Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue

The so-called Congo crisis was a product of unplanned and halfhearted Belgian decolonization and uncompromising Lumumbist nationalism. It led to widespread chaos, human rights violations, and bloodshed.

Summary of Event

The Belgian Congo became Congo (or the Republic of the Congo) upon independence in 1960. In 1964, it changed its name to Democratic Republic of the Congo. To distinguish it from a northern neighbor with the same name, it was variously referred to as “Congo-Léopoldville” and as “Congo-Kinshasa” after 1966, when its capital city changed from Léopoldville to Kinshasa. In 1971, the official name of the country became Zaire. After 1997, it was also again known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and its neighbor came to be known as the Republic of the Congo. Katanga
Congo crisis (1960-1963)
Civil wars;Congo
[kw]Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue (July, 1960)
[kw]Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue, Katanga (July, 1960)
[kw]Congo and Riots Ensue, Katanga Province Secedes from (July, 1960)
[kw]Riots Ensue, Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and (July, 1960)
Congo crisis (1960-1963)
Civil wars;Congo
[g]Africa;July, 1960: Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue[06570]
[g]Congo, Democratic Republic of the;July, 1960: Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue[06570]
[c]Independence movements;July, 1960: Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue[06570]
[c]Government and politics;July, 1960: Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue[06570]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;July, 1960: Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue[06570]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July, 1960: Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue[06570]
Lumumba, Patrice
Kasavubu, Joseph
Tshombe, Moïse
Mobutu, Joseph Désiré
Hammarskjöld, Dag

Unlike other African countries that gained independence in 1960, the Congo immediately began to slip into a severe civil disorder that degenerated into superpower political confrontations. Less than two weeks after independence, Congo’s wealthiest region, Katanga province, announced its secession. The Belgians, the former colonial rulers, returned with force without the invitation of the Congo’s national government. The Congolese army mutinied after independence, because its officer corps remained predominantly Belgian. With political independence, the Congolese expected but did not get rapid Africanization of the army’s officer corps. Because the army constituted the primary instrument of government coercion at the time, Belgian control of its officer corps meant that the Congo did not have real political independence.

On their part, the Belgians were determined to retain some economic and political influence even after their reluctant return of self-government to the Congolese. The region of Katanga was the economic hub of the independent Congo, but the economy of Katanga was controlled by Belgian nationals. It was these Belgian businesspeople who engineered Katanga’s secession in order to escape political control of the new African leaders of the Congo. When African leaders of independent Congo resisted this economic sabotage by Belgians resident in Katanga, the government of Belgium intervened with force, ostensibly to save Belgian lives. Thus, in only two weeks the coercive power of the new government, the primary source of its revenue, and the national sovereignty regained after seventy-five years (1885-1960) of colonial subjugation were all in jeopardy.

The crisis appeared first as civil strife between rival ethnic groups (the Bakongos and Bakavas) on the first day of July, only one day after Congo’s independence was declared. Fifty people were injured and two hundred were arrested in the cities of Léopoldville and Luluabourg before a curfew that ended independence celebrations was imposed. Four days later, in the city of Thysville, the Congolese army mutinied against the Belgian-dominated officer corps. The mutiny quickly spread to other cities, including Elisabethville, in the province of Katanga, and the capital city of Léopoldville, where the mutineers refused to take orders from Belgian officers.

On July 10, without permission of the central government of the Congo, Belgian paratroopers attacked the city of Elisabethville. Twenty-five people were reportedly killed before the Belgians reestablished control. The next day, Belgian naval forces heavily bombarded the city of Matadi after the evacuation of European residents. Nineteen Congolese casualties were reported, although some accounts claimed a generalized massacre with hundreds of deaths, exacerbating the atmosphere of panic, distrust, and fear between Europeans (especially Belgians) and Congolese. On that same day, under the protection of Belgian troops, Moïse Tshombe, the president of the province of Katanga, declared Katanga an independent state.

The secession of Katanga internationalized the Congo crisis. In 1960, 25 percent of Congo’s foreign exchange earnings, 50 percent of its national budget, and 75 percent of its mining production came from Katanga. To Patrice Lumumba’s central government, therefore, successful secession by Katanga meant national economic death. On July 12, after fifty Congolese mutineers were shot by Belgian troops in Katanga, Congo’s national government, fearing the disintegration of the country and its recolonization by Belgium, appealed to the United States for military intervention. The United States, preferring to get involved through the United Nations, denied the request for bilateral military assistance to the besieged republic. That night, the president of the Congo, Joseph Kasavubu, and Prime Minister Lumumba cabled the United Nations for military assistance to end the Belgian-supported Katanga secession and continuing Belgian violations of Congo’s sovereignty.

The United Nations United Nations;peacekeeping
United Nations;Congo crisis was quick to act. On July 14, its Security Council adopted a resolution calling on the Belgian government to withdraw from the Congo. Belgium ignored the resolution and proceeded instead to extend its military reconquest and political influence to all of the Congo. The authority of Lumumba’s government was undermined with impunity by the superior military force of the Belgians. As a result, the rule of law was replaced by disorder and by violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms—not that Africans in the colonial Congo had enjoyed widespread human rights in the first place.

The colonial Human rights;Belgian Congo
Belgian colonies rule of the Belgians and Portuguese, the poorest Europeans in colonial Africa, is generally noted for deprivation of basic rights to colonial subjects. Racial discrimination was as rigid and ferocious as in the height of South African apartheid. Africans had no rights to employment and were forced by law to work in the public sector for sixty days per year without pay. In the private sector, they were bound to their European employers by “contract of work” rather than “contract of employment.” This distinction denied Africans the protection of trade unions enjoyed by their employed European counterparts. Even the right to spend their meager incomes freely was denied to the Africans by the colonial government. Until 1955, it was illegal to sell liquor to an African and all Africans were subjected to a severely enforced nightly curfew, with no freedom of movement in their immediate neighborhoods.

Political and economic rights were nonexistent. The right of Africans to own land was prohibited by law even though most were peasant farmers. Education was allowed only to the extent that it served the administrative needs of colonialism. Even then, Africans were denied access to the well-equipped schools paid for by their labor but preserved for Europeans. Thus, at independence in 1960, after seventy-five years of Belgian rule, there were only thirty Congolese with a university education. The humiliation of colonial paternalism and the injustice of denial of human rights were the bitter realities fundamental to uncompromising Lumumbist nationalism. The Congolese were not willing to see the Congo recolonized behind the smoke screen of secessionist Katanga.

In desperation, therefore, Lumumba sent a telegram to Moscow requesting that the Kremlin keep an eye on events in the Congo. That same day, July 15, the first detachments of U.N. troops arrived in the Congo. Thus began the first Cold War Cold War;Africa clash in Africa.

The principal actors in the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States, had different views regarding the core of the Congo crisis, the secession of Katanga. Lumumba’s government wanted the United Nations to end Katanga’s secession by any means, including force. The East, led by the Soviet Union, took a similar position. The United States and the West initially held the view that the incorporation of Katanga into the Congo would increase disorder, and in any event, they were against the use of force to end the secession. Moïse Tshombe, the president of Katanga, and the government of Belgium, his main financial, technical, political, and military supporter, both announced their readiness to use force to prevent the United Nations’ presence in their “sovereign” state of Katanga. The United Nations was against the use of force and advocated diplomatic and political means. The internationalization of the Congo crisis finally settled along the lines of the dialectics of the Cold War.

For the Soviet Union, it was a new opportunity to bring communism into the heart of Africa. For the United States, it became another front in the war to contain communism. The Soviet Union began to support factions which in turn supported Lumumba. The United States began to support factions seeking the overthrow of Lumumba. The Belgians sought the same goals as did the United States, but pursued them through control of Katanga and influence on Kasavubu.

Kasavubu overthrew Lumumba’s government and had Lumumba arrested by Colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu, chief of staff of the Congolese National Army. Lumumba was transferred to Katanga, where he was humiliated, tortured, and finally murdered on the night of January 17-18, 1961, in a farmhouse belonging to a Belgian settler. The United Nations’ failure to prevent the political assassination of Lumumba brought its impartiality in the Congo crisis into question. At the Security Council meeting in February, a bitter Soviet Union called for the dismissal of U.N. secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, accusing him of being a participant in and organizer of Lumumba’s assassination. Six months later, Hammarskjöld was killed in a mysterious air crash in Katanga.

After the deaths of Lumumba and Hammarskjöld, catastrophic political confrontations in the Congo continued. Indiscriminate political assassinations increased until January 14, 1963, when Tshombe terminated Katanga’s secession. The Congo became a single country again, although constitutional crises continued until November 25, 1965, when Mobutu (by then a general) assumed power through a military coup.


In general, the Congo crisis concerned the collective human fights of a people to political self-determination. The underlying struggle was between powerful European mining interests resident in the Katanga province of the Congo and uncompromising Lumumbist nationalism. Indeed, the idea and implementation of Katanga’s secession, the root cause of the crisis, were inspired and supported by Belgians who had substantial financial and industrial interests in Katanga. The bulk of the human cost was borne by ordinary Africans.

About one year into the crisis, a U.N. refugee camp in the city of Elisabethville sheltered an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Africans. According to one expert on the Congo crisis, Jules Gérard-Libois, the camp “was a running sore, a center of misery, of banditry and of violent opposition to established authorities.” Camp conditions constituted an effective denial of the basic human right to freedom, pursuit of happiness, and decent life. Africans, however, were not the only victims of the crisis. Ordinary Belgians who worked in the Congo suffered from the crisis as well. Families were separated. Many were forced by fear to ship wives, children, and property back to Belgium in the face of the virulent appeals to racial hatred.

On the whole, the situation in the Congo, marked by administrative breakdown, military chaos, and political fragmentation, was not conducive to the rule of law. In this sense, few people, irrespective of race, enjoyed any kind of human rights. Order, due process, and economic and social advance promised in preindependence election platforms were replaced by uncertainty and insecurity, suspicion and fear, and arbitrary arrests and killings. Such events were not part of the hopes raised in the minds of the Africans by the prospect of independence. Independence was conceptualized as freedom from humiliating European domination, a return to full citizenship with all of its fundamental rights. Instead, independence became a more dehumanizing life in refugee camps.

In the 1960’s, Cold War imperatives, not patriotism, determined who got what rights. Had Lumumbists understood this reality, there may not have been a crisis in the Congo. For that matter, Mobutu may never have been able to implement his dictatorship. Sadly, the condition of the Congo in the post-Mobutu era was even worse, in terms of the heightened bloodshed and the further deterioration of the standard of living, than it had been prior to his coup. Katanga
Congo crisis (1960-1963)
Civil wars;Congo

Further Reading

  • Ashton, Nigel J. Kennedy, Macmillan, and the Cold War: The Irony of Interdependence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Analyzes the Congo crisis from the point of view of the Cold War and U.S. and British foreign policy. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Dayal, Rajeshwar. Mission for Hammarskjöld: The Congo Crisis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. This book is a participant’s account of the Congo crisis. Dayal was head of the U.N. operation in the Congo. The book is authoritative but subjective. It is a useful account of the United Nations’ perspective on the crisis.
  • Epstein, Howard M., ed. Revolt in the Congo: 1960-1964. New York: Facts On File, 1965. This is a very useful documentation of relevant dates and corresponding events in the Congo crisis. The author volunteers little analysis. In a sense, this is the strong point of the book. Very informative.
  • Gérard-Libois, Jules. Katanga Secession. Translated by Rebecca Young. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966. Gérard-Libois’s account of the special interests and politics behind Katanga’s decision to secede is by far one of the best histories of events, personalities, and organizations connected with the crisis. The book is largely impartial, leaving the reader to form his or her own opinion about the forces behind the rupture. The book includes useful original documents related to the crisis.
  • Lefever, Ernest W. Crisis in the Congo: A United Nations Force in Action. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1965. This book does relatively little to aid in understanding unique Congolese experiences that were fundamental to the crisis. Relying primarily on documents and interviews, the book rehashes the Cold War thinking of the West and appraises the role played by the United Nations. This book is useful for those interested in an opinionated account of the roles played by the United States and the United Nations in the crisis.
  • Young, Crawford. Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. This is a scholarly analysis of the challenges of nation building in the Congo. The book contains informative historical facts necessary for understanding the crisis. It is objective and will arm the reader with an appreciation of internal and external factors that finally pushed the Congo from the devastation of colonialism to the catastrophe of self-rule.

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