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The Crisis Of Decolonization

The crisis that suddenly burst upon the Republic of the Congo, as the new nation was called, in the wake of independence, on June 30, 1960, has several dimensions: the mutiny of the Force Publique on July 5; the secession of the country's richest region, Katanga, on July 1 1 , soon followed by a similar move in southeastern Kasai Province (now Kasai-Oriental Region), which declared itself the Independent Mining State of South Kasai on August 8; and the role of the United Nations, first as a peacekeeping force and ultimately as the chosen instrument for bringing Katanga back into the fold of the central government. The crisis was further compounded by the trial of strength at the center between President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, culminating in Lumumba's assassination at the hands of the Katangan secessionists in January 1961.

The rioting that swept across Leopoldville in early January 1959, did more than induce the Belgian government to recognize independence formally as the ultimate goal of its policies; it also set in motion a decolonization plan designed to lay the foundation for major constitutional reforms. The Colonial Council, renamed the Legislative Council, would include twelve indigenous Congolese members and provide the embryo of an upper chamber; the Government Council and provincial councils would be transformed into advisory bodies to monitor the decisions of the Belgian governor general and provincial governors.

By late 1959, local councils would be elected to serve as an electoral college for the establishment of provincial councils. No provision was made, however, for the transfer of executive or administrative power to non-Europeans. And the few Congolese selected for membership in the new advisory organs could scarcely be seen as representative of their countrymen's interests.

In view of its omissions and ambiguities, it is easy to see why the Belgian plan fell short of the expectations of most politically conscious Congolese. Even before it began to be put into effect, the Belgian blueprint had been largely outstripped by the pace and intensity of nationalist activity. Faced with an impasse, the Belgian government finally agreed to the Round Table Conference, held in Brussels in January 1960, involving the participation of a broad spectrum of nationalist organizations. At the conference, June 30, 1960, was agreed upon as the date of independence. Elections would be held in May, on the basis of universal suffrage, for the election of a bicameral parliament and provincial councils. Finally, a special commission was appointed to frame a new constitutional system, which became the Fundamental Law.

The constitutional formula adopted by the Round Table Conference was a carbon copy of the Belgian constitution. Its essential feature was a threefold division of powers, between the central government and the provinces, between the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, and between the head of state and the prime minister. The duality of executive powers meant in theory that the president would be cast in the role of the Belgian king, acting largely as a figurehead, with effective executive power vested in the hands of the prime minister. In the context of the newly emergent Congolese polity, however, this system incorporated within itself the seeds of a major conflict ofjurisdiction between the president and the prime minister.

The national legislative elections of May 1960 and the setting up of national and provincial executives almost completed the process of decolonization. At the national level, Lumumba's MNC was able to control a slim majority of seats in both chambers, thanks to its alliance with smaller parties. Lumumba thus became the country's first prime minister, but the presidency went to Abako leader Kasavubu. At the provincial level, there emerged a more complex situation. Only in Orientale (now Haut-Zaire Region) did the MNC win a solid majority.

Katanga was split between separatists (identified with Tshombe's Conakat) and unitarists. Kasai was about to become the scene of a major ethnic confrontation between Lulua and Luba elements. And in Leopoldville Province, Abako failed to win a majority of seats, thus paving the way for serious tensions between Kongo and upriver deputies. In at least three provinces out of six, the political arenas were fraught with incipient ethnoregional conflicts, and these in turn quickly generated a vicious circle at the center.

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Page last modified: 22-06-2015 21:02:02 ZULU