“This accidental meeting of possibilities calls itself I. I ask: what am I doing here? And, at once, this I becomes unreal.” ― Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings
‘Old Shaky’, the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, argued with her pilot, Captain Richard T. Johnson, about taking that last turn into the Elizabethville (now called Lubumbashi) Airport
before landing in 1961. Noted as a heavy lift airplane, this evening it was loaded to the gills with Gurkhas from the Indian Independent Brigade Group and their gear. Deployed by NATO to quell the latest fighting between the mineral rich Katanga province, whose citizens viewed the rest of the Congo as a nation of thieves, and the rest of the old Belgian Congo, the Gurkhas were battle hardened and ready. Capt. Johnson, a veteran Cold War (1947-1991) pilot, was no fool. He knew this was a Cold War strategy pure and simple. The United Sates and the Soviet Union were ‘duking’ it out for the Congo’s mineral wealth; but they were doing so by deputation. As he fought to bring the Globemaster in line for the approach, there was no friendly voice from the control tower;
The Gurkhas in the Congo
there was no control tower. His second enemy was the surrender of daylight, Johnson couldn’t be certain he was at the correct airfield but it was the only flat spot in view that was big enough to land the old girl. Gunfire erupting to the port side confirmed he was at the right place, and Johnson wondered once again, if that old airplane was prescient. Landing quickly, safely and deploying the Gurkhas became a burning priority. A quick conference with their commander as the airplane made contact with the tarmac brought the Globemaster to a quick turn to port with the doors already opening. The Gurkhas rolled straight out of the aircraft directly into the battle. Taking care of business, they were. After unloading the last of the supplies, a quick salute sent the old airplane back to the runway and she was off.
The 1960-1965 uprising in the Congo had its roots back in 1884-1885 when German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck invited fourteen countries to The Berlin Conference to sit down and establish who was doing what to whom in Africa. France, Great Britain, Germany, and Portugal were among the important players. Going into The Berlin Conference, the European countries maintained isolated posts and the vast majority of the African Continent was still ruled by local tribes in a traditional fashion. By the end of the conference, Africa was covered with boundary lines that took no account of local mores or tribes. The Belgian Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, some 900 thousand square miles, was picked up by Belgium and King Leopold II. The rest of the continent was divided as well:
- Great Britain took a Cape-to-Cairo collection of colonies from Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), and Botswana. The British also controlled Nigeria and Ghana.
- France grabbed much of western Africa, from Mauritania to Chad (French West Africa) and Gabon and the Republic of Congo (French Equatorial Africa).
- Portugal got Mozambique in the east and Angola in the west.
- Italy was given Somalia (Italian Somaliland) and a portion of Ethiopia.
- Germany picked up Namibia (German Southwest Africa) and Tanzania (German East Africa).
- Spain ended up with little Equatorial Guinea (Rio Muni).
Much of the terrible fighting, bloodshed, and famine is a legacy of The Berlin Conference. The fifty ‘countries’ that were formed in a conference room made no sense in the context of the centuries old cultures that were Africa. Groups that were culturally poles apart and didn’t even like each other were forced to live together. This mess, which worked fairly well while the colonies stayed in place, blew up as the colonies began to receive their independence from the home countries in the 1950s. The traditional cultures, you see, had not been erased; they had just been ignored or controlled by the colonial interests. The old Belgian Congo was one such place.
Belgium treated the Africans in the Congo as children. They were cared for, trained and their rulers
The Congo, a beautiful, rich land filled with violence and contradiction.
were used for tasks like tax collection or to recruit labor but they played no part of the legislative process. The bad or uncooperative children/rulers were deposed and replaced. While the United Kingdom and France began preparing their colonies for independence, Belgium made no such effort. Following WWI, American as well as European corporations invested in cotton, coffee, cacao, and rubber operations as well as livestock ventures. The Katanga province was developed for its mineral wealth; gold, copper, tin, cobalt, and zinc. During WWII, the U.S. used the Belgian Congo as a source of uranium. During this time, Africans worked four to seven year contracts as indentured servants in mining, agricultural and public infrastructure sectors. They built electric generation, roads, railroads and public buildings.
Agitation for independence began in 1958 with the formation Patrice Lumumba’s Congo National Movement, the first nationwide Congolese political party. By January 1959, they were rioting for independence in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and continued for a year. Belgium, which asserted that there was no possibility of independence in the immediate future, suddenly changed its political mind and the Congo became an independent republic on June 30, 1960. The problem was the cultural context. The tribes enclosed by the Belgian Congo’s border did not really like each other. Before the First Republic in 1960, the native Congolese elites formed semi-political organizations based on ethnic relationships, personal relationships, and urban intellectualism which evolved into Lumumba’s party pushing for independence. It was a perfect set-up for interference by the Cold War rivals; the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Katanga picked up it marbles, business interests, mines, and 6,000 Belgian troops and left the new republic in July 1960, less than a month after independence. Katanga declared itself independent under the leadership of Moise Tshombe. Diamond rich South Kasai followed in October. This was not good as Katanga and Kasai were wealth generators. Money grew short and the crisis grew hot.
In July 1960, The United Nations passed a resolution to force the Belgian troops out of the Congo, including Katanga and Kasai. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld disagreed with Lumumba that the UN force could be used to subdue the rebel government of Katanga. Hammarskjöld believed that the secession of Katanga was an internal Congolese matter and the UN was forbidden to intervene by Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. And so it went.
When the United Nations refused to intervene, Lumumba asked for and received Soviet military assistance to bring Katanga and Kasai to heel. Soviet ANC troops were airlifted into Kasai resulting in the deaths of hundreds of local Baluba tribesmen and 250,000 refugees. Lumumba’s decision engage the Soviet’s POed the Eisenhower administration in the U.S. resulting in the CIA being given its head to support Joseph Mobutu and Kasa-Vubu, two other political hopefuls. Rumor has it that the CIA planned to poison Lumumba’s food. What can be established is that the CIA station chief in Leopoldville did cable his director to saying: “Congo [is] experiencing [a] classic communist effort [to] takeover government… there may be little time to take action to avoid another Cuba”.
‘Che’ Guevara in the Congo.
In 1965, following the assassination of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba Cuba did join the fight. Fidel Castro sent ‘Che’ Guevara to the Congo to try and spark a revolution against the pro-Western regime, which had emerged after . Guevara’s attempt was defeated by mercenaries led by Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare. According to BBC News:
“…Che Guevara’s seven-month stay in the Fizi Baraka mountains was, as he admits himself, an “unmitigated disaster”.
The mercenary Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare, who had been contracted by the American-influenced government in Kinshasa, squeezed Che’s small Cuban force into an ever smaller area until he had to escape back across Lake Tanganyika into the then-friendly territory of revolutionary Tanzania….”
Katanga remained a free and independent state for three years; Kasai for much less time. In the five bloody years it took to bring the old Belgian Congo together as a new country, thousands died and over a million became refugees. Famine, in a country that four years before could feed itself and have enough left over to export, killed thousands more. Lumumba, Mobuto and others ripped up the farms, deforested, and looted the country to starvation. Lumumba was killed by Joseph Mobutu’s forces; Che Guevara went to the Congo to ‘help’ in 1965, and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in Africa while on a quest to find some middle Congolese ground. The U.S. saw their choice, Mobutu, in power. In 1997, when he died, his bank accounts just about equaled the amount the World Bank had loaned and granted the Congo; Zaire as it was called by then.
Capt. Johnson was lucky; he flew away. The Gurkhas’s and others fought admirably in a terrible situation. And all of this horror happened because a bunch of people in Berlin, who
The Congo is incredibly rich in minerals.
only knew what they wanted, drew lines on maps in 1914. When freedom in Africa tried to stick its head out in the 1950s, the country borders formed lay lines of power and greed. The colonists took the people of Africa for granted and their lack of respect for their cultural fabric has ripped the continent apart. The natural resources are an irresistible attraction for more ‘developed’ predator nations. The continuing upheavals leave the peoples and the nations of Africa vulnerable.
Was it all inevitable with or without the colonial period? Maybe, but it didn’t need to happen this way.
“They’re rioting in Africa. There’s strife in Iran. What nature doesn’t do to us. Will be done by our fellow man.”-
The Merry Minuet
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