In 1908, the government of Belgium seized control of the Congo Free State from King Leopold II for the little problem of allowing policies that killed 10 million people. Now renamed the Belgian Congo, things instantly got better and everything was super a-okay forever after. Wait, that’s not right. In truth, things didn’t change all that much. I mean sure, the Belgian government did halt the practice of murdering people for not harvesting enough rubber, but otherwise they continued treating the people living in the region like complete shit. Fun fact, all of the Belgian administrators who had overseen the atrocities were left in place. That’s right, not only were they never prosecuted for the terrible things they did, they were also allowed to keep their jobs. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
Now one thing that remained unchanged once things got renamed the Belgian Congo was the idea that the region existed solely for the purpose of supplying money to Belgium. The entire territory was opened to private business interests who diversified the economy away from just rubber to also include the mining of copper and other minerals. The profits from such ventures were all pretty much sent back to Belgium, though some was retained to build railroads, you know, to help export the region’s resources faster. To further diversify the economy, wide swaths of land were seized by Belgian investors to create giant plantations to grow agricultural goods for export. Local farmers were also required to grow certain cash crops, you know, in addition to the food they needed to survive. To get labor for all of these enterprises, the Belgian companies paid the locals wages for their work, which though low, provided a better standard of living than what most could expect in their impoverished villages. However, to keep these wages from being too high, the Belgians also brought in a large amount of migrant labor from the surrounding countries.
Being a rather small country, Belgium had to be creative in how it maintained control of its colony. Since just straight up murdering everybody was apparently out, the Belgians instead went with a divide and conquer strategy. The demand for workers scattered tribes from their traditional homelands to more urban areas, diluting tribal power. Belgian authorities also played up and encouraged existing tribal rivalries, ensuring that they would never have to face a unified resistance. The small rebellions that did pop up were quickly put down by the Force Publique. The locals were denied education and a political voice, and were treated like second hand citizens even though they out numbered the Belgians in the territory by a ratio of 130 to 1. This went on for 52 years.
Following World War II, the United States began putting a lot of pressure on its European allies to allow more democracy in their colonies. Though the European powers resisted such ideas, their countries were in ruins, the Americans had all the money, and they were threatening to cut off aid to any countries that didn’t comply. Giving in, Belgium began programs to expand healthcare and education in the Belgian Congo, and even started letting the locals own private property. This led to a small but growing Congolese middle class who began to agitate for independence. Riots began to break out. Facing the possibility of an all out revolt, which the Belgians lacked the resources to fight, and under increasing international pressure, Belgium granted the Belgian Congo its independence in 1960. It was one of nineteen former African colonies granted independence that year.
Things were ever rosy after that. Okay, actually everything went straight to shit. Though the Belgians agreed to leave, they didn’t really do it in a nice way. With the new Congolese government threatening to nationalize the mines in the country, Belgium supported several regions of the country breaking away to form their own countries. The Congolese government turned to the United States for help, but the Americans didn’t seem all that interested, so next they turned to the Soviet Union. While the U.S. was down with self-rule in Africa, they most definitely were not down with it if it involved communism. Within a few months, a military coup saw the removal of the so-called communist sympathizers from the Congolese government and the murder of their leader. As a result, the remaining pro-communist officials formed their own government.
The civil war, which was pretty much just a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasted for the next five years. By the time what became known as the Congo Crisis came to an end, the country was firmly under the control of a dictator named Joseph Mobutu, a man mostly notable for his love of leopard print hats and his hatred of communism. The newly renamed country of Zaire quickly became a hot bed for corruption, cronyism, economic mismanagement, and human rights abuses. Ironically, one of Mobutu’s first moves was to nationalize the country’s mines. Despite this, Mobutu received generous support from the United States, which at the time had an official policy of supporting any nut job dictator who was willing to denounce communism. So you know, yea America.