Joseph Kasavubu was born sometime between 1910 and 1918 [probably in 1913] in the Mayombe district of Bas Congo Province near Tsehla, Belgian Congo. He was a member of the Bakongo ethnic group. Kasavubu did not know his father and lost his mother at the age of 4. He was raised by his older brother who sent him to a nearby Catholic mission where he was baptized in 1925. He attended Catholic schools and originally trained as a Catholic priest.
He was dismissed in 1939-1940 with the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in philosophy for reasons that were never made clear. He was nevertheless permitted to take a teacher's certificate and to work in mission schools but for such a meager pittance that the embittered Kasavubu eventually broke with the missions and got a bookkeeping job with the colonial administration in 1942.
As African political activity was not encouraged, radical Africans organised in "cultural associations", which included the Alliances des Ba-Kionho (ABAKA), led by Joseph Kasavubu. Following a violent demonstration organised by ABAKO in January 1959, The Belgian Government, alarmed at the prospect of involvement in a prolonged colonial war, adopted a policy of quickly granting the country independence. Belgium favoured the creation of a unitary state based on the centralised pattern of the colonial system. Abako and most other Congolese political groups were ethnically based and, with the exception of Patrice Lumumba's Mouvement Nationale Congolais (MNC), preferred a federal structure.
In the months leading up to independence, the Congolese elected a president, Joseph Kasavubu, prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, a senate and assembly, and similar bodies in the Congo’s numerous provinces. The Eisenhower administration had high hopes that the Republic of the Congo would form a stable, pro-Western, central government. Those hopes vanished in a matter of days as the newly independent nation descended into chaos.
The provinces of Katanga and South Kasai resolved to secede. Disagreement over Lumumba's response to the secession led to his dismissal by Kasavubu in September 1960. This was challenged by Lumumba who asked the legislature to remove Kasavubu. The political deadlock was resolved by the intervention of the armed forces. In September 1960, Colonel Mobutu assumed control of the country and restored power to Kasavubu in February 1961. A few days later, Lumumba was murdered. Following negotiations between Kasavubu and the MNC, a new government was formed in August 1961.
The movement for the secession of Katanga had collapsed in January 1963, when its leader, Tshombe, went into exile. Kasavubu withdrew to a position from which he tried to arbitrate between the various factions and, more importantly, to remain politically alive during the period that saw the gradual erosion and eventual reconstruction of the central government's authority. He lent the cover of his legitimacy to Joseph Mobutu's first coup, thus avoiding early retirement, and then supported the return to civilian government under Cyrille Adoula (1961-1964), only to maneuver the latter out of power in favor of Moïse Tshombe when the Congo rebellion threatened to engulf the entire country.
In July 1964, Kasavubu invited Tshombe to become the interim Prime Minister, pending legislative elections. In August 1964, the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. In March and April 1965, the Tshombe Government organised legislative elections. The coalition, led by Tshombe, the Convention Nationale Congolaise, won 122 out of the 167 seats of the legislature. An opposition bloc soon emerged called the Front Democratique Congolais and a political deadlock endued. At this point, the army led by Mobutu assumed full executive powers and on 24 November 1965 declared himself the head of the Second Republic.
Mobutu's own lack of a political base soon led him to seek a reconciliation with Kasavubu as a means of securing some sort of legitimacy for his regime. Lacking any real alternative, the deposed president gave the new regime his measured endorsement and accepted an honorary seat in the Senate. Joseph Kasavubu died on March 24, 1969 at his farm in Boma, Congo.
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