumumba. In true James Bond style, the Congolese prime minister was to be poisoned with a tube of hypertoxic toothpaste.44 There were also many people in Congo who would have been pleased to see him go.

Aware that attempts might be made on his life, Lumumba asked the UN for protection. He received a contingent of Ghanian blue helmets, who camped in his garden to keep any attackers at bay. That proved necessary; on October 10, Mobutu sent two hundred soldiers to Lumumba’s residence to take him into custody. The United Nations stopped them. The resulting standoff lasted for weeks. Lumumba’s house was under a twofold siege: by a ring of blue helmets, to protect him as long as he stayed inside, and by Congolese ready to arrest him as soon as he came out. His telephone was cut as well. Lumumba was silenced. Deputy prime minister Antoine Gizenga therefore took on the role of representative of the Lumumba government. Gizenga came from Kwilu, and even today he is adored by older people, including Longin Ngwadi, the swordsman from Kikwit. As Mobutu’s coup gathered momentum, however, Gizenga realized that there was no place in Léopoldville for him and other Lumumba supporters. In early November, therefore, he left with the remnants of the first government for Stanleyville, the cradle of Lumumba’s movement, to govern and retake the country from there.

THE SITUATION WAS GROWING MORE COMPLICATED all the time. Congo was now four months old and already had four contiguous governments, each with its own army and foreign allies. In Léopoldville Kasavubu and above all Mobutu enjoyed unconditional American support. Thanks to the massive funding supplied by the United States, Mobutu was able to reorganize the national army. Around him there rose up the “Binza group,” named after the residential neighborhood in the capital where they met. It was an informal group with a great deal of power, generously supported by the CIA. In Stanleyville Gizenga was keeping alive the Lumumbist body of ideals. He was backed by a portion of the armed forces and his government received support from the Soviet Union, although that was never as systematic and substantial as the American support for the capital.45 In Elisabethville Tshombe stood at the helm of a self-proclaimed, independent country. Belgium was very generous with its logistical and military support. The Katangan military police included a great many Belgian officers. Union Minière financed the secession on a large scale. In Bakwanga, Kalonji led Kasai, an independent Baluba state where Belgian diamond delvers were active. The necessary means were provided by Forminière.

Tshombe and Kalonji were only regional leaders, but Kasavubu and Gizenga both claimed the legitimacy of a national government. Who would be proved right? Both went in search of international recognition, and their battle was fought out before the UN General Assembly in New York. Congo showed up there, divided into two camps: Kasavubu/Mobutu versus Lumumba/Gizenga. Thomas Kanza, the twenty-six-year-old psychologist, represented the Lumumba government at the United Nations, but President Kasavubu traveled to New York himself to convince the world that he, and only he, embodied the legal authority of the republic. He argued that his dismissal of Lumumba was allowed under the constitution, a claim with which the Americans, Belgians, and many UN officials had little problem. On November 22 the verdict came in: fifty-three countries recognized Kasavubu, twenty-four voted against him, nineteen abstained.46 Cardoso, who worked for Mobutu at the time, remembers it as a triumph: “That’s when we won the seat in the U.N. Kasavubu was the head of our delegation, and Lumumba lost internationally.”47 With that international marginalization, Lumumba’s swansong began.

He was still locked up in his home in the capital. When news of the vote in New York reached him, he realized that his days in Léopoldville were numbered. Would the blue helmets in his garden still protect him, now that the United Nations had voted against him? He was bound and determined to join up with his political friends in Stanleyville. It was nighttime, it was November, the rainy season was in full swing. On November 27 an unusually heavy tropical storm forced his Congolese besiegers to seek shelter. Their attention lagged. Lumumba crawled into the back of a Chevrolet and was driven out of the house in the pelting rain.

The Congolese roads at that point were still in excellent condition. Had his chauffeur driven on steadily for two days, they could have reached Stanleyville. But on the night of his escape, Lumumba hung back in the capital to speak to the people. Along the way as well he stopped in the villages and enjoyed the locals’ warm welcome.48 But it was the rainy season. In the capital, Mobutu found out about Lumumba’s escape and vowed to keep him, at any price, from reaching Gizenga. A successful reunion there could only mean a political rebound, and Mobutu’s Belgian advisers and the CIA wouldn’t like that. The United Nations refused to help search for the fugitive, but a European airline supplied Mobutu with a plane and a pilot accustomed to carrying out low-altitude reconnaissance. It did not take them long to find the convoy, which now consisted of three cars and a truck. On December 1 Mobutu’s troops arrested Lumumba and his retinue as they tried to cross the Sankuru River close to Mweka. Lumumba was flown to Camp Hardy at Thysville, the base where the army mutiny had begun a few months before. From that moment on Lumumba could no longer count on UN protection, but was a prisoner of the Léopoldville regime. When he arrived, without glasses and his hands tied, someone stuffed a piece of paper in his mouth: the text of his famous speech.

What were Kasavubu and Mobutu going to do with him? Hold him in custody forever, like a sort of Simon Kimbangu of the First Republic? Wouldn’t it be better then to have him taken to Katanga. Or Kasai? Hostile provinces, to be sure, but that was exactly why it might be a good idea. He would have no supporters there. Where he was now, the trouble was starting all over again. On January 12 the soldiers at Thysville started another mutiny. The situation grew restless. The Belgian government, in the person of Minister of African Affairs d’Aspremont, endorsed the plan to take Lumumba to Katanga, come what may, as long as it was far from the capital and somewhere no mutineers could come to his rescue. D’Aspremont’s support for the plan also meant a strengthening of the ties with Kasavubu, and Belgium was interested in reestablishing diplomatic relations with Léopoldville. The former colonizer wished to avoid the impression that it sympathized only with Katanga. Reluctantly, Tshombe accepted the arrival of Lumumba and two other political prisoners. At the last minute, d’Aspremont had applied his influence to that end.

At 4:50 P.M. on January 17, 1962, the DC-4 carrying Lumumba and his two confidants, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, landed at Elisabethville. During the flight the men were beaten. A force of about one hundred armed troops was waiting for them; the soldiers were led by the Belgian captain Gat. A convoy took them immediately to Villa Brouwez, an isolated, vacant mansion belonging to a Belgian, close to the airport. The security inside and outside the villa was in the hands of the military police, led by two Belgian officers. There they received a visit from at least three Katangan cabinet ministers—Godefroid Munongo, Jean-Baptiste Kibwe, and Gabriel Kitenge, charged with internal affairs, finance, and public works respectively—who beat them as well. Tshombe was not with them. At that moment he was sitting in a movie theater, watching a film with the, in this context, preposterously cynical title Liberté (Freedom), from the Moral Re-Armament movement. When the movie was finished, he met with his ministers. There were no Europeans present. The meeting lasted from 6:30 to 8:00 P.M., but all practical measures for the rest of the evening seem to have been taken beforehand. The decision to send Lumumba to Katanga was taken jointly by the authorities in Léopoldville, their Belgian advisers, and the authorities in Brussels; the decision to murder Lumumba, however, was made by the Katangan authorities themselves. Munongo, the grandson of Msiri, the nineteenth-cenutry Afro-Arab slave trader who had taken the Lunda empire by force, played a particularly decisive role.

After the meeting, a ministerial delegation once again left for Villa Brouwez. There the prisoners were loaded into the back of a car. Along with a few other vehicles and two military jeeps, they drove off. Darkness had fallen by then. The convoy drove to the northwest, over the level road through the savanna toward Jadotville. In the glow of the headlights, to the left and right: bushes, the silhouette of a termite mound. After about forty-five minutes the vehicles left the main road. A few moments later they stopped at a secluded spot. The prisoners had to get out. In the wooded savanna beside the dirt road they saw a shallow well that had been dug only hours before. There were a few uniformed black policemen and guardsmen, but also a few men in suits: President Tshombe, the ministers Munongo and Kibwe, and a few of their colleagues. Four Belgians also took part in the execution: Frans Verscheure, police commissioner and adviser to the Katangan police force; Julien Gat, captain in the Katangan national guard; François Son, his subordinate police sergeant; and Lieutenant Gabriël Michels. One by one, the prisoners were led to the edge of the hole. They had been in Katanga for no more than five hours. They were beaten and mishandled. Only four meters away from them stood the firing squad: four Katangan volunteers with machine guns. Three times, a deafening salvo sounded through the night. Lumumba was the last to be dealt with. At 9:43 P.M., the body of Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister tumbled back into the well.49

LUMUMBA’S MURDER WAS KEPT QUIET for a time. Shortly afterward, to wipe out all traces, Gerard Soete, the Belgian deputy inspector general of the Katangan police, dug up the three bodies. Rumor has it that a hand, possibly Lumumba’s, was still sticking out of the ground.50 Soete sawed the bodies into pieces and dissolved them in a tub of sulfuric acid. He pulled two gold-lined teeth from Lumumba’s upper jaw. He cut three fingers off his hand.51 For years, at his house in Brugge, he kept a little box that he sometimes showed to visitors. It contained the teeth and a bullet.52 Many years later, he threw them into the North Sea.

The world received the news of Lumumba’s murder with total dismay. From Oslo to Tel Aviv, from Vienna to New Delhi, people marched in the streets. Belgian embassies in Belgrade, Warsaw, and Cairo were attacked. While a university in Moscow was named after him, in the West the “Lumumba”—a popular cocktail made with brandy and chocolate milk—became popular. Gizenga’s Lumumbist government was promptly recognized by the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Yugoslavia, China, Ghana, and Guinea-Conakry. In no time, the murdered prime minister was elevated to a martyr of decolonization, a hero to all the earth’s repressed, a saint of godless communism. He owed that status more to the grisly circumstances of his death than to any political successes. He had been in power for less than two and half months, from June 30 to September 14, 1960. His track record read like a pile-up of blunders and misjudgments. His abrupt Africanization of the armed forces was sympathetic but disastrous; his appeals for military assistance to the United States and the Soviet Union were understandable but frighteningly frivolous, his military offensive in Kasai took the lives of thousands of his countrymen. During his lifetime, Fulbert Youlou and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first presidents of Congo-Brazzaville and Senegal respectively, already considered his actions quite doubtful.53 On the other hand, here was a man who was barely prepared for his task, who was forced to deal with a rash domestic exodus and a Belgian military invasion, and who watched as the United Nations hesitated about forcefully condemning the Belgian aggression. But with his unfortunate way of responding to true injustices, Lumumba systematically cultivated more enemies than friends. The tragedy of his short-lived political career was that his greatest trump card from before independence—his incredible talent for rousing the masses—became his greatest disadvantage when, once in power, more cool-headed behavior was expected from him. The magnet that had first attracted now repelled.

A number of players share responsibility for Lumumba’s demise. Less than two weeks after independence, Brussels had already indicated that it wanted a different prime minister. After only one month, the United Nations and the United States were eager to get rid of him too. At first the intended ousting was purely a political one, but American and Belgian authorities gradually began thinking about eliminating him physically as well. In fall 1960 the CIA was behind Mobutu’s coup and was charged by sources in the White House with liquidating Lumumba. The Belgian minister of African affairs also provided cover for covert actions aimed at taking him out. All these attempts failed. But when Lumumba was transferred in January 1961 from Thysville to Katanga, it was not merely at the initiative of authorities in Léopoldville and Elisabethville: the logistical and operational planning was carried out by Belgian advisers in Léopoldville (who, among other things, drafted the blueprint of the transfer during a meeting at the offices of Sabena) and received active support from certain government offices in Brussels, particularly the Ministry of African Affairs. That ministry was not unaware of the potentially fatal consequences for Lumumba, yet took no precautions. The same goes for the CIA: when he heard about it, the chief of station in Léopoldville entered no protest against Lumumba’s transfer to Katanga, even though he knew it could have drastic consequences. The actual execution was the work of the Katangan authorities. The role played by their Belgian advisers remains shadowy: we know at least that on the evening of January 17 they were informed that Lumumba had landed at Elisabethville. In any case, they made few attempts to prevent the murders, even though they knew that their influence could have made a difference. A few Belgian military men, who were in charge of the Katangan guardsmen, took part in the killing itself.

The first act in the play of an independent Congo was over. It was characterized by an absolute centripetal force, a nonstop flow of events and complications. And it ended with a few teeth from an inspired African swirling in slow motion to the sandy bottom of a gray, European sea.

IN APRIL 2008 in a beautiful garden in Lubumbashi, I met Mrs. Anne Mutosh Amuteb. At ninety-one she was the oldest Congolese woman I had the honor to interview during my study. She was still an impressive sight. Anne Mutosh was a princess; her grandfather had been the Mwata Yamvo, the traditional king of the Lunda empire. That made her a member of Moïse Tshombe’s clan; in the African sense of the word, she was his “aunt.” To talk with her was to talk with the history of Katanga. She told me that her parents had already learned to read around the year 1900, taught by American Methodists. She herself had been a midwife, but her business talent proved greater than her obstetrical skills. I asked what she considered the best period in her life. She didn’t even have to think about it. “L’époque Belge and the Katangan secession,” she said in her deep voice. “During the Belgian period, everything was well-organized. There was no corruption, commerce went the way it should. I imported textiles from the Netherlands, but also flour and grain. I once placed an order for fifty sacks. That was easy to do back then. During the secession, imports were no problem either. Only when Mobutu came along did things become so difficult.”54

Considering her pedigree, it was little wonder that she favored Katangan independence. The Lunda mourned the loss of their empire and had for a long time dreamed of regional autonomy. In that, they were supported by those Europeans who remained behind. Many former colonials were for the secession. That rhymed with the tendency seen throughout southern Africa to perpetuate white rule. There were great differences between the apartheid in South Africa, Rhodesia, Southwest Africa (later Namibia), and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, but while the rest of the continent was becoming independent, white, right-wing regimes in the south were tightening their grip on power. Katanga fit that context.55

The Katangan secession constituted the second act of the First Republic. It was proclaimed on July 11, 1960, and came to an end on January 14, 1963. After the murder of Lumumba, on January 17, 1961, it assumed an entirely different complexion. After Tshombe had stood at the edge of that man’s grave, he became the dominant player. Of the four pretenders to the throne of independence, only three were left. Kasavubu and Mobutu had as much blood on their hands as Tshombe, but Lumumba’s death did not drive them closer together. From now on, the power struggle would take place between the three of them.

It is rather amazing that Tshombe became such a central player. After Lumumba’s murder, after all, his Katangan state was the pariah dog of the international community. The Communist bloc expressed its abhorrence; the United Nations decided to act more forcefully. Not a single state ever recognized Katanga, not even Belgium or America. Tshombe’s ability to stay on top for so long, however, had everything to do with the Belgians. Union Minière funded the new state by no longer paying taxes to Léopoldville, but to the local regime. Belgians manned the military, administrative, and economic infrastructure. Behind each Katangan minister stood a Belgian adviser. Professors from Liège and Ghent wrote the Katangan constitution. Key institutions like the Katangan national guard, the state intelligence service, and the central bank were led by Belgians.56In the lobbies of the Elisabethville hotels one frequently saw white men with a Katangan flag pin attached to their lapels.57

In addition, Tshombe remained in place with the help of a small army of white mercenaries. These “volunteers”—there were never more than five hundred of them—came from South Africa, Rhodesia, and England, but also included Frenchmen who had fought in Indochina and Algeria, veterans of the Foreign Legion. Ragtag types, roughnecks, rabid right-wingers, machos, Rambos, tough guys who drank till they couldn’t remember their own names, let alone the name of the whore they’d ended up in bed with. They came for the money, for the adventure, and for vague ideals of white supremacy. Belgian officers took active part in their recruitment, training, and deployment.58 They formed the creepiest contingent of the Katangan armed forces.

Their adversaries were the UN blue helmets, the Congolese national army, and the Baluba from the north of the province. That sounds more impressive than it was. The United Nations was hesitant about acting on its more forceful mandate. The ANC was still a shambles. And the Baluba waged war with poisoned arrows and machetes.

EXACTLY ONE YEAR after Lumumba was murdered, a twenty-two-year-old Fleming arrived in Elisabethville for the first time. He had never been outside Europe before. He came from a farming village in West Flanders and had just graduated from the polytechnic in Ghent with a degree in technical engineering; his specialism was low-voltage electrical engineering. He had been recruited by the Nouvelle Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga, the BCK. Working on the railroad was not really his boyhood dream. He had applied for jobs with Sabena airlines and with Union Minière, the showpieces of the Belgian economy. He wanted to become a pilot, but years of diligent study had ruined his eyesight. His name: Dirk Van Reybrouck. Ten years later he would become my father.

The country in which he arrived was called Katanga, not Congo. To him, the rest of Congo was a foreign country. All he had seen of Léopoldville was the Sabena guesthouse, where he had spent the night during a layover. The Katanga where he landed had its own flag, its own currency, its own postage stamps. His registration card made that clear as a bell. It is here before me as I write. The bilious green card was still printed in two languages, French and Dutch. “Congo Belge/Belgisch Congo” is written at the top. Someone had scratched that out with a ballpoint and struck it with a big rubber stamp: État du Katanga.

My father was based in Jadotville, present-day Likasi. He was responsible for the electric locomotives, overhead wiring, and substations along a six-hundred-kilometer (roughly 375-mile) stretch of rails leading to the Angolan border. For independent Katanga, that east-west stretch of tracks was a lifeline.59 Ores and raw materials could no longer be taken north and shipped by way of Léopoldville and Matadi, for that was enemy territory. Everything, therefore, went by rail to the Angolan coast. That Benguela railroad, a single track still served in Angola by steam locomotives, was crucial for Katanga’s imports and exports. My father was often “out on the line,” as they called it. Aboard a draisine, a diesel-driven railroad car that served as his mobile workshop, he would go into the interior for two or three weeks at a time, checking transformers and replacing switches. BCK was a hierarchical company, but during those years the old guard placed a great deal of responsibility in the hands of young employees. “They had already sent their families back to Belgium,” Walter Lumbeeck, one of my father’s former colleagues, told me. “They just wanted to sit out their term and let others do the work. Your father was timid. His job was demanding for someone so young, and at first his French wasn’t too great. But after a while he was able to communicate well with the blacks.”60 He also took Swahili lessons. Years later, at home, our dog was called Mbwa (Swahili for dog), and sugar and tobacco were still sukari and tumbaku.

The warring parties were well aware of the strategic importance of the Benguela line. While still alive, my father—a poor storyteller, unfortunately—would recall how he had been awakened in the middle of many a night “because a bridge had been blown up somewhere.” Then he would head out with his drezzine, at daybreak, in the fragile morning light, while the world slowly took on color. A few of his African employees would pilot the wagon over the rails so that he could try to sleep a little longer. At the sabotaged bridge, they had to repair the overhead lines and rebuild the rails.

“In Katanga we still ruled the roost,” Lumbeeck said, “that was the dominant way of thinking. We’ve kept things together here, let the rest go to hell, as long as things go well here, people figured. Copper was commanding a good price. Union Minière was still rolling.” Congo may have been independent, but in Katanga, colonialism was in fact still in force. The Belgian employees had whisky and fruit from South Africa; fresh mussels were even flown in from Belgium. Young Belgians led a sunny existence, far from their parents, village, and church. Those were the days of barbecues and parties, when absolutely everyone smoked: stylish young women with beehive hairdos, men in white shirts and narrow ties. Those were the days of Adamo, Juliette Gréco, and Françoise Hardy. On Sundays people went to the cercle, a country club for sports and recreation. People lay there at pool’s edge, drinking white Martini and Rossi vermouth, while the plop and thud of tennis balls came from a little farther away.

In July 2007 I walked the grounds of the Cercle de Panda, the club to which my father had belonged. The swimming pool was empty, the playground equipment rusty. The diving boards were em-dashes with no text between.

“Your father had a Ford Consul convertible,” said Frans and Marja Vleeschouwers, a couple he had befriended at the cercle. “That car burned more oil than it did gasoline. Dirk always had to carry liters of motor oil around with him.”61 They took trips together to the waterfalls on the Mwadingusha. They visited the mission post at Kapolwe and drank beer brewed by the Flemish priests. Or they went fishing in the brousse, at spots where the old natives still paid with currency from the days of the Belgian Congo. Ties of friendship were more important than family. When Frans and Marja had a baby daughter, they asked my father to be her godfather—in Flanders, an honorary job reserved strictly for family.

But it was a closed world. “Everyone was allowed to join the cercle,” Frans and Marja recalled, “but the membership fee was so high that no black person could afford it. The whites couldn’t either, actually, but Union Minière automatically transferred the sum back to our accounts in Belgium. Unbelievable, isn’t it?” There were also other things that made one think. “We let our daughter play with black children. ‘Aren’t you worried about her coming down with something?’ some people asked then. It wasn’t really apartheid, but at the butcher shop the blacks were still served by blacks and the whites by whites.”

Walter and Alice Lumbeeck, his other friends, were in complete agreement about that. In the pictures made at their parties, you never saw an African.

Contact with black people was avoided back then. If you took a black person along to a party, you lost your friends. A white man with a black woman, people really looked down on that. That was something for the older generation. At BCK or Union Minière you still had a few older white men with a black wife, but not in our circles. That was beneath one’s station, that wasn’t chic. It would be comparable to a managing director visiting prostitutes these days. White men tended more to have affairs with their colleagues’ wives. Your father was single then, he enjoyed being in the company of people who spoke Dutch. If he had brought a black person to a party, he wouldn’t have been invited anymore.

Em-dashes without a text.

KATANGA WAS AN ANACHRONISM. After Lumumba’s death, the United Nations decided to deal firmly with Tshombe and his neocolonial secession. During the first half of 1961, this took place through diplomatic channels. Conferences were held in Tananarive (Madagascar), Coquilhatville and Léopoldville. The United Nations was pressing for a federal or confederal Congo, a reunited country with major powers for the provinces. Belgium, too, favored that option, but the Belgian advisers to the Katangan ministers systematically boycotted the search for a compromise. This obstinacy led to great friction. In August 1961, things came to a head. The United Nations mediated in a final conference, held at Lovanium University in the capital. Congo was to have a new prime minister. Not Ileo, who was pushed forward by Kasavubu; not Mobutu, who was pushed forward by himself; not Bomboko, who had led the government of academics—but Cyrille Adoula, a moderate and competent trade unionist who was acceptable to all parties. What’s more, national reforms were in the offing: less centralism from the capital, more power for the provinces. A consensus seemed imminent, but at the last moment Tshombe withdrew from the discussions.

Then it would have to be by force, the United Nations decided. In August, September, and December 1961, the blue helmets launched heavy offensives to regain Katanga, to disband the local army and drive out the foreign mercenaries. They did not succeed. The mercenaries withdrew to Rhodesia and continued the fight from there. The UN campaign caused much suffering among the civilian population. Ambulances were fired upon, hospitals bombed, innocent civilians killed. More than thirty Europeans lost their lives. In addition, the UN offensive resulted in a dismal premiere: the first refugee camp in Congolese history. More than thirty thousand Baluba took to the road, out of fear for reprisals from Tshombe. They were not in favor of the secession and felt threatened. At the edge of Elisabethville they settled down in little huts of cardboard, leaves, and cloth.

Anne Mutosh, too, had bad memories of the UN offensive. “At the roadblocks, the Moroccan blue helmets raped a lot of women, even pregnant women. I was chairperson of the Union des Femmes Katangaises at the time, and I sent letters to Dag Hammarskjöld and President Kennedy. I actually met Hammarskjöld once.”

The UN secretary general himself was determined to put an end to the neocolonial state of Katanga. He engaged in intensive mediation between Léopoldville and Elisabethville. On September 18, 1961, he flew to Ndola airport in North Rhodesia for a meeting with Tshombe. But shortly before landing, the plane went down under circumstances that have never been cleared up. No one survived the crash. “Pray that your loneliness may prompt you to find something to live for, great enough to die for,” he had once written.62

The conflict seemed endless. Congo was like a broken vase that could not be glued back together. Still, around this same time (December 1961–January 1962), Mobutu’s government forces succeeded in putting an end to the secession of Kasai and overthrowing Gizenga’s government in the east of the country. With that, two of the four governments had been eliminated. Katanga would hold out for another year. The new secretary general of the United Nations, U Thant, spent all of 1962 trying to reach a solution through negotiations, but in late December of that year the United States decided that enough was enough. President John F. Kennedy provided considerable American support for a final UN offensive, known as Operation Grand Slam. Within two weeks, Katanga had been taken.

IT WAS JANUARY 3, 1963; my father was standing at the window on the second floor of his house in Jadotville. BCK had given him one of the apartments for single men. Not a villa with a garden, but a spacious flat with a downstairs garage and a modernistic stairway. It was just outside the city, beside the main road to Elisabethville. He knew that the UN blue helmets had already taken the capital. “Liberated” said some, “occupied” said others. The international force was now moving north toward Jadotville, the second largest town in Katanga province, following the same road along which Patrice Lumumba had made his final journey by car two years earlier. At the Lukutwe and Lufira rivers they had encountered resistance, but moved effortlessly into Jadotville around noon on January 3.

My father was looking out the window. He saw a white Volkswagen Bug coming up the road from the direction of town. Now that the troops had passed, apparently, the road to Elisabethville was open. Life was resuming its normal course. Suddenly, a volley of shots rang out. Across from his house, the Volkswagen careened to a stop. There were three people in it, a man behind the wheel and two female passengers. Three Belgians and a dog. My father had seen them before. The driver climbed out. Albert Verbrugghe worked in a cement factory. He raised his hands to show that he was unarmed. Blood was running from a cut under his eye. He screamed, wailed, staggered. The two women—his wife Madeleine and her friend Aline—did not get out. Across the fronts of their floral dresses, huge red spots were spreading. Only when their bodies had been pulled out of the car and laid in the grass beside the road, did Verbrugghe realize what had happened. The Indian blue helmets had apparently taken them for white mercenaries.63 The dog, too, was dead.

“That dog lay there for a whole week,” my father told me, sometime in the early eighties. I was sitting with him in the dentist’s waiting room. On the coffee table was a well-thumbed copy of Paris Match. The front page bore a black and white photograph of the scene with the Volkswagen. I was ten or eleven at the time and could see the mortal fear in the man’s eyes. My father looked at it for a few minutes, then said: “That photographer must have been more or less standing beside me. That happened right in front of my door.” Later I learned that the images had been shot by an American cameraman and sent around the world. Time magazine published them in January 1962; today they can be found on the Internet.64 My father had been an eyewitness to the most famous photograph of the Katangan secession.

On a Sunday in July 2007 I found myself standing where my father had stood then. I looked out his window at the spot where it happened. The road was dusty; there was a big sign advertizing CelTel. Someone was pushing a bicycle along, heavily laden with charcoal. My father’s apartment still existed. It was inhabited these days by a friendly young magistrate, his lovely wife, and two darling children. On Sundays the man was a preacher in the Armée de l’Eternel, one of Congo’s many Pentecostal denominations. The windowless garage where my father had parked his Ford Consul for five years was now an impromptu house of worship. I attended a service there. Some thirty believers were packed in close together on shaky wooden benches. Light came through the half-opened garage door. In the semidarkness I saw the glowing colors of the people at prayer. I thought about black and white photos. The years 1963 and 2007 faded into one. My father had died one year earlier, in 2006. The people sang beautifully.

WHILE THE DOG LAY THERE ROTTING, Katanga was retaken. Ten days later, on January 14, 1963, Tshombe announced that the secession was over. His Katangan gendarmes and white mercenaries fled across the border to Angola. Tshombe himself fled to Franco’s Spain. Among the Belgians, the mood was extremely anti-American: Kennedy was blamed for that final UN offensive. “It’s over and out,” my father’s colleague, Walter Lumbeeck thought at the time: “Everything became Congolese again. That came as a great disillusionment. A lot of people left.”65 The ANC moved in, young soldiers who spoke no Swahili, only Lingala, and who acted with the arrogance typical of victors. The administration was placed in the hands of people from Léopoldville. “During the secession, our boy’s pension plan was still in effect,” said Frans and Marja Vleeschouwers, “but under the new administration that all disappeared. People went back to cooking on makala, charcoal fires. You couldn’t get anything in the shops except for milk and meat.”66

For his cigarettes and shaving soap, my father had to turn to the Ethiopian blue helmets. The United Nations remained in Katanga for another eighteen months, to keep the peace. In the mid-1980s, when I first started shaving with a razor, my father produced a big, old-fashioned tube of Palmolive. He himself had switched to an electric razor long ago. As an electrical engineer, he couldn’t see the charm of brush and foam. “Don’t use it all up right away,” he said nonetheless, “I bought it more than twenty years ago from the UNOC soldiers.” I still have that tube. The soap is half a century old, but it hasn’t lost its foam.

The Katangan secession was over, but the white enclave lived on. They held “Bavarian Alps” festivals in Jadotville, where they walked around in lederhosen and waved steins of beer. In the middle of the savanna . . . Alice Lumbeeck recalled that, on November 22, 1963, there had been a celebration with dancing at the home of her Belgian neighbors. What was going on over there? They had once had a Katangan politician as neighbor. A frantic household. The crates of beer had been stacked to the ceiling. The Katangans had used the garden to barbecue rats. A white mercenary had also lived next door for a while, one of the “affreux,” the terrible ones. But now they heard the ruckus coming from their Belgian neighbors, normal citizens. “I asked them what the party was about. ‘Kennedy has been killed! Kennedy has been killed!’ they cheered.”67

THEN THERE WERE JUST THE TWO OF THEM, Kasavubu and Mobutu. At the start of the third and final act of the First Republic, it was Kasuvubu who had triumphed: Lumumba was dead, Tshombe was in exile, and Mobutu hadn’t exactly distinguished himself with the liberation of Katanga. That had been the work of the blue helmets. For the first time since independence, Kasavubu could rule over the entire territory of Congo. The country was reunited and he traveled around in it. The ties with Belgium had been restored and those with America had been strengthened. As a token of appreciation, Washington had sent a free package of enriched uranium to Léopoldville for research in the nuclear reactor at Lovanium.68 Kasavubu owed the stability of those years in equal part to his prime minister, Cyrille Adoula, who remained in office for three years. That was far and away the longest term of office during the First Republic, where a prime minister’s tenure tended to be expressed more in months than in years. Adoula was a hardworking, intelligent, but introverted bureaucrat who, due to his irresolute nature, never constituted a threat to Kasavubu.69

During this third act, Kasavubu was able to considerably fortify his position. Now that peace and quiet seemed to have returned, he became a zealous advocate of a new constitution to replace the provisional Loi fondamentale. In the course of 1964, a commission turned its attention to drafting the country’s future rules of play. The result was the Constitution of Luluabourg, a text submitted to a national referendum, and a two-base hit for the president. The new constitution transformed Congo into a decentralized state, something Kasavubu had dreamed of for the last decade. The provinces were given more power, but were also greatly reduced in size. In 1962 the six gigantic provinces of colonial times had already been split up into twenty-one provincettes, miniprovinces, which reflected more closely the ethnic reality and the historical territories.70 What’s more, the new constitution granted the head of state a lot more power. From then on he would reign supreme over the prime minister and his government. The parliament, too, was hobbled. If it voted in favor of a law that did not appeal to the president, he could send it back with a request for a recount; anyone, after all, can make a mistake. And to avoid the same mistake being made twice, a two-thirds majority was needed to overturn the presidential alternative. In cases of emergency, the president could even draft legislation himself. Dickering with a recalcitrant prime minister became a thing of the past. “Accordingly, he may at his own initiative terminate the carrying out of the duties of the prime minister or of one or more members of the central government, particularly in those cases where he finds himself in grave opposition to them,” Article 62 read.71 Kasavubu was sitting pretty: the country had been broken up into little blocks, Katanga had dissolved into three innocuous miniprovinces, and he held the reins more tightly than ever. Divide and conquer is what they called that. He was safely out of range. Or so he thought.

On November 19, 1963, two Russian diplomats were arrested as they returned from Brazzaville. They were found to be carrying extremely compromising documents. In the capital on the far shore they had met with Christophe Gbenye, former interior affairs minister under Lumumba. Brazzaville had become a haven for those who had been Lumumbists from the very start, close enough to Léopoldville, yet safely out of reach of Kasavubu. The documents spoke of the setting up of a revolutionary movement, the Comité National de Libération, led by Gbenye. Delegations had already visited Moscow and Peking. In the documents, the committee asked for Russia’s support in training young soldiers. It asked for radio units, small tape recorders, miniature cameras and photocopiers, “or other, similar material for espionage.” It sounded like Mission Impossible. The group also asked for “20 miniature pistols (with silencer) in the form of lighters or ballpoint pens” and several “carryalls with a double bottom.” Kasavubu’s peace of mind had been premature.72

The first eruption of defiance took place in Kwilu. The instigator was Pierre Mulele, former minister of education and the fine arts under Lumumba and one of Gizenga’s confederates. Mulele had nothing to do with the conspirators in Brazzaville, but he was on the same track. After the debacle with the first government he had fled abroad and ended up in China. There he grew acquainted with the ideology and practices of Mao’s peasant revolt and gained experience with guerrilla warfare techniques. With this training, he returned clandestinely to his native region. Gizenga was a Pende, the tribe that had fought against the colonial authorities in 1931; Mulele belonged to the neighboring Mbunda tribe. He tried to reignite the fires of rebellion among the local farmers. The enemy this time was not the white colonizer, but the first generation of Congolese politicians who had murdered Lumumba. After all, weren’t they more concerned with power than with the public interest? Wasn’t their lifestyle bloated and their grab for financial gain despicable? Weren’t they simply depraved, bourgeois pigs? Rather than serving the people, he claimed, they abused their power and stuck their fingers in the till. Their pro-Western attitude only aggravated their greed. The farmers listened to Mulele and nodded in assent. It was true, they really hadn’t noticed much of the benefits of independence. In fact, their lives had become harder. Wasn’t it about time for “a second independence,” they wondered. The expression was an authentically popular one; a new dipenda, but this time the right kind.

Mulele started in on his peasant revolt, the first major rural uprising in Africa since independence. He displayed remarkable idealism and great selflessness. He became a sort of Congolese Che Guevara, a leftist intellectual hooking up with the common people. In villages and huts, he instructed them in revolutionary ideology. Time and again he underscored the importance of self-discipline during the revolt. His precepts were based explicitly on the writings of Mao.73 Those who took part in the revolution were to show respect for everyone, including prisoners of war. Stealing was forbidden, as was prayer.74 That which was destroyed had to be reimbursed. “Respect the women and do not toy with them as you might be inclined.” No, the revolution needed daughters as well. In Mulele’s maquis, women received training too.

The weapons available to them, however, were very limited. Mulele did not want to be dependent on foreign powers; the revolt had to support itself. And so the peasants went to war with only obsolete firearms, knives, and poisoned arrows made from bicycle spokes. Schools were torched, mission posts destroyed, bridges sabotaged. The death toll was in the hundreds. Despite the precepts, massacres took place. But the revolution did not catch on. Mulele’s Chinese doctrine was not received enthusiastically everywhere. It was probably too secular. Why weren’t the combatants allowed to pray? The simple farmers from Kwilu did not know what opium was, and were not interested in stories about false consciousness. Their reflexes remained extremely religious and tribal. Mulele’s power base, therefore, never extended outside the tribal territories of the Pende and the Mbunda. The cities were beyond his grasp. The revolt lasted only from January to May 1964, but it was of great symbolic significance. For the first time since Tshombe, Kasavubu’s authority had been openly challenged and Lumumba’s ideology proved very much alive. If Lumumba was a martyr, then Mulele was his new prophet.

IN THOSE DAYS, along the broad streets of Stanleyville, amid the modernistic showpieces beneath a burning sun, one could sometimes see a very old woman. She was eighty, perhaps ninety. Mama Lungeni was the widow of Disasi Makulo, the man who Stanley had bought out of slavery. Her illustrious husband had died in 1941, but she lived on for more than twenty years without him. In 1962 she went to Stanleyville for her granddaughter’s wedding, but poor health kept her from returning to her native village in the rain forest.75

As a young girl she had been the victim of tribal violence, and now, old and stiff, she could only watch as the war returned. She did not know, of course, that the revolutionary comrades-in-arms in Brazzaville had decided to go into action, but she would notice that soon enough. Gbenye’s Comité National de Libération was planning to invade the eastern part of the country. In Burundi, which along with Rwanda had been independent since 1962, the rebels-to-come were being trained by Chinese specialists in guerrilla warfare. The Soviet Union, too, was ready to help. In southern Kivu the rebellion was led by a man by the name of Gaston Soumialot, in northern Katanga by someone named Laurent Désiré Kabila. Their soldiers were very young, mostly boys of sixteen or seventeen, but some of them were barely even in their teens, children too at times. They were more susceptible to magic than to all the Maoist and Marxist-Leninist rhetoric put together. They called themselves simbas (lions) and they believed strongly in martial rituals.

Kabila and Soumialot’s army of liberaton employed a powerful féticheur, Mama Onema, a woman in her sixties. Every young soldier was personally initiated by her. With a razor, she made three little incisions between his eyes. From a matchbox she then produced a black powder—the ground bones and hides of lions and gorillas, mixed with smashed black ants and crushed hemp—and rubbed it into the cuts. He was given a grigri, an amulet he wore around his wrist or neck, meant to give him strength. Each time he went into battle she sprinkled his chest and weapons to make him immune to the enemy. The warriors were expected to abide by a strict code of conduct. They were never to shake the hand of a non-Simba and they were not allowed to bathe, to comb their hair, or to cut their nails, for otherwise they would become vulnerable again. Many of these rules were less bizarre than they might seem. Most of the Simbas had no uniforms and there were almost no firearms. They entered the fray with their chests bared, decked out in twigs and animal skins, and were armed only with spears, machetes, and clubs. That was all they had to bring to bear against Mobutu’s government troops, troops that may still have been a chaotic mess, but a chaotic mess nevertheless armed with machine guns. The magic rules forced the Simbas to abide by a form of military discipline. Sex was forbidden, because otherwise the warriors would go off on a rampage of sexual violence. Panic was forbidden, because otherwise they would run away. Looking over one’s shoulder was forbidden, hiding was forbidden. The Simba warrior had to run straight at the enemy, loudly screaming “Simba, Simba! Mulele mai! Mulele mai! Lumumba mai! Lumumba oyé!”(Lion, lion, water of Mulele, water of Lumumba, long live Lumumba!). If they shouted that, the government forces’ bullets would turn to water as soon as they touched their chests. Anyone shot and killed had apparently violated one of the precepts.76 Nonsensical? Yes, but no more nonsensical than some charges in World War I when soldiers were driven into enemy fire. And the weird thing was that not only did the Simbas believe in their magic powers, but the government soldiers did too. Mobutu’s men were scared to death of these drugged, hysterical madmen who came rushing at them, screaming and wide-eyed.

In May 1964 the Simbas took Uvira and Albertville, two major cities on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. For Kasavubu and Mobutu, it was a humiliating defeat. The government soldiers tied twigs to the barrels of their own rifles in the hope of neutralizing the Simbas’ magic, but much more frequently they turned and ran. Screaming and ranting, the rebels conquered eastern Congo. They confiscated automobiles and plundered shops. They picked up the guns the government army had left behind in a panic. Soumialot and his boys advanced from Uvira to Stanleyville, a few months’ journey on foot through the jungle. Everywhere they went, in towns and villages, young people joined up. These were people who hated the new independence. The mess created by political intrigues at the top meant that thousands and thousands of young people in the east of the country could no longer go to school.77 Their teachers were paid poorly or not at all. All across the country, teachers went on strike.78 Secondary education, the prime means of social promotion, was a mere shadow of its former self. These were students without teachers. The word révolutionfor them contained more promise than the word indépendance. They were too young to have a wife, a house, or a plot of land, but not yet old enough to surrender all their dreams. They had nothing to lose. They were rebels without a cause, young lions, the ones who had lost most from independence. And they were horrifying killing machines.

Mama Lungeni saw the rebels come to town. In early August of 1964 they took Stanleyville. The stronghold of Lumumba and Gizenga was theirs once more. They went in search of those who had squandered independence. Évolués, intellectuals, and the rich became the brunt of their attacks. Around the statue to Lumumba, some 2,500 “reactionaries” were murdered. The Simbas cut out their hearts and ate them, to keep the dead from coming back. Other cities, too, witnessed their extreme cruelty. “Butter, butter!” they shouted in Tshombe when a machete split an enemy’s skull and the brains ran out.79 Babies and children were taken from their parents and laid in the burning sun for days, until they died.80 In Kasongo they disemboweled a few elderly people and forced bystanders to eat their intestines.81 In addition, they were pronouncedly anti-American, anti-Belgian, and anti-Catholic. The American consul at Stanleyville was forced to tread on the American flag and eat a piece of it.82 Anyone carrying an object with “MADE IN USA” on it ran the risk of being slaughtered. It became a game to set the beards of Belgian missionaries on fire and then extinguish the flames with a beating. Many of the Simba had a background in the secret Kitawala cult, which had always been prominent in eastern Congo.83 They bitterly hated white people. Any number of nuns at the missions were raped and murdered; missionaries were sometimes tortured and then butchered.84

Mama Lungeni was afraid she would never be able to return to the Protestant mission at Yalemba where Disasi was buried. That was where she hoped to die and be laid to rest beside him. But on September 5, 1964, the rebels announced the formation of a new state. Their territory was to be called the République Populaire du Congo, in analogy to the People’s Republic of China. The various militias were fused to form the Armée Populaire de la Libération (the People’s Liberation Army). Gbenye, the man from Brazzaville, became the new republic’s president; Soumialot became defense minister; the post of commander in chief of the armed forces went to General Nicholas Olenga. One-third of Congo was in their hands. Mama Lungeni could not get away.

FOR KASAVUBU, this was a complete affront. It made Mobutu look like a fool, with his troops that kept turning on their heels and running. In his attempts to modernize the army, he received assistance from Cuban fighter pilots, men who had fled from Castro’s regime and were determined to obstruct left-wing revolutionary uprisings wherever they could. But even that could not turn the tide. Was Congo about to fall prey to communism after all? The Americans would not be happy about that. What if Katanga were to be retaken? What if Tshombe came back from Spain and joined up with the rebels? He had enough means and troops to do so. Then two-thirds of Congo would be in the hands of the revolutionaries.

What happened then was one of those unlikely twists of fate so exclusive to Congolese political history: Tshombe did come back and . . . he sided with Léopoldville, the regime he had fought against for two and half years! It was an about-face to beat all about-faces, but not, when one ruled out things like integrity, entirely illogical. Mobutu and his comrades in the Binza Group (most particularly Foreign Affairs Minister Justin Bomboko, intelligence service chief Victor Nendaka, and national bank director Albert Ndele) realized that Tshombe could still mobilize his Katangan guardsmen and mercenaries.85 All he had to do was bring them in from across the Angolan border. If they were to align themselves with the rebels, Léopoldville would be lost. Better to have a troublemaker in the house who pissed out the window, they decided, than a troublemaker in the garden who pissed in.

Tshombe, in turn, had always longed for a power base in the capital. The offer made him by Mobutu and company was the perfect opportunity to end his exile in Madrid and add a new entry to his political curriculum vitae. Obsequiously, he wrote to Kasavubu: “During this difficult period that stands before us, from which the country must emerge stronger than ever in order to deal with the enormous tasks that lie before us, I renew my offer to place myself fully at your disposal in the service of the fatherland.”86

For the first time since independence, Lumumba’s three enemies formed a troika: Kasavubu as president, Mobutu as commander in chief, and Tshombe as prime minister. In July 1964 he replaced Adoula and promised the people “a new Congo within three months.” At the huge soccer stadium in Léopoldville, he was cheered on by thirty to forty thousand spectators. In Stanleyville, shortly before it was taken by the rebels, he even laid a wreath at the monument to Lumumba, the man he himself had helped to murder.87

Tshombe had two aces in the hole: his mercenaries of yore and the American military. The soldiers of fortune included Colonel Mike Hoare, a South African of Irish descent, nicknamed “Mad Mike”; Colonel Bob Denard, a Frenchman who was without a doubt the twentieth century’s most notorious mercenary; and Jean Schramme, otherwise known as Black Jack. This latter man was not your classic mercenary, but a plantation owner in Katanga who had decided to dedicated himself to “saving” Congo. In disreputable cafés in Brussels, Paris, and Marseille, new troops were recruited. They signed contracts that stipulated how much they would receive in damages for the loss of a toe (30,000 Belgian francs), a big toe (50,000 Belgian francs), or a right arm (350,000 Belgian francs). Or how much their widow would receive (1 million Belgian francs).88

The Americans placed a fleet of aircraft at Léopoldville’s disposal: thirteen T-28 fighters, five B-26 bombers, three C-46 cargo planes, and two small twin-engined passenger planes. All World War II surplus, but good enough to wage war against bare-chested boys who believed in their own invulnerability.89 While the mercenaries started in on a ground offensive, along with Katangan guardsmen, Congolese government troops, and Belgian officers, the Americans harassed the Simbas from the air. Their strongholds fell, one by one.

The Simbas reacted furiously. Appalled to find that they could actually be killed, they blamed their losses on the season’s rain, which washed away their magic powers.90 Like men possessed, they went in search of broadcasting equipment among those whites who had remained behind, for they believed that this was how the enemy was receiving its information. Anyone found to possess a transistor radio or even a ballpoint pen became suspect. They took hundreds of Europeans from what remained of rebel territory and held them hostage in the Victoria Hotel in Stanleyville. They threatened to murder them all. That was the starting sign for a large-scale military operation by the Belgians and Americans. It consisted of an offensive on the ground (Operation Ommegang) and one in the air (Operation Dragon Rouge). On November 24, 1964, 343 Belgian commandoes were dropped into Stanleyville and seized the airport. Meanwhile, ground troops moved into the city. Two thousand Europeans were freed and evacuated aboard fourteen C-130s; about one hundred were killed during the operation. In the days that followed, the Simbas retaliated by murdering ninety clerics and laypeople in the interior.91 The number of Congolese killed has never been established.

Mama Lungeni escaped by the skin of her teeth. At 5:30 P.M. on the day Stanleyville was liberated, she heard the roar of aircraft engines and locked herself in her house along with her family. “A little later one of the planes flew over our neighborhood, Tshopo,” one of her sons recalled. “Just above our home it fired a missile that landed about ten meters from the house. A section of the projectile disappeared into the ground, while the shrapnel blasted against the front door and blew out all the windows.” At that moment, Mama Lungeni was sitting in the parlor, across from the door. She fell into a swoon. “Everyone, the children and the grandchildren, began shouting: Mama is dead! Grandma is dead! We carried her out to the yard, and soon she began breathing again and opened her eyes.”92

After Stanleyville was taken, the rebels scattered across the interior. Two of Mama Lungeni’s daughters, who lived beside the river, came to get her in a canoe. But the mission at Yalemba was still no safe place to be. Terrified as they were of the American bombers, the people fled their villages.

The people ran away into the jungle or to the islands. Mama Lungeni and her children were among the refugees in the forest, but conditions there were terrible. They had to keep building temporary huts to stay out of the rain, and moved from place to place. Mama Lungeni was exhausted and had to be carried. Her daughter Bulia and her granddaughters Mise and Ndanali took turns with her on their back, while the little ones, Naomi, Toiteli, Maukano, Moali, and their little nephew Asalo Kengo walked along behind and carried their baggage.

Because of the bad conditions and the dangerous situation, they decided to leave the forest and take shelter on the island of Enoli, in the middle of the river, where Uncle Anganga and his family lived.93

The old woman ended where she had begun: amid the misery of war. One day after evening prayers, she went to sleep. A heavy thunderstorm rolled in. At three in the morning, her eldest daughter, who slept next to her, lit the lantern. Mama Lungeni had passed away. It was May 1, 1965. Her body was taken by canoe to Bandio, the place where Disasi was abducted in 1883. The gong sent news of her death to the surroundings. People came out of the equatorial jungle to attend her funeral. She was buried beside her husband.

AND THE CIVIL WAR RAGED ON. Léopoldville was slowly gaining ground. But just as the rebels were reaching the end of their rope, they received help in the east from an unexpected source. The badly organized revolution had never paid serious attention to diplomacy, and the support from sympathetic countries like Egypt, Algeria, China, and the Soviet Union remained at a minimum. But suddenly, in April 1965, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, no one less than Che Guevara himself stepped onto dry land! He had been flown over from Cuba and brought more than one hundred well-trained Cuban soldiers with him. In order to avoid detection, those soldiers were all of African origin, descendants of Central African slaves. Now they had come to help Kabila and his Simbas retake Congo. El Che noticed soon enough, however, that the flame of revolution no longer burned so brightly among his Congolese charges. The sound of loud dance music echoed from their secret camps in the bush, where women and children loitered. The Congolese comrades loafed about and had no training whatsoever. They had no desire to dig trenches, because holes in the ground were for corpses. Target practice didn’t interest them at all, because they were unable to close only their right eye. They preferred shooting from the hip.94 “One of our comrades said jokingly that in Congo all conditions were unripe for revolution,” Che Guevara sneered in his diary.95The few times they actually made it to the front, the Cubans witnessed “the pitiful spectacle of troops that advanced but, once the fighting began, scattered in all directions and tossed aside their costly weapons in order to run faster.”96 Kabila himself stayed in Tanzania the whole time and appeared briefly only two months later, after which he disappeared again quickly. Che admitted that Kabila was the only one with leadership ability—but a true revolutionary commander, that was a different thing altogether. “He must also possess a serious attitude concerning the revolution, an ideology that serves to channel his actions, and a willingness to make sacrifices that is expressed in deeds. So far, Kabila has not shown himself to possess any of this. He is still young and may perhaps change someday, but I am not at all reluctant to state here, in writing that will see the light of day only many years from now, that I seriously doubt whether he is capable of winning out over his shortcomings.”97 Kabila would continue to hang around in the maquis for more than thirty years. By the time he ousted Mobutu in 1997, El Che was long dead.

After seven months, Che Guevara and his soldiers left Congolese territory. The rebellion had been fruitless. Bitterly, he noted: “During the final hours of my stay in Congo I felt alone, more alone than I had ever felt before, neither in Cuba nor in any other place where my wanderings around the world had taken me.”98

TSHOMBE TRIUMPHED. The rebellion had been quashed, thanks to “his” mercenaries and “his” guardsmen. On the heels of this military triumph, he also achieved an extremely important diplomatic victory. He had gone to Brussels to negotiate about the notorious “colonial portfolio.” That was the term used to refer to the sizable package of shares that Belgium had appropriated shortly before independence. The discussion concerning the return of the securities became known as the Belgian-Congolese dispute. Tshombe was able to convince the Belgian negotiators that the packet of shares actually belonged to the Congolese state, thereby effectively bringing the goose that laid the golden egg back to the farmyard. When he returned to Congo, he waved a leather attaché case everywhere he went.99 The portfolio! The people laughed and beamed. The war was over, the money had come back. “Now we can eat makabayu again!” they sang, that lovely salted cod that had been prohibitively expensive for so long.

During the First Republic, the average Congolese had suffered financially. Inflation had skyrocketed: a kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice that had cost only nine francs in 1960 was up to ninety by 1965.100 Buying power had withered.101 Unemployment became a great burden. Anyone who still had a job was forced to feed more and more mouths with less and less money.102 Hunger was widespread.103 Diseases that had been under control, such as sleeping sickness, tuberculosis and river blindness, once again claimed countless lives.104

In 1965 Tshombe was by far the most popular politician in Congo. For the first time since the decolonization, the country held parliamentary elections. Tshombe won by a landslide. With his supercartel of parties, he took 122 of the 167 parliamentary seats. Kasavubu realized that Tshombe posed a threat to his position as president. At that point, he already held the combined powers of prime minister and those of minister of foreign affairs, minister of foreign trade, and minister of employment, planning, and information.105 On October 13, therefore, Kasavubu did exactly what he had done with Lumumba: he dismissed the prime minister and pushed forward one of his lackeys as alternative: Évariste Kimba, a man in whom the parliament had no confidence. The move was allowable under the new constitution, but it seemed like everything was starting all over again.

DURING ONE OF OUR CONVERSATIONS, Jamais Kolonga produced a brightly tinted photograph, rumpled but remarkable. It showed a little group of young men, grinning broadly around a table. In their midst, I immediately recognized the young Mobutu. Even then he had looked like an African remake of King Baudouin. “This was taken on Mobutu’s thirty-fifth birthday. The party was held in the restaurant at the Léopoldville zoo, the best restaurant in town.” It was October 14, 1965, one day after Tshombe was fired. “The one on the left is Isaac Musekiwa, trumpet player with OK Jazz, the one next to him is Paul Mwanga, the singer. That’s me, Jamais Kolonga, standing beside Mobutu! The men on the right are from African Jazz. First the singer, Mujos, then the great Kabasele himself. This one here is Roger Izeidi, from OK Jazz. And the one all the way on the right is no one less than Franco!” The entire fine fleur of Congolese music had gathered that evening around the chief military commander, as though the Beatles and Stones had had their picture taken with the supreme commander of the British armed forces. Jean Lema, alias Jamais Kolonga, was still tickled by it. “Do you know what Mobutu let slip to me that evening? I had worked with him for three months, in 1960, under Lumumba. ‘Jean,’ he said, ‘within a month I will be president of the republic.’”106

And so it was. At 9 P.M. on November 24, 1965, a date every Congolese knows by heart, Mobutu summoned the nation’s entire military brass to his residence in the capital. His desktop was covered in folders, newspapers, and magazines. He had spent the whole day in meetings, and his mind was made up: he was going to be the new head of state. The First Republic had been an utter catastrophe, it was up to him to set things aright. If Kasavubu was going to repeat the same tricks he’d pulled five years ago then he, Mobutu, would repeat his coup, this time not for five months, but for five years. He dictated a communiqué to one of his staff members. A sublieutenant was ordered to read the text on the radio, while a major went to sabotage Kasavubu’s telephone lines. Everyone promised his support. The beer flowed freely. Mrs. Mobutu treated the guests to fish with fried plantain. Still, she was not at ease with the plans: “Stop this nonsense, would you? If they catch you, you’ll all be killed,” she whispered to her brother-in-law. But at two thirty that next morning she handed them all a glass of champagne. Three hours later, news of the coup was broadcast on Congolese radio.107 The programming for the rest of the day consisted of martial music. The First Republic was over and done with. Not a single shot had been fired. The struggle for the throne had been decided. Each of the four protagonists had had his own finest hour, but it was Mobutu who would walk away with the goods.

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