Heart of Darkness: the Tragedy of the Congo, 1960-67

  • by  Robert Craig Johnson

The madness that was the Democratic Republic of Congo during the period 1960-1997 sprang in large part from massive, clandestine intervention by the western powers. France, Britain, Belgium, and the United States would not let the Congolese decide their future for themselves, because these nations feared that a rival—another Western power or the USSR—would gain an undue say in the outcome and that foreign investors would lose money.

But none of these countries thought that its motives and actions could stand much public scrutiny, either at home or abroad. They couldn't just send in the marines, as earlier governments had. From this sprang the twin tools of secret, "low-intensity" wars throughout the remainder of the 20th century: the mercenary "commando" and the small, COIN (counterinsurgency) air force.

In the 1870s, Belgium began to colonize the Congo under an arrangement that was all but unique in the annals of modern European colonialism. The Belgian Congo was supposedly deeded by a hazily defined group of local rulers to a private organization, something called the International Association of the Congo, a supposedly philanthropic, international development agency. In 1878, this group announced the creation of a new nation, the Congo Free State, with Leopold King of the Belgians as its titular head of government. In fact, both the Association and the State were threadbare disguises for Leopold himself, and the peaceful development of the Congo was an utter sham. Hundreds of thousands of Leopold's hapless slaves died of shock, exhaustion, disease, and starvation. Many more were simply massacred to expedite extraction of the country's resources. As a private proprietorship, Leopold's Association operated without parliamentary oversight in Belgium or elsewhere. By 1908 Belgium annexed the Congo.

After the 2nd World War USA and the USSR, opposed colonialism in principle, if not always in practice, and the postwar world economy made colonies ever less profitable and ever more expensive. In 1957, Britain granted Gold Coast colony its independence as the new nation of Ghana, under the charismatic leadership of Kwame Nkrumah. Urged on by Ghana's example and its leader's generous Pan-Africanist policies, Nigeria, Mali, Tanzania, the Central African Republic, Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia), and the French Congo (across the river from Lιopoldville) would all gain their independence in the next five years. Not even the tightest censorship and police surveillance could isolate the Congo from such stirrings.

Yet, as late as 1959, Belgian officials dismissed any talk of independence for the Congo as wildly unrealistic fantasies. An advisory commission (made up entirely of learned, government-appointed Belgians) felt that a strictly limited form of Congolese self-government would possible in thirty years at the earliest. The commission conceded that local and municipal elections might be appropriate somewhat sooner, but it carefully refrained from setting dates. Unfortunately, what were major concessions in Brussels were already too little, too late in Lιopoldville, Luluabourg, and Stanleyville. The Congolese had had enough.

Ten days after the Congo commission delivered its conclusions to the Belgian government, but before the report could be published, Lιopoldville exploded. When police banned a gathering of the Alliance de Ba-Kongo (ABAKO), a tribal cultural society cum political party with widespread support in the capital, three days of rioting ensued. Fifty Africans died, 250 were wounded, and, most ominous of all in Belgian eyes, fifty Europeans were injured. A deeply divided Belgian cabinet hastily announced that it would adopt the advisory commission's recommendations. It vaguely hinted that independence was Belgium's long-term goal for the Congo. But it did nothing to alter the behavior of the colonial administration, set no time tables, and made no start at organizing an orderly transition of power.

As a result, the "concessions" only inflamed passions in the Congo. While politicians in Brussels debated over the wisdom of the over-cautious steps they had just taken and wondered how they might get out of their commitments, Joseph Kasavubu, the conservative, nationalist leader of ABAKO, angrily rejected the entire government proposal. He demanded nothing less than immediate, unconditional independence. A broad spectrum of the country's hitherto tentative and splintered political parties coalesced around Kasavubu's position. Belgium was stunned, completely at a loss. That the Congolese might reject Belgian largesse had never occurred to the ministers and deputies gathered in Brussels. As rioting spread to other cities, the colonial administration began to disintegrate. The Belgian police found themselves unable to control events. The territorial army or Force Publique proved unreliable. In Belgium itself, popular opinion barred any intervention from the home land. The unions and the socialist parties rallied round the slogan, "not one soldier for the Congo," while cautious government ministers agreed that no one wanted a huge and costly war of attrition like that being fought in French Algeria.

Faced with this crisis, the government in Brussels reacted with typical decisiveness: it convened another conference to study the matter further. This time, though, it invited various Congolese leaders and foreign representatives to a meeting at Brussels, in January 1960. Belgium probably hoped that lengthy negotiations would let it exploit the ethnic divisions and individual rivalries that had always splintered the African opposition in the past. But the strategy backfired badly. Ably led by Patrice Lamumba, a charismatic leftwing politician from eastern Congo, the Congolese delegation maintained a militantly united front from the first. It never strayed from the fundamental demand expressed in Kasavubu's manifesto: immediate severance of all ties with Belgium. Faced with such unanimity and with little effective opposition from the ill-prepared Belgian delegation, the international conference recommended unconditional independence for the Congo, effective in six months.

Belgium's oppressive colonial policy now came back to haunt it. No elections had ever been held in the Congo. There were no experienced Congolese administrators or civil servants. The entire nation of 14 million people had only 16 university graduates and 136 high-school graduates. There were no native doctors, teachers, or army officers. This would have been bad enough had there been a well-organized, unified political front to take over from the colonial authorities. But political parties had been banned until 1959, and no broad, ideologically based political organizations existed. Tribal hatreds fostered by years of Belgian policy and by the corruption endemic in the administration created a fractured, suspicious polity. Congolese political parties were thus almost entirely based on ethnic and regional loyalties. There were hundreds of tribal and cultural associations led by naive and ambitious local strongmen. Kasavubu's ABAKO drew its support all but entirely from the Ba-Kongo ethnic group. It worked not for a united modern republic, but for a revival of the sixteenth-century Kingdom of Kongo that had once stretched across lower Congo and northern Angola, where many Ba-Kongos still lived. CONAKAT, founded by Moise Tshombe, was the party of the "true Katangans," southerners who opposed incursions by other ethnic groups into northern Katanga province. BALUBAKAT represented the interests of the rival Baluba ethnic group in south Kasai and north Katanga. Only Patrice Lamumba's large Movement Nationale Congolese (MNC) made any serious effort at recruiting members without regard to tribal affiliation. Even so, it drew most of its support from the tribal groups of eastern Orientale and Kivu provinces. Lacking any experience of government and any real sense of nationhood, the leaders of these associations saw political power as a way of advancing tribal interests and personal prestige.

Faced with insurmountable obstacles of its own making and with independence only months away, Belgium simply gave up. The colonial administration did nothing to smooth the transition. It let the Congo slide rapidly into anarchy and barbarism. When its rightwing white commander, Gen. Emile Janssens, announced that independence would have no immediate effect in the Force Publique and that no African officers would be commissioned in the near future, troops mutinied. Units brought in to restore order joined the mutineers, attacked their officers, and turned on the officers' families. Ill-trained and inexperienced Congolese sergeants could not maintain discipline in such circumstances, even when they wished to. Gangs of armed, uniformed troops looted shops, raped women in their homes, and indiscriminately beat and terrorized Europeans in the street. Lιopoldville's European population fled en masse across the river to relative safety in Brazzaville. Non-African inhabitants of the interior found themselves under siege. Some were murdered or raped, and many more were robbed and beaten. Nor did the hated "whites" have a monopoly on suffering. In the mounting chaos, many old scores and newborn resentments were settled with machetes, spears, and the rifles and machine guns of mutinous soldiers. In Kasai province, genocidal warfare raged between Baluba and Lulua tribesmen, while well-armed "true"-Katangan paramilitary units systematically massacred Balubas in north Katanga.

Belgium now faced the daunting task of evacuating its nationals under fire. Elite paracommandos flew in from Europe and secured major air fields while additional reinforcements came in by sea. Public and ministerial resistance not withstanding, Belgian forces in the Congo quickly swelled from an initial 3800 to well over 10,000. To Lumumba and the Congolese army, this naturally looked more like a colonialist coup than a rescue mission. Firefights broke out between Belgian units and Congolese soldiers. Lamumba urged his people to resist any and all moves by Belgian troops. Soon the roads were insecure outside the major cities.

In the midst of the chaos, on 30 June 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo came into being under its first, hastily elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and its first head of state, President Joseph Kasavubu. Belgium's King Baudouin came to Lιopoldville for the event and delivered a stupid, self-congratulatory speech that provoked an angry reply from the new prime minister. "Nous ne sommes plus vos singes," Lumumba thundered, "We are not your monkeys any more”.

Lumumba enjoyed a wide following among the divided peoples of the Congo. He thus seemed well prepared for leadership and well qualified to unify the country. Unfortunately, he inherited an impossible situation. Lumumba's increasingly strident, antiwestern, anticapitalist tone alarmed his fellow politicians, especially the conservative Kasavubu and Lumumba's former deputy turned army officer, Col. Joseph Mobutu. Anti-white, anti-European, and anti-Western feeling ran so high that almost all the experienced Belgian administrators and technicians were fleeing the country. This crippled the Congolese government and the economy. With the Belgian police and army officers gone, even minimum public order could not be maintained. To make matters worse, revanchist elements in the Belgian secret services were doing their best to stir up trouble among the Congo's rival ethnic groups. The French, Belgium's rivals for post-colonial dominance in francophone Africa, in turn made trouble for the Belgians and their native allies. All the while, the shadowy mining cartel that controlled Congo's copper and cobalt resources, the Anglo-Belgian Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, was working behind the scenes to insure the continuance of its monopoly by any and all means possible.

Katanga stood forth as an island of relative calm in the eventful spring and summer of 1960. As Belgian troops withdrew from northern and eastern Congo, they quietly reconcentrated in the south, around the Union Miniere mines at Kolwezi, at the Kamina air base, and along the rail lines that linked the mines with transshipment points in Portuguese Angola and Northern Rhodesia. Union Miniere supplied much of the world's copper, almost all of its cobalt, and large quantities of uranium (Katanga was the source of the uranium for the atomic bombs that ended the Second World War). It considered itself vital to Western interests, and it enjoyed an incestuously close relationship with the Belgian government and military. Using company money, Belgian officers recruited, trained, and equipped a large private army for the Union, the Katangan gendarmerie, and used it to enforce order (and uninterrupted production) in south Katanga.

As the weakness of the legal government and the vociferously anti-foreign policies of the premier became clear, Union Miniere decided that it could not rely on Lιopoldville to protect its interests. Accordingly, the company set out to detach the mineral-rich parts of the Congo—Katanga and diamond-rich Kasai—from the rest of the nation. With the help of the Belgian army and intelligence services, it organized superficially independent separatist movements from an assortment of ambitious tribal leaders, local politicians, and die-hard European settlers. Moise Tshombe, leader of the CONAKAT party, declared Katanga an independent nation on 11 July 1960 and made himself head of government. Albert Kalonji, the Baluba leader, followed suit by declaring south Kasai's independence in August. Since these two provinces supplied almost all the revenue collected by the central government, they doubtless expected little effective opposition.

To provide cover for the Belgian troops and additional technical specialists for the Katangans, Union Miniere hired hundreds of highly visible French, German, and South African mercenaries. Les affreux (the "frightfuls"), as the unruly mercenaries were called, were for the most part combat veterans fresh from the French Foreign Legion's abortive putsch in Algeria. Many had earlier served in the Wehrmach and SS.

Yet the Katangan leader was the real strength of the secessionist movement. Tshombe was a shrewd, devious, and daring politician, not merely a pliable tool in the hands of the company. He seems to have had genuine regionalist sympathies and the ability to get on well with the unruly, often overtly racist mercenary officers that commanded his gendarmerie. Under his rule, Katanga was a relatively tranquil place where European lives and property were safe, a circumstance he made frequent use of in his dealings with the West. According to Tshombe, Lumumba was a dangerous, clandestine Communist, a Castro with an animal lust for murder and rapine. This stance won him powerful allies in the US Senate and the Eisenhower White House.

Patrice Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba

Faced with this naked reassertion of the old, colonial order in his crucial, revenue-generating southern provinces, Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for assistance in reintegrating Katanga. That august body replied that it could not intervene in an ostensibly "internal" matter, however blatant external, foreign involvement might be. The secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, explained that the UN could at most supervise the withdrawal of Belgian forces and replace them with UN troops, who would serve purely in a peacekeeping and policing role. As Lumumba had feared, Belgium complied with UN directives by withdrawing its forces from all provinces except south Katanga.

In desperation, Lumumba appealed to the Soviet Union. He asked for advisers, weapons, trucks, and transport aircraft for a Congolese National Army (ANC). Lumumba hoped that a rapid invasion of Kasai would stifle the insurrection quickly and at minimal cost. From Kasai, the ANC could move against Katanga by seizing the newly vacated airfield at Kamina. The USSR responded much more favorably than the UN had done. A force of 10-15 Ilyushin Il-14 transports, hastily painted in Congolese markings, was immediately despatched. These joined 5 requisitioned Air Congo (SABENA) DC-3s in ferrying 1000 ANC troops into Luluabourg, the capital of Kasai. Here they massacred hundreds of pro-Kalonji Balubas. Soviet trucks then arrived to take the Congolese troops and their new Czech officers south to Kalonji's capital, Bakwanga, which they soon captured. All seemed to be going well until, with Lumumba's forces only 20 miles from Katanga, Tshombe became alarmed. He rushed troops to the border and stopped the government offensive in its tracks. Baluba tribesmen harried their flanks. And suddenly, there was no target airfield for the planned airlift into Katanga itself. Belatedly the UN had decided to intervene and had occupied Kamina.

Lumumba's unilateral appeal to the Soviets further alienated the conservative elements in the Lιopoldville government and all but panicked the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower launched the CIA on another of its ill-conceived, anticommunist crusades. Blinded by its own preconceptions and the machinations of its NATO allies, the CIA joined the Belgian secret service in plotting against Lumumba. It initiated a series of singularly inept assassination plots, later revealed by the findings of the US Senate's Church Commission. None of its efforts were successful.

The West's objectives were soon achieved, however, by other means. Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba and appointed a moderate, Joseph Ileo, in his place. Lumumba dismissed Kasavubu and insisted that he Lumumba was still prime minister. Some parts of the Congo declared for one, some for the other. Both sides courted the army and arrested each other's supporters. When the army finally stepped in, it was to arrest Lumumba. With US and UN encouragement, the commander of the Lιopoldville garrison, army chief of staff Col. Joseph Mobutu, suspended the constitution and expelled the Russians and Czechs. Mobutu named an interim civilian administration under Kasavubu. Lumumba remained safe in the prime minister's villa for a time, shielded by a ring of UN troops. But he was loath to leave the initiative to Mobutu and also, perhaps, to MNC rivals in Stanleyville. Despite enormous risks, he escaped and attempted to join his supporters in Stanleyville. He did not make it. The army captured him on 1 December in Kasai, beat him savagely, and confined him inside the army camp at Thysville. But Lumumba was still a threat. His arrest provoked full scale revolt in more than half of the Congo. Rumors of pro-Lumumba coups abounded. Then, on 13 January, troops at Thysville mutinied (over pay), apparently at Lumumba's instigation. Kasavubu tried to get the deposed prime minister to rejoin the government and thus, it was hoped, secure the loyalty of the soldiers. When he refused, Mobutu and Kasavubu decided that Lumumba was too dangerous to be kept alive. On 17 January, soldiers put Lumumba and two aides on a plane bound for Tshombe's capital, Elizabethville. Guards beat the three helpless prisoners nonstop throughout the five-hour flight. In Elizabethville, Katangan gendarmes dragged the by now severely injured men from the plane and drove them to an isolated house, where Belgian mercenaries methodically beat them to death, reportedly under Tshombe's personal supervision.

Lumumba's death was hushed up a few weeks and then blamed on a bungled escape attempt, but no one believed the Katangan account. In February, demonstrations took place in more than thirty western cities. Mobs demolished the Belgian embassy in Cairo. The Soviets demanded the removal of the Secretary General and withdrawal of UN forces. The non-aligned nations who had hitherto been the UN's strongest supporters, notably India and newly independent Ghana, felt betrayed. Kasavubu's association with Tshombe, apparent UN connivance, and obvious US involvement thus damaged the reputations of all involved and made a marked turn to the left all but inevitable throughout the third world.

For the Congo, the effects of Lumumba's death were disastrous. All traces of national unity vanished. The country split into four. Lumumba's one-time lieutenant, Col. Mobutu, was in nominal control of the legitimate central government and its army. But, in reality, his power did not extend beyond Lιopoldville province in western Congo and the army units stationed there. A leftwing MNC leader, Antoine Gizenga, ruled the east as the martyred Lumumba's successor. He proclaimed Stanleyville the capital of a Free Republic of Congo centered on Orientale province. Gen. Lundula's troops supported him, and Nasser and the Soviet-bloc recognized his government. Tshombe continued to hold Katanga, with ill-disguised Belgian support. Albert Kalonji emerged from the bush to reassert the independence of his diamond state in southern Kasai province, with still more obvious Belgian assistance. Following the precedent set in Elizabethville, he celebrated his return to power by arresting and murdering six prominent Lumumbists who had had the misfortune to be in transit through Kasai. Stanleyville retaliated by sending fifteen of its own prisoners before the firing squads. Meanwhile Katangan gendarmes and white mercenaries poured into northern Katanga and set about liquidating the Baluba opposition. Thousands died under often horrific circumstances.

World opinion turned sharply against Tshombe and his Belgian and British financial backers in the aftermath of the killings. Alarmed by the resurgence of colonialism and the threat of a major superpower confrontation in Africa, non-aligned states, such as India and Ghana, pressed the UN for a quick end to the fighting and a negotiated reintegration of Katanga into the Congo. Elections in the US had brought a new administration to power, one less sympathetic to European interests. Given the results of his predecessor's unquestioning support for colonial powers, President Kennedy was loathe to continue down the same path. He instead threw American support behind the non-aligned countries and made the principle of self-determination America's principle bulwark against widening Soviet influence. American diplomats and UN representatives set about organizing a series of meetings between Tshombe and the Lιopoldville government, while the UN units scattered throughout the country were at last allowed to intervene in defence of law and order.

 Moise Tshombe

Moise Tshombe

Tshombe played a double game throughout the negotiations. In private, he would agree to the terms of one painstakingly crafted agreement after another, only to denounce them when the agreements were made public. He seemed confident that delay worked always in his favor. English and Belgian business interests were solidly behind him, even if their governments had to be more circumspect given the new administration in America. Portugal, South Africa, and Welensky's white-dominated Rhodesian Federation were also now in the Katangan camp. Last but by no means least, a powerful group of US senators from the southern states seemed ready and able to block any administration action against what they saw as an anticommunist hero. Meanwhile, Tshombe's gendarmes assaulted and provoked UN troops at every opportunity. Tshombe denounced UN aggression each time, and appealed to his friends in the US Congress. At one point, he seemed on the verge of uniting Kasavubu and Kalonji against foreign, United Nations intervention in the Congo. But, when the three leaders met at Coquilhatville, Tshombe stormed out, and, this time, Mobutu arrested him. UN and US diplomats convinced Kasavubu to release Tshombe on the condition that he send delegates to a new session of parliament tasked with settling the nation's future peacefully. Tshombe agreed, returned to Elizabethville, and renounced the agreement by reasserting the independence of Katanga.

The United States and the UN nonetheless pressed ahead with the plan agreed at the Coquilhatville conference. Parliament met at the University of Louvanium, with delegations from Stanleyville, South Kasai, Lιopoldville, and Stanleyville in attendance. Only Katanga was unrepresented. On 2 August, parliament asked moderate Cyrile Adoula to form a government. Adoula's coalition united all factions in the Congo, except Tshombe's. It also made the reintegration of Katanga its first priority. Anxious lest the pro-Soviet Stanleyville regime reestablish itself, Washington concurred and promised the UN whatever material support it might require in enforcing Security council demands.

The UN's demands centered on the removal of foreign forces and foreign-supplied heavy armaments from the Congo. UN officials hoped that Tshombe would be more tractable once his white advisers and bully boys had been removed. With this in mind, the popular Secretary General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold, despatched his Irish deputy, Conor Cruise O'Brien, with orders to enforce the UN's orders as he saw fit. Interpreting his instructions as broadly as possible and under considerable pressure from harassed UN military commanders in the field, O'Brien's staff put together a plan for neutralizing the white leadership of the Katangan military, codenamed Rum Punch. The operation achieved near complete surprise. In the pre-dawn hours of 28 August, Ghurkas attached to the Indian UN contingent seized the radio station and telephone exchange in Elizabethville and the gendarmerie headquarters. Detachments of Indian, Swedish, and Irish soldiers captured military posts throughout the remainder of the province. UN forces began to disarm Katangan gendarmes and oversee the repatriation of foreign mercenaries and political advisers. There was little chance for resistance, and Tshombe had little choice but to agree to the expulsions.

Tshombe was, however, successful in negotiating a brief stay, effective until 9 September. A hardcore of Algeria veterans among the mercenaries now took advantage of the delay. They gradually took control of the Katangan gendarmerie and organized it for resistance to the UN. O'Brien and his deputies had, in the meantime, decided to put a stop to the nonsense with another coup de main, codenamed Morthor, Hindu for "smash". UN soldiers were to seize the same objectives as before, but would also surround Tshombe's house and capture his ministers and associates in a series of raids. This time, Tshombe was ready. Katangan paratroops resisted the attackers. Though they were soon overwhelmed, they created enough confusion for Tshombe and most of his officials to escape to Kolwezi. O'Brien nonetheless declared Katanga once more part of the Congo. From the security of his Kolwezi stronghold, Tshombe launched a series of furious counterattacks on UN units. Irish units in Jadotville were overrun and taken prisoner.

Appalled by the loss of life and alarmed by O'Brien's seemingly cavalier attitude towards the UN's limited mandate, Secretary hammarskjold refused to authorize reinforcements for the embattled UN forces in the Congo. Determined to negotiate a ceasefire, he flew secretly to Ndola, in Northern Rhodesia, to meet with Tshombe. He did not make it. His DC-4 came down 10 miles short of the runway on the night of 17 September. All aboard were killed.

Stunned by the loss of its popular Secretary General, the UN negotiated a humiliating ceasefire and ceded control of public buildings and military posts that UN forces had seized during the opening phases of Morthor. Katangan prestige soared. When Congolese troops tried to invade from Kasai, Tshombe's army hurled them back in disarray, and they promptly disintegrated. Additional mercenaries flocked into Katanga, and Tshombe's gendarmerie topped 13000 men.

But Tshombe had miscalculated. Defeat left UN commanders on the ground angry and anxious for a free hand in the fighting. Worse, the thoroughness of Tshombe's triumph and the collapse of ANC forces had badly shaken American officials. It seemed only a matter of time before defeatism and mutiny in the army and brought down the Adoula government. Accordingly, the US sought and received a strong new Security Council resolution that, for the first time, explicitly authorized the use of any and all force necessary for overcoming the mercenaries.

All that remained was a pretext for continued UN military operations. Tshombe provided it. In early December, his mercenaries initiated a series of deliberate provocations. Roads were blocked, UN positions were shot up, and UN personnel were kidnapped. A UN helicopter was shot down. Tshombe blamed "UN aggression." He clearly thought that constant harassment would wear the UN down, while his friends in Europe and America and his threats to destroy the Kolwezi mines kept its troops at bay. This was a fatal mistake. UN commanders responded almost instantly. When diplomatic efforts failed to stop four days of continuous assaults on UN positions, Gen. Prem Chand of India asked the new Secretary General, U Thant of Burma, to sanction offensive action against the roadblocks and received the necessary permission. He did not launch the sort of ineffectual tit-for-tat reprisal that the diplomats expected.

On 28 December 1962, UN troops in Elizabethville quickly took up positions near key points, well before Katangan gendarmes became aware of their movements or intentions. They quickly cleared the roadblocks, captured the telephone exchange and radio station, and seized gendarmerie headquarters, almost without loss.

Tshombe retreated to the Union Miniere stronghold, the area around Kolwezi and Jadotville. His position, though not ideal, was far from hopeless. He still had almost 18000 gendarmes and about 500-1000 mercenaries, plus plenty of money. As Tshombe no doubt anticipated, the Secretary General ordered his forces to cease operations immediately, pending further negotiations. The US, fearing damage to the mines, simultaneously insisted that US support could not be used for further offensive operations. Tshombe seemed to have evaded disaster and achieved stalemate yet again. At the very least, he seemed to have ample time to prepare for the ferocious resistance that the UN civilian leadership so feared.

Unfortunately for Tshombe and his patrons, UN troops in the field had taken care to remain out of contact with the UN's civilian chain of command. They professed themselves ignorant of any order to hold their positions. They charged into Jadotville and caught the Katangans by surprise. Resistance collapsed with hardly a shot fired.

Tshombe held out in Kolwezi for another three weeks. But, given the performance of his army at Jadotville, Secretary General U Thant was now more inclined to listen to his generals and not to Western diplomats. He would make no more concessions and would allow no more negotiations. Tshombe shuttled between Kolwezi and Ndola in Northern Rhodesia, making threats and trying to cut deals via his supporters in Britain and southern Africa. But it was to no avail. The UN rapidly installed Congolese government officials throughout Katanga, repaired bridges, and ferried in ANC troops. Finally, Tshombe had to capitulate. In return for renouncing secession and demobilizing his forces, he received an amnesty. UN troops entered Kolwezi, and Katanga was a thing of the past. The mercenaries were rounded up and deported (though usually just across the border to Angola, Salisbury, or Johannesburg).

The second, less public phase of the Congo's troubles now commenced. By the middle of 1964, Christopher Gbenye's Lumumbists had, in the interim, seized complete control of Kivu and Orientale provinces. Well-armed and equipped ANC units fled in panic before spear-waving bands of rebel Simbas, who were said to believe themselves immune to bullets. On 4 August, Stanleyville fell without a fight. The leftist rebels again declared their independence, this time as the "People's Republic of Congo." They also began a reign of terror against "counter-revolutionaries" and members of the intelligentsia and civil service. Thousands were massacred at the feet of Lumumba's many statues.

As the rebellion spread east, the now desperate Joseph Kasavubu asked none other than Moise Tshombe to accept the post of prime minister and form a new government! Tshombe returned from exile in Spain and rehired his mercenaries for service against the Simbas. Three major units came into being. A South African, Mike Hoare, organized an English-speaking company called 5 Commando, while Bob Denard, a shady former French para and intelligence agent, formed a Franco-Belgian 6 Commando. A renegade Belgian planter, Jean "Black Jack" Schramme, formed a third unit, 10 Commando.

Seduced by its own Cold War-induced fears and by the skillful anticommunist posturing of the Lιopoldville politicians, the US now let itself be drawn into the civil war. To support Tshombe's mercenaries, the CIA obtained a number of airplanes from Italy, and recruited mercenaries to arm and fly them. Many of the pilots were Cuban emigrιs and veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Simbas had no antiaircraft weapons and little conception of even the most rudimentary defensive measures, such as camouflage and dispersal. Even the modest air strikes were devastating. Mercenary columns made up of a few jeeps and trucks festooned with machineguns would dash forward after each strike to massacre the demoralized and disorganized rebels. In western Orientale, Simba resistance seemed on the verge of collapse. Tshombe's forces were soon closing in on Stanleyville, the Simba capital.

Faced with this blatant neocolonialist aggression against a friendly, proto-socialist third-world country, the Soviet Union and its African allies mounted a large-scale arms airlift into the still sizable, Simba-held portion of eastern Congo. Soviet aircraft carried the weapons to military airfields in Algeria, Ghana, and the United Arab Republic. Then Algerian Antonov An-12 and Ghanaian Il-18 transports flew the arms into Orientale province, using Brazzaville (in the former French Congo) as a staging point. Egyptian An-12s mounted a similar effort to Orientale and Kivu from forward bases in the Sudan. Needless to say, Simbas with machineguns proved rather harder for mercenaries to deal with than Simbas with spears.

As Tshombe's murderous hirelings closed in on the rebel capital, Stanleyville, Gbenye's followers seized over 300 Belgian and American hostages, including several of CIA's own agents. The Simbas threatened to kill the hostages if Tshombe's forces came any farther. The American President, John Kennedy, immediately dispatched the USAF's brand-new Lockheed C-130E Hercules transports to Belgium. Here they loaded Belgian paracommandos before flying on to the Congo. The Belgians jumped over Stanleyville airport on 24 November, and slowly fought their way into town. They were too late for 27 hostages, all of whom were shot and hacked to death as the first parachute canopies blossomed over the airport. The drop was clearly visible from the city center. More than 60 hapless civilians were wounded. The remaining 1600 non-Africans in the city were evacuated by road and air. A subsequent drop at Paulis failed to save 23 more hostages. More than 300 died in isolated missions and plantations in the forest. But the Simbas had been crushed. An unknown number of Africans were massacred by the victorious mercenaries, who treated indiscriminate rape, murder, and pillage as the just rewards of their efforts.

Mercenaries in Congo

Group of mercenaries in Congo

At this point, the mercenaries were very much aware of the power they could wield in a permanently anarchic Congo and no less conscious of the threat that a resurgent central government posed to this agreeable and profitable state of affairs. For five years, more or less, each Commando had been a law unto itself, accountable to no one. Individual troopers were free to do literally anything they wanted, including murder. Ongoing unrest guaranteed their officers the chance to extort protection money from the mines and the many native merchants that remained in the country. Schramme had even used 10 Commando to set up his own, quasi-feudal slave state in his area of operations—neocolonialism with a vengeance! Since they had, in their own eyes at least, won the victory, the mercenaries saw no reason why they shouldn't enjoy its fruits on their own terms.

So, when the government ordered the Commandos to demobilize and pay off their men, mercenary leaders tried to take over the country. This time, however, the CIA air support that had guaranteed them success during the campaign against the Simbas sealed their fate. T-28s and B-26s subjected the rebellious mercenaries to a merciless pounding. USAF C-130s ferried Congolese government reinforcements into the battle zones. The mutineers suffered a series of calamitous reversals. Casualties were heavy, a new experience for the fair- weather soldiers of 5, 6, and 10 Commando. When government forces executed 30 captured troopers from Denard's 6 Commando, morale broke, and the mutiny collapsed. Survivors fled to Rhodesia on hijacked C-47s or tried to join Schramme in his hopeless, last-ditch attempt to defend his petty slave state. The last mutineers surrendered at Bukavu, after an unsuccessful attempt to cross into Rwanda.

With the collapse of the mercenaries' mutiny, Mobutu at last achieved what he had schemed for since independence, complete control of the country. He deposed Kasavubu, exiled Tshombe, and abolished the office of the prime minister. He would now be President for Life. He renamed the country and its great river Zaire, and gave its colonial cities africanized names of his own choosing. There would be many future rebellions. But all would quashed by the timely intervention of French and Belgian paras and USAF transports. All, that is, until Mobutu Sese Seko's fateful intervention in Ruwanda and Laurent Kabila's triumphant return to his newly renamed Congo.


© 1997 by Robert Craig Johnson. Part of a series first published, in abbreviated form, in Eagle Droppings, the Newsletter of the Rocky Mountain Chapter, IPMS/USA.

 

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