The Congo from Leopold to Kabila
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The Congo from Leopold to Kabila

A People's History

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

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eBook - ePub

The Congo from Leopold to Kabila

A People's History

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

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About This Book

The people of the Congo have suffered from a particularly brutal colonial rule, American interference after independence, decades of robbery at the hands of the dictator Mobutu and periodic warfare which continues even now in the East of the country. But, as this insightful political history makes clear, the Congolese people have not taken these multiple oppressions lying down and have fought over many years to establish democratic institutions at home and free themselves from foreign exploitation; indeed these are two aspects of a single project. Professor Nzongola-Ntalaja is one of his country's leading intellectuals and his panoramic understanding of the personalities and events, as well as class, ethnic and other factors, make his book a lucid, radical and utterly unromanticized account of his countrymen's struggle. His people's defeat and the state's post-colonial crisis are seen as resulting from a post-independence collapse of the anti-colonial alliance between the masses and the national leadership. This book is essential reading for understanding what is happening in the Congo and the Great Lakes region under the rule of the late President Kabila, and now his son. It will also stand as a milestone in how to write the modern political history of Africa.

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Imperialism, Belgian Colonialism and African Resistance

§ THE struggle for democracy in the Congo is a continuation of the fight against foreign domination, which dates back to the confrontation between African societies and European intruders in Central Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. By 1900, virtually all the African societies of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo had lost their independence as a result of European conquest and occupation in the era of imperialism. Attempts to regain that independence within the boundaries of precolonial societies were doomed to failure, given the material superiority of the intruders, the new relations of production based on colonial capitalism, and the ideology of white supremacy. The anticolonial resistance of the people of the Congo arose within a restructured social space in response to the economic, political and social burdens of the new order. Its aims, which are the same as those of the current democracy movement, were the conquest of freedom as a fundamental human right and the basis on which personal dignity and social welfare can be built.
This chapter examines the roots of the Congolese democracy movement in the African resistance to colonialism in the Congo Free State (1885–1908) and the Belgian Congo (1908–60). This is done in three parts. The first part of the chapter provides the historical background to Belgian colonialism through a survey of the incorporation of the Congo into the capitalist world system beginning with the establishment of the personal rule of King Leopold II of the Belgians in 1885. The second part focuses on Belgian colonialism as a legacy of the Leopoldian system, and on its overall impact on the people of the Congo. The third and final part of the chapter looks at three different forms of African resistance to colonial rule: primary resistance, religious protest and revolts by peasants and workers.

Imperialism and the Establishment of European Rule in the Congo

The incorporation of the Congo and other African countries into the capitalist world economy in the twentieth century was the culmination of the establishment of trade relations between the African continent and Europe more than four to five hundred years earlier, in the fifteenth century.1 During the five centuries that followed the creation of this connection, African–European relations were dominated first by the Atlantic slave trade, which constituted the primary means of primitive accumulation in the emerging global economy,2 and then by the trade in the raw materials needed for industrial production in Europe. Until the onslaught of the east African slave trade and the slave-like Leopoldian regime in the 1840s and 1890s, respectively, much of the country was not exposed to these two historical processes. The areas most exposed to the latter were the Lower Congo, which formed a part of the Kongo kingdom, and those parts of Bandundu, Kasai and Katanga that were incorporated in the Luso-African trading frontier centred in Angola. The country as we know it today resulted from the imperial dream of King Leopold, his quest for access to the rich natural resources of Central Africa, and the imperial rivalries of the European scramble for Africa.
The Congo in the European scramble for Africa
The Congo is centrally located in a vast area of linguistically and culturally related peoples, the overwhelming majority of whom speak Bantu languages. The Bantu-speaking majority entered the area many centuries ago in a series of migrations, gradually displacing the original inhabitants, a pygmoid population found today in small numbers in a few remote forest areas. Approximately 250 different ethnic groups inhabit the Congo, but most of them share many cultural traits. In addition to the linguistic unity binding the majority of the peoples of Central Africa, the Congo’s ties to its immediate neighbours are reinforced by the fact that many of its ethnic groups straddle national boundaries. Examples include the Kongo, who are also found in Angola and Congo-Brazzaville; the Ngbandi, in the Central African Republic; the Zande, in Sudan; the Alur, in Sudan and Uganda; the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, in Rwanda and Burundi; the Bemba, in Zambia; and the Lunda, in Zambia and Angola.
With Lake Tanganyika, the second-largest lake in Africa and fifth-largest in the world, separating them, Tanzania does not share a land border with the Congo. However, there are deep historical ties between the two countries. In the 1840s and 1850s, the Swahili-Arabs of Zanzibar and their Nyamwezi partners from western Tanzania brought the east African long-distance trade in ivory and slaves to the interior of Central Africa. Unknowingly, they ‘prepared the ground for the colonial conquest that followed in their wake’.3 In addition to introducing Islam and Kiswahili to the Congo, the Swahili-Arab traders sold thousands of people into slavery in the Indian Ocean region, the Arab world and the Orient.4 In the mid-1850s, a Nyamwezi trader by the name of Msiri brought his caravan west of the Luapula River and settled in Katanga, where he founded the state of Garenganze, with its capital at Bunkeya. Being Bantu speakers, the settlers were rapidly assimilated as a local ethnic group under the name of ‘Yeke’. The assassination of Msiri in 1891 by a Congo Free State military officer marked the real beginning of the incorporation of the mineral-rich region of Katanga in the Belgian colonial empire.
Even before the full story of the Congo’s wealth was known, this vast and fabulously rich real estate had attracted the envy of ambitious empire builders such as King Leopold. The bearded monarch followed with great interest the travels and adventures of missionaries and people sent out on reconnaissance missions in the various areas of the continent. One of the adventurers who caught the king’s attention was the British-born American journalist Henry Morton Stanley. Having become famous for finding the British missionary David Livingstone in November 1871 at Ujiji, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Stanley travelled across the continent from Zanzibar to the mouth of the Congo River between 1874 and 1877, with the aim of reclaiming the Congo basin for Great Britain. Since Britain showed no interest in Stanley’s project, Leopold made it his own and enticed Stanley to become his agent in the drive to colonize the Congo.
Aspiring to become a modern-day pharaoh, King Leopold began his African venture in September 1876, with the Brussels International Geographical Conference. Convened by the king, the Conference established an association of business entrepreneurs, geographers and physicians whose declared objectives were to learn more about Africa and to fight against the slave trade. Formally the honorary president of the Association internationale africaine (AIA), Leopold was the effective leader of the association and coordinator of the activities of the national chapters. He used his cunning and great diplomatic skills in disguising his colonial enterprise as a humanitarian venture for scientific research and economic development in Central Africa.
Once he had lured Stanley to his side, he created yet another organization, a financial syndicate whose name sounded like a research group, on 25 November 1878. The Comité d’études du Haut-Congo5 included among its members the Belgian banker Léon Lambert, and William Mackinnon, a British shipping magnate and founder of the Imperial British East Africa Company.6 The king himself served as president and Stanley was chosen as head of the expedition to Africa. A year later, in December 1879, the Committee became the Association internationale du Congo (AIC), something ‘confusingly similar to the AIA but in fact a wholly Belgian operation under Leopold’s exclusive control’.7 The king is said to have warned that ‘care must be taken not to make it evident that the Association du Congo and the Association Africaine are two different things’.8
Stanley returned to Central Africa in 1879 and organized a large expedition designed to acquire for the king of the Belgians ‘a slice of this magnificent African cake’.9 Using duplicity and/or force, Stanley obtained ‘treaties’ from African rulers who, by placing a thumb mark on a piece of paper, ceded their territories to the AIC and its flag, a blue standard with a single gold star in the middle.10 Using dynamite to build a road through rocky mountain ranges in Lower Congo, where the Congo River is not navigable due to rapids, Stanley earned the name of Bula Matari, or ‘the smasher of rocks’.11 He went on to establish administrative and trading stations along the river from Boma to Kisangani. Construction of the Kinshasa station on the south bank of the Malebo Pool opposite the French station on the north bank (Brazzaville) was completed in March 1882, and Stanley reached the site that came to bear his name at Wagenia Falls on 1 December 1883.12 Establishing the minimum infrastructure of empire would keep Stanley in the Congo until June 1884. His work succeeded in providing King Leopold with the empire-building record he needed to justify his claims to the territories and resources of the Congo basin in Central Africa.
Using his personal fortune and diplomatic skills, the king moved rapidly to reap the rewards of Stanley’s achievements by seeking the recognition of his self-proclaimed sovereignty over African territories in Central Africa from Portugal and the major imperialist powers, namely, Britain, France, Germany and the United States. With the help of an old friend and confidant, the former US Ambassador to Belgium, ‘General’ Henry Shelton Sanford, Leopold obtained a sympathetic ear from US President Chester Arthur, who called upon Congress to support what the king’s lobbyist had presented as a humanitarian venture. After a ‘rather incoherent’ debate on 11 April 1884, the US Senate adopted a resolution recognizing the AIC flag as the ‘flag of a friendly government’.13 On 22 April 1884, the United States became the first country in the world to recognize King Leopold’s claims to the Congo through a declaration by Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen.14
With its claims to the right bank of Malebo Pool and its overall interests in Equatorial Africa, France represented a clear and present danger for Leopold’s colonial scheme for the Congo. The king out-smarted the French policymakers by offering France a first option on his Congolese possessions should the AIC at some point in the future decide to divest itself of these acquisitions. Convinced that the ambitious king would eventually fail for lack of finances and support from Belgium, the French took the bait. They agreed to recognize Leopold’s sovereignty in the Congo in return for preemptive rights or the first option on claims to the territory should Leopold relinquish it. In 1960, on the eve of Congo’s independence from Belgium, France had to renounce this right of imperial succession.
With Paris and Washington behind him, Leopold had to confront the more difficult task of winning the approval of Berlin and London for his colonial scheme. Although he was an ethnic German and a cousin to Queen Victoria of Great Britain, the king had a hard time overcoming both the disdain of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had little patience for Leopold’s grandiose pretensions, and the hostility of the British government, which feared that Belgian protectionism would threaten free trade in Central Africa. This concern for free trade by the greatest imperial power at the time had led Britain to back Portuguese claims to the Congo. Outraged by the Anglo-Portuguese agreement and eager to improve relations with France, Bismarck took advantage of the French endorsement of Leopold’s scheme to grant Germany’s formal recognition of the sovereignty of the AIC on 8 November 1884. Eventually, between 22 April 1884 and 23 February 1885, the AIC succeeded in obtaining through bilateral treaties the recognition of all the powers represented at the Berlin Conference except Turkey.15
The Berlin West African Conference, whose major focus was the freedom of navigation and commerce in the Congo basin, was held between 15 November 1884 and 26 February 1885. It was attended by delegates from 14 countries, namely, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Italy, Sweden-Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Turkey and the United States.16 The interests of the AIC were effectively represented by the Belgian delegation, which remained in constant touch with King Leopold in Brussels. The American lobbyist Sanford also attended the conference as an observer for the king. Although absent, the Belgian monarch had his interests articulated by a well-orchestrated public relations campaign. At the closing ceremony, when Bismarck read a letter from the AIC informing the conference of its recognition as a sovereign state by all the powers that mattered, the delegates rose and applauded loudly.17
That international recognition nearly coincided with the Berlin Conference resulted in the myth that the conference formally recognized King Leopold’s Etat indépendant du Congo (EIC), or Congo Free State (CFS).18 There is no provision for this in the Berlin Act. However, the announcement and the standing ovation constituted a symbolically strong endorsement of Leopold’s enterprise by the imperialist powers, which were relieved for having finally resolved the Congo question. It is evident that in addition to Leopold’s ability to use money and diplomacy to achieve his aims, rivalry among the major powers, each of which did not want to lose the Congo to another major power, accounted for his victory. For them, it was preferable to cede this vast territory in Central Africa to the king of a weak and little country such as Belgium, so as to maximize the chances of having this area serve as a free-trade zone for the more developed countries. The main question then, as it has been in the postcolonial period, is not so much who controls this resource-rich country as who should be excluded from such control.
The king took advantage of this international triumph to set up his personal rule in the Congo in 1885. In April the Belgian parliament passed a resolution authorizing him to be sovereign of two independent states simultaneously. This was followed by a royal decree on 29 May proclaiming the existence of the CFS, and Leopold’s official accession as king-sovereign of the Congo on 1 August. As history would repeat itself on 24 November 1965 and on 17 May 1997, the people of the Congo were never consulted, and played no role in the proclamation of their absolute ruler.
Contrary to another widespread myth, the African continent was not partitioned at the Berlin Conference, where Europeans presumably drew up arbitrary territorial boundaries for Africa as a whole.19 However, while partition was not part of the official business of the conference, more important negotiations took place behind the scenes in what amounted to preliminary partition on paper.20 The real scramble for Africa or partition on the ground took place after the Conference, as European powers rushed to annex African territory through conquest. They attempted to comply with a basic ground rule of the Berlin Act, according to which effective occupation was the empirical test for legitimate claims to a colonial territory.21 In reality, effective military, economic and administrative presence was not established in many a hinterland until 1900. Consequently, many claims were settled through negotiations between the colonial powers, although some cases were determined by the balance of power, as in the British–French confrontation at Fashoda.22 According to the British historian Ruth Slade, the ultimate significance of the Berlin Conf...

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