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Oil, Blood and Steel: The Failed Attempt to Create a Democratic Congo

This is the story of how a corrupt multinational oil company, a self-centered dictator,  lingering ethnic tensions, and lack of attention from the West all served to undermine efforts to transform a Marxist-Leninist client state into a democratic African nation.

Congo’s struggles have for years been complicated by outside influence from its former colonial ruler, France, with foreign (i.e., usually French) companies seeking to profit from the small country’s rich oil reserves. Supported by France, the oil company Elf Aquitaine was able to force the Congolese government into accepting wildly unfavorable terms on profit-sharing (13% vs. 51% that other African countries received).  The company was later found guilty of an unrelated fraud scandal in 1994, which brought to light its questionable business practices in Africa. President Pascal Lissouba sought transparency and better treatment from Elf, but was refused. In response, he negotiated a $150 million oil deal with the American oil company Occidental Petroleum in order to fund his bankrupt government. This economic success largely drove Lissouba’s subsequent election victory. Elf later would allegedly supply arms to the opposition.

Congo’s troubled history dates back to its independence  in 1960 when the Republic of the Congo became a Marxist-Leninist single-party state. President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who first assumed power in a coup in 1979, established a dictatorship enforced by political repression and brought the country into close alignment with the Soviet Union.

In 1990, labor disputes and popular resentment of the regime empowered opposition leaders to demand democratic reforms. Sassou Nguesso consented to the convening of a National Conference, which elected a temporary government and gave the new multi-party state the name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

However, the new president, Pascal Lissouba, elected August 8, 1992, was quickly met with political trouble while forming his coalition government as Sassou Nguesso and defeated presidential candidate Bernard Kolelas attempted to undermine Lissouba with a power grab in the prime minister elections. Lissouba countered with a plan to dissolve parliament and stage new elections.

Loud opposition from Kolelas and Sassou Nguesso supporters led to violence as clashes between protesters and police turned into an ethnically-driven civil war. Although UN mediators attempted to bring stability to the country, Sassou Nguesso eventually seized power from Lissouba again in a 1997 coup d’état.

James D. Phillips was Ambassador to Congo from 1990-1993. In an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in May 1998, he discussed his involvement in Congolese politics as Ambassador. In addition to providing personal assistance in the 1991 elections, he pleaded with Washington for more aid and was disappointed by the response. He formed relationships with Kolelas, Lissouba, and Sassou Nguesso, but was unable to diffuse their political conflict and prevent the subsequent bloodshed. He also aided in the Occidental oil deal with the government and discusses the sad ending to this tale.

Read other Moments on Africa.


“If not the Congo, where? If not now, when?”

PHILLIPS: I arrived in June of 1990. Sassou Nguesso was in power as the Marxist head of a one-party state…. In September of 1990 a major labor dispute broke out that had unforeseen consequences. The labor unions were normally part of the communist establishment, but because of changes in Eastern Europe and the decline of Marxist influence worldwide, the Congo’s labor leaders were emboldened to challenge the regime.

There was a strike that the government handled rather badly. Other dissidents began openly criticizing the regime and the security forces appeared unwilling or unable to crackdown as they would have in the past. In fact, the Marxist regime was reeling. It could no longer convincingly justify its hold on power. A university professor told me it was as if people were waking up from a bad dream; they were asking themselves why they were on foot while party leaders were riding around in Mercedes.

There was no lack of cause for popular resentment. For example, a beautiful, modern building in Brazzaville had been built with European assistance funds as part of the university. But instead it was being used as headquarters for the youth wing of the party. It was a hangout for all the young Marxist thugs. Ordinary people began to question such things, and the government had no answers. The old argument that the party served the interests of workers and peasants rang hollow.

Sassou Nguesso (at left) tried to buy time by proposing new elections, but he was fast losing credibility. Opposition leaders came out of the woodwork and began insisting on a uniquely African institution called a national conference. The idea was to bring people together in a setting where everyone could have a say, on the model of palavers held in African villages. The point of such a gathering was to establish procedures for adopting a new constitution and eventually electing a new government. Sassou Nguesso fought the national conference idea tooth and nail, but it gained momentum and he had no choice in the end but to convene one….

The Congolese at this point were not relying much on outside help. What was occurring was a full-scale popular revolution, but a bloodless and disciplined one. I don’t think the French immediately saw it as a Pandora’s box in terms of their interests. As the National Conference progressed, however, it became clear that its participants harbored tremendous resentment against both the Soviet Union and France. Speaker after speaker demanded an accounting of the Congo’s oil revenues, alleging they had been lost to [the French oil company] Elf and government corruption.

Speakers also expressed the strong belief that the ruling party could not have maintained its hold on power for so long without French complicity. But the aim of the conference was not so much to rehash the past as to build the future. Its main goal was to establish a transitional government that would organize democratic elections.

The new situation brought dramatic changes for me. The new leaders expected support from the United States, particularly in preparing for elections. The difficulty was that Washington had a narrow focus in Africa, limited largely to South Africa and Angola, and had no budget for assisting emerging democracies like the Congo….

Once the Congo set a timetable for elections, I pleaded regularly with Washington for assistance funds. I remember sending one telegram that ended with the plaintive questions: “If not the Congo, where? If not now, when?”

The answers I got were bureaucratic gobbledygook. There was an interagency committee on democracy assistance that was tied up in knots. It was incapable of acting in a timely fashion. Moreover, Washington’s idea of help was to send consultants to lecture, for example on the role of a free press in the democratic process. Important, sure, but not the kind of help the country needed. What the Congo needed was assistance with transportation, communications, election materials and equipment, things that cost money. Neither official Washington nor the NGO community was prepared to provide that kind of assistance….

“I shall always believe the U.S. should have done more to help this country which had courageously overthrown a Marxist dictatorship”

The National Conference got off to a good start…. Two main candidates for the job of interim Prime Minister emerged. One was Pascal Lissouba (at right), a well-educated biologist who had been jailed and then sent into exile by the communists. He had been living abroad for years, working for UNESCO.

The second was Bernard Kolelas (at right), a political activist who saw himself as the Nelson Mandela of the Congo. He had been tortured on several occasions by the government and would not hesitate to show you his scars. He had been a gadfly to the Marxist regime for 20 years.

To his credit, he saw that his election as interim Prime Minister might be too much for the Marxists to swallow. They still had the power to cause trouble and Kolelas wanted to avoid a fight just then. He planned to run for President eventually and made the tactical decision to stand aside for a surrogate candidate named Andre Milango, an economist who had spent a number of years in Washington at the World Bank.

Because Lissouba had lived in Paris while working at UNESCO and Milango had lived in Washington, the press and local political observers claimed that Lissouba was favored by France and Milango by the United States. Rumor soon had it that I was actively supporting Milango. The truth is that at that point I had never met either man.

I think it is human nature to see politics as theater. It was inaccurate but made good theater to believe in a French candidate and a U.S. candidate. The National Conference was fairly evenly divided between Lissouba backers and Milango backers, but Milango was narrowly elected by the delegates.

The National Conference… ended on a positive and rather moving note. There was a massive fountain in the courtyard of the parliament building and all of the country’s political leaders, including the former dictator, Sassou Nguesso, gathered there on the last day of the conference for a hand-washing ceremony. The symbolism was meant to suggest they were done with the divisive past and were ready for a united future.

The conference decided that henceforth the Congo would have a multiparty system of government, changed its name from the “People’s Republic of the Congo” to the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” and adopted as its slogan the familiar words, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It was a hopeful beginning.

Trouble with Elf

I shall always believe the United States should have and could have done more to help this small country which had courageously overthrown a Marxist dictatorship. But we didn’t give them much besides advice….

I was the first Ambassador to meet with Milango after he was sworn-in as interim Prime Minister. He asked for United States help in preparing for elections…. The U.S. contribution was minimal. We did send a team of election observers to monitor the voting, but we simply had no funds for much else….

I was able to do one thing. The political parties wanted transparent ballot boxes of the kind they had seen in France. They wanted boxes you could see into…. The firm called to say there wasn’t enough to make all the boxes the government needed.

They proposed making two sides of the boxes out of the plastic and the other two sides and the top and bottom out of wood, and we said okay. I invited all the political leaders to a cocktail party to unveil a sample ballot box.

To a man they complained that the boxes “were not really transparent.” You could see into them of course, but that wasn’t enough; they wanted all four sides transparent. They had no experience with democratic procedures and were deeply afraid of being cheated. Still, they found they could live with “semi-transparent” boxes.

During the transition period tensions with Elf flared up. The Milango government wanted to take a hard look at Elf’s dealings with the former government, not least of all because when it took office the treasury was absolutely bare. There was literally no money in the till. But Elf stonewalled and the investigation got nowhere.

The government then asked the World Bank to audit Elf’s operations in the Congo, but again Elf refused to open its books. At about this time there was a big oil spill near Pointe Noire and Elf refused even to let the Minister of the Environment on its property to inspect the damage. Elf had been all-powerful in the Congo during the previous regime and was behaving as though nothing had changed.

But the company was beginning to realize just how much reform could threaten its interests and it lobbied the French government to put pressure on Milango to leave Elf alone. France became much cooler towards the new regime and Elf, for its part, apparently decided it would do whatever it took to maintain its dominance. It caused a great deal of trouble as the Congo’s new institutions tried to take hold.

“The parties differentiated themselves on the basis of ethnicity”

Presidential, legislative and local elections were scheduled for the summer of 1991…It became clear that the country was fracturing along ethnic lines. The problem is endemic in Africa. In the Congo’s case, ethnic divisions had been masked by an authoritarian, one-party system for nearly thirty years. But the introduction of multiparty democracy brought them to the surface and perhaps exacerbated them. There were no great ideological differences among the newly-created parties.

They all to a lesser or greater degree favored democratic pluralism and a Scandinavian-style mix of socialism and free-market capitalism. So they differentiated themselves on the basis of ethnicity. This was done almost subconsciously. Party leaders didn’t overtly play the ethnic card, but they didn’t have to. Most voters just naturally gravitated to candidates from their tribal group. As the campaign intensified, this tendency solidified. By the time election day rolled around, the vast majority of Congolese voted on the basis of ethnic preference….

The presidential election used the French system of two rounds of voting…. All of the major political leaders ran in the first round, and I think many observers were surprised by how little appeal they had outside of their ethnic groups.

For example, Sassou Nguesso, the former President, got only 8% of the vote, almost exactly proportional to the 6-9% percent of the population his Mbochi tribe represents in the country as a whole. This may explain why the Mbochis embraced Marxism as a means of attaining power and then once in power resisted democracy so fervently; they knew that as a small ethnic group they would be hard put to win elections based on majority rule…..

The two first round winners in the presidential contest were Pascal Lissouba and Bernard Kolelas (at left). Lissouba represented a coalition of related ethnic groups located in the center of the country, and Kolelas was the leader of the Bakongo people, who lived in the heavily populated areas in and around Brazzaville.

Lissouba won the run-off election with 64% of the vote, handily defeating Kolelas. He did so by forming an alliance with Sassou Nguesso and several other political leaders who had been eliminated in the first round of voting. European and American election observers noted some irregularities but by and large judged it a free and fair election.

Kolelas, the persecuted, long-suffering opponent of the Marxist regime, could not believe that he could lose except through foul play. He protested loudly but got no international support for an investigation into alleged electoral fraud. There were rumors that France had given financial support to Lissouba’s campaign and that the U.S. had done the same for Kolelas. I can’t say what the French did, but I can assure you the United States contributed nothing to Kolelas.

Because he needed a majority in the legislature, Lissouba was obliged to form a coalition government. He named a Prime Minister who began negotiations with the various parties. The obvious partner was Sassou Nguesso’s old Marxist party, rebaptized a European-style socialist party, because it had thrown its support behind Lissouba in the second round of voting.

Although it only represented 8% of the vote, Sassou Nguesso’s group demanded the key ministries of Interior, Defense, Finance, and Energy…. Lissouba and his Prime Minister were not about to give them that kind of power. They offered them instead the ministries of Education, Public Works, and Health. It is unclear if Sassou Nguesso’s party actually refused these posts.

But what is clear is that they opened discussions with other parties with an eye to forming a legislative majority opposed to Lissouba. The only party large enough to achieve this end was Bernard Kolelas’s party, the arch enemy of Sassou Nguesso and company for nearly 30 years. Nonetheless, Sassou Nguesso and Kolelas began negotiating.

About this time Kolelas asked to meet with me privately. I agreed and we met one evening at the DCM’s residence…. After some embarrassment, Kolelas told me he was about to form an alliance with Sassou Nguesso. He explained that he still considered Sassou Nguesso the devil incarnate, but that politics makes strange bedfellows. He claimed to believe Lissouba was potentially a worse dictator than Sassou Nguesso and that a political marriage of convenience was the only way he could be stopped.

The idea was to form a bloc in the National Assembly which would vote to reject Lissouba’s choice for Prime Minister. This would bring down the government because the constitution provided that the President had to select a Prime Minister from the ranks of the majority in the Assembly.

If his nominee was rejected, Lissouba would have to turn to the Kolelas-Sassou-Nguesso newly minted majority for a Prime Minister, and by extension for his entire government. Now the constitution was somewhat ambiguous on this point…. The Kolelas-Sassou-Nguesso alliance forced the new regime to confront the issue within weeks of its inception.

I told Kolelas that I thought it was a terrible idea. Not only would he lose credibility by joining Sassou Nguesso, he also risked throwing the country into chaos. I pointed out that the new institutions were in the infant stage, that no supreme court existed to sort out constitutional questions, and that average Congolese citizens had no experience with democracy, let alone with a democracy that posed complex constitutional issues several weeks after a bitterly contested election.

I argued he would be better off to accept the role of leader of the “loyal opposition.” He would then be in a strong position to run again in the next elections. Kolelas listened politely, but it was apparent he had made up his mind. Within the week the scenario played out as Kolelas said it would, but only partially. The new Assembly majority rejected Lissouba’s Prime Minister, but instead of turning to Kolelas and Sassou Nguesso in naming another one, Lissouba dissolved parliament and called for new legislative elections.

“Tens of thousands were killed in the fighting”

The stakes were high. Sassou Nguesso and Kolelas were trying to marginalize Lissouba by shifting power from the Presidency to the National Assembly. They were trying to win by constitutional maneuvering what they failed to win in the elections.

Both sides dug in their heels; both honestly believed they were in the right. When it became evident that Lissouba was serious about dissolving parliament, Kolelas supporters staged a protest march in downtown Brazzaville.

This is when the first blood was shed. Lissouba’s security forces confronted the marchers and shots were fired. About a dozen protesters were killed. This effectively polarized the country and created a situation marked by acrimonious charges and counter-charges and political ambiguity. Both sides thought the constitution justified their position. A hostile standoff was created that lasted a long time.

Lissouba called for new elections, but the opposition parties declared they would boycott them. I met with both sides to try to get them to work out some kind of compromise and eventually they did agree to a date and procedures for new elections. But this time it was the Lissouba administration that was in charge of organizing the elections, not a neutral transition government or a national conference. So the opposition was suspicious of every aspect of the preparations…

Lissouba’s party and its allies won a slim majority in the National Assembly, but the Sassou-Nguesso-Kolelas forces cried foul. They claimed that serious fraud had occurred in seventy voting districts: If their allegations were true in even a majority of these cases and if the results were reversed, the opposition would have a majority in the Assembly and the country would be back to square one. That is, Lissouba would be obliged to select a Prime Minister from the ranks of the opposition.

It boiled down to the question of who would govern the country. Lissouba argued that his victory with 64% of the vote in a legitimate national election for the presidency gave him a mandate to govern. His opponents claimed they had won a majority in the National Assembly in the first legislative elections and had been cheated out of a majority in the second elections. Although European and American monitors had declared the second elections free and fair, suspicion and animosity now ran too deep for either side to back down.

Political leaders began demonizing each other, political parties began recruiting and arming militias, and the country was on the brink of civil war. All sense of tolerance and national unity had been lost in the several months since the end of the National Conference.

I don’t know how many people were killed in the ensuing fighting, but I would guess that it was in the tens of thousands….

Towards the end, each tribe came to believe it could only rely on itself, and there was near anarchy…. Political problems were becoming intractable and economic events were also proving to be divisive.

When Lissouba took office he inherited an administration that was dead broke. He couldn’t provide even rudimentary services…. Elf informed Lissouba that the previous government had in effect mortgaged the Congo’s royalty oil far into the future.

“Elf at the time was operating like a state within a state”

Lissouba went to France hat in hand asking for financial support and he did get a little from the French Government and from Elf, but he was infuriated by Elf’s refusal to open its books. Elf was telling him basically to be a good boy and he would be taken care of.

Lissouba refused to play along and insisted that the Congo have at least treatment from Elf equivalent to that given other Francophone countries such as Gabon. Elf at the time was operating like a state within a state and the company turned on Lissouba when he became too insistent.

Lissouba’s relations soured not only with Elf but with France…. France saw its former African colonies as a special cultural and linguistic sphere of influence and was paranoid about encroachments, real or imagined, by other countries, especially the United States. The French government was protective of Elf and began to see Lissouba as a threat to its political and economic interests not only in the Congo but throughout Africa….

Lissouba’s early efforts to woo France had failed and by the fall of 1991 he was distinctly out of favor. France was disenchanted with the Congo’s somewhat messy democratic movement, and Elf didn’t hide the fact that it would have preferred to have Sassou Nguesso back in power….

The trouble started when Occidental [an American oil company] came in with a very high-powered team to try to win an offshore drilling concession. But the more Oxy looked at the Congo, the more it saw a unique opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, the Lissouba government was desperate for money. The second legislative elections mandated by the dissolution of parliament were fast approaching. Lissouba badly wanted to pay civil servant salaries before the elections.

The Congo had some “royalty oil,” that is the government’s share of the flow of oil produced by Elf and its partners, that wasn’t mortgaged, and Lissouba tried to use it as collateral for a massive loan from Elf. But Elf didn’t want to help Lissouba politically and refused.

Oxy, however, had no qualms about helping Lissouba and began negotiating for the outright purchase of the royalty oil. Both sides recognized the huge risk involved because of increasing political instability, so the price was advantageous for Oxy…. The result was that Lissouba agreed to sell Oxy the royalty oil plus drilling rights in two major offshore blocks for $150 million.

I was kept informed as negotiations went along, but I couldn’t become directly involved as Ambassador because that would have been showing special favor to one U.S. company. Chevron and Amoco, for example, might have asked why I didn’t do the same for them. But I was as supportive as I could be.

Dave Martin, who was the president of Occidental Petroleum, called me one evening to say that agreement had been reached and that Oxy planned to transfer $150 million to the Congo. I asked when and he said, “tonight.” I suggested wiring the funds to the local branch of a Belgian bank.

I knew the French would have fits when they found out about the deal and that money sent through the main bank in Brazzaville, which was French, might get conveniently “delayed.” This had actually happened in the past, causing irritating delays in several of our PL480 [U.S. food assistance] rice sales to the Congo.

The next morning the astonished manager of the Belgian bank called me to ask if I could explain why he suddenly had $150 million he didn’t have yesterday. I told him it was for the treasury of the Congo so he wouldn’t have it for long.

When the French found out about the deal there was a major hue and cry. Local French businessmen led by Elf accused the United States of trying to replace France in the Congo and perhaps in all of West Africa. This was absurd. All we wanted was a fair shake for American firms trying to do business in the Congo. We even advised U.S. companies that they had a better chance of succeeding if they took on a French partner.

Elf knew this, but was terrified that opening the market to American firms would force it to open its books for public inspection. Elf did not want to explain publicly why the Congo got only 13% of the oil produced on its territory while Gabon and other African countries got the normal 51%. Elf was, in fact, in the process of covering up a major scandal which eventually resulted in its CEO being fired and jailed, but at time we are discussing it was still all powerful. It had its own intelligence service and allegedly supplied money and arms to African allies when it suited its interests. It began actively opposing Lissouba and supporting Sassou Nguesso.

All of this occurred ten days before the elections. Lissouba used the money to pay the civil servants some six or seven months in salary arrears, which was wildly popular, and his party went on to win a majority of seats in the election. Now the French were sure America had bought Lissouba and the elections. They did all they could to undermine the new Oxy/Congo relationship.

Elf told Lissouba that if he would cancel the Oxy contract, it would give him $150 million plus for the same deal, but Lissouba refused. He was pleased to have an American presence to balance Elf’s power and went so far as to request that Oxy provide him with a team of advisors to help him put the Congo’s oil production on a more solid footing.

In my view this was a terrible idea because I thought it would create unnecessary headaches and in the end would prove impractical. Oxy thought Lissouba was asking for technical advisors and agreed. But the French thought he was trying to use Oxy for the much larger purpose of exposing Elf’s corrupt practices. The French loved conspiracy theories and saw the whole thing as a design to exclude Elf from the very lucrative oil fields in neighboring Angola.

Elf went ballistic, and the French government was almost equally upset. France saw Lissouba as nearly a traitor and began to behave accordingly. My relations with Lissouba improved significantly, but unfortunately I lost the trust of Sassou and even Kolelas because they thought the Embassy was implicitly involved in the Oxy deal and therefore in Lissouba’s election victory….

“The final chapter is decidedly unhappy”

The final chapter in my Congo story is decidedly unhappy. Lissouba’s coalition won the elections but the results were violently contested by the opposition parties. There was no Congolese institution capable of resolving the dispute and neither side would accept a compromise that excluded it from power.

The country slid into a prolonged period of low-grade civil war. By low-grade I mean that there were never two fully equipped armies engaged in conventional warfare; rather there were a series of guerrilla skirmishes fought by ragtag militias. Of course Lissouba was able to rely on the Congolese army to some extent, but not entirely. He couldn’t count on army elements from the northern provinces where Sassou’s ethnic group held sway.

There were strong indications that Elf supplied the opposition forces with money and arms, although I don’t have concrete evidence of this. In any case thousands of Congolese lives were lost.

The violence was concentrated in the Brazzaville area and I had to evacuate non-essential Embassy personnel. The evacuations were complicated by the fact that Kinshasa experienced severe civil unrest at the same time.

So we had evacuees coming across the river to Brazzaville just as we were contemplating sending evacuees across to Kinshasa. In the end, both groups left from Brazzaville’s airport, which miraculously stayed open through all of the turbulence. Eventually both sides suffered enough casualties to become war-weary. (Photo: CNN)

They asked me to mediate, which I tried to do, but a compromise agreement proved elusive at the time. A month or so later they turned to a United Nations mediator who, with the help of the President of Gabon, finally brought the two sides together. In early 1993 they agreed to have the election disputes resolved by a team of international jurists.

The jurists investigated claims of fraud in seventy electoral districts and found 13 cases where irregularities had been serious enough to constitute fraud. Of these 13 contested seats they decided 10 should go to the opposition and three to the government coalition. That decision did not alter the majority in the National Assembly and it confirmed Lissouba’s hold on power, but the opposition was exhausted and accepted it….

As an epilogue I can tell you that Sassou Nguesso eventually mounted a bloody coup d’etat with the help of French arms and Angolan soldiers. Our Embassy and residence were destroyed in the fighting. Sassou Nguesso is once again President of the Congo. Lissouba is in exile in London. Oxy sold its interests in the Congo back to the government….

It was a case of bad timing. Suppose events in the Congo had occurred in the 1980s, before the Berlin Wall came down. Imagine the interest that would have been focused on an oil-rich African country that overturned a Marxist dictatorship and established a democratically elected government friendly to the West. Our financial and moral support would have been overwhelming.

But by 1991 events in the Congo were just a side show. By then the only place in Africa that drew sustained U.S. interest was South Africa. Moreover, Washington wasn’t prepared to challenge the French claim to a special sphere of influence in parts of Africa. The attitude was that France wouldn’t seriously challenge the United States in Panama, for example, so why should we seriously challenge France in the Congo.

This is not to say that Washington was not supportive of Oxy and other American oil companies that tried to gain a foothold in the Congo. But there is support and there is support, and we were never prepared to go as far as the French in using political and diplomatic means to secure economic ends, at least not in France’s African backyard. Oxy left the Congo voluntarily in 1995. Other American oil companies came in, but mainly as partners with French firms.