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The Congolese Civil War 1960-1964

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The Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is an African country with a conflict-ridden past which sadly remains in a state of turmoil today. It has undergone a variety of name changes and has formerly been known as the Belgian Congo and Zaire. However, changing its name has not changed the underlying problems which are intrinsically the same. The Congo is a vast nation (2,345,000 square kilometres) and is so big that some areas deep in the rainforest of the Congo Basin have not been properly explored and tribes still live traditional lifestyles. It is rich in natural resources including:

  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Copper
  • Oil
  • Diamonds
  • Uranium (used for nuclear power and weapons) and
  • The mineral columbite-tantalite (shortened to coltan) which is an integral part of miniature circuit boards used today in cellular phones, laptops and pagers.

This mineral wealth has time and again proved to be an all-too-attractive lure that has undoubtedly contributed to the Congo's devastating culture of war.


In 1876 the Congo was allocated to the 'International African Association'. This committee in turn placed the Congo under the control of the Belgians, who were to run the country and try to build up its infrastructure. This decision was made by European powers and as a result the enormous natural wealth of the Congo was virtually handed over to a single man, King Leopold II of Belgium. He exploited the Congo to a point where even the imperialists at the time were worried and so in 1908 the Congo was made an official Belgian colony rather than being merely the King's private 'African estate'. Belgium did little to develop the infrastructure of the Congo for the Congolese people.

The people were provided with primary education only in the hope that they would be prevented from coming into contact with nationalist ideas and that the development of an educated middle class (who might be able to start a revolution) would be thwarted. They played off rival tribes against each other - this worked well as there were over 150 tribes in this large territory.

Despite this, nationalist ideas crept into Congolese society. After the Second World War it became obvious that colonies would need to be given their independence. Many colonies became independent of their colonial powers, including Tunisia in 1956, Ghana in 1957 and Guinea in 1958. However, many colonisers were not prepared to lose their colonies and violent rebellions occurred - for example, from 1952-1958 the Mau Mau rebelled against the British in Kenya. Although this rebellion was quashed, the Congolese were undoubtedly inspired by the successes of other African nations to seek their own independence.

1960 - Independence

The Belgians seemed to panic about the Congo. In 1958 there was much unemployment and unrest and in 1959 there were riots in the capital Leopoldville1 where 49 rioters were killed by the army. Meanwhile Patrice Lumumba, a post office clerk, had started a political party: the Congolese National Movement. The Congo was not ready for independence at this stage. There were only 17 Congolese graduates in the entire country and none of them had been trained in the civil service. Despite this, on 30 June 1960, the Congo was granted its independence from Belgium. Why did they make this decision?

  • They feared further bloodshed and hoped to protect the 100,000 Belgian residents in the Congo.

  • They did not want to fight a guerrilla war.

  • They hoped to keep Belgian influence by granting independence while the Congo needed Belgium for support.

On 30 June 1960 the Congo became independent, with Joseph Kasavubu as President. He appointed Lumumba as Prime Minister. This was a disaster as Lumumba was a socialist who wanted a united Congo. The Belgians hated him as he threatened to nationalise Belgian-owned mines.

Civil War 1960-1964

In July 1960 the Force Publique2 mutinied against their Belgian officers. The copper-rich province of Katanga, led by Moise Tshombe, declared independence and asked for Belgian help. Belgium sent in an invasion force of paratroopers to protect the mines and Belgians working in the Congo. So Kasavubu appealed to the UN for help.

UN action

Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the UN at the time, believed that the UN should try to protect new nations and should prevent the rivalry between the Cold War superpowers (the USA and USSR) from spilling over into other countries. When the UN was called on to help the Congo, Hammarskjöld decided to use the powers under the UN Charter to organise a meeting of the Security Council regarding the problems in the Congo. It was Hammarskjöld's idea to set up a UN force that would go to the Congo to calm the situation. Under his management the ONUC was quickly and effectively put in place.

Once the UN system had been set in motion by Hammarskjöld the UN Security Council decided to:

  • Send in a peacekeeping force, ONUC, to stabilise the situation in the Congo.

  • Order the Belgian invasion force to leave.

  • Train the Congolese people and provide technical assistance.

ONUC was made up of troops from non-aligned African, Asian and European nations. Its forces were only to use force in self-defence. ONUC was not allowed to interfere in the Congo's domestic affairs and could not take action that might benefit one of the Congolese factions over another.

This action was supported by the USSR and the USA who both feared upheaval in Africa. The USA supported the UN action because it wanted to prevent the spread of the Soviet interference in the Congo and install a pro-Western government in the Congo. The USSR wished to be seen to support the UN that was protecting a nation from its 'imperialist' ex-coloniser. It also wanted to try to gain influence of the Congo's government. When ONUC arrived in the Congo they took over from the Belgians except in Katanga where UN troops were stationed peacefully. The UN experts started to help the Congolese government.

Unrest Begins in Earnest

Lumumba asked the UN to use ONUC to attack Katanga. However, it is not the part of the UN to attack another state and so they refused to forcefully unite the breakaway province with the rest of Congo. Lumumba was running out of options to achieve his dream of a united Congo and so asked the USSR for help. Anxious to gain a foot-hold in Africa (and, subsequently, an advantage over the USA) the Soviet Union gladly equipped Lumumba's forces with Soviet transport planes. In August 1960 Lumumba's forces attacked Katanga themselves but the attack failed.

Kasavubu sacked Lumumba who sought refuge in the north-eastern area of the country. However, soon after this, in January 1961, Lumumba was assassinated in suspicious circumstances. Lumumba's supporters remained in their stronghold north of Stanleyville, backed by the USSR.

1961-1962 - Preventing the Outbreak of War

By the beginning of 1961 the Congo was split into three rival factions, all claiming to be the Congo's government. The country was now teetering on the brink of civil war. In order to prevent outright war from breaking out, the UN Security Council authorised the use of force by ONUC in February. Things seemed to move forward diplomatically with all rival groups, except Katanga, meeting in August 1961 in order to elect a new legitimate Congolese government.

Unfortunately, this attempt failed to normalise the situation and in September 1961 ONUC ended up fighting Katangan troops whilst on a mission to rid Katanga of Belgian mercenaries. Hammarskjöld decided that events were spiralling out of control and flew to the Congo to try to negotiate a peace deal in person. Tragically he died when his plane crashed in a remote area on the Zambian/Congolese border. Questions were asked as to whether his plane was shot down but mysteriously by the time the plane was found all evidence had vanished. U Thant was appointed Secretary-General in Hammarskjöld's place.

However, fighting continued. The various factions especially the Katanganese had hired mercenaries to fight the war for them. By November ONUC was given authorisation to use force now to remove all foreign forces and advisers from Katanga. After the UN attack in December a ceasefire and peace talks ensued. Again these failed to succeed and 1962 heralded a final UN attack which forced Tshombe to flee Katanga and seek sanctuary abroad.

An End to Unrest 1963-1964

In January 1963, after years of unrest, Katanga was finally reunited with the rest of the Congo. By 1964 ONUC forces had been withdrawn. Immediately following the departure of the UN troops, a military government under Joseph Mobutu installed itself in the capital Leopoldville and seized control. Tshombe, who had fled abroad, came out of exile and became a Minister in Mobutu's cabinet, but was again expelled. He died in mysterious circumstances in Algeria in 1969.

Both sides inflicted tremendous brutality where mercenaries carried out random killings, and the UN forces behaved equally badly.

Consequences of the Conflict

The Congo conflict was so devastating that it is difficult to say that any party benefited. Although in the short term there were a number of successes, the long-term consequences were far-reaching and have proved difficult to solve.

What did the United Nations Achieve in the Congo?

It is difficult to measure the success of the UN as many thousands of people were killed and military rule was introduced. Despite this, some of the UN goals were achieved.

  • Belgian troops were withdrawn.

  • Foreign intervention was prevented and Soviet forces and advisers were withdrawn from Eastern Province.

  • The Congo was successfully reunited.

  • The economy was maintained up to a point and the UN trained the Congolese to be new administrators.

  • Order was re-established despite ONUC being constantly under attack from the other factions.

  • UN officials successfully trained Congolese doctors, engineers and teachers.

  • Public services such as hospitals were reopened.

  • They averted a humanitarian disaster by preventing a famine in the Kasai Province of the Congo.

Criticism of the UN

  • The USSR, Belgium and France refused to pay their share of the cost of the UN operations in Congo because they disagreed with their actions. The USSR claimed that the UN was being biased towards the West. Belgium also had other interests in the Congo including the mines and the fact that it was supporting Tshombe in Katanga.

  • Some countries said that ONUC should not have interfered in Katanga, as a peacekeeping force should not shed blood. Although all sides inflicted tremendous brutality (with mercenaries carrying out random killings), the UN forces behaved equally badly which was unacceptable to the international community.

  • ONUC was interfering in the internal affairs of the Congo which went against the UN charter.

  • Certain countries felt that the Secretary-General exceeded his powers by getting involved in internal problems and taking a leading role. Hammarskjöld was also seen to be favouring the UN's new, non-aligned nations.

  • The UN forces took a long time to eventually bring an end to the conflict.

The Negative Consequences of the Conflict

  • The Congo, which was renamed Zaire, came under Mobutu's control. He proved to be one of the worst African dictators, succeeding in amassing a vast fortune whilst failing to develop the Congo at all. When he died in 1998 the Congo once again returned to chaos and civil war.

  • Certain member states of the UN had openly defied its ruling and actually went against the action taken by the UN. Belgium refused to give up its hold on the Congo which made the UN's work much more difficult and the USSR also backed rebel forces. This failure to support the UN seriously undermined its authority as it showed that when the will of the UN was contrary to that of member states, the UN could be ignored completely.

  • The cost of the war in the Congo put the UN's finances into a precarious position.

  • The war also meant the tragic loss of Hammarskjöld who had been a fine Secretary-General.

  • Human losses were extremely high for a conflict that was still not completely resolved.

The DRC today

Since 1997 the DRC has been plagued by civil war. In May 1997 a rebellion led by Laurent Kabila deposed the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. However, the Rwandan and Ugandan governments opposed the new Kabila government and troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan intervened in support of Kabila. A ceasefire was eventually signed on 10 July 1999 but fighting continued. Eventually, on 16 January 2001 Laurent Kabila was assassinated and his son Joseph Kabila became president. He has been successful in instigating the removal of Rwandan forces in October 2002 and a new declaration of peace has been signed by all warring parties. Joseph Kabila has voiced his aim to finally restore stability to the DRC.

During this period of strife the United Nations has been active in the DRC through its peace-keeping mission MONUC. This was established on 30 November 1999. The mission consists of observers, military personnel and humanitarian workers, who work to promote:

  • Human rights and humanitarian issues
  • The protection of children, who are vulnerable during conflict
  • Political issues
  • Medical support throughout the DRC
  • Administrative support to help ensure the smooth running of government


Unless the international community realises that trading in Congolese mineral wealth is helping to finance the conflict, the DRC's issues will be difficult to resolve. Some steps have already been taken for example, the banning of trade in blood-diamonds. However, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope for the DRC under the new leadership of Joseph Kabila. Perhaps now the Congo can finally forget its troubled past and work towards a stable and prosperous future.

1That has now been renamed Kinshasa.2The Congo's police force-cum-army.

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