In 1483, when Diogo Cão sailed into the mouth of the Congo River, he discovered a people who did not see white sailors from Portugal but ships rising from the depths of the ocean, carrying with them vumbi, the ghosts of their ancestors, since tradition dictated that one’s skin paled to the colour of chalk when departing from this life into the bowels of the Earth.
Of course, for the Kingdom of the Kongo, Diogo Cão had discovered nothing, because they had been there all along. What they could not foresee was the destruction the men they took to be the ghosts of their ancestors would impose on their homeland. Chinua Achibe, the great Nigerian writer, lamented that the centre of a great kingdom would, some 400 years later, be described by a young European writer as the Heart of Darkness.
Whilst Diogo Cão and his sailors were journeying down the West African coast, Moise Tshombe’s ancestors, who lived much further inland and much further south, were stocking fish in a collection of enormous dams and dikes in the Upemba Depression, in much the same way they had every summer since the 5th Century AD. The Luba tribe also benefited from rich copper reserves in the province, which became known as Katanga. And so, for almost half a millennium, the region prospered.
In 1870, this changed forever. Swahili-Arabs, armed with guns, began to encroach from the North. Its kingdom weakened by infighting, the Luba resorted to slave-trading on a massive scale. Unlike the dams or the copper before them, the reserve of humans began to wane, so the Luba began to enslave and sell their own. By the time the kingdom fell, the Luba, Katanga and the Congo River had all been claimed as the personal property of a King by the name of Leopold the Second.
Moise Tshombe was born in 1919, after the passing of King Leopold and the full manifestation of horror his Congo Free State inflicted. Congo remained under the rule of the Belgians. Colonialism was good to Tshombe’s family. His father was a successful businessman and Tshombe himself was educated at an American missionary school. In the 1950s he established the CONAKAT party, which asserted that the natural wealth of Katanga should exclusively benefit ‘authentic’ ethnic Katangese.
In the spring of 1960, Congo gained independence from Belgium. Tshombe became president of the Katanga province, and Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Congo. Lumumba was young, incredibly intelligent, a passionate orator and had long campaigned for an independent Congo, serving time in prison as a result. In a country so often tainted by outside political influence, Lumumba was refreshingly neutral. He was an avowed Pan-Africanist, and said he found communism and colonialism to be ‘equally deplorable’.
In July 1960, the army mutinied and racially aggravated violence broke out on the streets of Leopoldville. Belgium sent troops to protect its former colony’s white citizens. On 11th July, Moise Tshombe seized his opportunity and officially formed an independent State of Katanga, inviting back Belgian troops and the colonial Union Minière mining company for support.
From here the situation deteriorated rapidly. The United Nations sent in a peacekeeping force, but refused to deploy them against the Katangese. The United States also refused to involve themselves. In desperation, Lumumba turned to his last available option. The Soviet Union promptly sent in advisors and military support. This decision alarmed the West, not least because of the abundance of uranium in the Congo, and split the young Congolese government, with Lumumba’s President, Joseph Kasavubu, leading an opposing faction. In September Colonel Joseph-Desire Mobutu led a military coup d’etat and arrested Lumumba, who then vanished off the face of the earth for five months.
On 13th February 1961, Katangese Radio announced that Lumumba had been killed by angry villagers after escaping from the prison farm where he was being held. The reality, though still hazy today, was quite different.
Lumumba was flown to Katanga in January of 1961, where he was tortured and visited by various Katangese officials, including Tshombe. On 17th January he was executed by firing squad. Later that week, panicked by rumours that Lumumba’s burial had been observed, police exhumed his body, cut it up with a hacksaw and dissolved it in a vat of sulphuric acid.
Mystery surrounds the precise details of Patrice Lumumba’s death to this day. It is almost certain that his execution was conducted under Belgian supervision, but evidence also shows that both the CIA and British Secret Service also had strong vested interests in Lumumba’s elimination.
The death of Lumumba did not secure Katanga’s future. Throughout 1961 and 1962, the United Nations urged that Belgian forces withdraw from Katanga. On 18th September 1961, en-route to ceasefire negotiations, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld died when his plane crashed in Northern Rhodesia. No one has ever been able to rule out the possibility that the plane was shot down, with the Union Minière the most likely suspects.
Hammarskjöld’s successor, U Thant, set his sights on eradicating the Katangese resistance, and 30th December 1962, his homeland overrun, Moise Thsombe fled south to Rhodesia. The Katangese Seccession was over.
Little over a year and a half later, Tshombe returned to Congo to serve as its Prime Minister. He was ousted after a year by none other than Joesph Kasavubu. In 1965, Mobutu staged another successful coup and Tshombe was forced to flee the country again. He would never return, dying in 1969. He is buried in Belgium, the country which for so long assisted him in his dream of an independent State of Katanga.
Katanga remains one of the most richly naturally-resourced areas of the world, but has been ravaged by conflict for years. Known as Shaba during the period when Congo was called Zaire, it was split into four separate districts in 2015.