Perhaps the most traumatic transition to independence occurred in the Belgian Congo. (The Belgian Congo later became Zaire, which was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997.) Belgium, which opposed independence because of the colony’s great wealth in timber and mineral resources, provided few opportunities for Africans to develop their skills in government. The Congo was home to many different groups of people, speaking different languages and with different customs. Under Belgian rule, these differences did not diminish but were reinforced. During World War II, however, as the local economy worked harder to produce goods for the war effort, many Congolese began to leave their villages and flock to the cities.
There they came in contact with other Congolese and began to establish cultural clubs. In the 1950s, events in neighboring British and French colonies finally introduced ideas of nationalism into the Congo. After 1955 the Belgian authorities even allowed the development of new political parties. Most of the new parties remained committed to their local regions, but a few had programs of national unity for all the Congo.
At first the Belgian government resisted nationalist demands. They proposed a gradual 30-year timetable to prepare the Congo for independence. In 1959, however, the pressures of new national ideas and dissatisfaction with Belgian colonial rule resulted in rioting in the capital city of Leopoldville. Alarmed by the violence and aware of developments in the rest of colonial Africa, Belgian authorities reversed their former policy. In January 1960, they announced that the Congo would become independent in six months-on June 30, 1960. African leaders were not prepared for independence to come so quickly.
Many different political parties, all representing different ethnic communities, geographical regions, or political beliefs, participated in the first elections. Patrice Lumumba, an outspoken critic of European influence, became premier. Joseph Kasavubu, the leader of the second-largest party and Lumumba’s chief political rival, became president. Fearful of Lumumba’s anti-European stance, the vast majority of Belgian technicians and experts left the country almost immediately. With few trained Africans to replace them, the Congo soon descended into chaos. In July 1960, Congolese soldiers mutinied against their Belgian officers. A period of violence aimed mostly at white people followed.
To make matters worse, the copper-rich province of Katanga, led by Moise Tshombe, seceded from the Congo. As civil war broke out, first Belgium and then the United Nations intervened. On the invitation of Kasavubu, the Congolese army, under Colonel Joseph Mobutu, overthrew Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961. Katanga was also brought back into the republic. Fighting wracked the country until 1965, however, when Mobutu himself took full control.
Mobutu gradually established a ruthless military dictatorship that lasted into the 1990s. The length of his rule was partly due to the effects of the Cold War, in which Mobutu was supported by the Western powers as a counterbalance to African countries that leaned toward the Eastern bloc. In the 1970s, he pursued a policy of Africanization, changing the name of the country to Zaire and himself taking the African name Mobutu Sese Seko.