a memorial for all wars: the Polynational War Memorial


Congo Crisis

Years: 1960-1965
Battle deaths: 7,175 [1]

Nation(s) involved and/or conflict territory [note]
United States, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgium

Published prior to 2013 | Updated: 2014-08-10 19:07:24
The Congo Crisis (1960-1965) was a period of turmoil in the First Republic of the Congo that began with national independence from Belgium and ended with the seizing of power by Joseph Mobutu. At various points it had the characteristics of anti-colonial struggle, a secessionist war with the province of Katanga, a United Nations peacekeeping operation, and a Cold War proxy battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. In recognition of the failure of the word "crisis" to convey this complexity, some authors write Congo "Crisis" or "Congo Crisis". The Crisis led to the assassination of prime minister Patrice Lumumba, as well as a traumatic setback to the United Nations following the death of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in a plane crash as he sought to mediate.


Prior to the establishment of the First Republic in 1960, the native Congolese elites had formed semi-political organisations which gradually evolved into the main parties striving for independence. These organisations were formed on one of three foundations: ethnic kinship, connections formed in schools, and urban intellectualism.

The largest of these was Association des Bakongo (ABAKO), founded in 1950, which was an ethnic association which promoted the interests and language of the Bakongo (or Kongo) people, as well as Bakongo-related ethnic groups. ABAKO, led by Joseph Kasavubu during the Crisis, was at the forefront of the more insistent demands for both independence and federalism. Other less successful ethnic associations included the Liboke lya Bangala, who championed the needs of the Bangala collection of ethnic groups (a grouping created by Western ethnographers), and the Fédékaléo – who included people from the Kasai region. Fédékaléo later split into several groups. Though these organisations represented ethnic groups from all over the Congo, they usually based themselves in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), since one reason for their existence was the need to maintain ethnic ties after the mass migration to urban areas.

Another source of political groupings was the various Alumni Associations - whose membership came from former students of colonial Christian schools in the Congo. Most of the major politicians of the period were Alumni members, and the associations were used to create networks of advisors and supporters.

The third political tributary were the Cercles, urban associations that sprang up in the cities of the Congo, which were designed to foster solidarity amongst the évolués (educated elites). In the words of Patrice Lumumba, the head of the Cercles of Stanleyville (now Kisangani), the Cercles were created to "improve intellectual, social, moral and physical formation" of the évolués.

The thirty year plan

In the early 1950s Belgium came under increasing pressure to transform the Belgian Congo into a self-governing state. Belgium had ratified article 73 of the United Nations Charter, which advocated self-determination, and both superpowers put pressure on Belgium to reform their Congo policy. The Belgian governments response was largely dismissive. However, Belgian professor A.J. Van Bilsen, in 1955, published a treatise called Thirty Year Plan for the Politcal Emancipation of Belgian Africa. The timetable called for gradual emancipation of the Congo over a thirty year period - the time Van Bilsen expected it would take to create an educated elite who could replace the Belgians in positions of power. The Belgian government and many of the évolués were suspicious of the plan — the former because it meant eventually giving up the Congo, and the latter because Belgium would still be ruling Congo for another 3 decades. A group of Catholic évolués responded positively to the plan with a manifesto in a Congolese journal called Conscience Africaine, with their only point of disagreement being the amount of native Congolese participation. The ethnic association ABAKO decided to distance themselves from the plan, in part because most of the Catholic évolués who wrote the Conscience Africaine manifesto were not from the Kongo ethnic group favoured by ABAKO, but also because they had decided to take a more radical, less gradualist approach to ending colonialism. ABAKO demanded immediate self-government for Congo.


The independent Republic of the Congo was declared on 30 June 1960, with Joseph Kasavubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister. It shared a name with the neighboring Republic of the Congo to the west, a French colony that also gained independence in 1960, and the two were normally differentiated by also stating the name of the relevant capital city, so Congo (Léopoldville) versus Congo (Brazzaville).


Despite gaining political independence, the new country had few military officers so it kept many foreign officers as it trained its own military leadership. On 5 July 1960, the army (the Force Publique) near Léopoldville mutinied against its white officers and attacked numerous European targets. This caused great alarm amongst the approximately 100,000 European settlers in Congo that lived mostly in the capital city and ruined the credibility of the new government as it proved unable to control its own armed forces.

This immediately led to an military intervention into Congo by Belgium in an ostensible effort to secure the safety of its citizens. The reentry of these forces was a clear violation of the national sovereignty of the new nation, as it had not requested Belgian assistance.

Secession of Katanga

The mineral-rich Katanga province in the south declared independence. Its leader, Moise Tchombe, was a longtime enemy of Patrice Lumumba. Tchombe was known close to the Belgian industrial companies which mined the copper, gold and uranium whose wealth had flowed back to Brussels for decades. Without Katanga, Congo was an impoverished economy.

Lumumba assassinated

Sixty-seven days after he came to power, Patrice Lumumba was dismissed by state president Joseph Kasavubu. Lumumba, in turn, tried to dismiss Kasavubu, but to no avail. Lumumba was placed under informal house arrest at the prime minister’s residence.

Lumumba now made perhaps the worst decision of his life. He decided to escape. Smuggled out of his residence at night in a visiting diplomat’s car he began a long journey towards Stanleyville. Mobutu’s troops were in hot pursuit. Finally trapped on the banks of the Sankuru River, he was captured by soldiers loyal to Colonel Mobutu.

He appealed to local UN troops to save him. The UN refused on orders from headquarters in New York. He was flown first to Leopoldville, where he appeared beaten and humiliated before journalists and diplomats.

Further humiliation followed at Mobutu’s villa, where soldiers beat the elected prime minister in full view of television cameras. Lumumba was dispatched first to Thysville military barracks, one hundred miles from Leopoldville.

The Belgians demanded a more decisive ending - they wanted Lumumba delivered into the hands of his sworn enemy, President Tschombe of Katanga.

Lumumba was beaten again on the flight to Elizabethville on 17 January 1961. He was seized by Katangese soldiers commanded by Belgians and driven to Villa Brouwe. He was guarded and brutalized still further by both Belgian and Katangese troops while President Tschombe and his cabinet decided what to do with him.

That same night it is said Lumumba was bundled into another convoy that headed into the bush. It drew up beside a large tree. Three firing squads had been assembled, commanded by a Belgian. Another Belgian had overall command of the execution site. Lumumba and two other comrades from the government were lined up against a large tree. President Tschombe and two other ministers were present for the executions, which took place one at a time.

Nothing was said for three weeks - though rumour spread quickly. When Lumumba’s death was formally announced on Katangese radio, it was accompanied by an implausible cover involving an escape and murder by enraged villagers.

Mobutu and the Second Republic

In 1965, Mobutu seized power with the backing of the military support of Western countries, who saw him as a ally against communism in Africa. He established a one-party state, banning all other political organizations except his.

Over the next three decades, Mobutu led one of the most enduring regimes in Africa and also one of the most dictatorial and corrupt.


Data Sources

[1] Battle deaths: PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset v3.0 (link) (1946-88) ID: #68 #69 #86
Low: 6,642 High: 100,000

More about sources


NOTE! Nation data for this war may be inconlusive or incomplete. In most cases it reflects which nations were involved with troops in this war, but in some it may instead reflect the contested territory.



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