Congo, Democratic Republic of the - Political background

The territory once known as the Belgian Congo gained independence from colonial rule on 30 June 1960, with Patrice Lumumba as prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu as head of state. In less than a week, the armed forces had mutinied, and Katanga province threatened to secede. United Nations troops were brought in to maintain order. Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba in September 1960. Later in the same month, the government was overthrown by then-Colonel Joseph-Desiré Mobutu. He returned power to Kasavubu in February 1961.

United Nations (UN) troops left the country on 30 June 1964, but political chaos once again erupted. Another struggle for the presidency took place between Kasavubu and the newly designated premier, Moise Tshombe, head of Katanga province. On 24 November 1965, Mobutu led a second bloodless coup. This time he declared that he personally would assume the presidency for a period of five years and proclaimed the "Second Republic."

Mobutu declared that his would be a government by decree. These decrees would have the power of law unless Parliament voted to reverse them. In March 1966, faced with intransigent parliamentary opposition to most of his reforms, Mobutu stripped the legislature of the bulk of its power and rescinded its right to debate his decrees. A new Constitution was adopted in June 1967. Presidential elections, in which Mobutu ran unopposed, were held in late 1970, and he was elected to a seven-year term. Elections were again held in 1977 and 1984, with Mobutu as sole candidate. Though elections were also held regularly for the national legislature, the sole legal political party was Mobutu's Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR—Popular Movement of the Revolution). In 1971, the government of Zaire and the executive council of the MPR were merged into the National Executive Council, further solidifying Mobutu's political domination. He personally appointed provincial governors and their cabinets, leaving them with little real authority.

In the early 1970s, Mobutu undertook a campaign of Africanization of the former Belgian Congo. The names of the country, currency, and the Congo River were changed to Zaire, colonial place names were Africanized, and individuals were required to take African names. Following closely on the campaign for authentication came "Mobutisme," whereby Mobutu was elevated to the stature of "Father and God of the nation."

Mobutu considered the country his personal fiefdom, much like the Belgian monarch King Leopold had. He diverted foreign aid, siphoned profits from the country's highly profitable mines, and thus amassed a personal fortune estimated at US $7 billion. Following his example, a public culture of corruption ensued, which observers labeled kleptocracy, or government by theft. Its pervasiveness once led Mobutu to admonish his brethren: "When you steal, steal cleverly," meaning, I understand you are stealing from the state, but invest your ill-gotten gains in the country. This piece of advice was freely given though not practiced.

The threat to Zaire's strategic importance to the West subsided following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To placate Western donors, Mobutu opened a national dialogue with the Zairian people and convened a series of hearings around the country. More than 5,000 individuals and organizations submitted written critiques, revealing to Mobutu the deep and pervasive dissatisfaction with his rule. Devastated by the criticism, he announced far-reaching reforms. He declared that a new prime minister would be named to form a transitional government. A new Constitution was drafted that in theory limited the executive power of the president. Political parties were legalized, and a popular presidential election was proposed but never took place. Dissidents were allowed to resume political activity, and exiles were permitted to return to Zaire.

Mobutu again reneged on his promises, but he was unable to postpone reform any longer. He was driven from power by Laurent Kabila's coalition, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation (AFDL) of Congo-Zaire. Kabila was backed militarily by Rwanda and Uganda, without whom his campaign likely would have floundered. AFDL principals included Bugera, a Rwandan Tutsi; Masasu, the son of a Tutsi mother and Shi father; and Ngoma, a Congolese and the first leader of AFDL. Mobutu fled on 16 May 1997, first to Togo and then to Morocco; he died soon after from prostate cancer, living in exile. Kabila arrived in Kinshasa on the evening of 20 May 1997 and was declared the new head of state.

Laurent Kabila's rule was short-lived. In 1998, his former allies, who saw the overthrow of Mobutu as their victory, turned on him when he refused to acquiesce to their demands. Kabila was unable, even with the military support of Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states and Chad, to repel the Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebel invasions and their subsequent occupation of nearly half of Congolese territory. His rejection of United Nations negotiator, former president Masire of Botswana, and his hard-line stance against a negotiated settlement according to the Lusaka peace accords (signed in 1999) isolated him inter-nationally. With neither side able to gain the upper hand, a political and military stalemate ensued. The country fell further into economic chaos due to gross mismanagement of monetary and fiscal policy. On 16 January 2001, he was assassinated by a member of his presidential guard, who was shot and killed before he could be tried. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him.

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