The United Nations in the Congo from 1960-64: Critical Assessment of a Tragic Intervention

Essay, 2009
14 Pages

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The accession of Congo to independence on 30 June, 1960 marked the end of peace and the beginning of troubled years for the Congolese people. Perhaps the proclamation of independence was both a blessing and a curse especially as discontent in the army led to a series of urgly events culminating in long periods of political instability. At the dawn of independence, administration in the nascent sovereign nation passed over to the Congolese people, but senior military posts remained in the hands of the Belgians who wished to use the Force Publique to control the government of Patrice Lumumba. This led to massive discontent in the military as the Congolese soldiers felt themselves being discriminated against and demanded the Africanisation of the army, an idea the Belgians did not welcome. On July 5 1960, General Janssens, the Belgian commander of the Force Publique summoned a meeting in which he denounced the idea of Africanisation of the army and put up a colonialist mathematical formula on the board which stated ‘After independence = before independence’.[1] This led to a mutiny as African Troops in Thysville revolted against European officers. Lumumba blamed the Belgians for inciting the revolt and announced promotion of all soldiers to the next higher rank. This was no good news for Belgian Officers and General Janssens tendered in his resignation in protest of the Lumumba’s moves. A group of hardcore Belgian officers gathered in Elizabethville to reject the government’s Africanisation measures. On July 8, 1960, the rape of some European women was reported and an alleged attack on Europeans led to a mass exodus of Europeans to Brussels. The Belgian government saw this as an opportunity to make good use of and intervened in Katanga (De Witte, 2001:9-14).

On July 9, 1960, Black soldiers revolted in Elizabethville against European Officers who wanted to stop Africanisation and Belgium sent troops into Katanga. With Belgian support Katanga declared its independence on 11 July, 1960. That same day, the Belgians embarked on a reconquest of the Congo and attacked Matadi. And on July 21, the Belgian minister of colonies deployed an envoy to Elisabethville to assure Tshombe of their support and eventual recognition of Katanga. Angered by Belgian violation of Congo’s sovereignty, the Congolese authorities requested UN[2] military aid and on July 14, 1960, the Security Council decided to send military assistanceto the Congo. The UN aid will eventually turn to be violent as shall be seen in the following paragraphs. This essay critically examines why UN intervention in the Congo failed to achieve the intended peace that constituted the rationale behind its intervention. The essay will argue that perceptions and misperceptions among UN members exacerbated a rift between the UN and the realities of the conflict. And the Cold War ideology at the time and Belgium’s support for Moise Tshombe to secede Katanga because of their hatred for Patrice Lumumba, greatly hampered UN mission as a peace machinery. To do this, the essay will examine United Nations’ misperception of the political reality of the conflict and their misperception of Patrice Lumumba’s personality and his ideology. The role played by the Belgians whose sole concern was the reconquest of a former colony and the elimination of Lumumba who had become a canker worm in the stomach of the Belgians will also be studied. Further, the essay will assess the role played by the United States of America, whose main concern was to contain the Russians and clear their path to the Congo’s mineral wealth. Finally, the part played by the Soviets to prevent an effective functioning of UN operations, which they viewed, as an implementation of Western imperialist policies shall be examined.


The United Nations misjudged the political forces in the Congo and was guided by a wishful thinking rather than by a factual diagnosis of the crisis. United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld failed to include African experts in his team who had a profound and necessary experience in African affairs (Legum, 1961). Most of the staff used in the scratch Congo administration was taken from western countries that were for the most part, making their first trip to Africa. The United Nations’ team was not balanced to represent all major elements in its membership and this led to misunderstandings. The Russians accused the West of an imperialist move and refused to contribute to United Nations technical personnel and other Soviet bloc countries turned down Hammarskjöld’s request to provide technical personnel. These factors among others did not only greatly hampered the operations of the UN, but also give us a lucid understanding of why little was expected of it.[3]

Also, the United Nations failed to support the legitimate government of Patrice Lumumba against the government of Katanga, and the existence of Katanga as an independent state encouraged others to follow its example. The Diamond State of Kasai received active support from Katanga when it proclaimed its independence and this rot began to spread to the rest of the country, thus leading to further disintegration of the legitimate government. The situation in the Congo demanded active intervention on the side of the government, but the UN opted for non–intervention hoping to peacefully stop the antagonists from getting to each other’s throat. Such a disguised intention was actually far from being the reality in such a chaotic atmosphere.

The United Nations was sluggish in carrying out its task in the Congo because Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba had through his policies become an enemy of the West and therefore an enemy of the United Nations. They fought more to oust him from power than protecting the peace that was so dear to the Congolese populace. The United Nations requested the Belgians to withdraw from the Congo but the Belgian attack was never condemned (De Witte, 2001). United Nations neutralization of the Airport and Radio station made things even more difficult for Lumumba who had received parliamentary support from Leopoldville. The UN refused to furnish the legitimate government of Lumumba with means to fight the Katanga secession by force and this caused a strain in relations between Lumumba and Hammarskjöld. The Secretary General of the United Nations then seemed resolved to see Lumumba ejected and ousted from power. Hammarskjöld deployed an impressive array of military force to prevent Lumumba from calling on friendly African armies or the Soviet Union to help combat the Katanga secession. Hammarskjöld blatantly rejected all bilateral aid to Lumumba’s government from Moscow, Guinea, Ghana or any other country.

The United Nations did little or nothing to protect Lumumba whom they tainted as a communist. It is alleged that Hammarskjöld played a role in his assassination and Lumumba himself confirmed in a letter[4] to his wife few hours before his death that the Belgians were conniving with some high officials at the United Nations to inflict pains on him and his people (De Witte, 2001). The United Nations wanted to overthrow Lumumba’s government in August 1960 and in early 1961, the United Nations appreciated the role played by the government of Katanga in the reconstruction of neo-colonial Congo. Abstract rights did not inspire the actions of the United Nations and other international institutions and principles and this was shown by the different treatments accorded Lumumba in 1960 and Tshombe in 1961 (De Witte, 2001:132). In December 1960 Lumumba sought protection from the C asques Bleus and a Ghanaian Lieutenant told him that it was not his duty to protect him. This provoked great anger amongst junior Ghanaian United Nations forces that revolted against their leader’s attitude. Conor Cruise O’Brien who served as the representative of the Secretary General in Katanga and was very instrumental in using force to end the Katangese secession, accussed Dag Hammerskjöld for conniving with the Americans to sponsor the overthrow and eventual assasination of Lumumba (O’Brien, 1962). Based on the above mentioned factors, one can safely conclude that the United Nations’ attitude towards Lumumba helped to fragilise the country.


[1] African soldiers insisted that they be allowed to take control of the army and not to be ruled by the Belgians whose mission in the Congo was over but the Belgians hoped to use the army to control activities in the Congo.

[2] UN is used throughout the essay to stand for the United Nations

[3] This view has been expressed by Political scientists and sociologists like Ludo De Witte who set out years after to uncover the realities of the crisis.

[4] This letter later became known as the political testimony of Lumumba as it contained the cause for which he fought and the dreams he had for the Congolese people.

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The United Nations in the Congo from 1960-64: Critical Assessment of a Tragic Intervention
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Conflict, Policy
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Fidelis Etah Ewane (Author), 2009, The United Nations in the Congo from 1960-64: Critical Assessment of a Tragic Intervention, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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