Zaire Table of Contents
Because of its long exposure to the West and rich heritage of messianic unrest, the lower Congo region, homeland of the Kongo people, was the first area to emerge as a focal point of militantly anti-Belgian sentiment and activity. The spearhead of ethnic nationalism there was the cultural association headed by Joseph Kasavubu, known as Abako, which in 1956 issued a manifesto calling for immediate independence. The move came about as a response to a far more conciliatory statement by a group of non-Kongo intellectuals identified with the editorial committee of a Léopoldville newspaper, Conscience Africaine. In it they gave their full endorsement to the ideas set forth by Professor A.A.J. Van Bilsen in his newly published Thirty-Year Plan for the Political Emancipation of Belgian Africa. Far more impatient in tone and radical in its objectives, the Abako manifesto stated: "Rather than postponing emancipation for another thirty years, we should be granted self-government today."
The metamorphosis of Abako into a major vehicle of anticolonial protest unleashed considerable unrest throughout the lower Congo. In the capital city, the party emerged as the dominant force: the urban elections of December 1957 gave Abako candidates 133 communal council seats out a total of 170, thus vesting unfettered control of the African communes in the hands of the partisans of "complete independence." While the Abako victory at the polls greatly strengthened its bargaining position vis-à-vis the administration, in the countryside its local sections quickly proliferated, creating a de facto power structure almost entirely beyond the control of the colonial civil servants. In Léopoldville, meanwhile, the situation was rapidly getting out of hand. The turning point came on January 4, 1959, when Belgian administrators took the fatal step of dispersing a large crowd of Abako supporters gathered to attend a political meeting. Widespread rioting throughout the city immediately followed, resulting in the wholesale plunder of European property. When order was finally restored, at the price of an exceedingly brutal repression, forty-nine Congolese were officially reported killed and 101 wounded. A week later, on January 13, the Belgian government formally recognized independence as the ultimate goal of its policies. "It is our firm intention," King Baudouin I (1951-93) solemnly announced, "without undue procrastination, but without fatal haste, to lead the Congolese forward to independence in prosperity and peace." Although no precise date was set for independence, the tide of nationalist sentiment could not be stemmed. A year later, the Belgian Congo would be hurtling toward independence (see The Crisis of Decolonization , this ch.).
Its anti-Belgian orientation notwithstanding, Abako was first and foremost a Kongo movement. Its concentration on the past splendors of the Kongo Kingdom and on the cultural values inherent in the Kikongo language was entirely consonant with its proclaimed objective of working toward the reconstruction of the Kongo polity, and, at one point, of advocating secession as the quickest way of achieving this all-consuming goal. Thus, while inspiring other groups of Africans to emulate its demands for immediate independence, another consequence of Abako militancy was to structure political competition along ethnic lines. Kongo elements in Léopoldville came into conflict with a group of Lingala-speaking upriver people; in 1959 and 1960, the rivalry became a major trial of strength between the forces of ethno-regionalism and the claims of territorial nationalism.
Data as of December 1993