February 15, 1961. It was becoming a familiar sight – the Independence movement taking place all across Africa in the 1960s was gaining momentum as well as bloodshed. One of the bloodiest was taking place in the former Belgian Congo – later to become Zaire and still later to become The Republic Of Congo. Although the African continent is far from tranquil, even now – it was a particularly volatile continent in the 1960s. From the civil war in Algeria to the violent crackdowns and Apartheid policies in South Africa, those colonies were flexing their independent muscles, and often times the results were no peaceful.
On this day in 1961 the issue was the changing situation in the former Belgian Congo and the civil war it was touching off was now considered an International problem.
A little background: A nationalist movement in the Belgian Congo demanded the end of colonial rule: this led to the country’s independence on 30 June 1960. Minimal preparations had been made and many issues, such as federalism and ethnic nationalism, remained unresolved. In the first week of July, a mutiny broke out in the army and violence erupted between black and white civilians. Belgium sent troops to protect fleeing whites. Katanga and South Kasai seceded with Belgian support. Amid continuing unrest and violence, the United Nations deployed peacekeepers, but UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld refused to use these troops to help the central government in Léopoldville fight the secessionists. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic leader of the largest nationalist faction, reacted by calling for assistance from the Soviet Union, which promptly sent military advisors and other support.
The involvement of the Soviets split the Congolese government and led to an impasse between Lumumba and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu. Mobutu, in command of the army, broke this deadlock with a coup d’état, expelled the Soviet advisors and established a new government effectively under his own control. Lumumba was taken captive and subsequently executed in 1961. A rival government of the “Free Republic of the Congo” was founded in the eastern city of Stanleyville by Lumumba supporters led by Antoine Gizenga. It gained Soviet support but was crushed in early 1962. Meanwhile, the UN took a more aggressive stance towards the secessionists after Hammarskjöld was kill.
The events of this day surrounded the Emergency session of the United Nations Security council and the issue of Soviet support and potential influence in the region. This was, after all, the Cold War – and the various involvements from both East and West were more about winning Hearts and Minds and subsequently influence in the long-run.
Here is a capsule run-down of the days activities as reported by NBC Radio on February 15, 1961.