Jun 30 2010

Congo’s Unhappy Birthday

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:30 PM

What I’ve learned about Africa, in ten years of visits to the region, study and reflection, is that if something is broken in Africa, somebody wants it broken. And possibly, or even probably, that somebody benefits from it being broken (or breaking it if it isn’t yet broken).

This single insight into how Africa works, however provisional and tentative, explains much about the history of the Congo, from its sudden birth 50 years agoin 1960 to its frustrating, bewildering, and pregnant-with-potential present in 2010. Going back to the beginning, which in the case of sub-Saharan Africa means returning to the years immediately prior to decolonization and the years immediately following political independence, is increasingly vital in order to understand the region’s future as much as its past. In the case of the Congo, which was never a nation-state until the Belgians declared it to be one, neither the design nor the intent of Congo’s notional creators supported the official narrative of nationalism. In short, the Congo was not meant to succeed. It hasn’t. The 50th anniversary of the Congo is thus not an occasion for celebration. To modestly and soberly mark a half-century of Congo, read the opening paragraphs of Piero Gleijeses’ vital history of Cold War Africa, “Conflicting Missions” (University of North Carolina Press) which in great detail documents and assesses the interplay between U.S. and Cuban involvement in Africa from 1959 to 1976. Gleijeses skillfully shows a keen appreciation of the costs of decolonization – and the extent to which Europeans resented having to surrender an Africa they had long controlled and felt they had profitably developed. Gleijeses [in 2002] writes:

In 1945 virtually all Africa was divided among the Europeans: France and England has the largest shares; tiny Belgium ruled the immense colony of Zaire; Portugal was the master of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and several small islands; Spain held a few fragments; and the fate of the former Italian colonies had yet to be decided. There was no Soviet threat, no Communist subversion, and no threat to the white man’s rule.

Fifteen years later, however, colonial rule was in ruins… The swiftness of the Europeans abdication had many explanations. In a ripple effect, as a colony moved toward independence, expectations swelled in neighboring territories. And when colonial authorities applied the brakes, the response was not submission but riots. “Africa may become,” British prime minister Harold MacMillan warned in August 1959, “no longer a source of pride or profit to the Europeans who have developed it, but a maelstrom of trouble into which all of us would be sucked.” By surrendering formal power gracefully, however, the metropole could retain strong political and economic influence over its former colonies. And so Paris and London let their charges go.

As did  Brussels, with unseemly haste. In January 1959 riots shattered Congo’s capital, Leopoldville, and shook Brussells from its torpor. A few days later, a sobered Belgian government promised independence “without either baneful delays or ill-conceived precipitousness.” No date was set, but Belgian officials speculated that the transition would take 15 years. As unrest grew and concessions triggered more demands, however, the country seemed headed toward anarchy and radicalization, and Brussels began its headlong retreat. In October 1959 the government cut the timetable for independence to four years; three months later it slashed it to six months. On June 30, 1960, Congo achieved independence, for which it was utterly unprepared.

The world was equally unprepared for the birth of Congo. And the world remains so today.

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