Afro-Asian States, the Congo Crisis, and the United Nations: Solidly United in an Anti-imperial Agenda?

Category: Essay 0

On 21 November 1960, in the United Nations General Assembly debate the representative of Liberia expressed his regret about “the bitterness that has characterized the discussion” – a bitterness that had come “from the recently independent African States”.[1] The hostile discussions the Liberian delegate referred to were over current events in the Congo. Since its independence on 30 June, the country had faced a mutiny in its army, a military intervention by its former colonial ruler Belgium, secessionist movements, and a power struggle between its prime minister and president. The debates about this last conflict had particularly revealed deep divisions among the newly independent African states.

The fierce conflict among several African UN representatives stands in contrast to a recent characterization of the Congo Crisis “as an important moment of African and Asian solidarity”.[2] And indeed, at that time the United Nations was a forum for Afro-Asian states to coordinate their actions on the Congo and to advance their anticolonial agenda in general. This essay attempts to outline these cooperative activities as well as their limits, discussing moments of Afro-Asian unity as well as the division among the newly independent states.

At the time of the outbreak of the crisis, African leaders were still able to take unified positions. Shortly before the Congo became independent, the Ethiopian Government had hosted the second Conference of Independent African States in Addis Ababa from 14 to 24 June. During the conference, news reports emerged about troop movements in the Central African Federation, and the assembled delegations suspected plans of the white minority government in the neighbouring British colony to annex parts of the Congo. In response, they sent a telegram to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, informing him that “they are prepared to support wholeheartedly any measure which you, in consultation with the Security Council of the United Nations, may deem necessary to assist the people of the Congo in preserving their territorial integrity after its independence.”[3]

(Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba signs the document granting independence to the Congo next to Belgian Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens, 30 June 1960, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Patrice_Lumumba_signs_the_document_granting_independence_to_the_Congo_next_to_Belgian_Prime_Minister_Gaston_Eyskens.jpg)

The concerns at the conference proved to be justified. A few days after the end of Belgian rule, a series of events threatened the territorial integrity of the Republic of Congo. On 5 July, Congolese soldiers mutinied in reaction to the condescending behaviour of the Belgian officers who were still employed in the army of the newly independent state. Thereupon, Belgium intervened militarily, claiming the need to protect Belgian civilians whose lives were endangered by the mutinous Congolese soldiers. Amidst the erupting chaos, Moïse Tshombe, president of the province of Katanga, announced Katanga’s independence from the Congo.

Consequently, the Congolese government under President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for military assistance. In response, the Security Council met on 13 July and passed a resolution submitted by Tunisia that called upon Belgium to withdraw its troops and authorized the Secretary-General to provide military assistance to the Congo (S/4387). As a result, the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission yet, ONUC, was established, and Afro-Asian states provided most of the troops under UN command. Gradually, the Belgians withdrew from most regions. But Tshombe resisted the employment of UN forces in Katanga, and at his request a strong Belgian military presence remained in the secessionist province. Only after Hammarskjöld personally negotiated with Tshombe and assured him that ONUC would not take sides in the conflict between Katanga and the central government, the first UN troops entered the province in mid-August.

Lumumba became increasingly disappointed with the actions of the UN. He expected Belgium to withdraw immediately and demanded active military support to end the secession of Katanga. When the UN refrained from taking any steps to end the secession, Lumumba asked Moscow for military aid. With the help of Soviet aircraft, the Congolese army launched a campaign against South Kasai, another province that, in the meantime, had declared its independence.

The whole situation changed when President Kasavubu, who disagreed with Lumumba’s line of action, dismissed the Prime Minister on 5 September. In response, the temporary Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Congo, US citizen Andrew Cordier, blocked access to all radio stations and airports. He justified this move with the need to prevent any further escalation of the conflict. However, Kasavubu could count on the support of the bordering Republic of the Congo—the former French Congo, usually called Congo-Brazzaville. While Kasavubu had access to the radio stations of the friendly neighbour, Lumumba lacked this opportunity. Thus, the UN intervention turned out to favour Kasavubu. Then, on 12 September, Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu launched a coup, dismissed both Kasavubu and Lumumba and installed a new government. (However, later Mobutu would work with Kasavubu against Lumumba.)

Although the UN never recognized Mobutu’s coup and UN troops provided physical protection for Lumumba, ONUC accepted the de facto existence of a new government and worked together with it to continue its mission. More support came from the Western countries who were pleased with the expulsion of all Soviet personnel after Mobutu’s coup. Still, Lumumba did not give up his claim to power and made efforts to mobilize support domestically and internationally. But when he left Leopoldville to join his followers in Stanleyville, he did so without being guarded by the UN, and his enemies in the Congo arrested him in December 1960. He was murdered by Katangan and Belgian security forces in January 1961.

In the meantime, the Security Council continued to debate the events in the Congo. During the first meeting on 13 July 1960, Tunisia condemned Belgium’s “violation of the sovereignty and independence of the Congo” (S/PV.873, p. 12). As expected, the Soviet Union also criticized Belgium, never missing an opportunity to denounce European colonialism. On the other side, the United States explicitly refrained from placing blame on anybody, while the European members of the Security Council defended Belgian intervention (S/PV.873).

Then, on 21 August, Guinea requested to take part in the debates. (The Security Council can invite interested states to participate without a vote in its deliberations.) On the following day, the Guinean representative strongly condemned Belgium’s actions in Katanga (S/PV.888, p. 3). Thereafter, more and more Afro-Asian states, as well as Yugoslavia demanded to be heard. On 17 September, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Morocco, Indonesia, the United Arab Republic (the political union between Egypt and Syria), and Yugoslavia attended the Security Council meeting (S/PV.906). Most of these countries pursued a radical anticolonial agenda and a policy of non-alignment towards both Cold War camps. Their demands drew on ideas of transimperial anticolonial networks founded during the inter-war period in opposition to the League of Nations, an organisation the enemies of empire perceived as an instrument of imperialist oppression. When former anticolonial activists became leaders of newly independent countries in the 1940s and 1950s, they frequently met during conferences, state visits, and summit meetings and now were keen to promote their vision of a just world order in the United Nations.[4]

The increasing presence of Afro-Asian states changed the general tenor of the debates. While the Western states argued that the secession of Katanga was a domestic affair of the Congo, for the vast majority of Afro-Asian states, the Belgian support for Katanga justified UN assistance for the central government to end the secession. Tunisia and Ghana pointed out that the Conference of Independent African States that had recently met in Leopoldville in reaction to the crisis had condemned “any secession and all colonialist manoeuvres aimed at dividing the territory of the Republic of the Congo” (S/PV.901, p. 19, S/PV.905, p. 12).

The direct military assistance from the Soviet Union for the central government, the subsequent conflicts between Lumumba and Kasavubu, and the coup by Mobutu further fuelled the conflicts in the Security Council. The United States attacked the Soviet Union for sabotaging ONUC, as all aid was supposed to be provided through the UN (S/PV.902, p. 8). By contrast, the Soviet Union accused Hammarskjöld of support for the Katanga secession and depicted Kasavubu’s dismissal of Lumumba and Mobutu’s coup as the result of a “conspiracy to overthrow the Lumumba Government” (S/PV.901, p. 7). Even though non-aligned Afro-Asian states such as Ghana and Indonesia did not join the Soviet campaign against the UN Secretariat, they also criticised ONUC’s response to the Katanga secession and the outbreak of the political crisis after Lumumba’s dismissal (S/PV.905, p. 15–16).

Due to the increasing conflicts since the end of August, the Security Council proved to be unable to agree on a joint position towards the Congo. Until then, despite the verbal exchanges between the American and the Soviet representative, the Council had passed two more resolutions in reaction to the developments in the Congo (S/4405; S/4426). But on 17 September, the Soviet Union vetoed a Tunisian-Ceylonese draft resolution that called upon “all Congolese within the Republic of the Congo to seek a speedy solution by peaceful means of all their internal conflicts” and stated that “no assistance for military purposes be sent to the Congo except as part of the United Nations action” (S/4523). In response, the United States called for an emergency session of the General Assembly (S/PV.906, p. 33).

The debates in the General Assembly offered even more Afro-Asian states an opportunity to weigh in on the crisis, and almost all of them strongly condemned the Belgian support for the Katanga secession. As the Libyan representative argued, “the military intervention by Belgium and the subsequent secessionist movements […] hold over Africa as a whole the major threat of becoming the prey to neo-colonialism” (A/PV. 859, p. 20). The emergency session ended on 19 September with a demonstration of Afro-Asian unity. Seventeen Afro-Asian countries sponsored a resolution that was mainly based on the Tunisian-Ceylonese draft recently rejected in the Security Council, but additionally called for the creation of a Conciliation Commission to assist Congolese politicians in finding a solution to their internal conflicts. The resolution was passed with a decisive majority, only the Soviet Union and its allies, as well as South Africa and France abstained (A/PV.863, p. 102).

One day after the emergency session had ended, the regular session of the General Assembly began. The 15th session of the General Assembly is probably the most famous in the history of the United Nations. Many heads of states or governments travelled to New York to personally represent their country. Especially the participation of the head of the Soviet delegation, Nikita Khrushchev, is well remembered since he allegedly pounded his shoe on a desk in a wrath over an anti-communist speech by the Philippine delegate. Besides him, US president Dwight D. Eisenhower and leading proponents of non-alignment as Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Sukarno (Indonesia), Gamal Abdel Nasser (United Arab Republic), and Josip Broz Tito (Yugoslavia) personally attended the meetings of the Assembly. The debates were at the same time characterized by a tense Cold War atmosphere and a celebration of the triumphs of decolonisation. Sixteen new states, fourteen of them from Africa, joined the United Nations, and the admission of newly independent states was generally welcomed as a success of the world organisation. During this session, the General Assembly passed the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” that turned out to be a milestone in the history of decolonization (A/RES/1514).

It was the debates over the representation of the Congo in the United Nations that revealed the limits of the unity of the Afro-Asian states in the United Nations and caused the heated discussion among Africans deplored by the delegate of Liberia. After the escalation of the conflict between Kasavubu and Lumumba, both had sent delegations to New York to represent the Congo in the Security Council. Back then, the majority of the Council decided to permit neither of the rival delegations to take part in their discussion (S/PV.900). When the Congo joined the United Nations on 20 September, the question of its representation was referred to the Credentials Committee (A/PV.864, p. 6). Still, on 28 October Ceylon, Ghana, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Mali, Morocco, and the United Arab Republic submitted a draft resolution to seat the representatives of Lumumba’s government and to ensure a reconvening of the Congolese parliament that had been dismissed by Mobutu as the majority of its members were Lumumba supporters.[5] Then again, on 9 November, the Ghanaian delegate argued in favour of postponing the decision to not impair the work of the Conciliation Committee that had been set up in the meantime and was supposed to leave for the Congo soon. The proposal was adopted by 48 against 30 votes with 18 abstentions (A/PV.913). On the following day, the Credentials Committee passed a draft resolution of the United States recommending to seat Kasavubu’s delegation and on 22 November, the General Assembly followed this recommendation with 53 against 24 votes with 19 abstentions (A/PV.924). As a result of American lobbying, several countries had changed their vote, among them Chad, Jordan, Nepal, and Senegal.

It was not only American pressure that enabled Kasavubu’s success and caused the disunity among the Afro-Asian states. Rather, the controversies in the General Assembly mirrored inner-African conflicts that predated the Congo Crisis. After Ghana’s independence in 1957, Nkrumah’s government actively supported groups in other African countries that subscribed to his anticolonial, pan-African program. Among these groups were parties that opposed the regimes in newly independent neighbouring countries. Especially conservative governments in former French colonies regarded Nkrumah’s pan-African activities with suspicion. As Lumumba was engaged in the Ghana-sponsored anticolonial networks, support for Kasavubu also aimed at limiting Nkrumah’s influence on the continent.[6]

With the admission of the newly independent African states to the UN during the General Assembly session, these conservative African countries could now participate in the UN debates, and Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville in particular challenged the claims of Ghana and Guinea to represent African opinion writ large. While the latter depicted any support for Kasavubu as the result of neocolonial activities, the former accused the more radical African states of paving the way for Soviet expansion on the continent. In an exchange with the delegate from Ghana on 18 November, the representative of Cameroon declared: “we are Africans just as much as the Ghanaians” (A/PV.918, p. 884).

Thus, the unity the independent African states had demonstrated at the outbreak of the crisis gave way to open conflicts between conservative and radical states. The conflicts continued after the arrest and murder of Lumumba and the formation of a rival government in Stanleyville by followers of the former prime minister. Both groups organized conferences to coordinate their actions and propagate their ideas for the Congo and the future of Africa. Twelve Francophone states formed the “Brazzaville Powers”, named after the place of their second meeting in December 1960 in which the group endorsed the political course of Kasavubu. The supporters of Lumumba reacted in January 1961 with a conference convened by the king of Morocco and the group became known as the “Casablanca Powers”.[7]

Yet, notwithstanding the opposition from Western and conservative African states, the attempts from the non-aligned Afro-Asian states to influence the course of events in the Congo were not without success. In August 1960, Hammarskjöld had established the Congo Advisory Committee, consisting of representatives of the troop-providing countries. As non-aligned Afro-Asian states provided most of the troops and personnel, they used this forum to coordinate their actions and to pressure the Secretary-General to enforce the Belgian withdrawal. Furthermore, after the outbreak of the constitutional crisis in September 1960, Indian diplomat Rajeshwar Dayal arrived in the Congo to lead the UN mission. His attitude towards Belgium and the Kasavubu-Mobutu duo differed from that of his American predecessors, and now Western countries complained about the bias of ONUC’s reports and actions.

Nevertheless, in the General Assembly, the non-aligned group failed with its attempts to block the recognition of Kasavubu’s government. And after the arrest of Lumumba in December 1960, a draft calling for a release of political prisoners and the reconvening of parliament did not find a majority (A/PV.958). But in the following year, the new administration under President John F. Kennedy partly moved towards the non-aligned Afro-Asian position. Due to this shift in American foreign policy, in February the Security Council passed a resolution that strengthened ONUC’s mandate and called for the restoration of parliamentary rule (S/4741). In April, the General Assembly passed a similar resolution with a vast majority (A/RES/1600). Seven former French colonies voted against it, claiming that only Kasavubu had the right to decide on the reconvening of parliament. On the other hand, the Afro-Asian supporters of the murdered Prime Minister abstained because they saw the resolution as not going far enough (A/PV.985). Still, the reaction of the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Secretariat to the constitutional crisis now in many ways drew on proposals first made by non-aligned Afro-Asian countries in the United Nations.

(ONUC Troops Secure Road Blocks and Positions Around Elisabethville, Unique Identifier UN7664490, UN Photo Digital Asset Management System, https://dam.media.un.org/)

The influence of the Afro-Asian initiatives was even more significant regarding the secession of Katanga. Not only radical states like Guinea and Ghana, but also moderate African countries like Ethiopia and Tunisia strongly condemned the secession and its Belgian supporters. Among the postcolonial African states, only Congo-Brazzaville cultivated close relations with Tshombe’s regime. Kasavubu and Tshombe were also invited to the Brazzaville Conference in December 1960. Yet on the stage of the United Nations, the conservative Francophone countries at most expressed support for Kasavubu’s attempts to negotiate with Tshombe about a more federalized system for the Congolese state. No country, not even Belgium, openly recognized the independence of the secessionist province. The strong endorsement of the territorial integrity of former colonial territories in two paragraphs of the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” further corroborated the anti-secessionist consensus among Afro-Asian states. The two resolutions passed by the Security Council in 1961 (S/4741, S/5002) significantly increased ONUC’s mandate to take active measures against the Belgian advisors and foreign mercenaries hired by Tshombe after Belgium had withdrawn its regular troops. In the end, military action by United Nations troops ended Katanga’s secession in January 1963.

Thus, the Congo Crisis shows how the increasing number of Afro-Asian states successfully worked together in the United Nations to achieve their political goals. For those Afro-Asian states that promoted anticolonialism and non-alignment, the Congo Crisis posed several challenges to their vision of a just international order. In response to Belgium’s military intervention, they successfully called for the withdrawal of the Belgian troops and pressured ONUC to put an end to Katanga’s secession. However, the Congo Crisis also points to the limits of Afro-Asian cooperation. When the General Assembly was forced to take a position towards the conflicts between the rival governments of Kasavubu and Lumumba, the controversies in the UN became intertwined with the conflict between radical and conservative states on the African continent. And the conservative states who joined the UN in the autumn of 1960 contested the claims of non-aligned countries like Ghana and India to represent the Afro-Asian world. During the meetings of the Security Council in December, the representative of Cameroon predicted that “the neutralist bloc will soon be neutralized” (S/PV.916, p. 29). When the Indian delegate asserted that “we have a great deal of kinship with the liberated countries of Africa” and warned against the imperialists’ strategy to divide the African and Asian countries (S/PV.917, pp. 31, 32), the Cameroonian delegate replied: “India is India; Asia is Asia; and Africa is Africa” (S/PV.919, p. 2).

Such an open challenge to the concept of Afro-Asian solidarity was nevertheless an exception. In general, there was a widespread belief in the desirability of Afro-Asian cooperation in colonial questions. All Afro-Asian countries voted for the groundbreaking Resolution 1514 demanding an end of all colonial rule. A majority of sovereign states now shared positions transimperial anticolonial networks once had formulated in opposition to the imperial consensus of the League of Nations. Furthermore, many African delegates expressed regret about the disunity the African states exhibited at the United Nations. Eventually, states like Liberia and Ethiopia that constantly called for conciliation succeeded with their approach. The formation of rival alliances led to the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963—an international organisation that united all non-colonial African states. While the foundation of the OAU by no means ended international rivalries in Africa, the institutional outcome of the diplomatic conflicts that accompanied the Congo Crisis was an organisation that transcended the ideological antagonisms on the continent.

Further Reading

Frank Gerits: ‘When the Bull Elephants Fight’: Kwame Nkrumah, Non-Alignment, and Pan-Africanism as an Interventionist Ideology in the Global Cold War (1957–66), in: The International History Review 37/5 (2015), pp. 951–969.

Alessandro Iandolo: Beyond the Shoe: Rethinking Khrushchev at the Fifteenth Session of the United Nations General Assembly, in: Diplomatic History 41/1 (2016), pp. 128–154.

Lise A. Namikas: Battleground Africa: The Congo Crisis, 1960–1965, Washington 2012.

Ebere Nwaubani: Eisenhower, Nkrumah and the Congo Crisis, in: Journal of Contemporary History 36/4 (2001), pp. 599–622.

Alanna O’Malley: Ghana, India, and the Transnational Dynamics of the Congo Crisis at the United Nations, 1960–1, in: The International History Review 37/5 (2015), pp. 970–990.

Michael Pesek: The Congo Crisis and African Diplomacy in the Era of the Cold War, 1960-1965, URL: <https://www.academia.edu/7595573/The_Congo_Crisis_and_African_diplomacy_in_the_era_of_the_Cold_War_1960_1965> (Accessed: 3 August 2021).


*This essay is part of my research project “Annexations and Secessions during the Cold War”, funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

[1] General Assembly, 15th Session: 921st Plenary Meeting, Monday, 21 November 1960, New York, A/PV.921, p. 925. All UN documents quoted are accessible via https://documents.un.org or https://digitallibrary.un.org/. Hereafter, only the call numbers of the documents are quoted in in parentheses.

[2] Alanna O’Malley: The Diplomacy of Decolonisation: America, Britain and the United Nations During the Congo Crisis 1960–64, Manchester 2018, p. 5.

[3] Quoted after: United Nations Urged: Solve Congo Deadlock, in: Ethiopian Herald, No. 149, 22 June 1960, p. 1.

[4] For Lorenz M. Lüthi, the 15th session of the General Assembly that started in September 1960 “marked the birth hour of the Non-Aligned Movement”, Lorenz M. Lüthi: Non-Alignment, 1946–1965: Its Establishment and Struggle against Afro-Asianism, in: Humanity 7 (2016), pp. 201–223, quote p. 208. On the history of transimperial anticolonialism, see Jürgen Dinkel: The Non-Aligned Movement: Genesis, Organization and Politics (1927–1992), Leiden 2019, pp. 16–41; Maria Framke: Indian and Chinese Anti-imperial Networks in the 1930s and 1940s, in: Transimperial History Blog, 23 July 2021, URL: <https://www.transimperialhistory.com/indian-and-chinese-anti-imperial-networks/>.

[5] Yearbook of the United Nations 1960, New York 1961, p. 69, URL: <https://doi.org/10.18356/0e957b6f-en> (Accessed: 3 August 2021).

[6] Matteo Grilli: Nkrumaism and African Nationalism: Ghana’s Pan-African Foreign Policy in the Age of Decolonization, Cham 2018, pp. 143, 203.

[7] Klaas van Walraven: Dreams of Power: The Role of the Organization of African Unity in the Politics of Africa, 1963-1993, PhD-thesis, Rijksuniversiteit te Leiden 1997, pp. 100–106, differentiates between “conservative” Francophone countries, “radical” supporters of Lumumba, and “moderate” states like Ethiopia and Liberia that stood in between the rivaling camps.

Author profile

Christian Methfessel is a research associate at the History Department of Erfurt University. His PhD thesis dealt with the press coverage of colonial wars and imperialist interventions in England and Germany. In this context, he also explored depictions of cooperation among imperial powers and the representations of Europe that went along with them. In his Postdoc project, funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, he investigates annexations and secessions during the Cold War, arguing that African and Asian countries played a decisive role in upholding the territorial integrity norm and in shaping its ever-disputed interpretations.

Website:
https://www.uni-erfurt.de/philosophische-fakultaet/seminare-professuren/historisches-seminar/professuren/globalgeschichte-des-19-jahrhunderts/personen/dr-christian-methfessel

Publications (selected):

With Florian Wagner, Colonialism: Transimperial Cooperation and the European Idea (1880-1914), in: International Encyclopaedia of Ideas of Europe, 24 August 2020, http://www.ideasofeurope.org/encyclopaedia/interactions/colonialism.
Kontroverse Gewalt. Die imperiale Expansion in der englischen und deutschen Presse vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg (Peripherien. Beiträge zur Europäischen Geschichte; 3), Vienna 2019
With Iris Schröder, Antikommunismus und Internationalismus, in: Norbert Frei/Dominik Rigoll (eds.), Der Antikommunismus in seiner Epoche. Weltanschauung und Politik in Deutschland, Europa und den USA, Göttingen 2017, pp. 139-155.
Appeals for European Solidarity as Calls for Colonial Violence: British and German Public Debates around 1900, in: European Review of History / Revue Europeenne d’Histoire 24/6 (2017), pp. 918-931.
Spreading the European Model by Military Means? The Legitimization of Colonial Wars and Imperialist Interventions in Great Britain and Germany around 1900, in: Comparativ 22/6 (2012), pp. 42-60.

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