Zaire Table of Contents
Traditional tombs in Bas-Zaïre Region
Courtesy Zaire National Tourism Office
State, church, and business formed the trinity of powers upon which the royal hegemony rested during most of the colonial era. By virtue of their special relationship with the state, formalized by the 1906 Concordat between the Vatican and Belgium, Catholic missions were the privileged instrument of primary and vocational education for the colony's people; the operating costs of their educational and missionary activities were almost entirely covered by state subsidies. According to some estimates, the mission establishment had virtually as many personnel as the state and three times as many outposts. The business corporations, involved in plantations and mining, were given virtually a free hand to recruit African labor, to organize food production for the labor camps, and to provide social services for African workers and their families. Both missionary and business interests were given direct access to the state through the appointment of representatives to advisory organs, such as the Government Council in Léopoldville and the Colonial Council in Brussels. The result was a close and, most of the time, mutually supportive relationship between the state on the one hand and the church and business interests on the other.
The colonial state was, of course, the pivotal element in this coalition of interests, because of its unchallenged monopoly of force and highly visible administrative presence. From the time of its creation in 1888 until its dissolution in the wake of the 1960 mutiny, the Force Publique provided the colonial state with a formidable instrument of coercion, whose reputation for brutality was well established. The everyday tasks of administration were mostly performed by a corps of colonial civil servants whose density on the ground was without equivalent elsewhere on the continent. By independence there were some 10,000 European civil servants and officers serving in the Belgian Congo. From the territorial administrators to the district commissioners and provincial governors, the network of colonial functionaries reached out from remote areas of the colony to its administrative nerve center in Léopoldville, where the governor general held court. Except for the 1957 local government reform, the grid of administrative control fashioned by Belgium remained virtually unchanged throughout the colonial era.
Adding to the weight of the European hegemony, a system of native tribunals and local councils was introduced in the 1920s to enlist local chiefs in administration of the colony. Few of the chiefs, however, claimed as much as a glimmer of legitimacy, as most of them acted as the agents of the colonial state. The machinery of African participation in local government was a far cry from the native authority systems established in British colonies, for example. Ultimate control over local affairs always rested with European administrators.
Equally restrictive of African participation was the system of administration prevailing in urban sectors, the so-called centres extra-coutumiers. Under the arrangement introduced in 1931, urban areas were administered by a special sector chief (chef de centre) assisted by a separate sector council (conseil de centre) appointed by the local district commissioner; urban centers were in turn divided into zone councils (conseils de zone), headed by appointed authorities, called zone chiefs (chefs de zone). As the system proved increasingly ineffective, however, the tendency, especially after World War II, was to resort to a more direct form of administration, in which European territorial agents ran the affairs of the so-called native townships (cités indigènes) as they deemed fit.
Not until the postwar years was this complex system of interlocking structures among the colonial state, the church, and big business much called into question. The decisive factor then was the intrusion of metropolitan politics into the colonial arena, following the election in 1954 of a Socialist-Liberal cabinet in Brussels whose anticlerical program had a profound effect on colonial policies.
Data as of December 1993
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