Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo

To end a five-year crisis in Congo, Joseph Mobutu staged a military coup and removed President Joseph Kasavubu from power. This restored order to the country, but it also marked the start of Mobutu’s despotic thirty-two-year reign over Congo.

Summary of Event

In the late 1950’s, Africa saw many colonized areas make significant movements toward independence. In 1958 in Brazzaville, French Equatorial Africa (just across the Congo River from the Belgian Congo, or Congo-Léopoldville), French president Charles de Gaulle declared autonomy for French Equatorial Africa, immediately sparking Congolese demands for independence from Belgium. Revolutions and coups;Congo
Congolese coup of 1965
[kw]Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo (Nov. 25, 1965)
[kw]Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo, Military (Nov. 25, 1965)
[kw]Mobutu in Control of Congo, Military Coup Places (Nov. 25, 1965)
[kw]Congo, Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of (Nov. 25, 1965)
Revolutions and coups;Congo
Congolese coup of 1965
[g]Africa;Nov. 25, 1965: Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo[08690]
[g]Congo, Democratic Republic of the;Nov. 25, 1965: Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo[08690]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 25, 1965: Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo[08690]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 25, 1965: Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo[08690]
[c]Independence movements;Nov. 25, 1965: Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo[08690]
Mobutu, Joseph Désiré
Kasavubu, Joseph
Lumumba, Patrice
Tshombe, Moïse
Gbenye, Christophe

Belgium moved hastily toward independence for the Belgian Congo and set the date for independence at June 30, 1960. The name of the new central African nation was the Republic of the Congo, with Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) as the capital city. The Republic of the Congo was also known as Congo-Léopoldville (later known as both Congo-Kinshasa and Zaire). Patrice Lumumba became the prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kasavubu (the chief rival of Lumumba) became the president, and Joseph Désiré Mobutu became Lumumba’s private secretary and soon after independence became the head of the Congolese army as Lumumba’s army chief of staff.

Less than one week after independence, the Congolese army mutinied against its mostly Belgian officers. Support troops were sent from Belgium to protect Belgian civilians living in the Congo. This time marked the beginning of the Congo crisis Congo crisis (1960-1963) , which would last until Mobutu took power in 1965. On July 11, 1960, Moïse Tshombe (president of the Congolese province of Katanga) declared Katanga independent, and the newly formed country descended into chaos. The United Nations, a young organization at the time, was facing its greatest tests to date during the liberation of African nations. Its role in the Congo would prove pivotal in both Congolese and world politics. Soon, Lumumba would be asking for military aid both from the United Nations and the Soviet Union, and U.N. and Soviet troops arrived shortly. Mobutu, supported by the military and by Kasavubu, placed Lumumba under house arrest and began fighting against the Katangan rebellion. Lumumba was turned over to Tshombe in Katanga and executed in January, 1961.

The Soviets left the country after the deposition of Lumumba, and Kasavubu retained control of the government. In 1963, the Congolese, aided by the United Nations, tentatively defeated the rebellion in Katanga. To keep Katanga from rebelling again, Tshombe was given a part in Congo’s central government.

The years 1964 and 1965 were marked by particularly brutal fighting, as uprisings in Katanga and the northeastern Congo continued, though they were not encouraged by Tshombe. The U.N. troops left the Congo in June of 1964. Belgian, U.S., and European mercenary forces intervened in 1964 to help the Congolese military (led by Mobutu) retake the city of Stanleyville (now Kisangani) in the northeastern Congo, where an opposition government had been established by Christophe Gbenye. The opposition government in Stanleyville was deposed in early 1965, and the rebellion in the northeastern Congo was tentatively defeated.

Tshombe was made prime minister by Kasavubu in July of 1964. Partial elections confirmed his position in April of 1965. The rivalry between Kasavubu and Tshombe was putting the central government into stagnation during a time of highly critical development.

The Congo’s central government was weakened by its own divisions (for example, Tshombe versus Kasavubu) and by constant regional opposition. The Congo was out of control and no person, political party, or militia was strong enough to control the entire country, except for Mobutu and the Congolese army. Mobutu was used to Western support, as his troops had spent the previous four-and-a-half years fighting with the aid of the United Nations, the United States, and Belgium. Mobutu had already used his military support and power to depose Lumumba; he was no stranger to military coups. On November 25, 1965, in Léopoldville, with the support of the military he controlled, Mobutu staged a coup d’état against Kasavubu, placing Kasavubu under house arrest (just as he had done with Lumumba) and assuming control of the government. Kasavubu neither resisted nor attempted to regain control of the Congo. Mobutu assumed the position of president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as head of state, and received backing from the West, just as he had expected.

Soon after the coup, Tshombe fled and remained in exile until his death in 1969. Mobutu made Léonard Mulumba Mulumba, Léonard of the Mouvement Populaire Révolutionnaire Mouvement Populaire Révolutionnaire du Congo (MPR; popular revolutionary movement) the prime minister, replacing the Katanga-oriented Évariste Kimba. Mobutu declared himself president for a five-year term, which effectively canceled the presidential elections scheduled for 1966.


Mobutu would be reelected in 1970, but he was the only candidate for president. His rule as president lasted from 1965 to 1997 and was notorious for its oppression of the Congolese people and for lavish spending. During his rule, the MPR was the only political party that was legal. The United States and the United Nations welcomed Mobutu as a stabilizing force in the Congo and endorsed his regime. He declared himself an enemy of communism and remained a well-supported ally of the West during the Cold War, which may have contributed to the length of his regime.

After achieving power, Mobutu instituted a program of Africanization. As part of this program, Mobutu renamed the nation “Zaire” and renamed important cities; he also renamed landmarks, emphasized Congolese tradition in those names, and nationalized private Congolese businesses. Enemies of Mobutu named his form of government a “kleptocracy” because of his nationalization of business, which funded the government. Business in Zaire helped to fund Mobutu’s personal fortune and extravagant spending.

The role of the United Nations and the United States in the Congo was crucial to the state of the world in the early 1960’s, the most tense years of the Cold War. The power and legitimacy of the young United Nations was tested in the Congo. Mobutu’s seizure of power stabilized the Congo and put an end to the nation’s chaotic early years of independence. Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Mobutu’s government bankrupted the Congo, and he was forced out of power in 1997. Revolutions and coups;Congo
Congolese coup of 1965

Further Reading

  • Hoskyns, Catherine. The Organization of African Unity and the Congo Crisis, 1964-65. Case Studies in African Diplomacy 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Contains a good time line of Congolese events from 1963 to 1965 and a good collection of important documents from the last two years of Kasavubu’s rule as president.
  • Kanza, Thomas. Conflict in the Congo: The Rise and Fall of Lumumba. London: Penguin Books, 1972. An insider’s view of Lumumba’s short reign. A small, but good collection of documents from Lumumba’s time in office appears at the end of the book.
  • MacQueen, Norrie. United Nations Peacekeeping in Africa Since 1960. London: Longman, 2002. A rare and engaging look at the history of peacekeeping operations by the United Nations in Africa, beginning with the Congo crisis in 1960.
  • Oliver, Roland, and Atmore Anthony. Africa Since 1800. 4th ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. This is one of the best surveys of modern African history. Provides a clear, accurate portrait of the entire continent. The periods of colonization and independence are especially well covered.
  • Stengers, Jean. Congo: Mythes et réalités—100 ans d’histoire (Congo: Myths and Realities—One Hundred Years of History). Louvain-la-Neuve, France: Duculot, 1989. A French-language survey of Congolese history from King Leopold II’s plans to expand Belgium in 1860 to the independence of the Republic of the Congo in 1960.
  • Weiss, Herbert. War and Peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Current African Issues 22. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2000. This article contains a short but complete summary of the Congo crisis from 1960 to 1963.
  • Young, Crawford. Ideology and Development in Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A good description of socialism and capitalism in postcolonial African states.

Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue

United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War

United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash

Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic

Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government

Nimeiri Takes Charge in Khartoum

Military Takes Charge in Libya

Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup