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Congo in Crisis: The Rise and Fall of Katangan Secession

When the Republic of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) became independent from Belgium in June 1960, the new country immediately descended into a political chaos known as the “Congo Crisis.” The arbitrary boundaries drawn by Colonial powers combined with leftover racial tensions and general uncertainty led to violence along racial lines and widespread mutiny in the Belgian-led army. Belgian troops sent in to protect Belgian citizens clashed with Congolese forces, leading to the U.N. ordering the Belgian forces out of the country.

On July 11, 1960, less than two weeks after the country formally gained independence, a politician named Moise Tshombe declared the southernmost province of the Congo to be an independent nation called the State of Katanga. Katanga, with its copperbelt and lucrative mining operations was the wealthiest province of the Congo. The Belgians, French, and British, wanting influence in the wealthy region, supported the Katanga movement in practice, if not in name. Despite U.N. regulations forbidding countries from directly supporting the secessionists, members of the European armed forces became hired mercenaries in Katanga’s army. (Pictured at right)

Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the Congo, appealed to the U.N. for forces to end the secessionist movement. The U.N. initially refused, considering the rebellion an internal issue. Patrice Lumumba had managed to acquire Soviet weapons for the Congolese army before he was deposed as Prime Minister by Mobuto Sese Seko in November 1960 and killed in early 1961. This led the U.N. to pass Resolution 161, which authorized U.N. forces to take “all appropriate measures” to prevent civil war in the Congo; essentially authorizing the U.N. to take offensive measures against the Katangan state. The conflict came to a close in January 1963, after U.N. and U.S. forces overwhelmed the Katangan military and Moise Tshembe stepped down as President of Katanga.

Francis Terry McNamara was an officer at the U.S. consul in Elisabethville from 1961 to 1963 and witnessed firsthand the struggle to bring peace to the Congo. He recalls his experiences with Charles Stuart Kennedy in a 1993 interview.

You can read more Moments on Congo as well as McNamara’s account of the evacuation from Can Tho, Vietnam.


“He was worried by threats that mercenaries would kill him”

McNAMARA: Things were far from decided in the Congo. There were two sets of potential secessionists: one was the Katangese, the other was the Lumumbists in the northeast. These were being supported by the Russians and the Egyptians at the time. The embassy was worried that if the Katangan secession succeeded, it would encourage the secession of this other Russian-backed group.….

At that point, there was no direct communication between Leopoldville and Elisabethville, between Katanga and the rest of the Congo…Before I went [to Elisabethville], while I was in Leopoldville, I met some officers from the Indian Army, just by chance. We became friendly, and one of them told me, “Oh, we’re going up to Elisabethville in a week or two, and we’ll see you up there.”

I said, “Fine,” and I didn’t think anything of it, because I didn’t know the significance of this. I was brand new and didn’t understand all of the subtleties of troop movements, etc.

American policy was highly unpopular in Katanga. We opposed secession. Our allies disagreed with our efforts to force Katanga to acquiesce….

Q: What was your impression of [Tshombe, pictured]?

McNAMARA: A man of great charm. Great charm and intelligence. Good leader. The idea that he was just a creature of neocolonial influences is a gross exaggeration and misunderstanding of fact. Like most African political leaders his support was tribally based. He openly opposed the central government.

In the beginning he was manipulated, to a degree, by the Belgians, the French and the British. But they did not create his authentic local rapport. It still exists. There is a lack of trust of a faraway control government. People’s only real identification is still with tribe and region. The country is an artificial creation of the colonial powers. Prior to independence in 1960, Africans had no role in governance, nor was there any national civic life.

“There I was, watching as tracer bullets pass back and forth in front of me”

What happened was, about a brigade of Indian troops suddenly arrived shortly [in Elisabethville] after I did. At about four o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by noise in the central square just down the street. I looked out the window, and saw U.N. troops and armored cars drawn up in the main square. The post office had been occupied by Katangan “paracommandos.”

Tensions had been growing over the past few days as the U.N. picked up mercenaries and Belgian officers… In response the paracommandos took over the post office in the center of town.

Suddenly, that night, Indian troops came into the Place de Post, in front of the post office. I heard them issue an ultimatum, over a loudspeaker…They gave the Katangans an ultimatum to surrender and leave the post office. When the Katangans refused, the Indians started to shoot. The shooting went on for some time. There was riposte from the Katangans, but they were outgunned and lacked effective leadership. Their mercenary officers were in hiding. The post office was stormed by Indian troops.

By eight o’clock in the morning, resistance had ended. The Katangans had suffered some casualties but most were taken prisoner…This is how the fighting started in Elisabethville based on my own observations…They tried to grab Tshombe in his palace, but he got away before they could seize him.…

There I was, in an upstairs window, watching as tracer bullets pass back and forth in front of me. I watched the spectacle through most of the early morning. The next morning, after the U.N. Indian troop stormed the Post Office, I came out of the apartment. It was a little risky, because I’m white and I was in civilian clothes…

I remember the apartment house that I was in had… large columns that supported the upper floors. A number of whites had collected sheltering behind the columns. I don’t know who they were. A couple may have been mercenaries….But nobody had guns that I could see. Anyway, we were all trying to see what was going on in the Place. …

Then I went to the Consulate General and helped draft reports on what had happened, including my own observations. We had not known the military action was planned, nor did we expect anything so dramatic….

However, there is no question as to what was going on in terms of the dynamics within the U.N. The Indians and the Africans, the so-called Bandung group, the Ghanaians, the radical Africans and Asians, had made a deal with us….And that was that we would enforce the unity of the Congo, against the wishes of our colonialist allies, in return for their support in keeping the U.N. presence strong in the country.

The U.N. was seen by us as keeping the Russians and the Egyptians out… Whether [the deal] was implicit or explicit, I don’t know. I know of no documentary evidence, but…I reckon that an informal deal was struck between the Kennedy administration and [Kwame] Nkrumah [leader of Ghana] and [Jawaharlal] Nehru [leader of India].

“We lay on the floor and hoped the random firing would not penetrate the sides of the building”

That day, there were a couple of things that happened. One, the African population began hunting Ba-Lubas. Ba-Lubas are from Kasai and from Northern Katanga. They were not viewed favorably by tribesmen from southern Katanga who provided the bulk of support for Tshombe’s separatist movement. On the contrary, the Ba-Lubas strongly supported the central government. The antagonism stems, at least in part, from the large number of Ba-Lubas that enjoyed well-paid jobs, especially with the copper company.

Groups of young Katangans sought them out, beat them and often killed them. I was walking down the main street of Elisabethville that day when suddenly I saw a man peddling like mad on a bicycle, with a gang of youths chasing him on foot.

Finally, one guy caught up to him. This gent had a bicycle chain attached to a stick that he used like a whip. It wrapped around the unfortunate’s neck. The chaser then yanked the man backwards off the bicycle. He landed with a sickening thud. The chain had cut into his neck and was strangling him. The gang of assailants then proceeded to kick him to death. The Ba-Luba pogrom caused the tribe’s local population to move into a camp under the protection of the U.N.

Early in the afternoon I left the consulate with a colleague named Tom Cassilly, who was in Elisabethville on TDY [temporary duty], to get the wife of the CIA communicator, Will Poole. We were trying to concentrate the Americans at the consulate and in houses where they would be more accessible, less isolated and in areas away from points of potential conflict.

We picked up “Dottie” Poole in the consulate Jeep and were bringing her back to the consulate building, when suddenly we ran into Katangan troops preparing an attack on the U.N. headquarters. When they saw our Jeep, they began shooting at us. They mistook it for a U.N. vehicle….

Anyway, we pulled into a driveway, jumped out of the car, and got into a drainage ditch. When the shooting died down, we went to a neighboring house and knocked on the door. A young Belgian couple opened the door and let us in. We all took shelter in their cave, in the back of the house as the rate of firing increased. The Katangans soon surrounded the house.

They then banged on the door. When the owner opened up, he was told politely that they wanted us to come out of the house. The man insisted that we were not from the U.N. We refused to leave the questionable safety of the house.

Surprisingly, they did not force the issue or attempt to enter the house. Instead, they asked the Belgian next door, “Do you think those are U.N. people?” He assured them that we must be local civilians as our Jeep’s license plates were ordinary Congolese private plates. This seemed to satisfy them, and they went away.

We stayed in the Belgian’s cave for the best part of the afternoon. Just before dusk, we decided to make a run for it. I told Cassilly to take Mrs. Poole and head up the street where I could shelter behind some buildings. They shot at us as we were leaving, but the bullets were high above the top of the Jeep. Cassilly and Mrs. Poole soon joined me and we returned to her house rather than attempt to cross the town to the consulate.

In her apartment, we had no communications. We simply lay on the floor and hoped the random firing would not penetrate the sides of the building. In the middle of the night, a U.N. convoy suddenly pulled up in front of the house, complete with armored cars. When we had gone missing, the people in the consulate had organized a search party for us fearing that we had been taken prisoner by the Katangans. Fortunately, the convoy was able to escort us to the consulate….

“The U.N. went bananas”

I was in the U.N. headquarters every day during the fighting with advice and information crossing lines at some considerable risk. Advising on military operations and on the attitude of the population. I gave firsthand accounts of Katangan military dispositions and on their reaction to the fighting.

We had our Consulate General situated next to Tshombe’s palace. I was floating around town, talking to people, moving between the lines. I found a relatively lightly covered back road leading into the U.N. camp. The Gurkhas [Nepalese and Indian soldiers] would often provide covering fire while I scooted into the camp. It was an incredible situation, and it went on for some two weeks.

Finally, a cease-fire was declared. The U.N. had seriously miscalculated Katangan resolve and mercenary abilities. Indeed, French mercenaries had engineered the capture of Jadotville without firing a shot. They were held as hostage. This had much to do with the acceptance of a hasty cease-fire and the conditions of the cease-fire. A period of uneasy peace followed for some three months. As time passed, things got more and more tense.

Early in December, the consulate organized a large reception. A new consul had been appointed. His name was Hoffacker. He took Bill Canup’s place….The reception in November was held to honor a visit to Elisabethville by Senator Thomas Dodd [D-Connecticut, pictured at left] — father of Senator Chris Dodd.

Senator Dodd was in Tshombe’s hip pocket. He supported Katangan independence and followed a line pushed by the well-financed Katanga lobbying operation in Washington. Hoffacker invited both Katangans and U.N. people to the reception. In his naive way, he thought understanding could be furthered by putting the two immediate protagonists together.

Since these U.N. people on the spot were no more than an instrument, they were unable to change policy made by their betters in Washington, New York, New Delhi or Accra. Only limited tactical decision was made in Elisabethville. Unaware of this reality, poor Hoffacker held an attempted love-in….

After the reception, a smaller dinner was to be held at the local Mobil Oil man’s house. Senator Dodd (pictured) was to be guest of honor….The two U.N. people arrived at the Mobil Oil man’s house at about nine in the evening without guards. Unfortunately, the house was just up the street from the Katangan general’s home, which was surrounded by a Katangan paracommandos protection unit. The paracommandos saw the U.N. car arrive and the two representatives go in the house. Perhaps, suspecting a plot or a seizing opportunity, they surrounded the house, went inside, and dragged [U.N. delegates] Urquhart and George Ivan Smith out, taking them prisoners. A Belgian banker tried to intervene, and was beaten for his trouble.

Just as they were forcing these two U.N. people into the back of a truck, the motorcade, with Tshombe’s motorcycle outriders and a presidential limousine, arrived with Senator Dodd and Hoffacker. Rapidly sizing up the situation, Hoffacker jumped from the car.

With the help of the Katangan motorcycle escort, he got George Ivan Smith away from the paracommandos. Brian Urquhart, however, was already inside the truck. Hoffacker either did not know he was there or could not get at him. In any case, he got Ivan Smith into the car with Dodd and hurriedly left the scene before the paracommandos could react….Poor Urquhart was left to the tender mercies of the paracommandos.

The U.N. went bananas. The U.N. troops were ready to go. Brian was now being held in an army camp outside town. Finally they got Urquhart released, but only after the personal intervention of the most intransigent of Tshombe’s ministers, Gadfoid Manungo.

“I saw that it was a penis and testicles, stuck on the end of this stick”

Pressures within the U.N. in New York had brought about a cease-fire. However, nothing had been solved, aside from the U.N. forces having consolidated their positions within Elisabethville. However, they still didn’t control the town completely; they controlled the European center of the town as well as strategic points around the town….

[The Katangans] still held parts of the city and, of course, the rest of South Katanga. The U.N. held the center of the town and a few positions around the city. These included: the airport, their own headquarters on the northern fringes of the city and an area east of the city where the Ba-Luba people had gathered in a refugee camp….

All sorts of things, unfortunately, were taking place within this refugee camp. For instance, one day, when I was in the camp with some Swedish soldiers who were there administering and guarding the camp, a group of Ba-Lubas came down the muddy street, chanting and dancing. There was a man leading them, waving a stick much like a drum major. I noticed at a distance that there was something on the end of the stick.

As they drew abreast of us, I saw that it was a penis and testicles, stuck on the end of this stick; a little bit like children skewer a hot dog to the end of a stick to roast it. One of the Swedish soldiers next to me got sick to his stomach when he saw what the Ba-Luba was waving so joyously.

Apparently the Ba-Lubas had caught someone, from an opposing tribe, killed him and castrated him. Evidently, some terrible things were going on. There was even talk of cannibalism. The social tensions under which people were living were so harsh that some people lost usually observed social and moral restraints.

[The U.S. consulate was] looked on as the enemy. We were supporting the central government and the U.N. in their fight against Katanga. The American government supplied the essential element in terms of support for the U.N. force in the Congo. It couldn’t have existed without American support and encouragement…

There had been demonstrations against the consulate, which was, by this time, guarded by Gurkha soldiers… At the same time that we were viewed as an enemy, we were also viewed as an entity that could be influenced and could be decisive. If they could bring around American opinion to be sympathetic to Katangan separatism or opposed to U.N. armed intervention in the Congo, then the U.N. could lose vital support. Secession would succeed if the Katangans could neutralize the U.N. force. The central government — on its own — was incapable of bringing Katanga to heel.

[Tshombe] was in control….Belgian, and British mining and railway interests were supporting Tshombe. However,…Tshombe had a genuine African constituency in South Katanga. Tribalism was strong, and there was a natural constituency for separatism.

The Congo, as it was put together by King Leopold, was an artificial entity…It had no relationship to anything African. It cut across tribal, ethnic, and natural geographic lines. Few of the people in Africa had any real identity with the Congo as a nation. They didn’t have any feeling of nationhood…The tribes in South Katanga felt that, since the riches were in their territory, they should benefit primarily from these riches. They shouldn’t have to share them with others in this very large country, which produced precious little else at this time….

At the same time, we were advising the U.N. on military and political affairs. They were isolated without much reliable intelligence. I gave them briefings every day to the U.N. leaders on what was going on in town, the mood of the Katangans, and their military dispositions. Members of the Swedish contingent had cultivated some contacts among the local Belgian population. This seemed to be the extent of their sources of information. Given our greater mobility and wider range of contacts we were able to brief and advise the U.N. leadership. At the same time, we reported to Washington and to Leopoldville what was going on, on both the U.N. and on the Katangan side.

It was obvious in November-December that anything could set off another bout of fighting. The U.N. was building up its forces….Something sparked it, and I don’t remember what. It seems to me that it was a little exchange of fire between the Katangans and the U.N. on one of the perimeters….

“Suddenly, the Fouga appeared, dove towards us and dropped a small bomb”

The fighting broke out in mid-December. It went on for about two weeks. The outcome was an assertion of U.N. control over the whole of the center of Elisabethville. They extended their perimeters out to the suburbs of town…The Ethiopians were involved in this, the Swedes, the Irish, and the Indians. The Ethiopians were accused of some atrocities, killing civilians. They killed some Belgians…And as far as I could tell, it was true.

What was more troubling was that a lot of Africans were also being hurt, killed, displaced, and not too much notice was being taken of that. Anyway, the fighting was reasonably hard. The opposition wasn’t well organized, but it was there. Mercenaries were involved in all of the most effective action taken against the U.N.

The Katangans had two or three small jet trainers called “Fougas”. They carried small bombs and a couple of machine guns. The U.N., on the other hand, had no air support…The Fouga took on an incredible psychological and symbolic significance. One day, I was in the U.N. headquarters, and the Irish Army chief of staff, from Ireland, was there….

One of the Fougas bombed and strafed the U.N. headquarters at about noon. The large foreign press corps was assembled for an impromptu press conference with the Irish general…Suddenly, the Fouga appeared, dove towards us and dropped a small bomb. We all jumped for cover. Clearly, there was great fear of Fouga. I’m not quite sure why, because its capabilities were very limited.

The second bout of fighting was again inconclusive, aside from the fact that the U.N. people extended their perimeters and took full control of the center of Elisabethville.

During the fighting, things got really nasty as far as Americans were concerned. The Katangans started threatening Americans. They hadn’t threatened Americans before…American Air Force airplanes at this point were coming into Elisabethville, bringing in supplies and troops to strengthen the [non-American troops]. No longer were they just hired airplanes that were being contracted for by the U.N., and maybe paid for with American money, but these were actual USAF airplanes.

The American support for the whole operation was therefore much more obvious to the average Katangan. It was also equally obvious that America was certainly not taking any sort of neutral role, that we were one of the essential elements in this whole thing. So, naturally, the average Katangan started to be alienated from and angry with America, and threatening of Americans there, even Americans who were sympathetic towards them.

We decided that we had to evacuate the American citizens in Elisabethville, because it was getting too dangerous. Fighting in town continued at a fairly intense level for a couple of weeks. It ended just after Christmas with another inconclusive cease-fire. Western public opinion had again been mobilized to save the Katangan regime….

This was also the time when [second Secretary-General of the U.N.] Dag Hammarskjold lost his life as a result of a crash in Northern Rhodesia, near Ndola. He was coming to Ndola to meet with Tshombe. Presumably, they were to discuss an end to the fight….

“The fighting had resulted in many casualties, especially among the African population”

There was still tension [after the second ceasefire], but the Katangans had gotten a good bloody nose by this time. The whole of the modern center of Elisabethville was now firmly in the hands of the U.N. A lot of it was badly damaged, however, because of the fighting. The fighting had also resulted in many casualties especially among the African population. A few Europeans were hurt or killed but most civilian casualties were Africans.

I think the Katangans were very happy to have this respite. They realized that they weren’t, militarily, a match for the U.N. forces. But they also hadn’t surrendered, and they hadn’t lost much territory aside from the center of their capital. In any case, they weren’t giving up. Mainly as a ploy to buy time, they expressed a willingness to negotiate. This was typical Tshombe…

From a military point of view, the several cease-fires in Katanga were premature and saved the Katangans from much worse defeats…Tension started again to build up some three or four months after the fighting had ended.

Since the U.N. controlled the area, Ba-Lubas from the refugee camps had filtered in occupying many of the large villas in what had been one of the town’s most affluent suburbs. Sensing Katangan weakness, the Ba-Lubas became aggressive. It was dangerous to go into areas they dominated. They assumed that any white civilian was Belgian and sympathetic towards the Katangans.

The Indian brigade became the central strike force of the U.N. command…This was the crack military unit that they really needed to finish the Katangans, if the circumstances, and U.N. politics, allowed. The tenuous situation rocked on inconclusively, with the U.N. sitting in the middle of Elisabethville, for about six months as tension again began to build up. During this period the Katangans organized popular demonstrations against the U.N.

The most notable were demonstrations by women. They taunted and insulted the Indian soldiers. It was an impressive show of discipline as the soldiers tried to maintain dignity without reacting physically to terrible provocation. The Katangans, of course, had the press there waiting to record any U.N. “abuse” of poor defenseless women. Indeed, these Katangan ladies were formidable… The Indians, of course, were biding their time waiting for the right excuse to squash the Katangans and end the comedy.

“American consulate radios were turned off so that the Indian offensive could not be stopped by another weak-kneed cease-fire order coming from New York or Washington”

Ultimately, in June or July, fighting again broke out. This time, the Indians were ready to bring the thing to a conclusion. The Katangans still held the copper-mining centers of Jadotville and Kolwezi… The real economic prize was in Katangan lands.

To end the secession and restore the country’s most valuable economic asset to central government control the U.N. had to take control of these towns and their nearby mines and refineries.

When fighting started, I remember going out with Nirona, the Brigadier, to an area where there were mercenaries and some Katangans on a hillside. A battalion of Gurkhas (pictured) were in the valley below. To get to the Gurkha position a journalist, an Indian armor officer, and I took a captured Jeep down a road, into the area the Gurkhas were in….

When the Katangans saw us they fired mortars at us. With this little diversion the brigade commander gave the order to the Gurkhas to charge up the hill at our Katangan antagonists. The Gurkhas decided on a kukri [machete] charge. They took their kukris out, laid their rifles down, and went up the hill, screaming. The mercenaries and their Katangan friends saw a mass of madmen coming at them with fierce looking knives. Sensibly, they took off.

We watched them as they ran off, got into Jeeps and left in great haste. The Indians then decided to go all the way to Kolwezi…American consulate radios were turned off so that the Indian offensive could not be stopped by another weak-kneed cease-fire order coming from New York or Washington…

And the Indians went for Jadotville. They got very little resistance, but there were some bridges blown up, and they had to get across some small rivers. The U.S. had lent a couple of our amphibious APCs [armored personnel carriers] to get across the rivers. Anyway, the offensive was mounted on Jadotville. I went into Jadotville with the Indians as I was their only trusted guide…There, we searched for anything of interest that might have been left behind as the Katangans beat a hasty retreat towards Kolwezi. We found nothing.

After Jadotville, the Indians continued on the road to Kolwezi. Predictably, however, they were finally stopped by yet another cease-fire order from [UN headquarters in] New York. Orders had arrived by aircraft from Leopoldville and radio contact was quickly restored. Ultimately, the U.N. got into Kolwezi as well.

Tshombe capitulated and the remnants of the Katangan gendarmerie (army) fled into Angola. The U.N. then was in control of South Katanga, and the Katangan secession was over.