The Belgian colonizers transformed Congo into a slave-state for rubber and ivory. The so-called Congo Free State (État indépendant du Congo) existed as a private colony of King Leopold II (1835-1909) until the Belgian government took over in 1908. Belgian rule killed an estimated 10 million people. Post-independence, the country split into what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, known for a time as Zaire,) and the Republic of Congo (a.k.a., Congo-Brazzaville).
This article mainly concerns the DRC, which has a population of 91 million. With a GDP of just $50 billion a year and an extreme poverty rate of over 70 percent, it is one of the poorest nations on Earth. The infant mortality rate is 66 per 1,000 live births—one of the worst in the world, life expectancy is 60 years, and per 100k people maternal mortality is over 690. Conflicts from 1996 to the present, plus the resultant malnutrition and disease, have killed six million people.
Like their Franco-Belgian predecessors, the main interest of U.S. imperialists in DRC, on which this article focuses is Katanga, the uranium- and coltan-rich, south-eastern region that borders Angola and Zambia.
Congolese were not passive victims. Although 80 percent of the population is Bantu, DRC has some 200 ethnic communities. The majority of other groups include Kongo, Luba, Lunda, and Mongo. Belgian hegemons struggled to force the diverse country to accept a national identity. For instance, in 1920s’ Kinshasa, the Simonist Christian movement, Kimbanguism, encouraged resistance to the Europeans. A decade later, the ethnic Bapende (a.k.a., Pende) went on strike in Kwilu Province in the west of the country.
Secessionist Katanga in the south contained uranium deposits, particularly at Shinkolobwe. The mine was owned by Belgium’s Union Minière, in which the UK had investments. The best U.S. and Canadian uranium mines typically yielded 0.03 percent uranium per ore deposit. Shinkolobwe’s uranium averaged 65 percent, making it unique. Uranium at the mine was used in the all-important nuclear weapons industry. Western intelligence agencies wanted to deprive the Soviets of access.
The U.S. struck a secret deal with Union Minière to supply uranium for use in the Manhattan Project (1942-46). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also initially headed the Manhattan Project, set up base at Shinkolobwe to drain the mine and export the uranium. The bombs that murdered hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were built with uranium extracted from Shinkolobwe.
The CIA opened a desk in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa the capital) in 1951. From Kwilu and other Provinces (then “districts”) grew the Parti Solidaire Africain (African Mutual Party), a leftish, pro-independence movement led by future PM Antoine Gizenga (1925-2019). Gizenga allied with Patrice Lumumba’s Congolese National Movement (Mouvement national Congolais, MNC), founded in 1958 and whose members included Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (1930-97).
Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) was a high-ranking Army officer and asset of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. A CIA report from November 1959 bemoans the lack of control by the Belgian authorities. This led the way for “political groups [that] want immediate independence, while tribal leaders [are] interested primarily perpetuating [their] own local authority.” The CIA describes this as Congo’s “absence [of] responsible African leadership.” The Washington Post writes that “Mobutu first became an ‘asset’ of the CIA in 1959 during a meeting in Brussels,” but gives no further details.
Future President Joseph Kasavubu (1915-69) led the ethnic ABAKO party (Association des BaKongo), which the Belgians banned. Under Prime Minister Lumumba’s MNC umbrella, Kasavubu became President and Gizenga Deputy PM. Sgt-Maj. Mobutu continued to lead the Army (Force Publique). The Parti Solidaire Africain began to fall apart as the MNC declared Congo’s independence from Belgium on June 30th, 1960. The Force Publique was renamed Congolese Army (Armée Nationale Congolaise, ANC).
LUMUMBA: “AVOID ANOTHER CUBA”
The U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian writes that the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration (1953-61) “had high hopes that [Congo] would form a stable, pro-Western, central government. Those hopes vanished in a matter of days as the newly independent nation descended into chaos.” It notes that, “[w]hile the United States supported the U.N. effort, members of the Eisenhower administration [grew] increasingly concerned that the Congo crisis would provide an opening for Soviet intervention.”
Mobutu refused to back Lumumba’s government. Moïse Tshombé (1919-69) co-founded the Confederation of Tribal Associations of Katanga (Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga, CONAKAT). In July 1960, Tshombé declared Katanga independent from Congo. The Belgian colonizers figured that if they couldn’t control Congo, they could at least retain the most important region.
U.S. Director of Central Intelligence, John McCone (1902-91) was a businessman sent to lead the Agency by President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs debacle (1961). Against the wishes of Ambassador G. McMurtrie Godley (1917-99), McCone insisted on continuing U.S. covert operations in Congo, particularly fostering closer relations with Tshombé. McCone told Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1909-94): “we should not be deterred from this by the persuasion of do-gooders, by reactions from African states in the United Nations who didn’t like us anyway.”
Under United Nations Security Council Resolution 143 (1960), the U.N., led by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-61), demanded the withdrawal of Belgian troops and sent armed forces. Lumumba pushed Hammarskjöld to use the forces to quell Tshombé rebellion, but Hammarskjöld refused and PM Lumumba (1925-61) sought military assistance from the Soviets.
In 1960, the CIA’s Station Chief in Léopoldville, Lawrence Devlin (1922-2008, alias Victor Hedgman or Hedgeman), cabled Washington. “[Congo is] experiencing classic communist effort [to] takeover government. Whether or not Lumumba actually [is a] commie or just playing commie game[s] to assist solidifying power, anti-West forces [are] rapidly increasing power … [T]here may be little time left in which take action [to] avoid another Cuba.”
In May, the CIA admitted that there are “no known Communists among Congo leaders,” but the Agency suspected sympathies. It acknowledged that “post-independence [Soviet] bloc aid may push Congo toward bloc-oriented neutralism.” The CIA wanted Congo in the U.S. sphere, not neutral. Contrary to the mythology pushed the likes of CIA Director Allen Dulles (1893-1969) and Léopoldville Station Chief Devlin, that Lumumba was a Soviet asset, a July 1960 National Security Council briefing notes that “Lumumba wants aid from any and all quarters; he is therefore not anxious to burn his bridges to [the] West.” The CIA was there to do that for him.
Another NSC briefing regarded Belgium’s attitude towards Katangan independence as ambiguous because secessionist Tshombé could be used as a proxy against Lumumba. “Brussels [is] anxious to protect its investments in Katanga and probably views Lumumba as a budding Castro.”
CIA Director Dulles and Chief of the Africa Division (clandestine services), Bronson Tweedy (1914-2004), believed that Lumumba’s existence would lead to “disastrous consequences for the prestige of the UN and for the interests of the free world generally.” Dulles gave his officers permission to act without the consent of Ambassadors: “Time does not permit referral here.” (Cable likely drafted by Tweedy, signed by Dulles).
KILLING LUMUMBA: “I ORGANISED IT”
Aside from the spectacular and unrealized plots to poison Lumumba with toxins invented by the CIA’s poisoner-in-chief Sidney Gottlieb (a.k.a., Joseph Scheider, 1918-99), practical CIA operations saw covert support for anti-Lumumba politicians and militia. In late-1960, CIA Deputy Director for Plans, Richard Bissell (1909-94), co-authored a cable with Tweedy outlining plans to “provide clandestine support to elements in armed opposition to Lumumba.” Tweedy writes: “The concern with Lumumba was not really the concern with Lumumba as a person,” but with his “effect on the balance of the Continent of a disintegration of the Congo.”
In July 1960 and in contrast to other, then-classified reports, CIA Director Dulles told the National Security Council: “It is safe to go on the assumption that Lumumba has been bought by the Communists; this also, however, fits with his own orientation.” President Kasavubu wanted no part in Bissell’s plot to kill Lumumba. CIA representative Thomas Parrott (1914-2007) outlined plans to get labor unions to push for a vote of no confidence in Lumumba at the Senate. CIA Station Chief Devlin sent a cable on August 18th 1960: “Difficult [to] determine major influencing factors to predict outcome. [S]truggle for power[. D]ecisive period not far off.”
Future MI5 Director and then-British Foreign Office civil servant, Sir Howard Smith (1919-96), came up with numerous scenarios for ousting Lumumba: “The first is the simple one of removing him from the scene by killing him.” So-called Queen of Spies, Daphne Park OBE (1921-2010), was an MI6 agent, Special Operations Executive Sergeant, future Somerville College (Oxford) Principal, and later Baroness of Monmouth. Between 1959 and 1961, Sgt. Park was MI6’s Consul and First Secretary in Léopoldville, where she developed close contacts with warring Congolese factions, including the secessionists in Katanga. When asked if MI6 had been involved in Lumumba’s murder, Sgt. Park admitted: “I organised it.”
In December 1960, Mobutu’s forces captured Lumumba en route to Stanleyville in the north. Mobutu handed Lumumba to the secessionist forces in Katanga. The 34-year-old Lumumba appears to have been murdered in mid-January 1961. To prevent the location of death becoming a pilgrimage site, his body was dissolved in acid.
Chief Historian of the CIA, David Robarge, says: “Agency [covert action] concentrated on stabilizing and supporting the [post-Lumumba] government of President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Ministers Cyrille Adoula and Moise Tshombe, with Mobutu as behind-the-scenes power broker.” The CIA paid Mobutu’s soldiers to be loyal. (At the end of Mobutu’s long reign, the Army’s faux loyalty rapidly disintegrated.) Details are not known, but at the time, the CIA also paid politicians to engage in “Parliamentary maneuvering” to support the central regime.
Mobutu soon dispensed with the façade of democracy. He seized power, filled the regime’s Équateurian elite with ethnic Ngbandi people, and ruled with an iron fist. For instance, André Lubaya (1932-68) was President of Kasaï Province, Economic Minister (1965-68), and founder of the Union Démocratique Africaine. Mobutu accused Lubaya of being part of a coup plot and reportedly had him executed. Between 1963 and ’65, Mobutu crushed the pro-Lumumba Simba (“Lion”) Rebellion in the north. Mobutu placed President Kasavubu (1960-65) under house arrest until Kasavubu’s death in 1969. A CIA report from late-1961 dismisses claims that the quasi-civil war was “part of a Communist master plan” as “not supported by other evidence.”
The CIA also noted that the killing of U.N. Ghanaian troops by Congo Army soldiers showed the weakness of the 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the country. The CIA appeared to agree with the Belgian foreign ministry, that NATO could play a role. U.N. Secretary-General Hammarskjöld “indicated dissatisfaction at pace of Belgian withdrawal from Katanga.” At the close of ‘61, former FBI Agent and ex-corporate lobbyist in Guatemala, Democrat Thomas J. Dodd (1907-71), wrote against Hammarskjöld’s peace efforts at the U.N., falsely arguing that the warring factions in the government were close to sorting out their own affairs. Dodd publicly claimed that the Soviets favored U.N. involvement in Congo to destabilize the country.
Against this propaganda backdrop, CIA Air Operations began in 1962 as a tactic to raise Mobutu’s profile. They soon extended to tactical support to U.N. peacekeepers and foreign mercenaries. Historian Robarge says that the Congolese Air Forces “existed only because of US assistance.” Six agents oversaw 125 contractors, including 79 foreign pilots.
The American, Belgian, British, and South African intelligence agencies plotted Operation Celeste: Hammarskjöld’s murder. South African intelligence used a mercenary company called the SA Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMAR). Prior to the murder, Britain’s MI5 and Special Operations Executive (for which Sgt. Park worked) met with SAIMAR.
Documents, which various authorities have tried to dismiss as forgeries, state: “[United Nations Organization] is becoming troublesome and it is felt that Hammarskjöld should be removed.” CIA Director Dulles “agrees and has promised full cooperation from his people.” Referring to Hammarskjöld and Lumumba, respectively, the author writes: “I want his removal to be handled more efficiently than was Patrice.” SAIMAR arranged to blow up Hammarskjöld’s DC-6 plane with 6lbs of TNT. The bomb failed and a contingency plan involved Hammarskjöld’s plane being shot down by a British-Belgian former Royal Air Force pilot, Jan van Risseghem, known as the Lone Ranger.
At the time, Rhodesia was part of the waning British Empire. U.S. Naval Officer, Charles Southall, heard intercepted transmissions in which Risseghem said of Hammarskjöld’s plane attempting to land in Rhodesia: “I’m going to go down to make a run on it. Yes, it’s the Transair DC6. It’s the plane. I’ve hit it. There are flames. It’s going down. It’s crashing.” Now-declassified cables by U.S. Ambassador, Edward Gullion (1913-98), confirmed Risseghem’s presence at the crash site. Former President Harry Truman (1884-1972) later told reporters: “[Hammarskjöld] was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him’.”
Given that Hammarskjöld’s body was photographed with the Ace of Spades death card in his collar, “they” presumably means the CIA.
REIGN OF TERROR
With Lumumba and Hammarskjöld out of the way, the CIA beefed up Mobutu’s Army. Katangan secessionists fell in 1963 and most gendarmes fled to Angola, forming the Lunda people-majority’s Congolese National Liberation Front (Front de libération nationale congolaise, FLNC): a group described by the CIA as the only feasible threat to Mobutu.
Between 1963 and ‘64, revolts and insurrections occurred in Kasais, Kivu, and Kwilu. Led by Pierre Mulele (1929-68), the ethnic Mumbunda, politically Marxist rebels in Kwilu failed to mobilize the locals. Mulele was tortured to death by Mobutu’s forces. Via Station Chief Devlin, the CIA hired British mercenaries, including Col. “Mad Mike” Hoare, to train Mobutu’s forces and crush the rebellions. Mobutu sentenced secessionist Tshombé to death in absentia. Tshombé settled in Franco’s Spain but was captured by the French agent, Francis Bodenan, who took him to French Algeria, where he later died, supposedly of heart failure.
CIA-backed Congolese Air Force sorties against Cuban and Chinese-trained guerrillas began in February 1964 and continued into ‘66. Operations included assisting Mobutu’s “crackdown” against mutineers in Katanga. With its “pocket navy,” the CIA assisted Mobutu’s counter-rebel maritime operations on Lake Tanganyika on the eastern border, as well as on Lake Albert in the northeast.
The CIA estimated in mid-1966: “The Cuban presence in Africa is not large.” Even in Congo-Brazzaville, the largest contingent was “a relatively small contribution of Cuban training, materiel, or manpower.” Yet they feared that even this “would somewhat increase [the] potential” of rebel groups. In the same year Mobutu banned the communist-oriented General Confederation of Congolese Workers (Confédération Générale du Travail du Congo). A year later, Mobutu created a single labor union to support his MPR government. The union was the National Union of Workers of Congo/Zaire (Union Nationale des Travailleurs du Zaire). Strikes were outlawed and the labor code non-binding. Mobutu retained control over union-industry relations.
The U.S. tolerated Mobutu’s nationalization programs because the IMF had, in 1967, imposed financial reforms, and the worst effects of nationalization from U.S. corporations’ perspective was the exodus of Belgian specialists, who could anyway be replaced with U.S. experts. The Équateur region “apparently has no mineral wealth,” thus the CIA permitted nationalization in the early-‘70s.
Between 1957 and 1972, the number of doctors declined from one in 20,000—already one of the lowest on the Continent—to one in 30,000: one in 50,000 in many rural regions.
Katangans refused to support an invasion of Angola-based mercenaries. The CIA reckoned that the Simba insurgency was “little more than banditry.” By 1970, the CIA was quite impressed with Mobutu. “[He] has given his country better internal security and political stability … He has gone far toward remaking an unruly army into a fairly effective counterinsurgency force, and the once-formidable rebel bands have been whittled down to small groups of fugitives.” It added that Mobutu’s politics “will not give voters a real choice of candidates.” In 1971, Mobutu changed the name of the country to Zaire and, within a year, Katanga was renamed Shaba (“copper”).
By early-1973, the CIA was confident that Shaba with its all-important minerals was under the “unchallenged authority” of Mobutu.
An undated CIA memo notes that, “without Shaba’s wealth Zaire would not be a viable entity.” Formed from the remnants of the Katangan gendarmerie, the Angola-based FLNC periodically attempted to take Shaba (Katanga). In March 1977, the FLNC took over the major towns, but received no support from the general public in Katanga. The U.S., France, and Belgium sent troops to the region.
Another invasion in 1978 failed when the U.S. aided 1,200 Belgian airborne rescue personnel as French Legionnaires fought the rebels. A government official was killed and the attack blamed on ethnic Mumbunda. In the southern town Idiofa, 350 Mumbunda were murdered in revenge and 12 Kimbanguist Christians hanged. At the end of the decade in the diamond-rich region of Kasaï, the Defense Intelligence Agency says: “soldiers massacred hundreds of students and miners in the region.” In 1980, 60 people in Bas-Zaire (now Kongo Central in the west) were arrested for forming an opposition party. In the same year, Mobutu arrested and exiled former Parliamentarians who were trying to form a new authority in Katanga.
U.S. diplomat and future executive director of the World Bank, Bob Keating (1924-2012), wrote to CIA Director, Admiral Stansfield Turner (1923-2018), about Zaire, in which Keating was heading the Mobutu-initiated Committee for Industrial Development. “[I]t is the policy of the United States to help stabilize the political and economic situation.” Keating writes: “Large sums of money will be spent for this purpose over the next three years through emergency programs of foreign aid and investment.”
A March 1979 assessment notes that “The Zairian Army (FAZ) is more a menace to the country’s civilian population than a threat to any outside force.” It describes Zaire as “a military regime with a civilian façade,” as well as Mobutu’s loosening grip on power and the absence of suitable successors. Drought in Bas-Zaire caused serious food shortages. Internal opposition was “non-existent” and European-based opponents “divided and weak.” The CIA feared “spontaneous uprisings” in Kinshasa and Shaba (Katanga). “Without continued external economic and military support, the President’s rule would deteriorate even more rapidly … There are no readily identifiable potential successors.”
Military assistance continued to pour into Zaire.
INTO THE ‘80s: FATALISM
The CIA notes that by the 1980s, Zaire was a hub for international military training. Belgian forces mainly concentrated on training commandos in Kinshasa, Kota Koli, and Shaba. Chinese advisers provided small arms and training. Egyptian personnel trained and armed the military. French paratroopers equipped armored units, including the Air Force. Israelis aided the Special Presidential Brigades. West Germany exported communications equipment and soldiers.
The U.S. spent millions of dollars “to finance most of the country’s inventory of military vehicles, nearly all of its airlift capability …, some naval craft, and much of the … communications equipment.” This was conducted under the International Military Education Training Program.
A June 1980 CIA report notes that: “US strategic interests in Zaire, along with those of most other industrial powers outside the Communist world, are influenced by their almost total reliance on imported cobalt and by Zaire’s prominent role in supply of this critical metal.”
Shaba alone accounted for 60 percent of Zaire’s foreign exchange earnings. In 1982, the Directorate of Intelligence reported “conditions that appear worse than at any time since the turbulent years just after the country became independent”: debt servicing burdens, stagflation, and unemployment. Even if an anti-Mobutu coup had taken place, “Zaire probably would remain Western oriented and would continue to depend on the West or assistance and markets for its mineral exports.”
In the early-80s, Mobutu imposed austerity in response to currency devaluation and trade imbalances. “There may be future protest by mineworkers, students, and civil servants, but Mobutu remains firmly in control.” The CIA notes that “the majority of the population has apparently adopted a fatalistic attitude towards hard times.” But fatalism was not to last. By the mid-‘80s, the CIA was reporting that “Cutbacks in education have provoked strikes at a number of universities … leading Mobutu to close several campuses and arrest some students and teachers.” These conditions “could set the stage for open unrest among various domestic interest groups.” A redacted section notes Mobutu’s opposition to “US plans to sell cobalt from [Zaire’s] strategic stockpile, claiming this would drive the world price down.”
CONCLUSION: THE CONGO WARS
The CIA’s publicly-available Congo record dries up in the 1980s. By the early-‘90s, internal and external tensions, including a politically active public and conflicts on the border, pushed Mobutu’s regime to the brink. The dictator was abroad for health treatment when an old Katanga rival, Laurent Kabila (1939-2001), triggered the first of the Congo Wars (1996-97 and ’98-2003) and deposed Mobutu. The nation went from the agonies of dictatorship to the trauma of genocidal war. Western corporations and consumers continue to benefit from cheap coltan. The CIA’s mission was complete.