The impact of the collapse of the USSR on re-imagining African nations in the 1990s

To reflect on the impact of the collapse of the USSR in 1989 on the re-imagining of African nations in the 1990s the curriculum requires that certain countries are examined in detail.

The case studies for the examination are as follows:

  • Central Africa: Congo and Angola to be examined in 2009 (below)

  • West Africa: Benin and Guinea: to be examined in 2010

  • North Africa: Egypt: to be examined in 2011

Colonialism in the Congo

The present day Democratic Republic of Congo was formerly the Belgian Congo. The capital under colonial rule was Leopoldville (now Kinshasa).

The area was colonised in 1885 as a personal possession of the Belgian King Leopold II as the Congo Free State. It is one of the largest countries in Africa and one of the richest.

Leopold ideas reflected the racist ideas of most of his European counterparts at the time. He thought that Africa was "stagnant, primitive and dark", and that his rule would bring "progress, civilisation and light."

Belgium's brutal exploitation of the Congo is infamous. Leopold accumulated a vast personal fortune from ivory and rubber using Congolese forced labour. In 1891, the price of rubber began to increase following the invention of the inflatable rubber tyre, which increased his profits even further.

He was known locally as 'Bula Matadi' (He Who Breaks Rocks) to indicate the brutality of his regime. During Leopold's rule the population of the Congo declined from an estimated 20-30 million to less than nine million.

In 1907, administration of the colony shifted from the king to the Belgian Government, which renamed the country the Belgian Congo.

Independence in the Congo

Independence was granted in 1960, and the country was named the Republic of the Congo. The African elite in the colony was very small, and this suited the financial interests of Belgium, which planned to maintain its economic grip on the Congo's mineral resources and raw materials.

Elections were held, and Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minister. Joseph Kasavubu became Head of State.

During the Cold War, there was a contest for influence in Africa, between the US and Western powers on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries on the other. The Cold War spread outside Europe to every region of the world. Most of newly independent ex-colonies in Africa got military and economic support from one of the Superpowers. The Congo was important because of its wealth and its size.

Lumumba followed a policy of "positive neutralism," - a return to African values and the rejection of foreign non-African ideologies, including that of the Soviet Union.

The West feared the consequences of a Lumumba's Congo government for its position in Africa. The USA had recently witnessed Fidel Castro's victorious revolution in Cuba, and Castro's friendship with Moscow.

The CIA quickly became involved in destabilising Lumumba's government. US President Eisenhower's government said Lumumba was a "very difficult if not impossible person to deal with, and was dangerous to the peace and safety of the world."

Within weeks of independence, the Katanga Province, which was rich in copper, led by Moise Tshombe, broke away from the new republic. Belgium sent in troops. It said the troops were to protect Belgian nationals. However, the Belgian troops mainly landed in Katanga, where they helped keep the regime of Moise Tshombe in power with the help of the USA.

Lumumba appealed to the United Nations to expel the Belgians and help restore internal order. The United Nations forces refused to help suppress the Katangese revolt.

Having been rejected by the West, Lumumba appealed to the Soviet Union for planes to assist in transporting his troops to Katanga. The Western powers were alarmed. Moreover, in the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union's support for Lumumba appeared at the time as a threat to the West.

On 5 September 1960, President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba, and Lumumba contested the move. There were therefore two groups now claiming to be the legal central government. On 14 September 1960, power was seized by the Congolese army leader Colonel Joseph Mobutu (president of Zaire as Mobutu Sese Seko), who later reached a working agreement with Kasavubu.

The assassination of Lumumba

In November 1960, Lumumba wanted to travel from Leopoldville, where the United Nations had provided him with protection, to Stanleyville where his supporters had control. With the secret help of the CIA, Joseph Mobutu sent his soldiers after Lumumba. Lumumba was caught, and spent three months in prison, while his enemies tried in vain to consolidate their power.

In January 1961, Lumumba was handed over to the Katanga secessionist regime, where he was executed. Documents from the USA which were released in 2000 revealed that President Eisenhower gave direct orders for the CIA to assassinate Lumumba. You can read an interesting article about Lumumba's assassination on this external link:

Mobutu seizes power

In 1965, army leader Joseph Mobutu seized control as the dictator of the Congo. Mobutu renamed the country, and called it the Republic of Zaire. All citizens had to adopt African names. He called himself Mobutu Sese Seko. He had the backing of the USA government, as he was willing to turn Zaire into a springboard for operations against Soviet-backed Angola. You can read about Angola in another section.

The USA considered Mobutu Sese Seko as a safeguard against Soviet-sponsored Communism in Africa. Mobutu received American support, including military aid, throughout his ruthless dictatorship. He was even received by American presidents at the White House. The Cold War support of Mobutu by the USA put Mobutu in a position to loot his country's riches and he became one of history's most corrupt dictators. He funnelled the wealth of the Congo into his own pockets. 

Lumumba had wanted to reform the Congo and use its riches to lift the Congolese out of poverty. In contrast, Mobutu chose King Leopold II as his role model. Leopold ran the Congo as his private rubber plantation. Mobutu outdid even Leopold, as he sold off the Congo's resources and stashed billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. Mobutu built himself a refuge on the French Riviera.

The Congolese continued to live in poverty.

Zaire and the Cold War

President Ford's American administration opposed the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Mobutu helped the USA against the MPLA. He supported his brother-in-law, Jonas Savimbi, who led UNITA.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration called Savimbi a "freedom fighter" worthy of CIA support. Thankful for the use of Zaire as a supply route to Savimbi's forces, Reagan praised Mobutu as "a voice of good sense and good will."

Between 1962 and 1991, the U.S. directly supported Mobutu and his government with more than $1.03 billion in development aid and $227.4 million in military assistance.

Reviewing America's support for Mobutu, the former US Assistant Secretary of State, Chester Crocker said: "I think we have no apologies to make. We were in a state of global rivalry with a global adversary."

The end of the Cold War

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reform policies in the USSR - called perestroika (restructuring of the Soviet economy) and glasnost (openness and transparency). After more than four decades, in December 1989, Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush Sr. declared the Cold War officially over.

With the Cold War ended, Zaire ceased to be of interest to the US, and US aid to Mobutu began to dry up.

There had been simmering anger and discontent with Mobutu's rule in Zaire for a long time. Mobutu could not stay in power without US help. The Zairian liberation movement led by Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu's dictatorship in 1997. It quickly reinstated the country's name, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.) and appointed a new government. Laurent Kabila declared himself President.

Mobutu went into exile in Togo and then in Morocco, and died of cancer in 1997. He had seventeen children. The accounts held by Swiss institutions containing the assets of the late Mobutu Sese Seko were frozen in 1997. Swiss authorities have repeatedly denied Mobutu's heirs access to the money, and in May 2009 the funds remained frozen.

Laurent Kabila banned all political parties except his own, and elections were never held. Kabila's policies differed little from his Mobutu's as he ran a dictatorship that was corrupt and rampant with human rights abuses. He was assassinated in 2001, and succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila.

Last updated : 16-Jun-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011