The Congo From Leopold To Kabila Book Summary By Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

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The Congo from Leopold to Kabila offers an eye-opening glimpse into the tumultuous history of the Congolese people in the 20th century.

Written by renowned author Philip Kopper, this book delves into the devastating effects of Belgian colonial rule, Mobutu's reign of terror, and the Congo Wars which followed.

The book gives a comprehensive account of how external interests have tried to exploit and how internal weaknesses have severely hindered democratic progress in Congo.

In addition, Kopper also explores possible solutions for achieving stability in this vital African nation.

The Congo From Leopold To Kabila Book

Book Name: The Congo from Leopold to Kabila (A People’s History)

Author(s): Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

Rating: 4.5/5

Reading Time: 28 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio


Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a renowned Congolese scholar-activist and public policy consultant who has made his mark in the study of African politics.

He was formerly the James K.

Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College, and held the position of Professor of African Studies at Howard University.


Nzongola-Ntalaja is also the author of Conflict in the Horn of Africa and a co-editor of The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World - titles which demonstrate both his scholarly insight and passion for promoting African affairs across all platforms, making him an excellent choice to pen The Congo from Leopold to Kabila, a book exploring how the country has evolved over time under different leaderships.

Uncovering The Dark History Of The Democratic Republic Of Congo And Its Struggle For Democracy


The Congo is one of the most complex and interesting histories to emerge from Africa.

It’s 4,380 kilometers long and associated with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Not only does it give its name to two modern countries, but its history is often a harrowing tale where people had to fight for their democratic rights – just as those in many ex-colonies around Africa did.

Throughout the Cold War, The Congo found itself a mere pawn in a global power struggle between capitalist and communist forces.

Despite gaining independence in 1960, it was subjected to external coercion once again when the US chose Mobutu as president – stalling its progress towards democracy yet further.

Examining The Congo’s history further will help you understand why racial mentalities led to the Rwandan Genocide; how the US has hindered Parliamentarism; and why Mobutu renamed the area “Zaire” during his tyrannical rule.

Delving into such an interesting and complex past will offer fresh insights into this African nation’s story.

The Congo: The Long-Lasting Impact Of Colonial Exploitation

After King Leopold II’s reign of terror, the Congo became a Belgian colony and was used to fuel Belgium’s economic development.

As part of its colonial rule, Belgium conducted exploitation of the Congo’s natural resources with rubber, minerals (copper, gold, diamonds and uranium), timber and agricultural products like coffee, tea and cotton among the main ones being plundered.

This ruthlessly despotic period drove an estimated 10 million people to their deaths and mutilation or rape were commonly used as punishment for those who refused to work or did not meet extraction quotas.

The atrocities taking place in the Congo eventually reached an international audience, prompting Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness set in the region.

The UK-founded Congo Reform Association (CRA) further worked towads ending Leopold’s rule by pressuring countries such as US to intervene.

Consequently, colonieship in 1908 forced him to hand over control of his personal fiefdom to Belgium Parliament.

Even though this was theoretically a step forward at that time, Belgian rule still resulted in Congolese oppression and its resources being subject to rapacious exploitation.

Leopold’s legacy has left long- term effects on Democracy in DRC even today due to its inadequate handling of internal external interests surrounding the nation’s natural resources; a problem which is yet be resolved.

The Congo’S Resistance To Colonial Rule Leads To Its Independence In 1960

The democratic movement in the Congo emerged as a result of an alliance between three factions of Congolese society that opposed colonial rule.

The first was led by mutineers from the colonial army, African chiefs and professional soldiers, who had resisted Belgian rule since 1892.

Then there was the Kimbanguist movement, which was founded by Baptist prophet Simon Kimbangu and preached liberation from colonial oppression.

Its followers were highly pan-African in their outlook.

Finally, there were peasant and worker groups that demanded better wages and work conditions from their colonial bosses.

The opposition to colonialism eventually merged into the Congolese democracy movement in 1956 when these factions joined forces and organized public demonstrations and rallies in order to pressure their occupiers for freedom.

The évolués, an educated African elite despised by racialized Belgian rulers, played a major role here too due to their large numbers and symbolic significance.

Sadly, violence did break out at times with the Kinshasa uprising leading to hundreds of deaths while forcing Belgians to agree on independence anyway as they soon saw they couldn’t really keep control over such a vast land anymore.

Patrice Lumumba was finally elected as the first Prime Minister of what became known as the Republic of Congo on 30 June 1960, but oppressive forces still affected public life all over the Congo almost immediately afterwards due to external political influence over its own sovereign state.

The Congo Crisis: A Powder Keg Ignited By The Cold War

Cold War

The Congo Crisis began with the messy decolonization of the country from its previous rulers, the Belgians.

After their departure in 1960, a power vacuum ensued and tribal leaders suddenly regained power over Lumumba’s government.

Congolese soldiers then began to revolt against the higher ranks which were mostly made up of white Europeans as a warning to anyone looking to take advantage of the situation.

This then escalated further when two of the most affluent provinces, Katanga and Kasai, attempted to secede leading Lumumba to seek outside help from the Soviet Union.

This brought about US intervention and he was soon replaced by Mobutu who led a successful coup.

Despite his imprisonment, supporters outside still conspired on his behalf until he was finally beaten and shot by the Katangan military with Belgian officers standing by.

However, International forces had already engineered a new status quo so that they could manipulate it better for their own economic and political gains.

As such, Lumumba’s nationalist ideals, dreams of strong central government or mass political parties were never realised resulting in what we now know as “The Congo Crisis”.

The Second Independence Movement In Congo: A Story Of Resilience Despite Us Interference

The “second independence” movement in Congo was characterized by two separate fronts – a western Kwilu Province-based guerrilla campaign, led by Pierre Mulele, and an eastern resistance group known as the Conseil National de Libération (CNL).

While these groups had the potential to become successful, certain internal weaknesses and external interference ultimately caused their demise.

Without any outside military or financial resources, Mulele’s guerrilla campaign lacked the necessary strength to have an impact on the conflict.

Additionally, his decentralized base made it harder for him to garner political support from outside of his home province.

Meanwhile, the CNL had much greater success in terms of military triumph, but when it came time to fill up their void in politics they found themselves splinting amongst themselves due to their own nepotism and corruption.

Ultimately though, it was external intervention that brought an end to the second independence movement’s hope of autonomy.

Backed by US financial and military support Prime Minister Moïse Tshombe launched “Operation Red Dragon” with which he successfully eliminated the CNL regime from power.

The final act came on 3 October 1968 when Mobutu’s generals assassinated leader Mulele, thus ending the hopes of a successful second independence movement for Congo.

The West’S Pursuit Of A Strongman Leads To The Decay And “Zairian Sickness” Of The Congo

In 1965, Mobutu was propelled into power by the US in the name of “stability.” His regime imposed an oppressive form of dictatorship and renamed the nation to the Republic of Zaire in order to give it an African identity.

However, this effort was supported by Western powers, and with Mobutu leading it became a kleptocratic autocracy.

Under his regime, economic collapse occurred rapidly due to rampant corruption.

Profits were misappropriated and lands were expropriated for his personal gain.

This moral decay eventually culminated in what was known as “Zairian sickness”, luring away vast sums of money from those it should have facilitated – all while increasing hunger and poverty throughout Congo.

In contrast to the suffering populace, Mobutu’s private circle was pampered via luxury homes, expensive gifts and extravagant parties funded from their illegal gains.

In essence, Mobutu’s rule left the Congo in both moral and economic decay.

The End Of Mobutu’S Dictatorship: How External Pressure Helped Bring Democracy To Zaire

Mobutu'S Dictatorship

Mobutu’s grip on the Congo was largely maintained by foreign backing, particularly from Western powers like the US who saw him as a shield against communism in Africa.

After the Cold War came to an end, however, that all changed.

The US no longer had any reason to support him, and so withdrew its support – leaving Mobutu with no outside protection against his domestic opposition.

This opening allowed the movement for multiparty democracy to advance and pressure Mobutu into finally relenting.

On the 24th April 1990, he announced plans for a transition to a multiparty system of government and accepted the establishment of a Sovereign National Conference (CNS) – something which would have been impossible without this newfound lack of foreign support.

While Mobutu still managed to cling onto his power for some time after this announcement, it marked a seismic shift in both politics and society within Zaire/the Congo.

The Congolese National Sovereign Conference: A Failed Attempt At Establishing Democracy In Zaire

The Congolese National Conference (CNS) set out to create a united front for democracy in the Congo and tried to establish a visionary framework for Zaire that would facilitate the transition to democracy.

It was a massive undertaking, with over 2,800 delegates from all walks of life gathering and actively participating.

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the CNS failed in its mission.

Monsignor Monsengwo acted as head of the conference but ultimately ended up sabotaging it due to his political opportunism.

Additionally, le compromis politique global presented by the drafters had too many loopholes which resulted in a lack of effective policy.

Finally, Mobutu was able to use his powers of oppression to quell any chance of real change.

Despite Étienne Tshisekedi winning 71% of the vote in an election supervised by Mobutu himself, he still managed to suspend the conference and perpetuate his rule another five years due to a lack of international support.

Ultimately, despite creating a strong sense of unity among people longing for change in their country, the CNS fell short in getting its framework implemented or curbing Mobutu’s dictatorship successfully.

The First Congo War: How The Us-Backed Rwandan And Ugandan Invasion Of Zaire Ended Mobutu’S Dictatorship And Paved The Way For Resource Exploitation

The conflict in Rwanda ultimately led to Mobutu’s fall from power.

Prior to the Rwandan Genocide, two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, had enjoyed an amicable relationship.

When Belgium made Rwanda a colony, it put members’ ethnicities on cards, making the Tutsis into a ruling elite.

This created tension between the two ethnic groups and soon led to a call for full-scale ethnic cleansing of the Tutsis by the Hutu-majority government.

As many as one million Tutsis were killed in 1994 until eventually, Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces – which were mostly comprised of exiled soldiers from Uganda – intervened and brought an end to genocide.

Unfortunately, since many Hutus feared retribution if they stayed in their home country, around one million fled over the border into Congolese Zaire.

This was noticed by both Rwanda and Uganda who used its presence as an excuse to enter Zaire themselves; under instructions from The US they commenced operations against Mobutu’s crumbling regime in 1996.

They secretly sought to plunder Zairian resources rather than restore balance to affairs as they claimed publicly which only served to worsen tensions further.

This was known as The First Congo War and resulted in further thousands dead of both sides.

Mobutu himself was forced out of office on 16 May 1997 with leader Laurent Kabila installed as president just one day later – Kabila had been well connected throughout radical leftist movements in Congo since the 1960s before he allied himself with Rwanda and Uganda and assisted them however he could during their invasion of his homeland.

His rise marked the beginning of The Second Congo War (1998 – 2003).

For The Democratic Republic Of The Congo To Achieve Democracy, Reconciliation, Inclusivity, And Justice Must Be Prioritized

The fate of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is uncertain in the wake of both Rwanda and Uganda’s invasion in 1998 and Laurent Kabila’s assassination in 2001.

With conflict and turmoil abounding, one thing remains certain: progress and stability must be established through national dialogue for lasting peace to take hold.

This dialogue needs to include every voice from DRC’s various civil society organizations, rebel groups, farmers, miners, traders, political factions and tribal leaders.

Everyone’s experience needs to be heard for true reconciliation and inclusivity to take root.

In order for the Congo to become a truly democratic nation, justice must also be served.

Fair distribution of resources and protection of human rights should be at the heart of this process – rights that have been denied countless Congolese people due to prolonged war-time conditions.

If these steps are taken towards meaningful consensus building within a foundation of justice, then sustained peace may finally reign within DRC’s borders.

That way, a better future can be ensured for generations to come.

Wrap Up

The key takeaway message from The Congo from Leopold to Kabila is that true democracy in the Congo is possible with the commitment from its rulers to listen to the people.

Throughout the twentieth century, ordinary citizens of the Congo have sought democracy and it’s possible for this dream to become a reality.

However, external forces such as the United States and Rwandan forces have used humanitarian and political pretexts as an excuse for their economic agendas.

This must change in order for the Congolese people to reap all of the benefits that come with living in a democratic society.

By allowing voices of citizens to shape political and electoral processes, a brighter future full of opportunity can be achieved.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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