1964 Republic of Congo Post-Independence War
From January to August 1964, rural insurgency engulfed five provinces out of twenty-one in Congo-Brazzaville and made substantial inroads into another five, raising the distinct possibility of a total collapse of the central government. The extraordinary speed with which the rebellions spread among the rural masses attests to the enormous insurrectionary potential that had been building up in previous years.
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 ANC 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.
Among the several factors that combined to precipitate rebellion, none was more consequential than the dissolution of parliament in September 1963, a move spurred by the incessant divisions and bickerings among deputies. The immediate result was to deprive the opposition of the only remaining legitimate avenue for political participation. Faced with this situation, several deputies affiliated with the MNC-Lumumba, among them Christophe Gbenye and Bocheley Davidson, decided to move to Brazzaville, in the former French Congo, and organize a National Liberation Council (Conseil National de Libération--CNL). In time the CNL became the central coordinating apparatus for the eastern rebellion.
Another major factor behind the insurrection was the anticipated withdrawal of the UN forces by June 30, 1964. The prospective elimination of the only reliable crutch available to the central government acted as a major incentive for the opposition to mobilize against Adoula.
Finally, with the arrival in the Kwilu area of Pierre Mulele in July 1963, a key revolutionary figure entered the arena. Once affiliated with Antoine Gizenga's PSA, Mulele traveled widely in Eastern Europe before reaching China, where he received sustained training in guerrilla warfare. Upon arriving in Kwilu, Mulele proceeded to recruit a solid phalanx of followers among members of his own ethnic group, the Mbunda, as well as among Gizenga's kinsmen, the Pende, both of whom had long been the target of government repression. The Kwilu rebellion began in January 1964, when Mulelist insurgents attacked government outposts, mission stations, and company installations. On January 22 and 23, four European missionaries were killed, and on February 5 the chief of staff of the ANC was ambushed and killed. Troops were immediately sent to the area, and by April a measure of stability had been restored to the area. The Kwilu rebellion did not finally end until December 1965, however.
The central figure behind the eastern rebellion was Gaston Soumialot, who, in January 1964, was sent to Burundi by the CNL, with the mission of organizing the rebellion. With the full support of the Burundi authorities, and thanks to his own skill in exploiting local conflicts and working out tactical alliances with Tutsi exiles from Rwanda, Soumialot was able to recruit thousands of dedicated supporters in eastern Kivu, along the border with Burundi. On May 15, the town of Uvira fell to the rebels, and, shortly thereafter, so did Fizi. From then on, the rebels (now widely known as Simbas, from the Swahili for lions) made an increasing use of magic to claim immunity to bullets. Panicstricken , two heavily armed ANC battalions were routed by speartoting Simbas believed to have been rendered invincible by their antibullet concoctions.
As the rebel movement spread, discipline became more difficult to maintain, and acts of violence and terror increased. Thousands of Congolese were executed, including government officials, political leaders of opposition parties, provincial and local police, school teachers, and others believed to have been Westernized.
In Kivu, Maniema, and north Katanga, the administrative vacuum caused by the utter failure of the provincette experiment was a key factor behind the initial success of the rebellion. In north Katanga, Baudoinville (later Virungu, now Moba) fell on July 19; Kindu, in Maniema, was taken on July 24; and in early August the Soumialot forces, now calling themselves the National Liberation Army (Armée Nationale de Libération--ANL), captured the Lumumbist stronghold of Stanleyville. Equipped with armaments left by the routed ANC units, the Simbas pushed on north and west of Stanleyville, eventually penetrating as far west as Lisala on the Congo River. On September 5, with the proclamation of a revolutionary government in Stanleyville, the eastern rebellion reached its high-water mark: almost half of Zaire and seven local capitals out of twenty-one were in rebel hands.
No less astonishing than the swiftness of rebel victories was the inability of the insurgents to consolidate their gains and establish an alternative system of administration to one they had so easily destroyed. Corruption, administrative inefficiency, and ethnic favoritism turned out to be liabilities for the rebel leaders as much as they had been for previous provincial administrators. Heavy reliance on specific ethnic communities (Tetela-Kusu in the east, Pende and Mbunda in Kwilu) for manning the military and administrative apparatuses of the rebellions was seen by many as a reversion to tribalism. Further complicating ethnic tensions between the ANL leadership and the Simbas, serious conflicts erupted at the provincette level over who should get the lion's share of the property seized from the enemy. Finally, countless disputes disrupted the CNL leadership in exile, stemming from personality differences as well as disagreements over questions of tactics and organization.
The rapid decline of popular support for the eastern rebellion is in large part a reflection of the very inadequate leadership offered by the CNL and local cadres. The military setbacks suffered by the ANL in the fall of 1964 were not just the result of poor leadership, however; even more important in turning the tide against the insurgents was the decisive contribution made by European mercenaries in helping the central government regain control over rebel-held areas. Much of the credit for the government's success went to Tshombe, who in July 1964 had been recalled from exile and replaced Adoula as prime minister. A year and a half after his defeat at the hands of the UN forces, the most vocal advocate of secessionism had suddenly emerged as the providential leader of a besieged central government.
As he set about the task of quashing the rebellions, Tshombe could rely on two major assets denied to Adoula, i.e., the Katangan gendarmes, recalled from exile in Angola, and a few hundred battlehardened white mercenaries. The former were immediately integrated into the ANC, with the latter providing the much-needed leadership for the conduct of military operations against rebel forces. Supported by air strikes, these units spearheaded attacks against rebel strongholds. As the white mercenaries took the offensive and, with their technical superiority and discipline, began to recapture rebel strongholds, the fighting grew progressively more brutal, and numerous atrocities were committed by all of those involved.
Mercenary elements played a decisive role in retaking Lisala on September 15, Boende on October 24, and Kindu on November 6. By then, the revolutionary government in Stanleyville had decided to hold local European residents hostage, in the hope of using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the central authorities. Their action resulted in the joint Belgian-American parachute rescue operation (code-named Dragon Rouge, or Red Dragon) on Stanleyville, on November 24, scheduled to coincide with the arrival of ANC and mercenary units in the vicinity of the provincial capital. The capture of Stanleyville dealt a devastating blow to the eastern rebellion. The two key rebel leaders, Gbenye and Soumialot, went into exile in Cairo; demoralization quickly set in among Simbas; by the end of the year, the eastern rebellion was reduced to isolated pockets of resistance. Nonetheless, for months thereafter insecurity was widespread in the northeast, as well as along the Fizi-Uvira axis in Kivu.
Tshombe's popularity within the Congo and his prestige throughout Africa were severely damaged by the Belgo-American operation against Stanleyville, which had also provoked heated debates in the UN. Moreover, political opposition to Tshombe's conduct of government greatly increased in the capital. In particular, Tshombe had antagonized both Kasavubu and Mobutu.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list