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The Colonial Period

The FAZ traces its lineage back to the late nineteenth-century creation of the Force Publique in the area then known as the Congo Free State (see The Colonial State , ch. 1). In October 1885, King Léopold II of Belgium directed the organization of a government for the Congo Free State and charged the Ministry of Interior to create necessary police and military forces. In 1886 Belgium sent Captain Léon Roget to the Congo Free State with a small group of European officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to organize a military force, although the Force Publique was not formally constituted until 1888.

From its inception, the Force Publique was an ethnically mixed African army although officered by Europeans. It was both a defense force, for counterinsurgency operations, and a gendarmerie. The repressive measures employed by the Belgian colonial authorities to attain the quiescence of the local African population ultimately produced relative stability in the Congo Free State. There were, however, a number of mutinies, and during the early 1890s, battles were fought against Arab invaders who had entered the country from the east looking for slaves and ivory and had established control over much of the eastern part of present-day Zaire. By 1894, however, the Belgian colonial administration had eliminated Arab control of this region.

Some of the worst tendencies of the present-day FAZ are traceable to the early organization and practices of the Belgian colonial force. Particularly evident during the colonial period prior to World War II was the extensive autonomy of territorial administrators, who operated virtually independent fiefdoms. These administrators often used the military to gain their own ends, diverting soldiers to various nonmilitary activities and treating local military units as private armies. Although this practice contravened colonial policy, the state proved unable to control its own coercive instruments. The practice of scattering military personnel among numerous small garrisons in the hinterland compounded the problem. The soldiers at isolated posts received little military training and were at times no more than undisciplined armed bands. A shortage of officers and the practice of diverting them from military to administrative duties further aggravated this situation, because the Force Publique was inadequately supervised.

The organization of the Force Publique remained unchanged throughout the period of the Congo Free State (1885-1908) and the pre-World War I Belgian Congo (as Zaire was called from 1908 to 1960). By the beginning of World War I, the Force Publique was not a coherent, well-organized army but more of a police force designed to aid civilian authorities in occupying the territory. As a result, the force initially assumed a defensive posture against German forces in German East Africa (later Tanganyika) and was virtually incapable of offensive action during the first eighteen months of the war. In fact, in most of the country the highest echelon of command in the Force Publique was the company; beyond that there was no semblance of military command. Specialized units such as artillery or engineering did not exist. Only in Katanga were there battalion-size units with an autonomous command structure.

These organizational problems continued to plague the Force Publique throughout the war, hindering effective operations. Nevertheless, Belgian colonial forces in East Africa did enjoy limited tactical success as part of a half-hearted cooperation with the British against the hopelessly outnumbered German East Africa Force known as the Shutztruppe. Ironically, one reason for the force's success may have been its reputation for cannibalism. Historian Charles Miller notes that many Africans in German areas believed that the Belgians economized on pay and food by serving their porters to the troops when the loads they carried had been used. Nevertheless, although the Force Publique's reputation for cannibalism may have been of peripheral concern to German forces, Belgian success in East Africa resulted mostly from the greater numbers of Allied forces, not from superior tactical skills.

The problems experienced in World War I led the Belgian administration to reorganize the army along lines that would better fulfill the dual missions of external defense and internal security. A commission convened to study this matter recommended that units of the force be organized for army or police duties. The colonial administration eventually adopted this recommendation and established the Garrison Troops (Troupes Campées) as a general military force oriented against external threats and the Territorial Service Troops (Troupes en Service Territorial) to handle police and gendarme duties, both under the commandant of the Force Publique. Troops performing police duties would rotate periodically with soldiers garrisoned in military units.

This reorganization did little to improve professional competence during the interwar years and in fact laid the base for many of the problems that continued to plague the FAZ in the 1990s. The Territorial Service Troops, which became known for their lack of discipline, were particularly derelict. In 1929 even the commandant of the Force Publique noted that the Territorial Service Troops were poorly trained and of little value. In 1933 the commandant commented again that command of the Territorial Service Troops was "more often a fiction than a reality" and that they were incapable of conducting "serious operations of whatever scope, or even coping with local riots." These problems continued throughout the interwar period and even (though to a lesser extent) through World War II and forced the local administrators to use the Garrison Troops to provide internal security. This diversion, however, proved destructive to the troops' cohesion, training, and discipline. The colonial government attempted to rectify these problems on numerous occasions, with little effect. A 1946 commission to study the reorganization of the Force Publique actually found itself facing the same concerns that had plagued the force prior to World War I.

Despite these internal difficulties, the Force Publique performed adequately during both world wars when employed outside the boundaries of the colony. As early as 1914, a detachment was deployed to the Cameroons to join French forces in operations against German forces there.

The Force Publique again mobilized in 1940, when Belgium was overrun by Germany. In early 1941, Congolese troops deployed to Italian East Africa (present-day Ethiopia) to help eliminate the last Italian centers of resistance, and in the next year, other Congolese troops joined forces with the West African Frontier Force in British colonial Nigeria. Later, Congolese soldiers went to Egypt where they guarded supply dumps and prisoner-of-war camps. During both wars, Allied leaders commended the actions of these representatives of the Force Publique.

During the early postwar period, Belgium, like other colonial powers, failed to recognize the strengthened desire of the Congolese elites to have a hand in shaping their own political destiny, especially following the successful deployment of Congolese soldiers among Allied units in World War II. Even in the late 1950s, the Belgian authorities had no intention of granting independence to the Belgian Congo in the near future. As a result, the composition and organization of the Force Publique remained unchanged (except that the Territorial Service Troops were known as the gendarmerie from 1959) from the end of World War II until independence. The Force Publique remained officered by Belgians, and only in the late 1950s did the colonial administration take steps to institute a military education system to prepare Congolese for commissioned service. In 1958 Belgium accepted only twenty- three Congolese for enrollment in the military secondary school. At this rate, it would have taken generations to completely Africanize the military. This approach was based on the premise that Europeans would continue to staff key institutions, such as the military, for a prolonged period after independence.

At independence in 1960, none of the top military leaders were African. Moreover, Belgium's attitude toward the Congo (or, more formally, Republic of the Congo and then Democratic Republic of the Congo), as Zaire was known from 1960 to 1971, was little different than it had been throughout the colonial period. An excellent example of this posture occurred a few days after independence. When Lieutenant General Émile Janssens, Belgian commander of the Force Publique, heard grumbling by the Congolese soldiers and NCOs who saw little chance to advance in an army still controlled by expatriates, he called a meeting of the Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) garrison on July 5, 1960, to remind them of their oaths of loyalty and obedience. In addition, he wrote on a blackboard, "After independence equals before independence." The indignation aroused in the Congolese soldiers by this comment led to a mutiny by the end of the day. At a meeting that evening, the mutineers called for Janssens's removal and the immediate Africanization of the officer corps. This mutiny set off political turmoil that embroiled the newly independent republic for the next several years (see The Crisis of Decolonization , ch. 1).

Data as of December 1993

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