How Imperialism Stole the Future of the Democratic Republic of Congo

In the heart of central Africa lies the Democratic Republic of Congo, the second-largest country in the African continent and the eleventh-largest in the world by land area at 2,344,858 area per square mile. The DRC is a country that has been plagued with political and economic instability due to European and American imperialism. But how did Congo arrive at its current form of political identity and turmoil? To answer that, we must look to Belgium and the United States’ involvement in the region in the last two centuries to arrive at the conclusion that Congo’s future has been robbed as a result of imperialism. It is time for a deep dive into one of the most complex states in the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Journey to Independence

From 1885 to 1908, the Congo Free State was under the rule of King Leopold II as a private colony of Belgium characterized by exploitation, brutality, and forced labor. In a typical imperialistic approach, King Leopold claimed his goal in the Congo was to bring civilization to the African people and end slave trading. But the reality is that Leopold exploited the region’s natural resources such as rubber, ivory, and precious minerals. Congolese people were subjected to forced labor, torture, and murder. With long working hours in harsh conditions, those who refused to work were met with swift mutilation and even death. Leopold’s rule in Congo was marked by exploitation, brutality, and a disregard for basic human life. The country lived under colonial rule until 1960 when a growing independence movement emerged led by Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Kasavubu, and Cyrille Adoula.

The First Prime Minister of Congo

Patrice Lumumba was an instrumental leader in the struggle for independence during the 1950s. Lumumba was born in the Kasai region, near the central southern part of Congo.  A gifted orator with a knack for leadership, Lumumba became politically involved in the Congolese National Movement, a party that advocated for independence. In 1958, he was elected the leader of the party and began to plan out the independence of Congo from Belgium. Lumumba was a passionate advocate for African unity and believed in the importance of Pan-Africanism as he saw the struggle for Congolese independence as part of a broader struggle for African liberation. After Congo declared independence from Belgium in 1960, Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the newly formed state. Lumumba’s one-year tenure in office was marked by political instability, regional tensions, and external pressure.

In the aftermath of independence, there were deep-seated regional tensions, particularly between the richer and more developed provinces in the west and the poorer and less developed provinces in the east. These regional tensions were exacerbated by the fact that the colonial administration favored certain ethnic groups over others, leading to resentment and mistrust. The main ethnic tension was between the Luba, the majority group in central and eastern Congo, and the Katanga, the majority in the southeastern region. 

Lumumba sought to assert his dominion over the mineral-rich Katanga region which had declared its independence from the country and led to conflicts with mining businesses owned by Belgians. The fearful Belgian government and mining companies believed that Lumumba would nationalize the mining industry and align with the Soviet Union, leading them to covertly support Katanga’s secession from Congo and to deploy their military forces to the region for “peacekeeping”. In response to the secession of Katanga, Lumumba attempted to consolidate power by forming alliances with other ethnic groups, which further exacerbated the ethnic tension in the country.

The Domino Effect of Power Removal

Lumumba was removed from office in a coup led by Colonel Joseph Mobutu in August 1960. This was a major blow to the cause of Congolese independence and a setback for the broader struggle for African liberation. It marked the beginning of a period of political instability and violence that would continue for many years. It also underscored the challenges facing newly independent African countries as they sought to establish stable and effective governments in the face of internal and external pressures. Mobutu, who was then the head of the Congolese Army, had initially been a supporter of Lumumba. Still, he became disillusioned with the Prime Minister’s leadership and began to see him as a threat to national unity and stability. With the support of foreign powers, including Belgium and the United States, Mobutu orchestrated the coup and took control of the country. He would go on to rule the Congo, which he renamed Zaire, as a repressive and corrupt dictator for more than three decades.

The United States’ direct involvement in Congo during its early years of independence contributed to political instability and has a lasting legacy in the country today. The U.S. provided military and financial resources to Mobutu who then used this support to consolidate his power and suppress political opposition. The U.S. and other international powers interfered with the internal affairs of Congo by supporting parties and leaders that aligned with their interests at the expense of the Congolese people. In addition, the U.S. and other powers continue to exploit Congo’s natural resources such as diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and coltan. This has been one of the main sources of economic instability and social inequality in the country.

The Prince Who Was Promised

Many people consider Lumumba to be a significant and inspirational leader in African history who was taken too soon because of his vision for an independent and united Congo, as well as his commitment to Pan-Africanism and anti-colonialism. Lumumba’s advocacy for Congolese independence brought forth the establishment and self-governance in Congo. Lumumba had a strong vision for a united and prosperous Congo that could be a model for other African countries. He also advocated for the unity and solidarity of all African peoples, believing that they could only achieve true independence and progress by working together. His charismatic leadership inspired an entire generation of Congolese and Africans to stand up against colonialism. 

Lumumba assumed office on the 24th of June in 1960 and two months later, he was ousted from office, imprisoned, and subjected to various forms of mistreatment and abuse. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba and two of his associates were taken from their prison cells and driven to the countryside where they were beaten, shot, and killed by a firing squad of Katangan and Belgian soldiers. 

The exact details of Lumumba’s death remain unclear, and there have been various accounts and allegations surrounding the circumstances of his killing. Some accounts suggest that he was beaten and tortured before being shot, while others suggest that he was injected with lethal poison. There have also been allegations of foreign involvement in his death, with some sources suggesting that Belgian and American intelligence agencies may have played a role. In 2002, a Belgian parliamentary commission acknowledged that the Belgian government had played a role in Lumumba’s death, and apologized for the country’s involvement in the events that led to his assassination. However, many questions surrounding the circumstances of Lumumba’s death remain unanswered, and the case remains a source of controversy and speculation.

Exploring what the Democratic Republic of Congo might look like today if Patrice Lumumba, a young, charismatic, and visionary leader, had not been assassinated within six months of taking office is impossible to predict. Lumumba’s untimely death was a result of foreign influence and encroachment on Congolese politics. However, what we do know now is that Congo is a country that is still recovering and developing from the effects of imperialistic behaviors perpetuated by the United States and Belgium. Today, Congo remains fragmented politically, economically, and socially. Despite the minimal improvements that have been made and foreign aid that has been sent to the region, the United States and Belgium have left a sour taste in the mouth of Congo, a lingering taste that cannot be remedied. 

“The day will come when history will speak. But it will not be the history which will be taught in Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations… Africa will write its own history and in both north and south it will be a history of glory and dignity”.

-Lumumba, in a letter to his wife sent from prison

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