Africa: Belgian Colonies
Africa: Belgian Colonies
Belgium created two colonies in Africa: the entities now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly the Republic of Zaire) and the Republic of Rwanda, previously Ruanda-Urundi, a former German African colony that was given to Belgium to administer after the defeat of Germany in World War I. The scramble for colonies was the brainchild of Leopold II, king of Belgium.
Belgium itself had gained independence in 1831 when it broke away from the Netherlands and became a new nation. The second king of Belgium, Leopold II, was a very ambitious man who wanted to personally enrich himself and enhance his country’s prestige by annexing and colonizing lands in Africa. In 1865 he succeeded his father, Leopold I, to the Belgian throne. In 1876 he commissioned Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to explore the Congo region. This exploration led initially to the establishment of the Congo Free State. The new colony comprised a land bigger than western Europe and seventy-four times larger than Belgium, and belonged to Leopold II as a personal possession. He proclaimed himself king-sovereign of Congo Free State at a time when France, Britain, Portugal, and Germany also had colonies in the area. In 1885 Leopold II secured U.S. recognition of his personal sovereignty over the Congo Free State.
Leopold II was absolute ruler of Congo. His rule was brutal and millions of Congolese died as a result. By 1895 the British press started to expose Leopold II’s atrocities in Congo. In 1897 a Swedish missionary told a London meeting how Leopold’s soldiers were rewarded by the number of Congolese hands they amputated as punishment to native workers for failure to work hard enough. By 1899 the British vice consul confirmed and further reported the brutality of Leopold’s misrule in Congo. Finally in 1908, Leopold was forced to hand over the Congo Free State, his personal fiefdom, to the Belgian state.
The takeover of the administration by the Belgian government brought some improvements in the lives of the Congolese peoples, who had suffered untold hardships under Leopold II and his private militia. There were slight improvements in the everyday economic and social life of the Congolese that were comparable to conditions in other European colonies in Africa. The Belgian colonial administration built some schools, railways, roads, plantations, mines, industrial areas, and airports. Despite the modest improvements in the lives of the Congolese, the Belgians created two separate societies in the Congo: the whites and the natives. The whites had all the luxuries, and the native Africans lacked everything. It was an apartheid type of social and political system. All the major decisions concerning the Congo were made in Brussels, and the Congolese were not allowed to participate in the running of their own country.
In 1955 some of the few Congolese educated-elites organized a resistance to the lack of democracy and the apartheid policies of the Belgian colonial masters. The main aim of these so-called évolués in resisting the Belgian colonial administration was to redress the gross inequality
that existed between the Europeans and the Africans. They used civil disobedience, strikes, and civil unrest against the Belgian colonialists. This uprising led to the disintegration of the Belgian colonial administration and helped in winning independence for the Congo in 1960.
Belgium’s other colony, Rwanda, was an independent monarchy until the Germans annexed it in 1899 and made it part of German East Africa. Belgium seized Rwanda and Burundi from Germany in 1916; two years later, after the defeat of Germany in World War I, Ruanda-Urundi was formally given to Belgium as a League of Nations (later United Nations) trust territory.
In precolonial Congo, established monarchies and kingdoms maintained order. The most notable of these empires was the Kingdom of Kongo, which was founded in the fourteenth century and centered around present-day western Congo and northern Angola. Other notable empires included the Luba empire, founded in the sixteenth century and centered around Lakes Kisale and Upemba, located in central Shaba; the Lunda kingdom of Mwata, founded in the fifteenth century and centered in southwestern Congo; and the Kuba empire of the Shonga people, founded in the seventeenth century and centered around the Kasai and Sankura rivers in southern Congo. Another notable kingdom was the Lunda kingdom of Nwata Kazembe, founded in the early eighteenth century and centered around the Luapula River near the Congo-Zambia border. There were other small LubaLunda states in Congo.
Relations among the Congolese peoples during the precolonial period were largely harmonious. Through intermarriage and socioeconomic contacts, interethnic strife was benign. These kingdoms, especially the Kingdom of Kongo, were comparably wealthy, and when the standard of living is high, people tend to get along well. Nevertheless, there were interethnic wars on some occasions.
In 1482 the Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão became the first European to come to the Congo. The Portuguese established a relationship with the king of Kongo but stayed in the modern Angolan coastal areas. It was not until the eighteenth century that the Portuguese gained substantial influence in Congo. This was the situation until King Leopold II of Belgium made the Congo his personal possession, and it became the only colony owned and run by a single individual.
Before the European incursion into Rwanda and the Belgian colonization, Rwanda was united under the central leadership of an absolute Tutsi monarchy. The people, although classified as Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa, essentially spoke the same language. They also shared the same culture, ate the same or similar foods, and practiced the same religion.
Precolonial Rwanda under the monarchy was highly stratified. The aristocracy, who were essentially the Tutsi, owned all the land and earned tributes from the farmers, who were mainly Hutu. Whereas the Hutus were farmers, the Tutsis were cattle herders. The Twa or the “pygmies,” who were the original inhabitants of Rwanda, were outcasts and despised by both the Hutus and the Tutsis. There was social mobility (both upward and downward) in this stratified Rwandese society. A rich Hutu who purchased a large herd of cattle could become a Tutsi, while a Tutsi who became poor would drop into the Hutu caste. Intermarriage was not prohibited in this caste system. Both Hutus and Tutsis served in the king’s military. All the members of the castes seemed to be living in harmony until the Belgians came and brought ethnic conflict with them. These conflicts resulted in many wars and episodes of genocide.
The Belgians ruled over Congo from 1909 to 1960, while their rule over Rwanda lasted from 1918 to 1962. In the Congo, the Belgians created an apartheid-like system between the Europeans (Belgians) living in Congo and the Congolese, thereby marginalizing the Congolese in their own society. Among the Congolese, the Belgians used the strategy of divide and rule. They favored certain ethnic groups, especially the ones that would allow them to continue to colonize and plunder the rich natural resources of the Congo.
Before the coming of the Europeans, the Kingdom of Kongo had well-organized political and administrative structures that rivaled those of the Europeans. The economic system of the kingdom was organized into guilds based on agriculture and handicraft industries. The European incursion into the west coast of Africa and the consequent slave raids increased the migrations of refugees into Kongo. These migrations created myriad problems both at the time and in subsequent periods.
When the Belgians took over the administration of Rwanda from the Germans in 1918, they significantly changed the Rwandese system of government and social relations. The Belgians found willing elites to help them rule Rwanda. The Tutsis were willing collaborators to the Belgian colonization. The Belgians, in turn, gave the Tutsis privileged positions in politics, education, and business. The Belgians even took the few leadership positions that the Hutus had and gave them to the Tutsis. Specifically, in 1929, they eliminated all the non-Tutsi chiefs, and as a result the Hutus lost all their representation in the colonial government. A further blow came in 1933, when the Belgians issued identity cards to all Rwandans. These mandatory identity cards removed the fluidity from the Rwandan stratification (caste) system, thereby confining people permanently as Hutus, Tutsis, and “pygmies.” The Belgians empowered the Tutsis so much that their exploitation of the Hutu majority reached new heights. As the independence of Rwanda became inevitable in the 1950s, however, the Belgians changed course and started to empower the Hutus by increasing their political and economic muscle and providing them access to modern education.
These conflicting measures brought anarchy and led to the creation of extreme groups—from both the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis—wanting to protect the interests of their respective peoples. It was the activities of these extreme groups that led to the various episodes of genocide that reached appalling heights in 1994 with the killing of nearly one million people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, by extreme Hutus.
The first wave of genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsis took place earlier, however, under the administration of the Belgians in 1959. Like the 1994 genocide, it started when extremist Tutsis attacked a Hutu leader, and the Hutus retaliated by killing hundreds of Tutsis. In the Western press, this conflict was portrayed as a racial and cultural one, between the tall, aristocratic, pastoral Tutsis, and Hutus who were uneducated peasant farmers. That the Tutsi and Hutu were originally two castes of the same people, speaking a common language, and that the antagonism had been created by Belgian colonial forces for their own purposes, were facts somehow lost in the international dialogue.
To summarize, the ethnic rivalries and tensions in the former Belgian colonies of Congo and Rwanda that escalated following independence and continued into the twenty-first century had their roots in the Belgian colonial administration. It was during the Belgian colonial administration that the foundations for the postcolonial and present-day ethnic tensions and political instability were laid.
In the Congo, political instability started as soon as the Congolese gained their independence from the Belgians in 1960. Congo is a multiethnic country with about two hundred ethnic groups. Most of the ethnic groups speak languages of the widespread Bantu family: Kongo, Mongo, Luba, Bwaka, Kwango, Lulua, Luanda, and Kasai. There are also Nilotic-speaking peoples near Sudan and some “pygmies” in northeastern Congo. Although there were several political parties, the two most prominent were Joseph Kasavubu’s ABAKO, a party based among the Kongo people, and Patrice Lumumba’s Congolese National Movement. After the June 1960 elections, Lumumba became prime minister and Kasavubu the ceremonial president.
Immediately after independence on June 30, 1960, ethnic and personal rivalries—influenced by Belgium, other European nations, and the United States—sent the newly independent country into political crisis. On July 4, the army rebelled. Seven days later, Moise Tshombe, the provisional president of Katanga, in a move instigated by the Belgians, declared the mineral-rich Katanga province an independent country. Subsequent political problems led to military intervention by the Belgians, who claimed that they intervened to protect Belgian citizens from attack. On July 14, the United Nations Security Council authorized a force to help to establish order in the Congo, but this force was unable to bring the seceded Katanga province to order. As a result, Lumumba asked the Soviet Union to help him bring Katanga back to Congo. On September 5, President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as prime minister. Lumumba in turn dismissed the president, creating a political stalemate.
Joseph Mobutu, who later changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, was appointed army chief of staff by Lumumba. Taking advantage of the political conflict between the president and the prime minister, Mobutu encouraged the military to revolt. The United States and Belgium provided the money that Mobutu used to bribe the Congolese army to commit treason against their properly elected government. The United States, Belgium, and other Western governments aided Mobutu in overthrowing the government of Lumumba as part of their cold war rivalry with the communist bloc countries led by the Soviet Union. Mobutu was used as a Western stooge to stop an alleged communist incursion into Africa.
On January 17, 1961, the government of Moise Tshombe in Katanga, with the full support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), murdered Lumumba and two of his associates in cold blood. Besides the cold war rivalry, the other main reason for killing Lumumba and supporting the secession in the provinces of Katanga and Kasai was for Belgians to secure controlling interests in the rich mineral resources of the Congo.
After the assassination of Lumumba, many governments ruled Congo in rapid succession: Évariste Kimba, Joseph Ileo, Cyrille Adoula, and Moise Tshombe. But in 1965, after ruling from behind the scenes for four years, Mobutu finally overthrew Kasavubu in a coup widely believed to be sponsored by the CIA. Mobutu ruled for thirty-one years and pauperized the Congo. Mobutu and his supporters were so corrupt and stole so much money from the Congolese people that his government was described as a kleptocracy, or government by thieves. When Laurent Kabila drove him from power in 1997, Mobutu’s wealth deposited in foreign banks was in excess of $4 billion.
Despite Mobutu’s dictatorship, relative peace reigned during most of his regime. In 1966 he renamed the Congolese cities of Léopoldville (Kinshasa), Stanley-ville (Kisangani), and Elisabethville (Lubumbashi). In 1971, in a continuation of his Africanization policy, the Congo River was renamed the Zaire River and consequently, Congo was renamed the Republic of Zaire.
In Rwanda, independence brought increased ethnic tensions because of the policies of the Belgian colonial administration. There had been vicious cycles of violence beginning in December 1963 when Hutus killed more than 10,000 Tutsis and sent about 150,000 into exile. The worst of the genocide took place in 1994 when nearly a million Rwandan citizens (mostly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus) were massacred. This well-planned genocide started when the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were shot down, allegedly by Tutsi rebel soldiers. Hutus went on a rampage, killing Tutsis in their midst with the aim of exterminating them. The killing stopped only when Paul Kagame, with the help of Uganda, led a Tutsi army that drove the Hutu-led military into exile in neighboring Congo.
The Rwanda genocide of 1994 helped exacerbate ethnic and political tensions in the Congo. As the strategic importance of Mobutu disappeared with the end of the cold war, little or no attention was paid to the Congo. Mobutu in his bid to stay in power for life did not build a strong army. His inability to disarm the ex-Rwandan soldiers and perpetuators of the 1994 genocide who were now living in Congo led to the invasion of the Congo by a combined army of Tutsi-led governments of Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda and the Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila. It was relatively easy for this army to overrun Congo. Mobutu first escaped to Togo and then to Morocco, where he died a few months later from cancer. On reaching Kinshasa in May 1997, Kabila declared himself president and changed the name of Zaire back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Kabila’s inability to disarm the Hutu militia and to share power with his former Tutsi allies led to war with his allies. In 1998 Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda jointly invaded Congo, and Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad, and the Sudan fought on the side of Kabila’s Congo. This conflict has been labeled “Africa’s war.” Although fighting stopped in 1999, rebel groups continued their attacks on defenseless civilians and the Congolese central government. In 2001, when Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, he was succeeded by General Joseph Kabila, his son. The new leader signed a peace treaty with the rebel groups and appointed four vice presidents hailing from former rebel groups. In 2006 a new constitution was written and approved for the Third Republic, and elections were conducted with Joseph Kabila emerging as victorious. Rwanda also has a new constitution, and amnesty was granted for most of the Hutu genocide perpetrators. Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has successfully conducted both local and national elections.
Several Belgian colonial policies sowed the seeds of racial and ethnic rivalries that led to the killings of millions of Africans and also sent millions more into exile from the former Belgian colonies. First, the post-colonial political leaders of Congo and Rwanda continued the Belgian colonial policies. Second, these leaders exacerbated ethnic rivalries and tensions to stay in power. Third, most of the ethnic tensions in these countries are caused by rapid population growth and the fight for scarce resources by the leaders of the various ethnic groups. Fourth, European and American governments and the multinational business and interests have fueled ethnic conflicts in Africa’s former Belgian colonies for their own purposes. For example, Belgian and other foreign interests engineer these conflicts so they can continue to loot the resources of Africa. Finally, the constant interventions of the Belgians in the affairs of their former colonies of Congo and Rwanda have made ethnic and political rivalries worse. In spite of this legacy of the colonial period, political developments in the Congo and Rwanda (peace agreements, new constitutions, and new elections) show that there is a new hope for the former African colonies of Belgium.
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John Obioma Ukawuilulu