Mining, Decolonization, and the Cold War: The Congo Crisis

60 years ago, the Republic of the Congo – one of the largest newly independent countries in Africa – was embroiled in a bitter struggle. Four domestic factions claimed either their right to rule the country or to secede from it. The struggle was completed by the international agents ensnared it ranging from the old colonial power Belgium over the superpowers to the United Nations who wanted to preserve their business interests, score points in the Cold War, or redefine their international role. We need to look at the Congo’s colonial past before we can understand the Congo Crisis and, following this, its bloody legacy. As always, board games will guide our way.

The Way to Independence, 1885—1960

The Congo became a Belgian colony (to be precise, a private possession of the Belgian king Leopold II) in 1885. The regime there was among the most brutal forms of colonial rule. In their quest to ensure the maximal exploitation of the resources of the country (particularly rubber and copper), the Belgians relied on forced labor, took the women of entire villages hostages (and often raped them) to pressure the village’s workers to meet their quotas, and, if they failed to do so or otherwise “misbehaved”, the Belgian forces used every form of corporal punishment imaginable – whipping, piercing of legs with arrows, and, infamously, hacking off hands. These atrocities were already decried by contemporary Europeans and Americans like Mark Twain or Arthur Conan Doyle as inhuman and barbaric. Consequently, the inclusion of Belgian king Leopold II – the man who owned the Congo – as a promo card for Bruxelles 1897 (Etienne Espreman, Geek Attitude Games) has sparked much criticism.

When the Congo was turned into a “regular” colony in the early 20th century, the worst excesses ceased. Yet colonial rule was still based on forced labor, and the Belgians did not carry out any development of the country or population that did not directly benefit their exploitation of its natural riches, particularly in mining. Thus, even in the last years of colonial rule, barely any Congolese were university-educated (in 1960: less than 30) or employed in administration (in 1960: only three of the 4500 top civil servants) or the officer corps. In the late 1950s, the Belgian officials estimated that it would take 30 years till the Congo was “ready” for independence.

As decolonization movements all over Africa got stronger (and support for colonial rule in Europe waned), Belgium did a U-turn: In 1959, it announced Congolese independence for the next year (a deliberate move to have the independent Congo so inept that the Congolese would have no choice but to ask Belgium for help). The Congolese, long forbidden from engaging in political activity, tried to organize as best as they could for independence. The defining political figures were federalist-minded Joseph Kasavubu and the centralist-minded Patrice Lumumba, who, after the first Congolese elections, became president and prime minister in a power-sharing agreement: Lumumba as the only politician with a broad national base had received by far the most votes overall, but Kasavubu enjoyed strong support in the capital region in the west.

Crisis and Civil War, 1960—1965

The Republic of the Congo became an independent country on June 30, 1960. Less than two weeks after independence, the resource-rich province of Katanga under Moïse Tshombé declared its secession from the Republic of the Congo (with Belgian support). Prime minister Lumumba asked the United States for aid in dealing with the secession. The US, however, was suspicious of Lumumba’s ideological leanings and denied him support, choosing president Kasavubu as their standard-bearer in the Congo instead. However, the United Nations sent its largest and most ambitious mission (ONUC) to the Congo, supported by the US and the USSR (the other veto powers in the Security Council abstained from the vote). It was an experiment for the UN’s self-concept and practice, energetically supported by UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, who wanted to see a neutral, but active UN.

There were now four power centers in the Congo: Kasavubu, supported by the US, had his stronghold around the capital in the west of the country. Lumumba and his deputy Antoine Gizenga enjoyed the widest popular support, particularly in the north and east. Tshombé and his Belgian allies controlled Katanga in the southeast, and finally, the “Diamond Emperor” Albert Kalonji had declared another secession with the small area of South Kasai, supported by the Belgian mining company Forminière.

After Lumumba had been denied American aid to restore national unity, he turned to the Soviets. While they hesitated to provide arms, they did send other materiel and military advisers. That fully discredited Lumumba in the eyes of the Eisenhower administration which now saw the Congo as an important Cold War battleground and sought to remove Lumumba from power. UN forces in the capital now turned against Lumumba’s supporters. Consequently, most African countries withdrew their contingents from the UN force and the Soviets ceased to support the UN mission.

Lumumba and Kasavubu declared each other to be discharged from office. This constitutional crisis was dissolved rather unconstitutionally: Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the chief of staff of the Congolese army couped. Kasavubu remained a part of the government as a fig leaf of legitimacy. Lumumba was placed under house arrest by UN troops (ostensibly to protect him from Mobutu’s troops). At that time, the United States, Belgium, and Mobutu made plans to assassinate Lumumba. He fled, trying to make it to his supporters in the east of the country, but Mobutu’s soldiers caught him. As Mobutu did not want the blood on his own hands, Lumumba was delivered to Tshombé in Katanga. There the first prime minister of the Congo was tortured and executed in January 1961.

In the meantime, the UN forces had been flailing. They were not entitled to use force against the the European and white South African mercenaries on which Katanga’s secession rested. By April 1961, the United Nations clarified their mission statement and gave them a more robust mandate. Now UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld planned to meet with Tshombé in Katanga for peace talks. His plane, however, crashed under circumstances which remain unclear until today. Hammarskjöld and all his fellow passengers died.

UN forces methodically put down the two secessions. South Kasai folded in 1962, Katanga in 1963. The white mercenaries there went out of business – yet soon found new employment: The Kasavubu/Mobutu government hired many of them from 1964 on to put down the Simba guerillas, the remaining supporters of the Lumumba/Gizenga government (who would later receive aid from a small band of Cubans under a certain Ernesto Guevara).

Ernesto “Che” Guevara aided guerilla movements in no less than four countries (Cuba, Congo, Angola, Bolivia). Only Bolivia is a non-battleground country in Twilight Struggle, though. If Guevara had not died there (and thus failed to remove US influence), we can be sure that he’d have moved on to another country to fulfill the full potential of his Twilight Struggle event card. Image ©GMT Games.

The Simbas now faced the full power of Belgian and US special forces, Congolese regulars, and the mercenaries. Congo Merc (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games) puts its players in the shoes of these mercenaries, seemingly inspired by the actions of Irish mercenary leader Mike Hoare (there is a a mercenary leader named “Mike” in the game and the game’s very title seems to borrowed from Hoare’s book Congo Mercenary). That this, the only game dedicated to the Congo Crisis, adopts such a thoroughly European white perspective, should give us pause.

Look at all of Mike’s Irish, German, Belgian buddies! Cover of Congo Merc, ©Decision Games.

The Simbas were not to last long. Gizenga’s increasingly desperate requests for Soviet help were denied (partially, because the Soviets did not deem the Congo all that important, partially because they would have been unable to get much material aid into the heart of Africa). Tshombé aligned himself with the Kasavubu/Mobutu government and thus put Katanga firmly in the government camp. The Simbas were mostly defeated by November 1965. The same month, Mobutu couped for a second time, this time doing without any democratic pretense, and installed himself as dictator.

Before a mission begins, you get to choose which band of mercenaries will sortie in the jungle. Screenshot from the digital adaption of Congo Merc, ©HexWars.

The Bloody Legacy, 1965—?

Mobutu’s regime was immensely cleptocratic, but his firm anti-communism and the granting of unlimited access to the mineral riches of the country for western companies assured US, French, and Belgian support for his dictatorship. Despite his close ties to the West, Mobutu also undertook a program of “Africanization”, renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko and the country Zaire. With western support, Mobutu kept a firm grip on the country, as is represented by his event card in the Turn Zero expansion for Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games) which makes Zaire one of the most stable African countries.

Strategy considerations on the Mobutu Sese Seko card in Twilight Struggle: If Zaire is US-controlled, this event just strengthens US control. If it is Soviet-controlled and the US play the event, the Soviets can re-take control with a 4-ops card. If the event triggers during the Soviet action round, the Soviets can use the two ops of the card to repair the damage, but the US can still take control if they follow up with a 4-ops card. Ideally, the Soviets use the ops first for a coup in Zaire (if possible) or play the card late in a turn when it is unlikely that the US still have a 4-ops card.

Still, armed struggle happened sporadically: Angolan-supported guerillas intruded into southern Zaire in 1978 and took several hundred European and Zairian hostages in the city of Kolwezi. The French Foreign Legion and Belgian paratroopers struck at Kolwezi and freed most of the hostages – made famous by the French movie La légion saute sur Kolwezi (The Legion parachutes into Kolwezi), and represented as a scenario in Urban Operations (Sébastian de Peyret, NUTS! Publishing). As with Congo Merc above, Africa becomes interesting to game designers (and, presumably, players) once Europeans are involved.

As with Congo Merc, the cover of Urban Operations features rather un-African protagonists. Image ©NUTS! Publishing.

Mobutu and his cronies plundered the country and ruined its economic foundations. When western support for his regime ceased after the end of the Cold War, Mobutu’s regime was practically broke and could not pay its soldiers anymore. The last crutch was taken away from Mobutu. Under the mounting domestic pressure, he entered into a power-sharing agreement with the opposition. While Mobutu’s ill health made long absences abroad necessary, his country became embroiled in the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis. The Zairian Tutsis rebelled against him and received support by Uganda and the new Rwandan government. Their invasion, dubbed the First Congo War, overthrew Mobutu in 1997. He died in exile the same year.

The unresolved issues in the – renamed – Democratic Republic of the Congo led to the Second Congo War in 1998-2003. The new president Laurent Kabila faced an invasion by the very same powers which had overthrown Mobutu and thus helped him to power. He, however, could count on Angolan and Zimbabwean support, and instead of a quick success the war turned into a drawn-out blood bath. Millions of casualties made the Second Congo War, also named Great African War or African World War, the bloodiest conflict since the Vietnam War 25 years before. World War Africa: The Congo, 1998—2001 (Javier Romero, Decision Games) covers this chaotic struggle (albeit in a classic two-player form with each player responsible for an entire coalition of forces). Once more, designer Javier Romero has proven a keen eye for undergamed conflicts.

Look, a game about sub-Saharan Africa which doesn’t have a bunch of white people on the cover! Cover of Modern War magazine Mar-Apr 2021, in which World War Africa featured.

Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001. He succeeded as president by his son Joseph Kabila who had to contend with another war in the east of the country in the following years. He ruled until 2019 and was then followed by Félix Tshisekedi. While the Democratic Republic of the Congo is still a poor and brittle country, this democratic transition of power should give the Congolese hope for their future.

Games Referenced

Bruxelles 1897: Leopold II Promo Card (Etienne Espreman, Geek Attitude Games)

Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)

Congo Merc (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games)

Twilight Struggle: Turn Zero (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)

Urban Operations (Sébastien de Peyret, NUTS! Publishing)

World War Africa: The Congo, 1998—2001 (Javier Romero, Decision Games)

Further Reading

You’ll get an excellent overview over the Congo Crisis in Namikas, Lise: Battleground Africa. Cold War in the Congo, 1960—1965, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2013.

You can find a valuable compilation of overviews and documents on the crisis in the respective reader of the Wilson Center Cold War International History Project (CWIHP).

On the UN mission in the Congo (ONUC), see Zippel, Katrin: “It’s like trying to give aid to a wounded rattlesnake.” Die Vereinten Nationen im Kongo, in: Zeitgeschichte Online, May 2011 (in German).

For Soviet involvement in the crisis, see Mazov, Sergey: A Distant Front in the Cold War. The USSR in West Africa and the Congo, 1956—1964, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2010.


12 thoughts on “Mining, Decolonization, and the Cold War: The Congo Crisis

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thank you! I wrote my B.A. thesis about a decolonization/Cold War conflict (Angola), so the matter is close to my heart. And criminally undergamed! I’m still waiting for a grand, sweeping African decolonization game…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Paul Hodson

    Thanks for the review. I’ve ordered a copy of the Decision Games game. What do you think of the MMP Angola game? I can’t remember the cover art, but it seems to me that the in-country factions are shown as the main actors and the international troops (including Zairean) as supporters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it!
      All the playable factions of MMP’s Angola game are domestic (MPLA/FAPLA vs. UNITA/FNLA). I haven’t actually played the game, but from what I know about it, it seems to capture the conflict rather well, particularly the escalation of armaments. One downside: MPLA/FAPLA are a natural team (party and armed forces of the same movement), but that’s not the case for UNITA/FNLA (as two independent movements).


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