The Democratic Republic of the Congo



Independence from Belgium

In May 1960, a growing nationalist movement, the Mouvement National Congolais led by Patrice Lumumba, won the parliamentary elections. On June 30, 1960, the Congo gained independence from Belgium.

Learning Objectives

Contrast Congo’s transition to independence with those of other African states

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Colonial rule in the Congo began in the late 19th century under King Leopold II, who annexed the territory as his personal possession, naming it the “Congo Free State” and violently exploiting the native population for the extraction and production of rubber and other natural resources.
  • 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, creating the Belgian Congo.
  • An African nationalist movement developed in the Belgian Congo during the 1950s, primarily among the educated class.
  • One of the major forces in the nationalist movement was the Mouvement National Congolais or MNC Party led by Patrice Lumumba, who pressured Belgium to relinquish the Congo as colonial territory.
  • The proclamation of the independent Republic of the Congo, and the end of colonial rule, occurred as planned on June 30, 1960 when Lumumba gave an unplanned and controversial speech attacking colonialism.

Key Terms

  • King Leopold II: The second King of the Belgians, known for the founding and exploitation of the Congo Free State as a private venture.
  • Mouvement National Congolais (MNC): A political party in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, founded in 1958 as a nationalist, pro-independence, united front organization dedicated to achieving independence “within a reasonable” time and bringing together members from various political backgrounds to achieve independence.
  • évolués: A French term used during the colonial era to refer to a native African or Asian who had “evolved” by becoming Europeanised through education or assimilation and accepted European values and patterns of behavior.

Belgian Rule

Colonial rule in the Congo began in the late 19th century. King Leopold II of Belgium, frustrated by Belgium’s lack of international power and prestige, 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 a number of Western countries who viewed Leopold as a useful buffer between rival colonial powers, Leopold achieved international recognition for a personal colony, the Congo Free State, in 1885.

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, creating the Belgian Congo.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Congo experienced an unprecedented level of urbanization and the colonial administration began development 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 of Europeanised African ” évolués ” in the cities. 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—much of the uranium used by the U.S. nuclear program during World War II was Congolese—led to substantial interest in the region from both the Soviet Union and the United States as the Cold War developed.

A photo of Force Publique soldiers in the Belgian Congo in 1918, walking through a river with supplies.

Force Publique

Force Publique soldiers in the Belgian Congo in 1918. At its peak, the Force Publique had around 19,000 African soldiers, led by 420 white officers.

Nationalist Politics

An African nationalist movement developed in the Belgian Congo during the 1950s, primarily among the évolués. The movement consisted of a number of parties and groups which were broadly divided on ethnic and geographical lines and opposed to one another. The largest, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), was a united front organisation dedicated to achieving independence “within a reasonable” time. It was created around a charter which was signed by, among others, Patrice Lumumba, Cyrille Adoula and Joseph Iléo, but was often accused of being too moderate. 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. A radical faction headed by Iléo and Albert Kalonji split away in July 1959, but failed to induce mass defections by other MNC members.

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—at least 49 people were killed, and 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

In the fallout from the Léopoldville riots, the report of a Belgian parliamentary working group on the future of the Congo was published in which a strong demand for “internal autonomy” was noted. August de Schryver, the Minister of the Colonies, launched a high-profile Round Table Conference in Brussels in January 1960 with the leaders of all the major Congolese parties in attendance. Lumumba, who had been arrested following riots in Stanleyville, was released in the run-up to the conference and headed the MNC delegation. The Belgian government had hoped for at least 30 years before independence, but Congolese pressure at the conference led to a target date of June 30, 1960. Issues including federalism, ethnicity, and the future role of Belgium in Congolese affairs were left unresolved after the delegates failed to reach agreement.

Belgians began campaigning against Lumumba, whom they wanted to marginalize; they accused him of being a communist and hoping to fragment the nationalist movement, supported rival, ethnic-based parties like CONAKAT. Many Belgians hoped that an independent Congo would form part of a federation, like the French Community or British Commonwealth of Nations, and that close economic and political association with Belgium would continue. As independence approached, the Belgian government organised Congolese elections in May 1960. These resulted in a broad MNC majority.

The proclamation of the independent Republic of the Congo and the end of colonial rule occurred as planned on June 30, 1960. In a ceremony at the Palais de la Nation in Léopoldville, King Baudouin gave a speech in which he presented the end of colonial rule in the Congo as the culmination of the Belgian “civilising mission” begun by Leopold II. After the King’s address, Lumumba gave an unscheduled speech in which he angrily attacked colonialism and described independence as the crowning success of the nationalist movement. Although Lumumba’s address was acclaimed by figures such as Malcolm X, it nearly provoked a diplomatic incident with Belgium; even some Congolese politicians perceived it as unnecessarily provocative. Nevertheless, independence was celebrated across the Congo.

A photo of Patrice Lumumba, leader of the MNC-L and first Prime Minister, pictured in Brussels at the Round Table Conference of 1960, with several other Congolese men around him.

Independence from Belgium: Patrice Lumumba, leader of the MNC and first Prime Minister, pictured in Brussels at the Round Table Conference of 1960.

Lumumba and 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, initially caused by a mutiny by the white leadership in the Congolese army and resulting in the execution of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.

Learning Objectives

Describe the political atmosphere surrounding Lumumba’s time in office

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Shortly after Congolese independence in 1960, a mutiny broke out in the army led by the white military leadership, marking the beginning of the Congo Crisis.
  • Lumumba appealed to the United States and the United Nations for assistance in suppressing the Belgian-supported Katangan secessionists.
  • Both parties refused, so Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for support.
  • This led to growing differences with President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and chief-of-staff Joseph-Désiré Mobutu as well as foreign opposition from the U.S. and Belgium.
  • Lumumba was subsequently imprisoned by state authorities under Mobutu and executed by a firing squad under the command of Katangan authorities.
  • The United Nations, which he had asked to come to the Congo, did not intervene to save him.

Key Terms

  • Force Publique: A gendarmerie and military force in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1885 (when the territory was known as the Congo Free State), through the period of direct Belgian colonial rule and for a short time after independence.
  • Patrice Lumumba: Congolese independence leader and the first democratically elected leader of the Congo as prime minister. As founder and leader of the mainstream Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) party, he played an important role in campaigning for independence from Belgium.
  • Émile Janssens: A Belgian military officer and colonial official, best known for his command of the Force Publique at the start of the Congo Crisis.

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. It began almost immediately after the Congo became independent from Belgium and ended unofficially with the entire country under the rule of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. Constituting a series of civil wars, the Congo Crisis was also a proxy conflict in the Cold War in which the Soviet Union and United States supported opposing factions. Around 100,000 people were killed during the crisis.

A nationalist movement in the Belgian Congo demanding the end of colonial rule led to the country’s independence on June 30, 1960. Minimal preparations had been made and many issues, such as the questions of federalism and ethnicity, 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 and 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, the charismatic leader of the largest nationalist faction, reacted by calling for assistance from the Soviet Union, which promptly sent military advisors and other support.

The involvement of the Soviets split the Congolese government and led to an impasse between Lumumba and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu. 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. A rival government, founded by Antoine Gizenga and Lumumba supporters in the eastern city of Stanleyville, gained Soviet support but was crushed in 1962. Meanwhile, the UN took a more aggressive stance towards the secessionists after Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash in late 1961. Supported by UN troops, Léopoldville defeated the secessionist movements in Katanga and South Kasai by early 1963.

With Katanga and South Kasai back under the government’s control, a reconciliatory compromise constitution was adopted and the exiled Katangese leader, Moise Tshombe, was recalled to head an interim administration while fresh elections were organized. Before these could be held, however, Maoist-inspired militants calling themselves the “Simbas” rose up in the east of the country. The Simbas took control of a significant amount of territory and proclaimed a communist “People’s Republic of the Congo” in Stanleyville. Government forces gradually retook territory and in November 1964, Belgium and the United States intervened in Stanleyville to recover hostages from Simba captivity. The Simbas were defeated and collapsed soon after. Following the elections in March 1965, a new political stalemate developed between Tshombe and Kasa-Vubu, forcing the government into near-paralysis. Mobutu mounted a second coup d’état in November 1965, now taking personal control. Under Mobutu’s rule, the Congo (renamed Zaire in 1971) was transformed into a dictatorship which would endure until his deposition in 1997.

Photo of a crowd of people in Slovenia protesting the death of Lumumba.

The Death of Lumumba: Pro-Lumumba demonstrators in Maribor, Yugoslavia in February 1961.

Force Publique Mutiny

Despite the proclamation of independence, neither the Belgian nor the Congolese government intended the colonial social order to end immediately. The Belgian government hoped that whites might keep their position indefinitely. The Republic of the Congo was still reliant on colonial institutions like the Force Publique to function from day to day, and white technical experts installed by the Belgians were retained in the broad absence of suitably qualified black Congolese replacements (partly the result of colonial restrictions regarding higher education). Many Congolese assumed that independence would produce tangible and immediate social change, so the retention of whites in positions of importance was widely resented.

Lieutenant-General Émile Janssens, the Belgian commander of the Force Publique, refused to see Congolese independence as a change in the nature of command. The day after the independence festivities, he gathered the black non-commissioned officers of his Léopoldville garrison and told them that things under his command would stay the same, summarizing the point by writing “Before Independence = After Independence” on a blackboard. This message was hugely unpopular among the rank and file—many of the men had expected rapid promotions and increases in pay to accompany independence. On July 5, several units mutinied against their white officers at Camp Hardy near Thysville. The insurrection spread to Léopoldville the next day and later to garrisons across the country.

Rather than deploying Belgian troops against the mutineers as Janssens wished, Lumumba dismissed him and renamed the Force Publique the Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC). All black soldiers were promoted by at least one rank. Victor Lundula was promoted directly from sergeant-major to major-general and head of the army, replacing Janssens. At the same time, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, an ex-sergeant-major and close personal aide of Lumumba, became Lundula’s deputy as army chief of staff. The government attempted to stop the revolt—Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu intervened personally at Léopoldville and Thysville and persuaded the mutineers to lay down their arms—but in most of the country the mutiny intensified. White officers and civilians were attacked, white-owned properties were looted, and white women were raped. The Belgian government became deeply concerned by the situation, particularly when white civilians began entering neighboring countries as refugees.

Lumumba’s stance appeared to many Belgians to justify their prior concerns about his radicalism. On July 9, Belgium deployed paratroopers, without the Congolese state’s permission, in Kabalo and elsewhere to protect fleeing white civilians. The Belgian intervention divided Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu; while Kasa-Vubu accepted the Belgian operation, Lumumba denounced it and called for “all Congolese to defend our republic against those who menace it.” At Lumumba’s request, white civilians from the port city of Matadi were evacuated by the Belgian Navy on July 11. Belgian ships then bombarded the city; at least 19 civilians were killed. This action prompted renewed attacks on whites across the country, while Belgian forces entered other towns and cities, including Léopoldville, and clashed with Congolese troops.

Mobutu 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, and attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence.

Learning Objectives

Discuss how Mobutu was able to seize power in the Congo

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Mobutu Sese Seko was the military dictator and President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1965 to 1997, which he renamed the Republic of Zaire in 1971.
  • Patrice Lumumba previously appointed Joseph Mobutu chief of staff of the new Congo army and by taking advantage of the leadership crisis between Kasavubu and Lumumba, Mobutu garnered enough support within the army to create mutiny, eventually allowing him to stage a bloodless coup and take control of the Congo’s government.
  • A one-party system was established, and Mobutu declared himself head of state.
  • Although relative peace and stability were achieved, Mobutu’s government was guilty of severe human rights violations, political repression, a cult of personality, and corruption.
  • Mobutu had the support of the United States because of his staunch opposition to Communism; they believed his administration would serve as an effective counter to communist movements in Africa.
  • Embarking on a campaign of pro-Africa cultural awareness, or authenticité, Mobutu began renaming the cities of the Congo starting on June 1, 1966, as well as mandating that Zairians were to abandon their Christian names for more “authentic” ones and adopt traditional attire such as the abacost.

Key Terms

  • Joseph-Désiré Mobutu: The military dictator and President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which was renamed Zaire in 1971) from 1965 to 1997, who formed an authoritarian regime, amassed vast personal wealth, and attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence while enjoying considerable support from the United States due to its anti-communist stance.
  • Authenticité: An official state ideology of the Mobutu regime that originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, aimed at ridding the country of the lingering vestiges of colonialism and the continuing influence of Western culture and create a more centralized and singular national identity.

Rise to Power

Following Congo’s independence on June 30, 1960, a coalition government was formed, led by Prime Minister Lumumba and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu. The new nation quickly lurched into the Congo Crisis as the army mutinied against the remaining Belgian officers. Lumumba appointed Joseph-Désiré Mobutu as Chief of Staff of the Armée Nationale Congolaise, the Congolese National Army, under army chief Victor Lundula.

Encouraged by a Belgian government intent on maintaining its access to rich Congolese mines, secessionist violence erupted in the south. Concerned that the United Nations force sent to help restore order was not helping to crush the secessionists, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance, receiving massive military aid and about a thousand Soviet technical advisers in six weeks. Kasa-Vubu was encouraged by the U.S. and Belgium to stage a coup and thus dismissed Lumumba. An outraged Lumumba declared Kasa-Vubu deposed. Both Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu ordered Mobutu to arrest the other. As Army Chief of Staff, Mobutu came under great pressure from multiple sources. The embassies of Western nations, which helped pay the soldiers’ salaries, as well as Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu’s subordinates, all favored getting rid of the Soviet presence.

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 him 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, ordered 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 of Moise Tshombe after Mobutu’s government turned him over to them at the urging of Belgium. On January 23, 1961, Kasa-Vubu promoted Mobutu to major-general.

Mobutu’s Coup

Prime Minister Moise Tshombe’s Congolese National Convention won a large majority in the March 1965 elections, but Kasa-Vubu appointed an anti-Tshombe leader, Évariste Kimba, as prime minister-designate. However, Parliament twice refused to confirm him. With the government in near-paralysis, Mobutu seized power in a bloodless coup on November 25, a month after his 35th birthday.

Under the auspices of a regime d’exception (the equivalent of a 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.

A constitutional referendum after Mobutu’s coup of 1965 resulted in the country’s official name being changed to the “Democratic Republic of the Congo.” In 1971 Mobutu changed the name again, this time to “Republic of Zaire.”

Zaire and the Authenticité Movement

Facing many challenges early in his rule, Mobutu was able to turn most opposition into submission through patronage; those he could not co-opt, 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.

The new president had the support of the United States because of his staunch opposition to Communism; the U.S. believed his administration would be an effective counter to communist movements in Africa. A one-party system was established and Mobutu declared himself head of state. He periodically held elections in which he was the only candidate. Although relative peace and stability were achieved, Mobutu’s government was guilty of severe human rights violations, political repression, a cult of personality, and corruption.

Corruption became so prevalent the term “le mal Zairois” or “Zairean Sickness,” meaning gross corruption, theft, and mismanagement, was coined, reportedly by Mobutu himself. International aid, most often in the form of loans, enriched Mobutu while he allowed national infrastructure such as roads to deteriorate to as little as one-quarter of what had existed in 1960. Zaire became a “kleptocracy” as Mobutu and his associates embezzled government funds.

Authenticité, sometimes Zairianisation in English, was an official state ideology of the Mobutu regime that originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The authenticity campaign was an effort to rid the country of the lingering vestiges of colonialism and the continuing influence of Western culture and create a more centralized and singular national identity. The policy, as implemented, included numerous changes to the state and to private life, including the renaming of the Congo (to Zaire) and its cities (Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville became Kisangani), as well as an eventual mandate that Zairians were to abandon their Christian names for more “authentic” ones. In addition, Western-style attire was banned and replaced with the Mao-style tunic labeled the “abacost” and its female equivalent. In 1972, Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (“The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”), Mobutu Sese Seko for short. Mobutu ruled until 1997, when rebel forces led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila expelled him from the country. Already suffering from advanced prostate cancer, he died three months later in Morocco.

Mobutu Sese Seko with the Dutch Prince Bernhard in 1973.

Prince Bernhard and Mobutu Sese Seko: Mobutu Sese Seko with the Dutch Prince Bernhard in 1973. It was also around this time that he assumed his classic image—abacost, thick-framed glasses, walking stick and leopard-skin toque.

Cold War Politics in Zaire

For the most part, Zaire enjoyed warm relations with the United States because of its anti-communist stance, receiving substantial financial aid throughout the Cold War.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the role the United States played in propogating Mobutu’s regime

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union started placing immense pressure on post-colonial developing nations to align with one of the superpower factions.
  • The Congo Crisis was a proxy conflict in the Cold War in which the Soviet Union and United States supported opposing factions.
  • The CIA backed military chief of staff Mobutu to oust Prime Minister Lumumba, eventually leading to Mobutu forming an authoritarian regime in the Congo, which he renamed Zaire in 1971.
  • The United States was the third largest donor of aid to Zaire (after Belgium and France), and Mobutu befriended several US presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.
  • Because of Mobutu’s poor human rights record, the Carter administration put some distance between itself and Zaire; even so, Zaire received nearly half the foreign aid Carter allocated to sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Mobutu’s relationship with the U.S. radically changed shortly afterward with the end of the Cold War, and the U.S. began pressuring Mobutu to democratize his regime.
  • Mobutu’s relationship with the Soviet Union was generally negative, although he did allow some relations to maintain a non-aligned image.

Key Terms

  • non-aligned: A group of states that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc, especially during the Cold War.
  • proxy conflict: A conflict between two states or non-state actors where neither entity directly engages the other. While this can encompass a breadth of armed confrontation, its core definition hinges on two separate powers utilizing external strife to somehow attack the interests or territorial holdings of the other.

Decolonization in the Cold War

The combined effects of two great European wars weakened the political and economic domination of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East by European powers. This led to a series of waves of African and Asian decolonization following the Second World War; a world that had been dominated for over a century by Western imperialist colonial powers was transformed into a world of emerging African, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations. The Cold War started placing immense pressure on developing nations to align with one of the superpower factions. Both promised substantial financial, military, and diplomatic aid in exchange for an alliance in which issues like corruption and human rights abuses were overlooked or ignored. When an allied government was threatened, the superpowers were often prepared to intervene.

The Congo Crisis can be seen in this context as a proxy conflict in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and United States supporting opposing factions, Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu, respectively. The CIA backed Mobutu’s initial coup against Lumumba and the Soviet Union provided Lumumba weapons and support while in exile. When Lumumba was killed and Mobutu took total control of the Congo’s government, he enjoyed considerable support from the United States due to his anti-communist stance.

Relations with the United States

For the most part, Zaire enjoyed warm relations with the United States. The U.S. was the third largest donor of aid to Zaire (after Belgium and France), and Mobutu befriended several U.S. presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Relations did cool significantly in 1974–1975 over Mobutu’s increasingly radical rhetoric (which included his scathing denunciations of American foreign policy) and plummeted to an all-time low in the summer of 1975, when Mobutu accused the Central Intelligence Agency of plotting his overthrow, arrested eleven senior Zairian generals and several civilians, and condemned a former head of the Central Bank (Albert N’dele). However, many people viewed these charges with skepticism; in fact, one of Mobutu’s staunchest critics, Nzongola-Ntalaja, speculated that Mobutu invented the plot as an excuse to purge the military of talented officers who might otherwise pose a threat to his rule. In spite of these hindrances, the chilly relationship quickly thawed when both countries found each other supporting the same side during the Angolan Civil War.

Because of Mobutu’s poor human rights record, the Carter administration put some distance between itself and the Kinshasa government; even so, Zaire received nearly half the foreign aid Carter allocated to sub-Saharan Africa. During the first Shaba invasion, the United States played a relatively inconsequential role; its belated intervention consisted of little more than the delivery of non-lethal supplies. But during the second Shaba invasion, the U.S. provided transportation and logistical support to the French and Belgian paratroopers that were deployed to aid Mobutu against the rebels. Carter echoed Mobutu’s (unsubstantiated) charges of Soviet and Cuban aid to the rebels, until it was apparent that no hard evidence existed to verify his claims. In 1980, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to terminate military aid to Zaire, but the Senate reinstated the funds in response to pressure from Carter and American business interests in Zaire.

Mobutu enjoyed a very warm relationship with the Reagan Administration through financial donations. During Reagan’s presidency, Mobutu visited the White House three times, and criticism of Zaire’s human rights record by the U.S. was effectively muted. During a state visit by Mobutu in 1983, Reagan praised the Zairian strongman as “a voice of good sense and goodwill.”

Mobutu also had a cordial relationship with Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush; he was the first African head of state to visit Bush at the White House. Even so, Mobutu’s relationship with the U.S. radically changed shortly afterward with the end of the Cold War. With the Soviet Union gone, there was no longer any reason to support Mobutu as a bulwark against communism. Accordingly, the U.S. and other Western powers began pressuring Mobutu to democratize the regime. Regarding the change in U.S. attitude to his regime, Mobutu bitterly remarked: “I am the latest victim of the cold war, no longer needed by the US. The lesson is that my support for American policy counts for nothing.” In 1993, Mobutu was denied a visa by the U.S. State Department after he sought to visit Washington, DC.

Photo of Mobutu Sese Seko and Richard Nixon in Washington, D.C., October 1973.

Mobutu and Nixon: Mobutu Sese Seko and Richard Nixon in Washington, D.C., October 1973. Mobutu enjoyed warm relations with the United States during the Cold War, receiving substantial financial aid despite criticism of his human rights abuses.

Relations with the Soviet Union

Mobutu’s relationship with the Soviet Union was frosty and tense. Mobutu, a staunch anticommunist, was not anxious to recognize the Soviets; he remembered well their support, albeit mostly vocal, of Lumumba and the Simba rebels before he took power. However, to project a non-aligned image, he did renew ties in 1967; the first Soviet ambassador arrived and presented his credentials in 1968. Mobutu did, however, join the U.S. in condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that same year. Mobutu viewed the Soviet presence as advantageous for two reasons: it allowed him to maintain an image of non-alignment, and it provided a convenient scapegoat for problems at home. For example, in 1970, he expelled four Soviet diplomats for carrying out “subversive activities,” and in 1971, 20 Soviet officials were declared persona non grata for allegedly instigating student demonstrations at Lovanium University.

Relations cooled further in 1975, when the two countries found themselves opposing different sides in the Angolan Civil War. This had a dramatic effect on Zairian foreign policy for the next decade; bereft of his claim to African leadership (Mobutu was one of the few leaders who denied the Marxist government of Angola recognition), Mobutu turned increasingly to the U.S. and its allies, adopting pro-American stances on such issues as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Israel’s position in international organizations.

Mobutu condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and in 1980, his was the first African nation to join the United States in boycotting the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Throughout the 1980s, he remained consistently anti-Soviet, and found himself opposing pro-Soviet countries such as Libya and Angola; in the mid-1980s, he described Zaire as being surrounded by a “red belt” of radical states allied to the Soviet Union and Libya.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had disastrous repercussions for Mobutu. His anti-Soviet stance was the main catalyst for Western aid; without it, there was no longer any reason to support him. Western countries began calling for him to introduce democracy and improve human rights.