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Congolese win independence from the Belgian Empire, 1959-60
In the 1950s, revolution was brewing in the Belgian Congo. Africans living in colonized countries felt the winds of change swirling as their mother countries in Europe struggled to stand back up after suffering often devastating defeats in World War II, championing the ideal self determination and freedom while continuing to oppress their colonies.
In the Congo in particular, there was a rather sudden rise of political parties, led by evolues, educated Congolese elites. They gave the Congolese a voice in creating institutional representation of what they wanted Congo to eventually become. One such party was the Parti Solidaire Africain, which pushed for immediate and complete independence from Belgium.
Political parties gained power, but only after the people themselves had been protesting the Belgian rule in their own way. In the 1950s, the increased bureaucratization in the Belgian administration of the Congo actually decreased the level of control that the local administrators had over this territory, as they were cluttered with paper work and the pressure from their higher-ups to reduce the number of problematic incidents. Often, they simply began looking away when such incidents did occur, failing to report them, with the result of emboldening the Congolese masses.
Change began to accelerate after the riots in Leopoldville, Congo’s capital, on January 4, 1959. Thirty-four Africans were killed in riots that broke out after members of the political party ABAKO, or Alliance des Bakongo, were not allowed to assemble by the Belgium administration.
This spread and agitated already high discontent to new levels, as the rural populations began protesting Belgian rule like never before. Over the next few months, the Congolese felt empowered to resist. They ‘tested’ the Belgian administrators, daring them to punish the colonized people. And often, because of the bureaucratic restraints, little was done, only empowering the people more. Families did not show up for the census. Congolese would refuse to stand at attention before administrators, or would purposely respond slowly to them, or even speak back and engage in altercations or fights with Europeans. There was a tremendous psychological shift happening, one that prepared the Congolese for political parties to channel and organize that rage and newfound courage.
The Parti Solidaire Africain only really started in May 1959, but was very successful in the rural communities, as they provided a legitimate and fully Congolese institution to organize and channel a source of national pride and unity, as well as opposition to the Belgium administration. They allied themselves with ABAKO, which was the other large political party at the time, though there were numerous other smaller groups as well. The Parti Solidaire Africain leadership sent propaganda teams to convince rural villagers to join, finding great enthusiasm for action against Belgium already there. As members of the party began to protest more and more, they also began to provide functions and services provided by the Belgian administration, such as healthcare, judicial systems, taxes, etc. The Parti Solidaire Africain became more and more like a quasi-government, stepping in to provide for the people, and uniting them in their membership and in a sense of belonging.
There was a heavy emphasis placed by the Parti Solidaire Africain on ‘staying calm and not engaging in violence.’ The Parti Solidaire Africain leadership circulated many pamphlets and articles among the party elite arguing against any form of violence and vocally rebuked incidences of violence that did occasionally occur. In response to one such incident, Katshunga, a party leader, wrote, “I regret this act of violence, and you do so also, it should not recur because it is against our doctrine. Tell this, and re-tell it, to the children and to all those who are excited especially at such moments.”
In 1959, the Belgian government decided to hold an election that would give Congolese puppets formal power over the governance of the Congo. The Belgian intention was to take the relevance from the radicals’ lips by appeasing the people with a moderate puppet government, and erase the calls for independence. Only men were allowed to vote.
The Parti Solidaire Africain urged its members and the Congolese people to boycott the elections, by not registering and not participating in the election. This movement and protest was extremely successful for a variety of reasons.
The Parti Solidaire Africain was in contact with the Belgium government and did have some negotiations, as they worked out the terms and process of the protest. On September 27, 1959, Parti Solidaire Africain and ABAKO sent a joint memo to the Belgian government explaining that they would boycott the elections in December, “as long as the electoral procedures remain undemocratic”.
The Belgian government continued with the elections, not only underestimating the clout the political parties, but also the passion of the people. Many people were tempted by the idea of an election that promised genuine self-governance, so the Parti Solidaire Africain had to work extremely hard explaining the deception. While Belgium tried at first to arrest Congolese men who tried to avoid registering for the election, they soon found that it was difficult to catch everyone, since so many Congolese men were complicit in the protest. The Belgium administration issued the threat of seven days in prison and a fine of 500 francs.
Although many men were arrested, especially in the more rural areas, the boycott persisted and was enormously successful. Approximately 5.27 % of the 397,086 people in Bas-Congo district voted, and 1.2% of the 1,157,112 in the Kwilu district. In some areas there were much higher rates of participation, ranging from 30 to 60%, but these numbers were primarily limited to areas with large European populations or where ABAKO and Parti Solidaire Africain did not have as much influence.
The overwhelming success of the boycott proved to the Belgian administration that Congo was ungovernable for them. Deciding against a bloody and possibly drawn out and politically costly affair to make the Congolese comply, like the war in Algeria, the administration chose to cut the increasingly unprofitable colony. Moreover, international pressure was against them, as the United States was pressuring European nations to give up their colonies, aligned with the idea of self-determination.
On January 20, 1960, the Belgian government invited members of 13 different political parties – 96 different Congolese – to the month-long Brussels Round Table talks. At the talks the Congolese demanded immediate independence while the Belgian government preferred a process spanning three to four years. Putting up a united front and completely unwilling to back down, the Congolese representatives got their demand, and the date for Congo’s independence was set: June 30, 1960. Free elections for the government were set for May.
However, a rift between the leadership and the masses was exposed once the unifying desire for independence was achieved. The Parti Solidaire Africain broke along the true disparity of power and influence that existed all along between the elites and the masses and between different ethnic groups. After the May 1960 elections, the Parti Solidaire Africain began to fall apart along issues of ideology, power differences, and ethnicity.
However, everything was wiped clean when the military, the Force Publique, rebelled and mutinied against the new government and threw the Congo into complete crisis on every level.