Before 1960 the Congo was a Belgian colony. It became independent on 30 June 1960 and the country was soon thrown into chaos. The Belgian government had done very little to prepare for independence.
All the important jobs in government, industry and the army were performed by white Belgians (for example, there was not a single black doctor in the whole country). This created a very difficult situation for the Prime Minister of the newly independent state, Patrice Lumumba (pictured).
The white Belgian officers in the national army refused to promote any black Congolese men to join them as officers. The soldiers mutinied and attacked both their officers and other white people.
The problems faced by Lumumba soon increased. The Belgian government sent paratroops to defend European people in the Congo. At the same time the copper-rich province of Katanga broke away from the rest of the Congo.
The Katangan leader, Moise Tshombe, declared Katanga to be an independent state and used white mercenaries to build up a new army in Katanga. He received support and encouragement from many Belgians and from Belgian mining companies who still wanted to have a presence in the new state.
Lumumba turned to the United Nations for help. The Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold, was keen to take action because he wanted to show that the UN could bring peace to the trouble spots of the world.
Following his advice, on 13 July 1960, the Security Council agreed to restore order in the Congo and 4,500 UN soldiers immediately flew out to the troubled African country.
Eventually, a force of 8,000 UN troops were stationed in the Congo, and the Security Council ordered Belgium to withdraw its troops. The Belgians agreed to pull out of much of the country but they refused to leave Katanga.
UN forces were successful in restoring order in much of the country but they were not able to stop the fighting between the forces of Lumumba and those of Tshombe.
Lumumba soon had a bitter argument with the UN about their role in the Congo. He wanted UN soldiers to attack Katanga and end Tshombe’s breakaway government. Hammarskjold would not permit the UN to become involved in a civil war and he refused to invade Katanga.
The position of Hammarskjold was undermined by each of the two superpowers, who insisted on pursuing their own policies, independent of the Security Council. The Soviet leader, Khrushchev, publicly criticised Hammarskjold for not offering enough help to Lumumba.
In August Lumumba ignored the United Nations, turned directly to the Soviet Union, and tried to invade Katanga with Soviet help. Despite being a member of the Security Council, the government of the USSR disregarded UN policy and provided Lumumba with military aircraft for his invasion plan but the attack failed.
A month later, in September 1960, Lumumba was overthrown by one of his own army officers, Joseph Mobutu.
The US government gave secret support to Mobutu in his bid for power believing that he would be more pro-Western than Lumumba. Lumumba was eventually captured by the forces of Tshombe and murdered in January 1961.
The debate about how the UN should act in the Congo led to angry scenes at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 1960 where Khrushchev argued that Hammarskjold’s job should be abolished. Despite these criticisms, Hammarskjold remained in his post.
UN intervention had not brought peace to the Congo by 1961, and with the help of white mercenaries, Tshombe remained in control of the breakaway region of Katanga. The Security Council tried to stop a civil war by announcing in February that, except for the UN forces, all foreign troops must leave the country. Tshombe refused to cooperate.
Dag Hammarskjold was killed in an air accident in the Congo in September.
The new Secretary-General was a Burmese man called U Thant. He took a tougher line with Tshombe and in December 1961 UN troops began fighting the white mercenaries and other Katangan forces. By the end of 1962, after periods of negotiation and renewed fighting, the UN succeeded in expelling the mercenaries.
In January 1963 the Katangan leader, Tshombe, went into exile and the Congo was reunited. The UN had, at last, brought peace to the country – but its own reputation had suffered.
Some of the UN soldiers acted with brutality during the fighting in Katanga, and people were unhappy at the sight of ”peacekeepers” involved in fighting. The UN forces left the Congo in 1964 and a year later Joseph Mobutu became President of the united country.
The Congo Crisis was over but people have disagreed ever since about whether the UN operation was a success or a mistake.