Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Congo's Independence Struggle Viewed Fifty Years Later

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Congo's Independence Struggle Viewed Fifty Years Later

Article excerpt

In the cacophony of what has been referred to in broad terms as "The Congo Crisis," some misrepresentations have been repeated again and again. This commentary therefore will not attempt a comprehensive analysis of the Congo's struggle and achievement of independence; instead it will focus on aspects that can be given a new or revised interpretation. It will consider five themes where misrepresentation has had significant effects: (1) Belgian policy on the education of elites; (2) the supposed "violence" associated with the nationalist drive to independence; (3) Belgium's decision to accept a dramatically condensed decolonization process; (4) Belgian miscalculations in this process; and (5) the price of haste.

The Education of Elites

Much of the commentary regarding Belgian colonial policy is rooted in the horrors of the Congo Free State. But when the Belgian state took over responsibility for the Congo, it developed a set of administrative policies mat were strict but not notably more harsh than those of other colonial powers, especially in central and southern Africa. The biggest difference was in its policy toward Congolese elites. Belgium followed neither the British policy of indirect rule nor the French policy of elite higher education and assimilation. In other words, traditional leaders were given very limited roles and powers. Indeed, the "modern" elite was limited to a few high school graduates who were given very low professional responsibilities; university graduates did not appear until the mid-1950s. There was one critically important exception to this policy - promotion within the Catholic Church. The first Congolese priest was ordained 1917; by 1960 about three thousand Congolese had attended seminaries and more than five hundred were active priests of various grades. A seminary education involved rigorous intellectual training including the study of Latin and Greek. From a purely intellectual viewpoint, these three thousand Congolese had received an education that was certainly superior to an average American B.A., and that put the Congo comparatively quite high in any African colonial education index.

Despite these facts, the story that the Congo only had sixteen university graduates at independence has been frequently repeated, giving a very false impression. It is of course true that there were only a handful of secular university graduates, and at independence there were no Congolese medical doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Nonetheless, there were thousands of intellectually trained individuals who did to some extent fill the need for "modern" or "Westernized" role models - albeit as priests or former seminary students. There did indeed remain questions about the relevance of their training for directing government services, but the human intellectual infrastructure was there.

An additional problem at independence, however, was that the largely white, Belgian leadership of the Catholic Church forbade Congolese priests - the more than five hundres Abbés - from accepting any political or administrative roles. Thus some of the most respected individuals were prevented from leading the population during the independence struggle and immediately thereafter. However, many of the seminary students who did not for one reason or another take the priestly vows did become political leaders; these included such important actors as Joseph Kasavubu, Antoine Gizenga, and Cléophas Kamitatu. The biggest problem was that such individuals had been allowed to hold only low positions in the administrative hierarchy; they therefore lacked the practical experience needed for directing a bureaucracy that they were called upon to lead immediately on the exodus of the Belgian civil servants.

The Independence Struggle

The Congolese independence struggle has been described by some as anarchic and violent. In fact, with a few specific exceptions - most notably the Lulua-Luba conflict in Kasai Province, which did become violent - the period before independence was overwhelmingly nonviolent. …

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