United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Congo crisis in the wake of the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960 was marked by a complex civil war involving intervention by the United Nations. U.N. forces were eventually authorized to use force against secessionists, marking a controversial milestone in U.N. peacekeeping.

Summary of Event

Immediately on achieving its independence in June of 1960, the Congo lapsed into a prolonged and politically complicated civil war. With the former Belgian colonial administration no longer in control, the politically unstable character of the Congo state became painfully obvious. Civil wars;Congo Congo crisis (1960-1963) United Nations;peacekeeping Postcolonialism;Congo United Nations Operation in the Congo United Nations;Congo crisis [kw]United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War (July, 1960) [kw]Congolese Civil War, United Nations Intervenes in the (July, 1960) [kw]Civil War, United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese (July, 1960) [kw]War, United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil (July, 1960) Civil wars;Congo Congo crisis (1960-1963) United Nations;peacekeeping Postcolonialism;Congo United Nations Operation in the Congo United Nations;Congo crisis [g]Africa;July, 1960: United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War[06580] [g]Congo, Democratic Republic of the;July, 1960: United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War[06580] [c]United Nations;July, 1960: United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War[06580] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July, 1960: United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War[06580] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July, 1960: United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War[06580] [c]Colonialism and occupation;July, 1960: United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War[06580] Lumumba, Patrice Kasavubu, Joseph Tshombe, Moïse Hammarskjöld, Dag Mobutu, Joseph Désiré

Consisting at the time of independence of nearly fifteen million people divided into some two hundred ethnolinguistic groups, the Congo was wholly unprepared to govern itself. It had been a Belgian colony since 1885, when the Berlin Conference on West Africa divided the continent among the European colonial powers. The Congo was awarded to King Leopold of Belgium as a personal possession, but in 1908, after scandalous reports on the inhumane treatment of Congolese labor in the mineral-rich country, the Belgian government Belgian colonies assumed direct administration over the colony. In the late 1950’s, faced with increasing economic and political pressure, including the Léopoldville riots of early 1959, Belgium moved rapidly to divest itself of the colony and grant its independence.

The potential leadership of the Congo at this time was badly divided along ethnic, geographical, and ideological lines. There was little agreement on whether the Congo should be a federal or unitary state, nor was there agreement about what the ongoing relationship with Belgium should be. Ten political parties, several explicitly based on ethnic foundations, sprouted up in the two years preceding independence and had little time to forge a nationwide consensus on anything, other than that independence should be sought. To complicate matters, the once dynamic economy of the Belgian Congo had fallen on leaner times, a fact that influenced Belgium’s decision to allow independence to be so rapidly, and perhaps imprudently, effected. Furthermore, the country’s most valuable resources were located in the south, especially in secession-minded South Kasai and Katanga provinces.

The Katanga Katanga province party, headed by Moïse Tshombe, sought to retain close ties with Belgium, in contrast to the positions of other parties and individuals. As the country gradually descended into civil war, the safety of foreigners and indigenous people alike was threatened. These threats, together with actual attacks on foreigners, triggered immediate intervention by Belgian troops, and this eventually precipitated involvement of the United Nations.

The postindependence history of the Congo, then, is a study in personal rivalries, geographical factionalism, political intrigue, high-stakes maneuvering by conflicting Congolese government officials, U.N. intervention, and Cold War politics. It is also the story of assassination, political executions, racially motivated conflict, secessionist rebellion, intertribal and interclan rivalry, and interregional animosity. It is not surprising that it is also a story of war, displaced persons, terrorized populations, refugees, and human suffering. Before the conflict was over, the Congo had lost its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered while a prisoner of Katanga secessionists, and the United Nations had lost its secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, in a plane crash while he was en route to negotiations intended to resolve the Katanga revolt.

Unlike most other newly independent African nations, the Congo experienced no political honeymoon free of political conflict. Virtually from the day of independence, mutinies in the armed forces, turmoil, and tribal violence erupted. Belgian military forces intervened to protect foreigners and presumably to restore order in the mineral-rich Katanga province, which remained an important commercial resource for Belgium. The chief political figures in the Congo vied from the start to gain favorable treatment for their separate constituencies. The tenuous compromises between Lumumba, who was elected premier of the Congo, and Joseph Kasavubu, who had competed for Lumumba’s post but settled for the position of the presidency, began to break down over how to deal with the Belgian military intervention, which Kasavubu welcomed but Lumumba condemned. In Katanga, Tshombe, going even further than Kasavubu, not only welcomed a strong Belgian presence but also declared independence from the Congo.

The spreading disorder prompted Kasavubu and Lumumba to ask for U.N. intervention. Less than two weeks after independence, forces from the United Nations Operation in the Congo (UNOC) arrived. They did not leave until four years later, after losing more than two hundred troops to battle deaths or accidents and incurring about $430 million in expenses. Once in the Congo, UNOC forces became a source of dissension among Congo leaders even though Hammarskjöld attempted to ensure U.N. neutrality. Lumumba distrusted Hammarskjöld and the U.N. presence, although these very forces later helped shield him from arrest by his political adversaries, and Tshombe refused to allow UNOC forces into Katanga.

Hammarskjöld nevertheless secured a withdrawal of Belgian troops, even as Kasai province joined Katanga in secession and mutual recriminations between Lumumba and Kasavubu led to a complete break between them. Lumumba’s appeals for direct Soviet assistance ran counter to the U.N. operation and Hammarskjöld’s objectives. A few weeks later, Colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu (who later adopted the name Mobutu Sese Seko), who sided with Kasavubu, engineered a coup and had Lumumba arrested only to see him escape and remain under U.N. protection in his Léopoldville residence.

Joseph Désiré Mobutu.

(Library of Congress)

In time, four distinct governments contested for control over parts or all of the fragmented Congolese state. The fragmentation of the Congo reflected traditional geographical and ethnic divisions as well as more modern ideological concerns.

Gradually Kasavubu, working with Mobutu, was able to gain U.N. recognition for his government, which took the Congo’s seat at the United Nations. Having been largely outmaneuvered on the international scene, Lumumba escaped from Léopoldville in a desperate effort to reach his supporters in the East, only to be captured again by Mobutu forces before attaining his objective. Following this, Lumumba forces proclaimed independence for the government in Stanleyville. Within two months, Lumumba had been murdered after having been transferred into Katangan custody. East bloc countries promptly recognized the Stanleyville government. Civil war preoccupied the Léopoldville regime during most of 1961, although a compromise federal regime under Cyrille Adoula Adoula, Cyrille held out promise for an end to the civil conflict. These hopes were short-lived.

Katanga province quickly reverted to open rebellion, and Gizenga returned to Stanleyville to reorganize opposition to the central government. Fighting in Katanga was especially difficult, and it was while on his way to obtain a cease-fire there that Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash, in September of 1961. The Katanga secession was successfully suppressed in 1964, and UNOC forces were able to quit the country. By that time, the central government had gained sufficient strength to ensure the integrity of the nation, although internal dissent and turmoil persisted, if at a more manageable level.

This brief account of some of the salient events in the Congo crisis provides only the barest outline of an infinitely more complicated series of events. The United Nations operated under the very difficult constraint of opposition from the Soviet Union. It also faced politically entrenched interests inside the Congo that perpetuated the civil war. Measured in human terms, thousands of Congolese died during the hostilities, many as a result of spontaneous tribal disputes that the central government was powerless to prevent. Hundreds more died in clashes between the forces of the vying governments. Thousands of people were displaced and became refugees. Having passed through this terrible four-year trial during its infancy, the Congo emerged scarred but whole.


The Congolese civil war underscored the tremendous difficulties facing new states in Africa whose colonially inherited borders did not conform with demographic realities and whose people had too little time and too few of the skills needed to prepare for self-government. The Congo crisis helped underscore for other African governments the importance of reaffirming the legitimacy of colonial boundaries and the need of peoples residing within them to build genuine nations where only juridical states existed in many instances.

Within the Congo itself, the crisis led to the ascension of Mobutu to the presidency in 1965. He took control of the central government and ruled the country with a firm hand, often with little regard for human rights, while accumulating a considerable fortune of his own from the nation’s wealth. In the 1970’s, Katanga, earlier renamed Shaba province, on two occasions experienced renewed separatist violence. On the other hand, the Congo, which came to be known as Zaire, has to a large extent avoided, since the early 1960’s, the bloodier and more brutal paths taken by many other African countries. The Shaba incidents were mild in comparison to the civil wars in Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique, Rhodesia, Angola, Somalia, and the Sudan.

The Congo civil war had significant international as well as domestic consequences. The involvement of the U.N. peacekeeping forces was controversial from the beginning. That these forces were eventually authorized to use force against Katangan secessionists was a controversial milestone in U.N. peacekeeping. Although the U.N. Charter clearly permitted the use of force by the United Nations where threats to the peace or acts of aggression required international action, many argued nevertheless that this was still inconsistent with the spirit of the organization.

The Soviet Union used the occasion of the U.N. Operation in the Congo to challenge the authority of the secretary-general. Soviet leaders were particularly incensed at the decisive role Hammarskjöld played in the early months of the crisis and proposed diluting the secretary-general’s authority with their famous “troika” proposal, which would have divided the office among three persons. In addition, the recalcitrance of the Soviet Union in paying its fair share of peacekeeping expenses in the Congo led to a major financial crisis in the United Nations. The Soviet Union succeeded in its refusal to pay for UNOC but failed to gain support for its troika proposal. Thus, UNOC provided another case in which the United Nations showed an ability to take action to promote long-term peace and regional stability.

United Nations peacekeeping efforts have since drawn on many of the lessons learned in the Congo operation. This institutional machinery has since proved invaluable in regional conflict resolution, much to the benefit of populations whose lives are disrupted by or lost in prolonged international or civil conflict. Civil wars;Congo Congo crisis (1960-1963) United Nations;peacekeeping Postcolonialism;Congo United Nations Operation in the Congo United Nations;Congo crisis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burns, Arthur, and Nina Heathcote. Peace-Keeping by U.N. Forces: From Suez to the Congo. New York: Praeger, 1963. Extensive treatment the Congo crisis and the context of U.N. involvement. Footnotes and appendixes are included. No bibliography or index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dayal, Rajeshwar. Mission for Hammarskjöld: The Congo Crisis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. Written by a controversial U.N. official involved in the Congo peacekeeping operation, this book explores in great detail the events of 1960 and 1961 that saw the United Nations gradually and more deeply implicated in the crisis. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, Howard M., ed. Revolt in the Congo: 1960-1964. New York: Facts On File, 1965. A useful chronology of events from 1960 to 1964, with commentary on the evolution of the crisis. Described by the author as an “interim history.” The journalistic tone of this source makes for easy reading, but the work lacks a bibliography or footnotes. Index included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrelson, Max. Fires All Around the Horizon: The U.N.’s Uphill Battle to Preserve the Peace. New York: Praeger, 1989. This contemporary source, written by a respected longtime U.N. official, describes the general history of U.N. peacekeeping operations. A very good chapter treats the Congo case, providing a brief but useful account of the evolution of the crisis from the perspective of U.N. headquarters. Contains endnotes, a selected bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lefever, Ernest W. Crisis in the Congo: A United Nations Force in Action. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1965. This dispassionate treatment of the Congo crisis and of U.N. involvement provides an interesting contrast to the Dayal and Harrelson books, written by U.N. insiders with perhaps less distance from the events and more of a stake in how they are interpreted. Contains notes, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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. Highly recommended, especially as an updated source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Crawford. Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Written by a highly respected American Africanist, this extensively documented book is a detailed historical treatment and political analysis of Belgian colonial rule, independence movements, and the postindependence crisis in the Congo. Includes an exhaustive bibliography and an index.

Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General

Africa’s Year of Independence

Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue

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

Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo

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