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European Control, Belgian Congo
Abako, Leopoldville, Congolese people, Congo Free State, unfair labor practices
In the first decade of the 20th century, the administration of the Congo Free State became increasingly oppressive in its exploitation of Congolese workers, and word of the exploitation led to international protest. Reports by British diplomat Roger David Casement and journalist E. D. Morel publicized the lack of development in the Congo and the regular use of torture by Leopold’s rubber collection agents. Public opinion forced Leopold to establish a commission of inquiry in 1904. The commission revealed that the Congolese were victims of a slave labor system and other human rights abuses. The king instituted certain reforms, but these proved ineffective. As a result, in 1908 the Belgian parliament voted to annex the Congo Free State, making it a colony that became known as the Belgian Congo. While the most unfair labor practices were eliminated, most Congolese people fared little better under the new administration.
During World War I (1914-1918) Congolese troops aided the Allied cause in Africa, conquering the German territory of Ruanda-Urundi (now Rwanda and Burundi). After the war Belgian colonialism changed greatly. Labor practices were liberalized, and schools and hospitals were established. The standard of living rose significantly. However, the Belgian colonial attitude toward the Congolese remained extremely paternalistic. The Africans were treated like children, disciplined when judged to behave disobediently or immorally, and taught to abandon traditional lifestyles in favor of laboring on colonists’ farms. In addition, the Congolese were not taught modern technical or administrative skills.
Substantial industrialization and urbanization took place in the colony during World War II (1939-1945). This process was particularly marked in the uranium, copper, palm oil, and rubber industries. Uranium from the Congo was used to develop the first atomic weapons. During the postwar years, industrial productivity increased, and a limited series of reforms, designed to prepare the Congolese for eventual self-government, was initiated. Africans were allowed to own land, and a very small number of Africans, under extremely subjective criteria, were officially recognized as having the same legal status as white colonists. Municipal council elections, the first ever for the Congolese, were scheduled for December 1957. The Belgian government believed these reforms would be the first step in a prolonged, gradual movement toward Congolese autonomy. However, the social and cultural effects of colonialism and rapid modernization had left the colony unbalanced economically and inexperienced politically.
In the December elections, Congolese Africans won 130 of 170 local municipal council seats. Political parties, which were not permitted in these elections, were allowed to operate only after violent nationalist riots in Leopoldville in January 1959. As political parties quickly sprouted across the colony, the Belgian government announced a schedule for national elections, which were to inaugurate limited autonomy. But a congress of leading nationalist parties insisted upon immediate full independence. The two principal parties were the Abako (Bakongo Alliance), led by Joseph Kasavubu, and the Congolese National Movement, led by militant nationalist Patrice Lumumba. Belgium, faced with rapidly escalating tensions and nationalist unrest, agreed to relinquish the unprepared colony. In preindependence elections in May 1960 some 40 parties presented candidates. Lumumba’s Congolese National Movement showed the greatest strength, followed by Abako. By agreement between the two leading parties, Lumumba became prime minister, and Kasavubu became president. The independent Republic of the Congo was proclaimed in Leopoldville on June 30, 1960.
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