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Party Formation in the Belgian Congo after World War II

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2005, All Rights Reserved)

This page contains lecture notes on politics in the Belgian Congo in the period of decolonization. Read them and be prepared to discuss them at our next class.

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VOCABULARY: Van Bilsen, Patrice Lumumba, MNC, Kisangani, Joseph Kasavubu, ABAKO, Kinchasa, Lubumbashi


When we discussed the formation of political parties, we noted the need for leaders and how the colonial authorities used all of their power to encourage moderate leaders. With the goal of assimilation rendered impractical by the contradictions of World War II, European government's sought to achieve "association" with former colonies by gradually introducing self- rule through municipal and (later) colonial elections

During elections, colonial authorities supported assimilated Africans who were reformist rather than revolutionary. Such Africans were already privileged by the colonial system, so they became advocates for broadening the distribution of privileges rather than changing the system yo make it more equal. In such a context, support for independence was a revolutionary act while support for reform was a collaborating act.

Question: Pro-independence forces eventually won out. What shifted the balance away from the reformers to the revolutionaries?

Answer: The addition of working class support to elite movements gave them the strength and tactics to challenge European rule by paralysing the export economy. That wsa especially true in the Belgian Congo, where the presence of the mines, railroads and ports gave the Congo the third largest working class in Africa after Egypt and South Africa.


The African working class was a byproduct of two European ideas. The first African workers were employed in order to keep colonial expenses down, since they worked for less compensation han Europeans. After World War II, Euopean powers made good on war-time promises meant to stave off rebellion and reward loyalty. Government-funded development pograms rapidly increased the size of the African working class.

Question: How did the African elites form an alliance with African workers and everyone else?

Answer: Political parties were illegal in the Congo until the mid-1950s, but ethnic oganizations flourished. These oganizations reproduced rural social networks in urban areas and gave migrants to cities contacts and assistance. Successful African elites were expected to provide support to newcomers from their ethnic groups, and that created client-patron bonds that could be converted into political loyalty. [JJ: In other words, elites did favors for countrymen who then supported elite memebers of their ethnic group.]

SPECIFICS : The first group to unite elites and ordinary Africans in the Congo was ABAKO, founded in 1950 to preserve and promote the Bakongo language. Kikongo was dying out in its native Kinchasa heartland and being replaced by Lingala, the lingua franca of trade, popular music and the Force Publique. In 1954, Joseph Kasavubu was elected president of ABAKO, and under his leadership it changed into a political party.

Question: How did Kasavubu change a cultural association into a political party?

Answer: He took advantage of the opportunity provided by a Belgian professor (Van Bilsen) at the Colonial University. Van Bilsen published a pamphlet on the future of Belgium's colonies in 1955, in which he called for at least thirty more years of colonial rule. Orginally publoshed in Van Bilsen's antive language, Flemish, it attracted little atention, but after it was translated into French in 1956, it produced widespread discussion in the Congo. At a public rally, Kasavubu denounced Van Bilsen's program and called for "immediate independence." After that, Kasavubu became the voice of all Congolese who wanted to end colonial rule.

Question: What steps did ABAKO take to translate a call for independence into political action?

Answer: The events of 1956 prompted the Belgian government to begin reforms in the Congo. (In 1956, which Tunisia, Morocco and Gold Coast became independent; Britain and France faced the Suez Crisis; and the Soviet Union invaded Hungary.) In 1957, the Belgian government passed the "Statute des Villes" which separated the European and African portions of the major towns and provided for the election of African muniipal governments for the first time. These local elections were intended to provide a "training ground" for Africans who might one day serve on the colonial council. ABAKO candidates won the first elections in the cities of Kinchasa, Lubumbashi and Likasi in December 1957.

The 1957 elections triggered the formation of many new political parties in the Congo, just as the 1946 elections did in the French colonies. They competed in the second group of municipal elections in the towns of Bukavu, Kananga, Kisangani and Mbandaka in December 1958.

Question: How did the anticolonial movement proceed beyond competing for municipal offices?

Answer: Two Congolese politicians managed to attract foreign notice and they became rivals. Kasavubu of ABAKO used his inauguration as mayor of Dentale-Kinchasa to repeat his call for independence. His words were reported in newspapers that were read as far as Europe.

Patrice Lumumba (MNC) gained the attention of Tom Mboya (a well-known Kenyan trade union leader) and A. R. Mohamed Babu, and accompanied them to Accra, Ghana for the All-Africa People's Congress in December 1958. There, Lumumba met Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdul Nassar, Frantz Fanon, Ahmed Sékou Touré and other African leaders. Later, they all supported him during his tenure of Congolese prime minister.

Question: If independence was a consequence of African pressure and European weakness, then how did the Congolese Africans "win"?

Answer: When Lumumba returned from Accra, he spoke at an enormous rally in the African section of Kinchasa, in the center of the region that supported ABAKO. Kasavubu and the ABAKO leaders decided to hold their own rally a few days later on Sunday, January 4, 1959, and refused to call it off after the government refused permission. Shots were fired.

Officially, 49 died and 116 were injured (including 15 Europeans) during three days of violence that spread outside of the capital. Afterwards, the Belgian government began to lose control in a number of Congolese regions until at the end of 1959, the government agreed to call immediately a Belgian- Congolese "Roundtable Conference" to devise a formula for independence.

Question: Lumumba versus Kasavubu -- what was the difference?

Answer: Kasavubu was the leader of the first Congolese political party (1954), but it was largely composed of people of Bakongo descent, the "original occupiers" of the land. As a result, it could not easily recruit support from other groups who feared the Bakongo would try to dominate an independent government.

Lumumba was born in eastern Congo, lived most of his life in Kisangani, the main city of northeastern Congo, and founded the first "national" political party in the Congo, the Mouvement National Congolais(MNC) which attracted support in all parts of the Congo.

Question: How did independence turn out in the Congo?

Answer: Independence was a disaster in the Congo. The independence talks were divided into two roundtable conferences: the political conference from January 20 to February 20, 1960 and the economic conference from April 26 to May 16, 1960. The Congolese leaders dominated the first one and created a parliamentary form of government with a prime minister and a president. But the Congolese leaders sent inexperienced subordinates to the economic conference and the Belgian negotiators got them to agree to the transfer of most of the colonial state's assets to Belgian private companies while leaving the state's debt as a responsibility of the new government.

Independence was declared on June 30, 1960. Lumumba gave a speech that the Brlgian officials found insulting, and the Force Publique revolted a week later when their European officers announced they would remain. Katanga province seceded a few months later, the UN intervened and Lumumba was assasinated within a half year. Warfare continued for four more years until an army sergeant, Joseph Desire Mobutu, staged a military coup to seize control of the coutnry. Afterwards, white settlers in parts of Africa like Rhodesia and South Africa cited the example of the Congo whenever they wanted to argue against reforms to permit black majority rule.

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