Lyba Mobeen is currently pursuing her degree of BS-International Relations from Islamic University Islamabad.
The civil war in Congo, from 1960 to 1965, was a political turmoil that occurred shortly after its independence, which the foreign powers exploited for their own interests. In the midst of the Cold War, Congo proved to be another battle station from which the foreign powers tried to maximize their interests, at the cost of the Congolese and African natives.
This paper highlights the foreign powers behind the calamity, their interests which served as the driving force behind it, and their roles in this dilemma. To accumulate data for the research, secondary methods i.e. articles, journals, books, etc. have been consulted.
Keywords: Congo, Natural Resources, Neo-colonialism, Communism, Cold War
The Congo civil war (1960-1965) was a complex political upheaval that began days after Congo was granted independence by Belgium in 1960 and unofficially ended after the entire country fell under the dictatorial rule of Joseph Mobutu in 1965. Constituting a series of conflicts and rebellions, the civil war in Congo was also a proxy conflict in the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and the United States supported opposing factions. The associated violence claimed an estimated 100,000 lives including the nation’s first Prime Minister and an iconic African nationalist, Patrice Lumumba.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the involvement of foreign actors (states) in the crisis, their motives behind the instability, and the participation of these states in the crisis. This research would enable one to study and better analyze the conflict in the light of the international scenario and the Cold War perspective, which would clearly indicate the states’ interests and their policies in the region as well as in the state of Congo.
In the light of the mentioned purpose, following questions would be addressed in the paper:
- Why were the foreign powers intrigued by Congo and its civil war, even though they had many other fronts to take care of?
- What kind of role was carried out by the foreign elements in the crisis? Was it the role of an extinguisher or that of an ignitor in the burning smoke of the disaster?
Foreign Powers’ Interests in Congo and its Dilemma
Congo is one of the largest and the richest countries on the continent of Africa. Congo is rich in gold, copper, diamond, cobalt, tin, uranium, rubber, magnesium, and many other natural resources crucial for multiple industries in the west, including automotive, technology, aerospace, electronics, jewelry, and most prominently, the nuclear weapons industry.
This has served as the elevating factor, along with many other motives, behind the western states’ interests in Congo. The most notable foreign powers involved in the civil war in Congo were the United States, the Soviet Union, and Belgium. The United Kingdom has played more of a supporting role for the US, rather than adopting a head-on approach.
The Motives Behind the US’ Involvement in Congo
- To Exploit the Congolese Natural Resources
The civil war in Congo arose in the 1960s, a period when a full-fledged Cold War was being fought between the two major superpowers, and the arms race was the most salient aspect of it. With nuclear weapons, artillery, and technology being developed on both sides, uranium, and coltan were the most prized elements at that time. With Congo having 64% of the Earth’s coltan and uranium, the US surely had developed interests in Congo and its civil war (“DR Congo,” 2013).
- To Contain the Soviet Union and Communism
Communism, in the 1960s, had already entered the African soil through the expansion of the Cuban Revolution into African ideologies. It was not in the American interest to let a highly important African state fall under the communist regime. Congo had nine newly independent states in its vicinity, which it could easily overpower. If Congo had become a communist state, it could influence the entire region.
The US feared that the Soviet Union could use Congo as a base, to further dominate the North African region, and use the African continent as a competitive tool against the West. Another reason that concerned the U.S. was that in the 1960s only two states supplied cobalt, the Soviet Union and the Congo. Since the Soviets were its rivals and Congo was under the influence of the USSR, from where would the U.S. get its cobalt? So, another reason for US engagement in the civil war in Congo was to stop the Soviet Union from interfering and spreading communism.
- To Replace Belgium as the Neo-Colonialist of Congo
Belgium has been present in the Congolese territory since 1885, first through the rule of Leopold II(1885-1908) and then as a colonial power from 1908 to 1960. It plundered Congo of its natural resources well enough to earn itself a fortune with little or no expenditure. This was exactly what the US would want at such a ripe time when money and natural resources were never enough.
Since the more you had, the less it was, it was better to get a hold of the region and exploit the resources rather than spending billions of dollars by making economic deals with the rulers. The idea with zero input and maximum output was very much appealing. That was why the US started taking a keen interest in Congo to first topple its government through supporting the Belgians and then double-crossing the Belgians to become the neo-colonial ruler of Congo itself. This even increased tensions among the Belgians and the Americans, when the US wanted to replace a Belgium mining company, Union Minierie, with an American one.
- Congo’s Geostrategic Location
Africa was viewed as a secondary center of gravity in the manner that it provided enormous sources of strategic materials as well as routes of travel to the Middle East and Asia in case of worldwide warfare. Being considered as the Heart of Africa, Congo would prove to be of much importance to the US since it lies just south of the North African countries that lined the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the northern approach to the Suez Canal.
With a huge landmass, alternate routes across Africa and other continents, and influence over other Central and North African countries, Congo had high strategic importance for the US. There was also some evidence that either side of the Cold War believed the continent of Africa would represent the major decisive battlefield in the next world conflict and increased influence in Africa would mean assure support in future conflicts.
Belgian Interests in Congo
- To Remain as the Neo-Colonial Power of Congo
For Belgium, Congo was nothing more than a money-making machine that it did not want to lose at any cost. It has deprived Congo of its resources for nearly 75 years. first through its king, then by colonizing it, and finally as a neo-colonial state; Belgium earned huge profits at the expense of the Congolese people (Munshi, 2020).
This was why it was reluctant to even give independence to Congo in the first place and in real terms, it did not grant Congo true independence. Belgium’s main motive behind the intervention in Congo and its civil war was to make sure that it does not emerge as a stable state, otherwise, Belgium could not foster its interests through it.
- To Avenge His Majesty’s Insult
On 30th June 1960, the day King Baudouin of Belgium was to transfer the power to Patrice Lumumba, the King delivered a speech in the parliament, lecturing the Congolese about their “great” rulers which seemed to hurt the feelings of the natives. Lumumba then stood up and gave a counter-speech, which clearly asserted the atrocities and injustices brought about by the Belgian rule and this infuriated the Belgian delegation.
During the colonial era, it was considered sheer blasphemy for a black man to negate a white man and since that man was the king, it would surely bring serious repercussions with it, and so, it did. Even though Lumumba was asked to apologize shortly after the fiery speech, which he did as well, the seed of hatred and revenge had already been sown within the Belgians and now they had to wait for the right time to avenge this sin with serious implications (Hurst, 2009).
Soviet Union’s Engagement in Congo
- To Expand Communism
To expand the Soviet presence in the African continent, and to facilitate the expansion of the Soviet influence – Communism – in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian Ocean, the USSR involved itself in the countries of Africa and their internal affairs. The Soviet Union’s involvement in Congo was meant to serve these interests.
- To Contain the Western Influence
To offset and undermine western political, economic, and military influence in the African continent, the Soviet Union kept itself active in African politics. As discussed earlier, the African soil was supposed to be momentous in any future conflict; hence Africa, Congo, and its civil war were crucial to the foreign policy goals of the Soviet Union and the United States. Both of the superpowers tried to increase their dominance and undermine the others’ influence in this region.
Roles Carried out by the Foreign Elements in the Congo Civil War
Belgium’s Paramount Role
It was Belgium that had sown the seeds of disintegration among the Congolese, which further became the paramount cause of the crisis. Belgium was never in favor of an independent Congo, that was why when the Congolese asked for independence, it offered an alternative option rather than independence. They put forward the idea of an advisory board, constituting of Congolese and Belgians, which would run the country jointly but the nationalist movements were not going to settle for anything less than independence.
As soon as Belgium realized it, it unwillingly granted Congo independence on 30th June 1960. Before independence, Belgium demanded that it be placed in charge of Congo’s important departments, including the army, for the next 5 years, and that the Belgian white officers remain in place. This decision became the driving force behind the army’s mutiny shortly after independence.
To make the Congolese government agree to their demands, the Belgians didn’t prepare the upcoming government to run the state affairs. With only 16 university graduates in the entire state of Congo at the time of Independence, and with no experience of administration, Lumumba was left with no other option than to agree to the Belgian demands. Shortly after the transfer of power from Belgium King Baudouin to Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese army felt deprived of their own rights and still felt as if they were subservient to the white and excluded from the newly acquired freedom.
This feeling of inferiority coupled with the Belgian officers’ superior attitude, manifested itself in the form of an army mutiny against the white officers in the county. Looking forward to any such vulnerable situation, Belgium sent its own troops into Congo on 10th July and captured the Ngili Airport within days of the independence, with the excuse of “protecting its citizens’ lives”.
Seeing this as a clear violation of the sovereignty of the state, Lumumba broke all diplomatic ties with Belgium. Whereas Belgium offered its army to Moise Tshombe, the governor of the richest and resourceful province of Congo, Katanga, and a rival of Lumumba, to disarm the federal troops of the area. Tshombe, with Belgian backing and support, succeeded from Congo and declared the independence of the Katanga, and initiated his own liberal mercenary army on 11th July 1960 (Thomas & Falola, 2020).
Belgium preferred an independent Katanga which would be easier for them to influence to continue mining resources. Belgium also planted a spy, Damien, within Lumumba’s government, who later on exposed his connections with the Soviet Union; that revelation proved to be a decisive moment when the US looked into the crisis with keen interest. Afterward, Belgium backed the province of South Kasai in its succession in August 1960. South Kasai was then ruled and controlled by a secessionist group, backed by the Belgium lobby.
Another important incident that Belgium kept on interfering in, was the assassination of Lumumba. Along with the United States, Belgium too wanted to get rid of the nationalist leader and under their pressure, Lumumba was brought to Katanga where he was brutally tortured and killed by the Africans themselves, but the interests of the West were fulfilled.
Belgium’s say in the crisis continued through Katanga and South Kasai. It also continued to oppose the UN-backed operations to reinclude Katanga in the united Congo until Tshombe was kicked out by Mobutu in 1965, and a dictatorship was imposed with Belgian subsistence. This brought an end to the crisis but created long-lasting repercussions for the Congolese.
United States’ Momentous Role
The United States’ participation in the Congo crisis was not dynamic initially. Yet, it kept a close eye on the conflict from day one, through Larry Devlin—the Head of the CIA station in Congo, appointed on 5th July 1960. The U.S., with its democratic principles, seemed to favor independent movements and so, just like Fidel Castro, Lumumba’s first priority was to ask for help from the United States.
However, he made the worst impression on the Secretary of State and his deputy by threatening them to ask for help against the Belgian troops that had violated the sovereignty of Congo. Since he was clearly refused, Lumumba turned to the Soviets for assistance (Davis, 2013). The U.S. became agile in the Congo crisis when the telegram Lumumba planned on sending to Khrushchev, asking for troops to drive out the Belgians, was stolen by Damien (the Belgian spy), handed over to Devlin, and then sent to the Eisenhower administration (Davis,2013).
This alarmed the United States because Cuba had recently fallen out of the US influence and if Congo adopted communism, the entire African region could be at stake for the US and capitalism. US President Eisenhower was highly agitated by the Soviet support for his enemies, Cuba and Congo, and the supply of cobalt was another worrying issue. The West was also not quite happy with Lumumba; his outspoken socialism had made him unpopular with the Americans and the British.
After the intel is leaked, Devlin receives a cable, directly from Eisenhower, in which he is asked to take instructions from a person named Joe in Leopoldville and to eliminate Lumumba physically (“Congo, Decolonization,” n.d.). Devlin, however, refused to do so by saying that he had operations going on that would, in the long run, remove him from the office. So, he felt that there was no need to kill him.
The successionist movements then started and Eisenhower instructed the United Nations to send its peacekeeping troops to Congo so that Lumumba’s inclination towards the Soviet Union could decline. But the UN forces, under the banner of neutrality, seemed incapable of driving the Belgians out and helping Lumumba restore his territory. This inaction from the peacekeepers provoked South Kasai to succeed itself from Congo on 9th August 1960.
After many of the requests Lumumba sent to the UN were declined, he leaned more towards the Soviet Union and used its artillery and troops to offensively enter South Kasai. The UN, under the US commands, disrupted Lumumba’s communication to halt the attack. In the meantime, Lumumba’s army chief went to Devlin, claiming the army was unhappy with Lumumba and did not want the Soviets to dictate it. He claimed that if the US was ready to back the army, he would enforce martial law, to which Devlin agreed, and within a week, in October 1960, martial law was imposed.
Lumumba was kept under house arrest and the US authorized the UN to witch hunt Lumumba’s followers. Mobutu then, with complete US support, assassinated Lumumba on 17th January by presenting him in front of the killing squad in the Katanga Province. With Lumumba’s death, the US fulfilled its interest in getting rid of a nationalist leader but put in jeopardy the fate of millions of Congolese.
After the assassination, the US gave a free hand to the UN to take matters into its own hands. Nonetheless, the US again got involved soon after the UN missions in Katanga got retaliation from Belgium due to the clash of interests between them. The US supported these missions to undermine the Belgian influence and sustain the US hegemony. Finally, the US backed Mobutu, when he came into power in 1965, apparently putting an end to the ongoing crisis but sowing many more in the future (Davis, 2013).
Soviet Union’s Short-lived Role
The Soviet interference in the crisis was limited only to the supply of arms, artillery, and troops unlike the US and Belgium, whose role in Congo during the crisis had been conclusive not just militarily but financially, politically, and diplomatically.
The Soviet Union’s interference in the Congo crisis came with Lumumba and went way with his assassination. It was Patrice Lumumba who reached out to the Soviets for their help once it had become clear to him that he could not expect help from the U.S. He knew very well, through the Cuban example, that the Soviets were ready to help where the US was not, and he was absolutely right.
Moscow, which had earlier established a bureau for aiding anti-colonial liberation movements, accepted Lumumba’s request and Congo became a full-fledged battleground for a proxy war. By the end of July 1960, the USSR started providing military and artillery aid to Congo (just one month after their supply of weapons to Cuba) which was a concern for the West and the U.S. specifically. This was the moment when Congo became a grave concern for the Eisenhower government.
The military support from the Soviets continued and Lumumba even asked them to help him restore his territory after the province of South Kasai declared its secession from Congo. The Soviets agreed and under Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR provided Lumumba with equipment and military with which he entered South Kasai offensively. The United States tried to disrupt the invasion by cutting off communications but the attack was a heavy success.
The Soviet soldiers were, however, accused of committing human rights violations in South Kasai during the invasion, by making excuses of which, Lumumba was dismissed and the country fell into utter chaos. Ever since Lumumba’s government was replaced by Mobutu’s coup, the Soviet help halted.
It is also a major critique on the part of the Soviets that they could have helped Lumumba escape from a horrible fate if they had helped him in the days of his house arrest but the Soviet help never came. Since, the USSR had many other fronts to deal with, including the decisive Cuban missile crisis, it could not afford to divert its attention towards helping an African national leader, provided he was not a communist either.
By analyzing the roles and interests of the foreign powers in the Congo crisis, it can be concluded that the only thing the powerful states care about is their state interest. Anything that harms their self-interest is wrong and what does not, is right. The West portrays itself as the protagonist of human rights and democracy but this crisis is an out-and-out portrayal of the West’s hypocrisy.
These states allowed millions of people to die so that their own economic and political interests could be fulfilled, their greed for resources could be satisfied, and their dominance could be maintained. It clearly reflects that human rights violations, for the West, are acceptable as long as they serve their purpose. When they do not, human rights are used as a political tool to avenge the opposing party.
The Third World countries have always been a hunting ground for the West. With no master, regions like Africa have always been viewed as an open invitation for the superpowers to hunt and influence. The Cold War might not have initiated a full-scale war but it sponsored many proxy wars; the western powers have used the weak and suppressed nations to fight their wars, pay their prices, fulfill their agendas, and received nothing in return.
All the major powers have exploited these territories, deprived, tortured, suppressed the natives, used them to commit horrible crimes, and let them die for the “greater good”, all for their own benefits. If Congo had been given some space to let it sort out its disputes by itself, if the superpowers had not viewed Congo as a battleground, if the Congolese people had been seen as their partners rather than slaves, the Congo crisis could undoubtedly have had different results.
- DR Congo: Cursed by its natural wealth. (2013). BBC.https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24396390.
- Munshi, N. (2020). Belgium’s reckoning with a brutal history in Congo. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/a17b87ec-207d-4aa7-a839-8e17153bcf51
- “The Congo, Decolonization, and the Cold War, 1960–1965.” (n.d.). Office of the Historian.https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/congo-decolonization.
- Thomas, C. G., & Falola, T. (2020). Secession and Separatist Conflicts in Postcolonial Africa. University of Calgary Press, Calgary, AB. https://prism.ucalgary.ca/bitstream/handle/1880/112216/9781773851273_chapter01.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y
- Hurst. R. (2009, July 15). Congo civil war (1960-1964). Black Past. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/congo-civil-war-1960-1964/.
- Davis, E.M. (2013). The United States and the Congo, 1960-1965: Containment, minerals and strategic location. University of Kentucky. https://uknowledge.uky.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=history_etds.
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