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The Congo

The events of the last few weeks have once again drawn the attention of the world to the continued inability of any Congolese government to make its authority co-extensive with its frontiers. They have once again spotlighted the violence (of which violent xenophobia is only one aspect) that is so inviting to outside powers seeking to promote disorder in Africa for their own purposes. The tendency to violence emphasizes the quandary of the western powers as to whether the Tshombe government, disliked and distrusted by the whole of independent Africa, should nevertheless be supported as the only one with a chance of bringing the country back under the rule of law. What is at stake is, at the least, a temporary alienation of the Congo’s African neighbors with a corresponding advantage to all the forces hostile to the West in those countries. Yet such is the danger of continued disorder in the Congo itself that the gamble on Tshombe must be tempting—gamble though it certainly is.

As a guide to this conundrum, Professor René Lemarchand’s Political Awakening in the Belgian Congo is a sober, if not exactly an inspiring, contribution. Unfortunately, it is far more out of date than even a serious and well-documented study need be. Tshombe figures in it only as the leader of a secessionist Katanga. It adds nothing to the still imperfectly revealed story of how the sometime “imperialist stooge,” the leader of a government which was deeply implicated in the death of Lumumba, was able to become the Prime Minister of the Congo. While there are references to Lumumba being dead, there is no account of his death. Stranger still, although there is one reference to the withdrawal of the United Nations forces, there is no account of the United Nations operations. Neither Hammarskjold nor Conor Cruise O’Brien appears in the index. All the evidence suggests that the book must have been substantially completed by 1960 and that it has been only tinkered with since then.

Yet there are advantages in being forced back behind the clutter of the last four years to a consideration of the basic facts, historical and geographical, of the Congo’s political life. Lemarchand’s book follows the pattern of Professor James Coleman’s Nigeria—Background to Nationalism, which every aspiring student of African politics rightly seeks to emulate. That is to say it has four parts, the first describing the situation inherited by the colonial power at partition, the second discussing the activities of that power, the third examining the origins of nationalism within the colonial system, and the fourth analyzing the structure and functioning of political parties around the time of independence. The weakness of this approach—much more apparent in the case of the Congo than in that of Nigeria—is that it tends to seek explanations internally, in the relationship of colony and colonial power, rather than externally, in the influence of world events. At least Coleman’s key Nigerians studied in the United States as well as in Britain, but Lemarchand’s Congolese did not even study in Belgium. Yet it can be argued that France’s proclamation in 1955 of a loi cadre promising independence to its African colonies was a more important factor in the history of the Congo than all the years of Belgian administration. And behind the loi cadre was Algeria and the Gold Coast, and Indo-China and India.

To these wider external influences Lemarchand devotes only about three pages, in which we hear of de Gaulle’s visit to Brazzaville in 1958 and Lumumba’s visit to Accra the following year. External influences, so far as he is concerned, mean primarily progressive thinking in Brussels, with pride of place given to A.A.J. Van Bilsen’s Thirty Year Plan for the political emancipation of the Congo, published in 1956. “Unquestionably,” he says, “the most important of such influences was the Van Bilsen proposal. Because it created the issue that provided the initial stimulus to nationalist assertions, it may well be regarded as the starting-point of political developments in the Congo.” Though a fervent admirer of Van Bilsen, I think this a grave exaggeration of his influence.

The same rather blinkered over-concentration on one territory and one colonial power leads Lemarchand to suggest that Congolese history is distinguished by a number of factors that were common to other parts of Africa as well, but which there did not lead to the same results. For instance, he cites the slave-trade as an important cause of Congolese xenophobia: yet the slave-trade in the Congo was hardly peculiar. He makes much of the fact that the Belgians governed the Congo in a set of largely self-contained compartments; yet all the colonial powers did this. Again, in seeking historical causes for the fissiparous and centrifugal tendencies of Congolese politics, he lays great stress on the fact that the economic and social developments of the colonial period proceded at an uneven pace in different parts of the country. There was nothing unique about this. Ghana had its underdeveloped Northern Territories, Nigeria its pagan Middle Belt, Uganda its Karamoja District, where proud, nomadic warriors trooped to independence ceremonies, naked save for the nodding plumes stuck into their mud-caked hair.

Looking for the factors which do most to explain the extraordinary disunity of the Congo, I am struck by two points to which Lemarchand pays only slight attention. The first is a geographical one involving the unique problems of internal communication posed by a territory whose heart is a densely forested and over-watered river basin. The Congo, claimed and demarcated by King Leopold during the brief heyday of the river-steamer, has remained fettered by an antediluvian transport system, in which a parcel or a passenger may take a month to travel from the capital to a peripheral district, and a journey between two neighboring districts involve a detour of many hundreds of miles. No doubt many possible road developments were blocked by the monopoly company which operated the steamers—“l’O.T.R.A.C.O. est roi sur l’eau,” as the saying went. But, even with the best will in the world, the problems of internal communications in the Congo were uniquely difficult, and have certainly been the largest natural barrier to political unification.

The second factor which Lemarchand hardly mentions is the political one. Congolese anti-colonialism, once it had become articulate, faced no serious resistance from the Belgians, and therefore lacked that last, vital, unifying obstacle which alone could turn a merely negative revolt against colonialism into a positive sense of nationalism. Far more damaging than the differences between Belgian colonial policy and that of other powers was the abruptness of its end—the absence of any significant interval affording both freedom to organize and something to organize against. It was privately reported by several of the Congolese delegates to the Round Table Conference of 1959 that they came to Belgium with the hope of negotiating a transfer of power in five years. But meeting with no Belgian minister prepared to open the bidding at fifteen years, or even ten, the rival elements in the delegation could do nothing but bid each other down from five years to three, from three to one, from one to six months.

This was the real disaster. It left no time for a prepared transfer or responsibility in the civil service and the army, where a Congolese could work alongside a senior Belgian official and officer. In the field of politics it put no premium at all on unity. No politician could go to his constituency and say that all Congolese must unite to get the Belgians out at the appointed date, or sooner. Instead, the only appeal he could make was to the particularism of a hundred tribal communities. Hence, as Lemarchand rightly points out, the supreme relevance of the inter-tribal politics of pre-colonial days to the situation today.

For all its narrow focus, this is on the whole a careful, balanced, informative, and well-written book. It is impressively, though not exhaustively, documented; and the author, though somewhat preoccupied with Belgium, is by no means uncritical of Belgian aims and practices. Sympathizing, as he seems to do with the French-speaking and and anti-clerical stream of Belgian opinion, he is rather harsh in his comments the work of the Christian missions which was so central to the colonial history of the Congo. Nevertheless, the significance of the temporary rift between Church and State that led to the Bishops’ Declaration of 1956, recognizing the right of the Congolese to control their own destiny, comes out more clearly in his book than I have seen elsewhere.

Especially judicious, and, so far as I am aware, without any published parallel, is Lemarchand’s analysis of the separate but converging forces which brought about the Katanga secession: the Rhodesian-oriented settler politics of the colonat, and the anti-white, but still more locally particularist, attitude of the Lunda and Yeke political leaders, represented by Tshombe and Munongo respectively. “A third explanatory factor,” he concludes, “lies in the outside support accorded by Belgian metropolitan interests to the advocates of the secession. This support by itself did not provoke the emergence of separatist claims, but it provided the external stimulus that made the prospects of a secession increasingly attractive.”

The former Katanga secessionists are now in power in the central government, and Lemarchand’s “third factor” has therefore transferred its support back to Léopoldville in the shape of a Belgian military mission, and also of American transport planes given or loaned to the Tshombe government. This outside support has not been affected by the withdrawal of the recent Belgian-American rescue expedition. Though not promoting the military effort now being directed against the Rebels in the Eastern Province it is certainly what is making these operations possible. The Organization for African Unity is meanwhile proposing a plan for conciliation, whose first condition is that military operations must cease. Which of the two approaches offers the best chance of success, only someone with the most intimate knowledge of the Congo could dare offer an opinion. It is a pity that Professor Lemarchand’s clear mind and steady judgment could not have brought us a little closer to the current scene.

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