Minerals have played a central role in the politics and economy of Congo/Zaire from its inception as the Congo Free State. Even earlier, copper from Katanga (renamed Shaba after independence) had been smelted and worked by Africans and fed into the continent’s overlapping trading networks. The distinctive Katanga copper crosses found their way as far afield as China. Msiri, the last African ruler of Katanga, owed his political position at least in part to his control of the copper reserves. Europeans were more interested in gold. Prior to the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-1885, Belgian king Leopold II had made a series of bilateral treaties with various European powers, setting the boundaries of the area he intended to control. In the aftermath of the conference, however, when required to specify the area in which he would guarantee neutrality, he moved the southern border of the Congo Free State several hundred miles south, to the Congo-Zambesi watershed, where he hoped to find gold.
Rumors of gold in Katanga also attracted the attention of Cecil Rhodes, who wanted to incorporate the region into British South Africa Company territory. In 1890 the two men sent rival expeditions to claim the territory; the Rhodes expedition lost its way. Shortly thereafter, the Belgian geologist Jules Cornet investigated the region’s minerals, found little gold, and decided that the extensive copper deposits could not be worked profitably. Despite the fact that Katanga’s high-grade copper ores were very close to the surface and were highly oxidized and therefore relatively easy to smelt, this conclusion was by no means unjustified. Substantial investment was required not only to work the mines, but also for the construction of a railway to the coast, without which no significant mining activity could be successful. Leopold turned his attention back to trade in rubber, ivory, and palm oil, which paid well but required little or no capital investment on his part.
In 1895, George Grey, an Englishman with aristocratic connections, began exploring on the Northern Rhodesian side of the watershed in an effort to find a profitable investment opportunity for the Countess of Warwick, one of the Prince of Wales’s mistresses. He made an illicit foray over the border and concluded that Cornet could have been wrong. Grey’s employer, Robert Williams, a friend of Rhodes, began negotiating with Leopold and, once the dust of the Jameson Raid had settled, reached an agreement in 1900 to develop the region’s copper resources. Leopold’s continued reluctance to take the heavy risks involved in mineral development were reflected in the arrangement for the Comite Speciale du Katanga (CSK), the region’s administrative body, to invest a maximum of ?3 million annually only after Williams and his company, Tanganyika Concessions, had spent UK?5 million. The financing of deposits considered viable was to be shared equally, but the CSK would get 60 per cent of the profits, leaving Tanganyika Concessions the remaining 40 per cent.
With some evidence that the deposits could indeed be commercially viable, and as part of a wider scheme to ensure Belgian control over the Congo’s resources, the Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga was formed in 1906 to take over the enterprise. To provide the essential rail link to the coast Williams had in 1902 secured a Portuguese concession to build the Benguela Railway across Angola, while, as part of its wider plans, the Congo Free State in 1906 also formed the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga (BCK) to link the mine area to the navigable portions of the Kasai and Congo Rivers. To serve the purpose more immediately, after protracted negotiations, agreement was reached to connect the Rhodesian rail system to the Katanga border, then to the mines via the Chemin de Fer du Katanga. Katanga traffic came to provide Rhodesian railways with a major source of revenue not only from the importing of equipment from Europe and the export of smelted copper but also from the carriage of large amounts of coal from the Wankie colliery to Katanga, which had no sources of coal suitable for smelting the copper ores.
Technical difficulties and some personal tensions meant that sustained copper production only became possible in 1912, but from then on the metal became increasingly important for the Congo’s economy. Between the two world wars, facing lower prices forced in part by new producers—one of which was Northern Rhodesia—coming into world markets, Union Miniere refused to cooperate with cartel attempts to sustain prices by limiting output and substantially increased production. It was also in this period that they began to experiment with the use of longer-term stabilized labor, as opposed to short-term migrant labor, as most of their workers had previously come from Northern Rhodesia but were increasingly needed on the Copperbelt. From then on, with periodic difficulties arising out of changing world markets, Union Miniere and its Belgian parent, the Societe Generale de Belgique, grew increasingly wealthy.
It was a source of great disappointment to Robert Williams that the Benguela Railway, despite being the most direct route from Katanga to the coast, never fulfilled his initial expectations as the major outlet for Katanga copper. War and politics joined with financial difficulties to delay construction, and the line only reached the mines in 1928. By that time the BCK had also been completed and the Belgians preferred to use that route as much as possible, notwithstanding the added costs of transshipment from rail to river and then again to rail at Leopoldville. Although the Rhodesian rail network took the copper to the east coast and a longer sea route to Europe, that line also continued to be used, in part to ensure continued supplies of Wankie coal.
Katanga’s copper became so significant for both the Belgian and Congolese economies that when the Congo became independent in 1960 the region seceded and formed a separate government under Moise Tshombe, with support from Belgium and other Western countries. There was a strong expectation that Katanga’s control over the copper supplies would give it the necessary economic base to maintain its independence. After the secession was brought to an end in 1963, Union Miniere gave way to the state-owned Generale des Carrieres et des Mines. Copper continued to provide nearly 40 per cent of the country’s export earnings well into the 1980s, but world demand for copper has fallen in the face of competition from plastics and glass fibers in recent years.
Some gold was found at Ruwe, but the precious metal never met Rhodes’s and Leopold’s expectations. Other minerals found in Katanga have included mica, tin, and uranium, which was first identified in 1913. The first atomic pile built under the Stagg Fields Stadium in Chicago used uranium from Katanga, which also provided a substantial portion of the Western world’s supplies of cobalt during the Cold War. After copper, however, the most economically and politically significant mineral found in the Congo has been the
Diamonds of Kasai, part of the Congo that was also brought firmly into Leopold’s Congo State ambit with the southward shift of his borders.
It was to exploit Kasai’s extensive diamond deposits that the third major 1906 company, the Societe Internationale Forestiere et Miniere du Congo was formed, though, as the company’s name implies, there was also hope for the development of other economic resources. The major financial backing for this company came through the British financier Sir (Alfred) Chester Beatty. The proximity of the navigable section of the Kasai River, feeding into the navigable Congo, facilitated transportation and made it unnecessary to build a railway line to serve the mines. Diamond mining also required substantially less initial capital investment, and there was a much shorter delay between initial investment and first returns.
Kasai’s diamonds are generally of industrial rather than gem quality, but they nonetheless quickly became and remained a major source of revenue for the Congo State and the Belgian Congo. For the independent Republic of the Congo/Zaire, diamonds were important not only for their direct export value but also because of the advantages accruing from smuggling them. In the early 1960s diamond smuggling was rampant, but the authorities did little to prevent it because that smuggling was considered a means of limiting the rise in value of the Congolese franc on the parallel money market. By late 1963, Congolese francs traded at more than 400 to the U. S. dollar on the free market as against an official rate of 65. Smuggled diamonds also helped finance the Kasai secession. This was more short-lived than that of Katanga, but Kasai continued to be a center of rebellion. Diamonds, legitimately exported and smuggled, have more recently played a major role in the civil strife surrounding Laurent’s and Joseph Kabila’s governments and the involvement in that conflict of foreign governments such as Angola and Zimbabwe.
See also: Jameson Raid, Origins of South African War: 1895-1899; Stanley, Leopold II, “Scramble.”
Anstey, R. King Leopold’s Legacy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.
Gerard-Libois, J. Secession au Katanga. Bruxelles: Institut National d’Etudes Politiques, 1963.
Gibbs, D. N. The Political Economy of Third World Intervention: Mines, Money, and U. S. Policy in the Congo Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Katzenellenbogen, S. E. Railways and the Copper Mines of Katanga. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
Katzenellenbogen, S. “It Didn’t Happen at Berlin: Politics, Economics and Ignorance in the Setting of Africa’s colonial
Boundaries.” In African Boundaries: Barriesers, Conduits and Opportunities, edited by Paul Nugent and A. I. Asiwaju. London: Pinter, 1996.
Lunn, J. Capital and Labour on the Rhodesian Railway System, 1888-1947. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, in association with St Antony’s College, 1997.
Congo (Kinshasa), Democratic Republic of/Zaire: National Conference and Politics of Opposition, 1990-1996
Following the end of the Cold War, Zaire lost both its strategic importance and the crucial international assistance that went with it. Due to a poor human rights record and generally bad governance, the country’s leader, President Mobutu Sese Seko, bowed to both internal and external pressure and abolished the country’s one-party state on April 24, 1990. The incumbent secretary general of the Economic Community of Central African States, Lunda Bululu, was appointed head of a restructured transitional government that was installed on May 4 of that year. Over the next year, the constitution was revised to permit the formation of trade unions and at least two additional political parties.
However, the euphoria generated by the prospect of a new political social order quickly evaporated as a result of Mobutu’s continuing repression of opposition political activity. In particular, Mobutu’s announcement that a limited multiparty system would not come into effect for at least two years led to a bloody confrontation at the University of Lubumbashi on May 11,1990. It was reported that security forces killed more than 50 student demonstrators. Eventually Mobutu was persuaded by opposition pressure to announce, on December 31, both presidential and legislative elections. They were scheduled to be held in 1991, as was a referendum on another new constitution.
In 1991 a fragmented party system of over 100 parties emerged, with three main groups. First among these was the pro-Mobutu bloc, led by the Popular Movement for Renewal (Mouvement Populaire Renouveau, or MPR). It comprised, in addition, dozens of parties headed by Mobutu supporters. Second, there was the main anti-Mobutu bloc, led by three opposition parties: the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (Union pour la Democratie et le Progres Social, or UDPS), the Union of Federalists and Independent Republicans (Union des Federalists et Republicains Independents, or UFERI), and the National Christian Social Democratic Party (Parti Democratie et Social Chretien, or PDSC). Finally, there was a large number of what are best described as “pseudo-parties,” often consisting of not much more than a handful of individuals with a lack of clear or consistent political orientations.
With broad popular support, the anti-Mobutu coalition insisted successfully on the formation of a National Conference. The conference was an indigenously generated contribution to the country’s political institution building and regime transition, which convened for the first time on August 7, 1991. Its proclaimed purpose was to provide a transition mode, whereby both government and opposition forces, along with representatives of civil society groups, could meet in order to thrash out a consensual political way forward. Within the Conference, the UDPS, UFERI, PDSC, and groups from civil society formed the so-called Union Sacree in July 1991, designed to be a democratic opposition platform. Headed by Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo, the conference quickly became the main forum for the power struggle between the Mobutu camp and the opposition. It was, however, characterized by prevarication, principally from Mobutu and his government, and this led to a prolonged stalemate between the latter and the opposition.
At the end of September 1991, under pressure from the opposition, Mobutu not only appointed as prime minister Etienne Tshisekedi, a leading opposition politician, but also agreed to the formation of an opposition-dominated cabinet and diminished presidential powers. In addition, the conference adopted a transitional constitution that reinstalled the separation of powers, and strengthened human and civil rights. It also drafted a new federalist constitution to be subject to a referendum.
President Mobutu dismissed Tshisekedi and his government illegally in December 1992. Still retaining the loyalty of the security forces, Mobutu managed to remain in power by a complex strategy that involved seemingly to agree to reforms but without implementing them, repression of the opposition, instigation of mutinies in the armed forces, the fueling of ethnic grievances, and co-optation of prominent opposition leaders, such as UFERI leader Karl-i-Bond. In 1993, such was the conflict between pro - and anti-Mobutu forces that there resulted a duplication of political institutions: two governments, two parliaments, and two currencies. The political deadlock was finally overcome at the end of the year when the two legislatures merged into the transitional High Council of the Republic (Haut Conseil de la Republique, or HCR). Unlike the National Conference, pro-Mobutu forces dominated the HCR.
In April 1994 the transitional Parliament passed an interim constitution which not only recognized the principle of separation of powers and guaranteed basic human and civil rights but also permitted Mobutu to remain in power. Supported by France, a compromise candidate for prime minister, Kengo wa Dondo, was elected in June. In mid-December Kengo announced that long overdue presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as a constitutional referendum, would be held in July 1995; they were, however, postponed in May. As a result, a two-year extension of the political transition period was announced.
In February 1996 Kengo ousted 23 cabinet ministers, including all remaining opposition sympathizers, and filled their posts with his supporters. Meanwhile, the National Elections Commission was charged with preparing for a constitutional referendum in December
1996, presidential and parliamentary elections in May
1997, and local balloting in June and July 1997. However, before the elections and referendum could take place, Laurent Kabila, a veteran in the fight against Mobutu for over 30 years, formed a four-party military alliance, the Alliance for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (Alliance des forces pour la Democratie et la Liberation du Congo-Zaire, or AFDL). The AFDL was supported by Zaire’s neighboring countries, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, as well as by the United States.
On October 29, 1996, Kinshasa declared a state of emergency in North and South Kivu as previously sporadic fighting between Rwandan and Zairean regular forces escalated into intense cross-border shelling. Kinshasa accused the Rwandan and Ugandan governments of attempting to take advantage of President Mobutu’s absence. (Mobutu was convalescing in France following surgery for cancer.) Over the next few months, the AFDL forces made steady progress before eventually controlling the entire country. The victorious AFDL entered the capital, Kinshasa, on May 17, 1997.
See also: Congo (Kinshasa): Post-Mobutu Era; Congo (Kinshasa), Democratic Republic of/Zaire: Mobutu, Zaire, and Mobutuism.
Aronson, D. “The Dead Help No One Living.” World Policy Journal 14, no. 4 (1998): 81-96.
Brittain, V. “The Congo Quagmire.” World Press Review, November 1998, 14-15.
Gondola, Ch. Didier, “Dreams and Drama.” African Studies Review 42, no. 1 (1999): 23-48.
Leslie, W. Zaire: Continuity and Change in an Oppressive State. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press (1993).
Tanner, Henry. “A Congo Reporters’ Nightmare.” Nieman Reports, nos. 53-54 (1999-2000): 187-189.
Wamba-dia-Wamba, E. “Democracy, Multipartyism and Emancipative Politics in Africa: The Case of Zaire.” Africa Development 18, no. 4 (1993): 95-118.