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 Unfortunately, it is far more out of date than even a serious and well-documented study need be.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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.