Decolonization: Libya and Congo


When World War II ended, the economies of most of the Western European nations were shattered. And yet, the end of the war ushered in waves of independence movements across Africa. Africans, who had been treated as second or third-class citizens by the colonizers for nearly a century, saw the time was ripe for severing ties with their colonial “parent” countries. Between the mid-1940s and early 1960s, numerous countries across Africa fought for, and won, their independence.


Learning Objectives

  • Compare and contrast the decolonization processes across Northwest Africa and Congo.
  • Evaluate the successes and challenges of decolonization for Africans.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

 Arab nationalism: after World War II, movement that promotes unity among Arab people

Muammar Gaddafi: brutal Arab nationalist, politician, and military leader in Libya (1969 – 20)

Libyan Revolution: 1969 Revolution that overthrew the Libyan king and installed military dictator, Muammar Gaddafi

Patrice Lumumba: Congolese politician and independence activist who became prime minister of Congo

Évolués: in Congo, the new middle class of “Europeanized” Africans

Force Publique: Belgian-operated military and police force in Congo

Congo Crisis: period of political crisis and upheaval during Congo’s early stages of independence (1960 – 65)

Joseph-Desiré Mobutu: Congolese military and political leader who was president of Congo, and later, Zaire

Zaire: name for Congo under President Mobutu (1965 – 1997)


The Libyan Arab Republic




From 1943 to 1951, Libya was under Allied occupation. The British military administered the two former Italian Libyan provinces, while the French-administered the province of Fezzan. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya.


Kingdom of Libya


On November 21, 1949, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Libya should become independent before January 1, 1952. On December 24, 1951, Libya declared its independence as the United Kingdom of Libya—a constitutional and hereditary monarchy—led by King Idris, Libya’s only monarch.

 The discovery of significant oil reserves in 1959 and the subsequent income from petroleum sales enabled Libya, one of the world’s historically poorest nations, to establish an extremely wealthy state. Although oil drastically improved the Libyan government’s finances, resentment among some factions began to build over the increased concentration of the nation’s wealth in the hands of King Idris. This discontent mounted with the rise of Arab nationalism throughout North Africa and the Middle East, so while the continued presence of Americans, Italians, and British in Libya aided in the increased levels of wealth and tourism following WWII, it was seen by some as a threat.


Map of Libya.


Libyan Revolution: Gaddafi


On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by 27-year-old army officer Muammar Gaddafi staged a coup d’état against King Idris, launching the Libyan Revolution. Gaddafi was referred to as the “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution” in government statements and the official Libyan press.


Muammar Gaddafi sits in between the heads of state of Egypt and Syria (1969).
This is when Gaddafi came to power in Libya


On the birthday of Muhammad in 1973, Gaddafi delivered a “Five-Point Address.” He announced the suspension of all existing laws and the implementation of Sharia. He said that the country would be purged of the “politically sick”; a “people’s militia” would “protect the revolution”; and there would be an administrative revolution and a cultural revolution. Gaddafi set up an extensive surveillance system: 10 to 20 percent of Libyans worked in surveillance for the Revolutionary committees, which monitored place in government, factories, and the education sector. Gaddafi executed dissidents publicly and the executions were often rebroadcast on state television channels. Additionally, he employed his network of diplomats and recruits to assassinate dozens of critical refugees around the world.

 In 1977, Libya officially became the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” Gaddafi officially passed power to the General People’s Committees and, henceforth, claimed to be no more than a symbolic figurehead, but domestic and international critics claimed the reforms gave him virtually unlimited power. Dissidents against the new system were not tolerated, with punitive actions including capital punishment authorized by Gaddafi himself. The new government he established was officially referred to as a form of direct democracy, though the government refused to publish election results. Gaddafi was ruler of Libya until the 2011 Libyan Civil War, when he was deposed with the backing of NATO. Since then, Libya has experienced instability.


 A New Start for Congo


Background: Belgian Rule


Colonial rule in the Congo began in the late 19th century. King Leopold II of Belgium attempted to persuade his government to support colonial expansion around the then-largely unexplored Congo Basin. The Belgian government’s ambivalence eventually led Leopold to create the colony on his own account. With support from several Western countries who viewed Leopold as a useful buffer between rival colonial powers, Leopold achieved international recognition in 1885 for a personal colony: the Congo Free State. By the turn of the century, however, the violence of Free State officials against indigenous Congolese and the ruthless system of economic extraction led to intense diplomatic pressure on Belgium to take official control of the country, which it did in 1908, when the Belgian Congo was created.


Map of the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo.


During the 1940s and 1950s, the Congo experienced an unprecedented level of urbanization. The colonial administration developed programs aimed at making the territory into a “model colony.” One of the results of these measures was the development of a new middle class, in the cities, of Europeanized African “évolués”. By the 1950s the Congo had a wage labor force twice as large as that of any other African colony. The Congo’s rich natural resources, including uranium, led to substantial interest in the region from both the Soviet Union and the United States as the Cold War developed. Much of the uranium used by the U.S. nuclear program during World War II was Congolese.


Nationalist Politics


An African nationalist movement developed in the Belgian Congo during the 1950s, primarily among the évolués. The movement consisted of several parties and groups which were divided on ethnic and geographical lines and opposed to one another. The largest, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), was a united front organization dedicated to achieving independence “within a reasonable” time. It was created around a charter that was signed by, among others, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba became a leading figure within the MNC, and by the end of 1959, the party claimed 58,000 members. Although it was the largest of the African nationalist parties, the MNC had many different factions that took differing stances on many issues. It was increasingly polarized between moderate évolués and the more radical mass membership.

 Major riots broke out in Léopoldville, the Congolese capital, on January 4, 1959, after a political demonstration turned violent. The colonial army, the Force Publique, used force against the rioters. Total casualties may have been as high as 500. The nationalist parties’ influence expanded outside the major cities for the first time, and nationalist demonstrations and riots became a regular occurrence over the next year, bringing large numbers of black people from outside the évolué class into the independence movement. Many blacks began to test the boundaries of the colonial system by refusing to pay taxes or abide by minor colonial regulations.


Independence from Belgium


Congolese, supported by Lumumba, started arguing for independence from Belgium. They projected a target date of June 30, 1960. Belgians began campaigning against Lumumba. They accused him of being a communist to little effect. On June 30, 1960, King Baudouin—the last king of the Belgian Congo, gave a speech in which he presented the end of colonial rule in the Congo. Immediately after, Lumumba gave an unscheduled speech in which he angrily attacked colonialism and described independence as the crowning success of the nationalist movement.


Patrice Lumumba in 1960.


The Congo Crisis 


The Congo Crisis was a period of political upheaval and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1960 and 1965 that was a series of civil wars, as well as a proxy in the Cold War, for which the Soviet Union and United States supported opposing factions; it was initially caused by a mutiny of the white leadership in the Congolese army and resulted in the execution of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Around 100,000 people were killed during the crisis.

Minimal preparations had been made for Congo once it became independent. Many issues remained unresolved. In the first week of July, a mutiny broke out in the army and violence erupted between black and white civilians. Belgium sent troops to protect fleeing whites; two areas of the country—Katanga and South Kasai—seceded with Belgian support. Amid continuing unrest and violence, the United Nations deployed peacekeepers, but the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld refused to use these troops to help the central government in Léopoldville fight the secessionists. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba called for assistance from the Soviet Union. who promptly sent military advisors and other support.

 The involvement of the Soviets split the Congolese government and led to an impasse between Lumumba and the Congolese president. Mobutu, in command of the army, broke this deadlock with a coup d’état, expelled the Soviet advisors, and established a new government effectively under his control. Lumumba was placed in captivity and subsequently executed in 1961.


Mobatu and Zaire


During the Congo Crisis, military leader Joseph-Desiré Mobutu ousted the nationalist government of Patrice Lumumba and eventually took authoritarian control of the Congo, renaming it Zaire in 1971. Mobutu then attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence.


Mobutu's Rise to Power


In 1960, Lumumba appointed Joseph-Désiré Mobutu as Chief of Staff of the Armée Nationale Congolaise—the Congolese National Army. Violence soon erupted in the southern part of Congo. Concerned that the United Nations force was inadequate, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance, receiving massive military aid and about a thousand Soviet technical advisers in six weeks. Lumumba’s rivals tried to overthrow Lumumba through a coup de-tat. Both sides of the conflict ordered Mobutu to arrest the other.

 Mobutu accused Lumumba of pro-communist sympathies, thereby hoping to gain the support of the United States, but Lumumba fled to Stanleyville where he set up his own government. The USSR again supplied Lumumba with weapons and he was able to defend his position. In November 1960, he was captured and sent to Katanga. Mobutu still considered him a threat and on January 17, 1961, ordering him arrested and publicly beaten. Lumumba then disappeared from the public view. It was later discovered that he was murdered the same day by the secessionist forces. On January 23, 1961, Mobutu was promoted to major-general.


Mobutu's Coup


With the government hanging by a thread, Mobutu seized power in a bloodless coup on November 25, a month after his 35th birthday. Under state of emergency, Mobutu assumed sweeping—almost absolute—powers for five years. In his first speech upon taking power, Mobutu told a large crowd at Léopoldville’s main stadium that since politicians had brought the country to ruin in five years, “for five years, there will be no more political party activity in the country.” Parliament was reduced to a rubber-stamp before being abolished altogether, though it was later revived. The number of provinces was reduced and their autonomy curtailed, resulting in a highly centralized state. In 1971 Mobutu changed of the country to “Republic of Zaire.”


Zaire under Mobutu


Facing many challenges early in his rule, Mobutu was able to co-opt many people;  those he could not, he dealt with forcefully. In 1966 four cabinet members were arrested on charges of complicity in an attempted coup, tried by a military tribunal, and publicly executed in an open-air spectacle witnessed by over 50,000 people. Uprisings by former Katangan gendarmeries were crushed, as was an aborted revolt led by white mercenaries in 1967. By 1970, nearly all potential threats to his authority had been smashed, and, for the most part, law and order was brought to most of the country. That year marked the pinnacle of Mobutu’s legitimacy and power. Despite rampant corruption, Mobutu had the support of the United States because of his staunch opposition to Communism.


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