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Why Kenya must heed Congo lesson

By | Dec 21st 2009 | 4 min read

By Dominic Odipo

"We have known sarcasm and insults, because we were ‘niggers’.... We have seen our land despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but which only recognised the right of the strongest.... Noun ne sommes plus vos singes.... We are no longer your monkeys."

These comments, part of one of the most portent and colourful diplomatic speeches ever given in public by an African leader, were made at the formal celebrations marking the independence of the Belgian Congo from Belgium on June 30, 1960, in Leopoldville, today known as Kinshasa, the Congolese capital city.

The speaker was the new Congolese prime minister, Patrice Emery Lumumba and the man being addressed with such ill-concealed fury was King Baudouin of the Belgians who had flown in from Brussels to formally hand over state power to the new Congolese leaders.

Lumumba had been infuriated by King Baudouin’s extremely insensitive and patronising remarks during which he had lavishly praised his great uncle, King Leopold II, and cast doubt on the political and administrative capacities of the new Congolese leadership.

"Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms, and don’t replace structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better," Baudouin had condenscendingly told the assembled Congolese leaders.

But, whereas the King’s comments had highly incensed Lumumba, they appeared to have had little effect on the new President, Joseph Kasavubu.

Kasavubu formally responded with his prepared text, leaving out only the final paragraph which paid personal tribute to the king.

On the very first day of Congolese independence, the prime minister and the president were reading the same script through very different lenses and headed on a collision course.

As we wrote in this column the other week, the Harmonised Draft Constitution will stand or fall on the single issue of how power shall be shared between the prime minister and the president. If this draft bends to political pressure and gets it wrong on this issue, this constitution will either be rejected at the referendum or lead to political chaos later if it is adopted.

Civil war

But let us backtrack to the Congolese experience of the last half of 1960.

Taking advantage of the lapses and loopholes in the new Congolese constitution, on September 5, 1960, President Kasavubu took to the radio, accusing Lumumba of ruling in an arbitrary manner and threatening to plunge the country into civil war. Kasavubu then announced that he had "revoked" Lumumba’s appointment as prime minister and appointed one Joseph Ileo as the new prime minister.

Then, conforming to his profile and reputation as a lazy and indolent man, Kasavubu promptly retired to his house and his warm bed. But Lumumba, the more vigorous and electric man, did not take Kasavubu’s salvo lying down.

After listening to Kasavubu’s radio broadcast, he, too, rushed to the radio studios and announced that, using the powers conferred upon him as prime minister, he had dismissed Kasavubu who, in his judgment, was guilty of treason.

"In the confusion that followed, some parts of the Congo declared for Lumumba, other parts for Kasavubu and Ileo. Parliament voted to annul both decisions. Western governments sided with Kasavubu; the Soviet bloc with Lumumba.

"The United Nations, loudly criticised by all sides, was caught in the middle," according to the account of this episode that appears in Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa.

The long and short of all this is that, to this day, the Democratic Republic of Congo, as Lumumba christened it, has never recovered from the constitutional crisis of September 1960, which revolved around the issue of how state power was to be shared out between the prime minister and the president.

There is a very sure sense in which the political and economic problems bedevilling the DRC today can be traced back to the last quarter of 1960.

Of course it would be naive to suggest that the entire post-independence political crisis in the Congo can be explained or rationalised by the fact that the Congolese constitution did not clearly specify how state power was to be shared between the prime minister and the president.

There were many other factors at play.

There were the ideological faultlines that then divided the capitalist West and the socialist East; there was the fact of the Congolese political parties of the day which were mainly based on tribal, not ideological, allegiances; there was the exploitative and unrelenting struggle by certain multinational business interests to control and profit from the Congo’s vast natural resources.

And then there were the opposing and engagingly colourful personalities of Lumumba on one side and Kasavubu on the other.

Incendiary broadcasts

But if the constitution had been absolutely clear on where the president’s power stopped and the prime minister’s began, those incendiary radio broadcasts of September, 1960, which effectively ripped the country asunder, would probably never have been made.

The dispute over the powers of the president and the prime minister served as the perfect entry point for those within and outside the Congo, such as Joseph Mobutu, who thrived in, and exploited such circumstances for their own benefit.

Can the Committee of Experts that is fine-tuning the new constitution learn a lesson or two from the Congolese experience of 1960? Presumably.

Will it act on those bitter and bloody lessons? That is an entirely different question.

The writer ([email protected]) is a lecturer and consultant in Nairobi.

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