Are we in 1962 or in 1965?

I attended a panel discussion yesterday at Columbia University on peacebuilding in the Congo and Sudan. One of my fellow panelists was Herbert Weiss, Emeritus professor at the City University of New York, who wrote the seminal study of political protest in the Congo in 1967.

Herbert framed the current situation in the Congo in the following terms: Are we in 1962/3 or in 1965?

No, Herbert has not gone off the deep end, far from it. In 1961, the Congolese parliament brought an end to the constitutional crisis created by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba by electing Cyprien Adoula as Prime Minister. Adoula was faced with a country in turmoil – Katanga had seceded and rural revolts had engulfed almost a third of the country. The Belgians had left almost nothing in terms of administrative capacity and Adoula’s grasp on power was dangerously weak. A paragraph from a Congo scholar on the period:

Prolonged neglect of the rural sectors, coupled with the growing disparities of wealth and privilege between the political elites and the peasant masses, inefficient and corrupt government, and [army] abuses, created a situation ripe for major uprising. Further aggravating the frustration of the rural masses, the promise of a life more abundant made at the time of independence had remained unfulfilled. It seemed to many, especially disaffected youths, that nothing short of a “second independence” would bring them salvation.

Sound familiar?

Adoula failed to put order in his fractious house. He decentralized power to satisfy the provinces, creating twenty-one provincettes, exacerbating ethnic tensions (this is often cited by contemporary critics of the current decentralization program as an ominous precedent). He dissolved parliament, complaining that the MPs could never agree on anything and were an obstacle to progress, which in turn sent many politicians into the arms of the rebellion. Another factor fueling the insurgency was the anticipated withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces by June 30, 1964, (Independence Day) as they were the main prop of the central government.

Sound familiar?

Ok, but let’s see what happened in 1965. On November 25, 1965, the commander of the army Joseph Mobutu overthrew the government (Adoula had been replaced by Moise Tshombe in 1964) and took power. He quickly dismantled the institutions of the First Republic, centralized power and abolished multiparty democracy. The country was tired of five years of war and instability and strong nationalism characterized political mobilization. Mobutu was very popular at the beginning of his rule, and the country enjoyed relative stability and prosperity until he nationalized much of the private sector in the 1970s.

So is Joseph Kabila an Adoula or a Mobutu?

Of course, the answer is neither. The country’s political scene is not as chaotic and divided as in 1962, and the government controls most of its territory. But Kabila is also not Mobutu, given how contested he is within his own power base and his introverted personality.

But it is an interesting historical comparison.