In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a scramble for Africa by European countries. This process helped to avoid conflict among the Europeans but had a lasting effect on Africa. At the Berlin Conference of 1884, spheres of interest were agreed and lines were drawn on maps. It is generally agreed that the interests and traditions of the indigenous peoples were completely ignored. The new boundaries often bisected ethnic groups.
I wouldn’t for one moment defend this process, but it is interesting to consider the alternatives. For example, the European powers could have stayed out of African politics. This would probably have been impossible, as European traders and settlers were already on the ground, and, to some extent, the new boundary agreements sometimes kept them at bay by providing a legal structure and some level of control. Of course, the boundaries could have been drawn in a much more sensitive way with respect to ethnic groups, but at the time knowledge of such things, in several large areas, was scant. By 1884 numerous boundaries had in any case already been agreed. There were, and had been for some time, ideas about a French empire stretching from west to east Africa and a British empire stretching from Cairo to Cape Town. In West Africa, the colonial powers had already created countries stretching, on the whole, from south to north. These completely ignored the traditional ethnic groupings in that region which tended to stretch from west to east (those in the coastal regions, those further inland, and those in savanna and semi-arid parts). There are something like 3,000 distinct ethnic groups in Africa, with 2,000 languages, and a political map based on all such groups would have created a very complex situation.
Nevertheless, when King Leopold II of Belgium helped himself to an enormous chunk of Central Africa, which became known until 1908 as the Congo Free State, it was a land grab of massive proportions with extremely little logic, and virtually no consideration for the interests of indigenous people in that region. The Congo Free State contained over 250 ethnic groups. Some, such as the Bakonga were sliced in half by the new border. The new boundary fenced together other groups who had been enemies for centuries. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and it didn’t take long for problems to emerge.
Despite all the criticism of European powers creating unworkable countries out of Africa, it is a sad case that when those various African countries became independent from the 1950s onwards there were few peaceful, organised attempts to rectify traditional borders. Two examples of where this did happen were in Western Togoland and the Volta Region and British Cameroons. In most other cases attempts to change boundaries and attempts by groups to secede led to wars, which were then often directly or indirectly sponsored by western powers as part of the Cold War, and the result was that those conflicts were more brutal and longer lasting than they might otherwise have been.
One such war occurred in Katanga and is the subject of Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, spies and the African nation that waged war on the world, by Christopher Othen. The war in Katanga was a most peculiar conflict. There was very little sympathy anywhere for the State of Katanga/Republic of Katanga when Moïse Tshombe declared its independence from the Republic of the Congo (as the Congo Free State had become), and few saw it as a legitimate nationalist movement or an attempt to rectify old colonial anomalies, despite the fact that there was considerable support for independence in the southern parts of the new state amongst the indigenous population. In fact, the new republic created new anomalies and split the baLuba, in the north of Katanga, who were opposed to independence. Katanga was generally seen by most as the creation of white colonials who wanted to retain control over a mineral-rich region. Just about everyone else quickly lined up against the new state.
As explained at Goodreads, “It was a fantastically uneven battle. The UN fielded soldiers from twenty nations, America paid the bills, and the Soviets intrigued behind the scenes. Yet to everyone’s surprise the new nation’s rag-tag army of local gendarmes, jungle tribesmen and, controversially, European mercenaries, refused to give in. For two and a half years Katanga, the scrawniest underdog ever to fight a war, held off the world with guerrilla warfare, two-faced diplomacy, and some shady financial backing. It even looked as if the Katangese might win.”
This conflict is therefore fascinating for historians, and Christopher Othen provides the detail.
Leading on the one side for a while, was Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, and on the other was Moïse Tshombe, the self-declared President of Katanga. After UN forces succeeded in suppressing Katanga, Tschombe fled to exile. However a few years later he returned as prime minister of the Congo in a new coalition government. Lumumba, in the meantime, had been quickly replaced in a coup d’etat by Mobutu, who sent Lumumba to Élisabethville (now known as Lubumbashi), where he was executed by a firing squad under the command of Katangan authorities. Later on, as Prime Minister of the Congo, and despite his previous history, Tschombe was very much against concilliation with the Simba rebels (supporters of the late Lumumba), who had previously also declared independence from the Congo as the Free Republic of the Congo. Tshombe was subsequently dismissed by President Kasa-Vubu, and then General Mobutu, who staged a successful coup against Kasa-Vubu, brought charges of treason against Tshombe, who again fled the country and settled in Francoist Spain. Much later, in 2006, Antoine Gizenga who had previously in 1960 declared independence of the Free Republic of the Congo and who subsequently spent various periods in prison and then fled the country, became Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (as the Republic of the Congo is now known (after being known as Zaire from 1971 to 1997)).
Belgium provided some support for Tschombe in Katanga, the US backed Mobutu, and the Russians meddled a lot and leant moral and financial support to Lumumba and also Gizenga. A few Brits, some Rhodesians and also Roy Welensky, thought that the new Katanga might want to join the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Numerous mercenaries then pitched up, looking for action. Tschombe favoured a new federation of countries formed out of the Republic of the Congo.
Is all of that crystal clear? It shows how fluid politics could be in those parts of Africa in those days. With so much external meddling, what chance was there for home-grown politics, which were in any case immensely complex, and usually based on ethnic groupings which were often hostile to each other?
There was a lot of bad nastiness, torture, killings and rapes, in various regions immediately after the Republic of the Congo gained its independence, and this continued for some time across the country. The United Nations sent many troups, arrested and deported mercenaries, and then forcefully took over parts of Katanga. Then the Katangese forces, aided by mercenaries (French, Belgian, British and a few from elsewhere) started to fight back, and chaos ensued.