September 17, 1997
Akhilesh Mithal

50s: Agony and Extacy gone Awry


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Lumumba, Mobutu, Zaire, Congo, Katanga. These names and places were headline material in the heady Fifties. Do they, individually or severally, mean anything today? Today, few know or care about these people or places. This is a pity as the Mobutu experience, horrible and sick though it may be, shows the games superpowers play in mistaken notions of their “national” interest. Perhaps the retreat of the world in general, and the United States of America in particular, from idealism can be traced to their cynical misdeeds abroad but that is another story, for another day!

Mobutu’s death occurred in exile on 7 September 1997. His life is an example of faraway countries becoming the victims of the Cold War. Of treason proving most lucrative to bent politicians albeit a disaster for their countries. We should recount his story in some detail as an example of what can happen when powerful countries interfere in the lives of smaller nations. The “foreign hand” in action... The year was 1960. Japan, Germany and Italy had lost their colonies with their defeat in World War II. Among the victors, Britain had been forced to release India from bondage in 1947 because of the phenomenon of Mahatma Gandhi, and his repeated Civil Disobedience Movements culminating in the Quit India movement of 1942. The wartime Army and the post-war Navy revolts had sapped the morale of the alien civil and the military administrations. Ten all-White divisions on land with Naval and Air support were needed to keep India in the British empire. This was logistically impossible for a war-weakened Britain. Hence Indian Independence. But the price exacted was Partition which led to the bloodiest riots known in history. Anglo-American interests were safeguarded as Pakistan became a client state of the USA and bases for bombers could be located on its soil. The Partition of India established a pattern of the USA supporting whoever would befriend them in newly independent countries even if it meant literally tearing a country apart. This boded ill for the post-war world.

Younger readers should appreciate that the decade of the Fifties was made golden by a resurgent idealism informed with the hope and belief that the worst trials of oppressed humanity were over. That the exploitation of man by other humans was a thing of the past. That wrongs would be righted and human dignity restored. The allies, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States of America had won the war in the name of “freedom” and it was natural and logical to assume that they would help its spread worldwide.

It may be as well to talk about those days of starry-eyed idealism in the hopelessly cynical political climate of today. Who knows but such talk may cause the dead and dying embers to glow, to spark and develop into a fire which will cleanse the dross and falsehoods polluting the world. Amen!

As readers know, colonies and empires mean exploitation and loss of dignity. Japan, Germany, and Italy lost their empires because they were defeated in the war. In the olden days, the land lost to the vanquished would have been booty for the victors. In the middle of the 20th century, this was no longer possible. The stranglehold on power exercised by the white nations since the 18th century had weakened and there was no way it could be re-established. Having won the war, the British, the French, the Dutch and the Belgians in Europe, the Whites in the USA and in South Africa felt that the status quo ante 1939 i.e. their domination, exploitation, brutalisation and humiliation of coloured people could continue as it had been vindicated. This was not to be as the long-enslaved people of their erstwhile “colonies” were asserting their identities, refusing to accept an inferior-by-birth status and itching to take their place in the comity of nations.

The United Nations had been formed and its high-minded, idealistic and indefatigable Secretary-General, Dag Hammerskjold, was working incessantly and travelling non-stop to confer with leaders, both old and new, in order to help create a more just world order. He was assisted by Rajeshwar Dayal, a distinguished public servant from India. He had been spared by India at great cost to its own needs as it felt compelled to contribute what it could.

The history of foreign domination was bad everywhere but nowhere was it worse than in Belgian Congo. The Belgians were latecomers in the race for empire and this bit of Africa was all they could show when the heads of European states met and conferred and exchanged gossip on their “dominions.” The capital of Congo was called Leopoldsville after the Belgian King, Leopold. This petty monarch of a small country put the South African Whites (Afrikaaners) in the shade in his ill-treatment of his African subjects. The colony was his personal and private property and its inhabitants his slaves for him to loot and brutalise without any restraint whatsoever.

Students of English literature will recollect that Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel The Heart of Darkness is set in King Leopold’s Congo. Born out of wedlock on 14 October 1930, Mobutu (7 September 1997) was adopted while still an infant by a cook working for Belgian missionaries. Mobutu was schooled by his adoptive father’s White employers and became proficient in the Belgian version of French by domestic exposure to them. It was customary for informers to colonial administrations to work as journalists. They could access local news and translate what they learnt into the language of their masters so that it could be used. At the age of 20, Mobutu was recruited into the colonial Army as a journalist and gave such a good account of himself that he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

On leaving the Army in 1956, Mobutu became a columnist and enhanced his usefulness to the Belgians. In reward for his performance, Mobutu was sent to Brussels to deepen and widen his skills as well as his loyalty to the masters and to imbibe European ideas of what makes an African. Europeans have always maintained that African traditions (like those of the Indians, the Chinese and other Orientals i.e. all non-Whites) have no scope for democratic values. He was also indoctrinated against egalitarian ideas and socialism.
While in Belgium, Mobutu continued to serve his colonial masters. When the time came, they nominated him to attend the equivalent of the Round Table Conference and he faithfully provided them with inside information of the discussions inside the Congolese delegation.

By the time Mobutu and the other participants returned to the Congo, the people had become impatient for freedom. Riots broke out. The Belgian authorities lost their nerve and hastily rearranged the timetable and programme for independence. They now set out to achieve in weeks and months what they had planned to do in years and decades.

Patrice Lumumba emerged as the popularly elected leader of the independence movement and was chosen to head the new government. As Mobutu was one of the few Congolese with Army experience and the ability to express himself in French besides experience of having lived abroad, he was an obvious choice for high office.

There was no stigma attached to having served the colonial masters. Consequently, Lumumba picked Mobutu to lead the Congolese Army as chief of staff. This was to prove to be his undoing. On Independence Day, in the presence of the Belgian delegation and its leader, King Leopold, Patrice Lumumba’s independence address made an open reference to the great indignities and brutalities his people had suffered at the hands of the Belgians. He also referred to the fact that the elite Force Publique of 25,000 officers did not have a single African. He announced that he was disbanding this standing insult with immediate effect.

The Belgians were outraged and embittered from Lumumba and from Congolese independence. They set mischief afoot by aiding and abetting the secession of Congo’s copper rich province, Katanga. Its leader, Joseph Kasavubu refused to recognise the authority of Lumumba and the central government.

As chief of Army staff, Mobutu came centre stage in Congo. The Russian offer of help to contain the secession was turned down on his advice foolishly taken by the trusting Lumumba. The USA moved in behind the scenes. Mobutu, vouched for by Belgium, was now a Central Intelligence Agency operative kept in funds by them. An aeroplane was placed at his disposal to jet anywhere he liked in and out of the country.

On 14 September 1960, thirty seven years ago, Mobutu declared a state of emergency and suspended the political process and the government of Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba took shelter with UN representative Rajeshwar Dayal and was advised with all the force at Dayal’s command that he should not venture escape from Mobutu’s men besieging the mission.

Unfortunately for himself and for Congo, Lumumba attempted to escape on 27 November 1960. He was captured and tortured by Mobutu before being handed over to Moise Tshombe. His fate is unknown and his body yet to be found. The USA-Belgium axis dramatised his disappearance by spreading the rumour that cannibal Africans had eaten Lumumba. Dag Hammarskjold died in a mysterious plane crash when flying to Katanga to deal with the secession.

The fate of Congo was now Mobutu in the fostering care of the CIA. He tried to rule as best as he could in the image created for a traditional African by his White masters. He was loyal to the Americans and for himself he amassed some five billion dollars as a personal fortune. Over the years of his rule, Mobutu was a welcome guest of all the western powers and his photographs with the Queen of England, the presidents of the USA and France emblazoned the front pages of prominent newspapers from time to time. He wore a leopard-skin cap and sported a walking stick with an eagle on top. A Frenchman once described him as “a walking bank vault” (five billion dollars!) wearing a leopard-skin cap!”

Four decades of freedom lost and continued exploitation of the reserves of the country’s copper, diamonds and cobalt by the developed nations. Alas for Patrice Lumumba! Alas for Africa! How long will the “national” interest of the USA continue to brutalise the world? When will they learn that cynicism is a two edged sword. Those who export it will also use it at home.


Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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