The United Nations’ role in the Congo crisis between 1960 and 1964 saw its largest deployment of men and some of its most controversial actions. Until 1960, the Congo had been a colony of Belgian but in 1960, Belgian announced that it was giving the Congo its independence. Belgian gave the Congo just five months to get itself ready for independence despite the fact that it was clearly unprepared for such a task.

The independent Congo Republic was declared on June 30th, 1960. Its Prime Minister was Patrice Lumumba and its president was Joseph Kasavubu. In the first week of July, the army mutinied against the remaining white officers that lead the Congolese army and numerous attacks took place against Europeans in general.

The mutiny immediately took away any authority the civilian government had. It also created a state of near panic within the Congo as 100,000 Belgians lived there primarily in or near the capital Leopoldville. In response to the crisis, the Belgian government sent Belgian paratroopers to protect Belgian citizens in the Congo. This was an illegal act as the Congo was an independent nation and free from Belgian rule. The government of the Congo had not invited the troops in.

Such problems were made worse when the mineral-rich area of Katanga in southern Congo was declared independent by Moise Tshombe who lead the people in Katanga.

Katanga produced copper, 60% of the world’s uranium and 80% of the world’s industrial diamonds. Tshombe was backed by the European companies that worked in Katanga as they hoped to take a cut from the considerable profits that could be made from mining such resources. Katanga had the potential to make Congo one of the more wealthy African states. Without it, the new nation would remain poor.

With such chaos ensuing, Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for help. The Security Council created an army to restore law and order to the Congo. It numbered nearly 10,000 troops. It was given four tasks:

Restore law and order and maintain it. Stop other nations from getting involved with the crisis. Assist in building the nation’s economy Restore political stability.

The United Nations force was only allowed to use force as a means of self-defence and it was not allowed to take sides between the government in Leopoldville and the government of Tshombe in Elizabethville.

Almost immediately, things went wrong for the United Nations force. Lumumba asked the United Nations to use the military force to crash the power of Tshombe in Katanga. Dag Hammerskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, refused permission for this. Lumumba immediately accused the United Nations of siding with Tshombe because of Katanga’s rich mineral reserves. He also accused the United Nations of siding with the rich European companies that mined the region.

Lumumba’s anger at the United Nations failure to act against Katanga, lead to him asking the USSR for help. The Russians provided Lumumba’s government with military equipment that gave him the opportunity to launch an attack on Katanga. This attack failed and President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba and appointed the chief of the Congo’s army – Colonel Mobutu – as the new Prime Minister. Lumumba set up a rival government in Stanleyville in the east of the country. However, his murder by mercenaries removed him from the problem. Through all of this the United Nations could do nothing as it had agreed not to take sides and only to fire in self-defence.

For the first six months of 1961, they were four groups that claimed to lead the Congo:

1) Mobuto’s government based in Leopoldville

2) Lumumba’s supporters based in Stanleyville

3) Tshombe’s ‘government’ in Elizabethville, Katanga and

4) A breakaway ‘government’ in Kasai province lead by King Albert Kalonji – though it was a self-appointed title!

Lumumba and Kalonji’s groups both had weapons off of the Russians and the country by the summer of 1961 seemed to be on the verge of implosion. A vicious civil war seemed a real possibility.

The United Nations up to this point had not done a great deal to bring stability to the new nation. In response to the crisis, the Security Council gave permission for the United Nations army based there to use force to prevent a civil war occurring. This was not needed as in August 1961, three of the four parts met to form a new parliament in Leopoldville that was to be lead by Cyrille Adoula. The only group that was not part of this was Tshombe’s Katanga.

Adoula asked the United Nations to provide military support for an attack on Katanga as he made it his first task to remove Tshombe, as he believed that while Tshombe was effectively in charge of Katanga, the Congo would never have peace. In August 1961, 5,000 United Nations troops launched an attack on Katanga. Though they captured key points in the province, they did not get Tshombe as he had fled to Rhodesia.

The United Nations itself was thrown into some chaos when Dag Hammerskjöld flew to Rhodesia to see Tshombe. However, the United Nations Secretary-General was killed during this trip when his plane crashed. He was replaced by U Thant who agreed to another attack by United Nations troops on Katanga in December 1961. As a result, Tshombe agreed to meet Adoula to discuss issues. The talks lasted for nearly a year and achieved very little. In late 1962, the United Nations force in the Congo attacked Katanga again. This lead to Tshombe fleeing the Congo and In January 1963, Katanga was re-united with the rest of the Congo.

Was the work of the United Nations in this crisis a success?

Many believed that it had fulfilled its four objectives. The country had not descended into civil war; Russia had been kept out of a sensitive area in Africa; the Congo was kept as a whole by the end of 1963 and political stability had been achieved. Also the United Nations had taken responsibility for the humanitarian programme needed in the Congo. Famine and epidemics had been avoided by the use of United Nations sponsored food and medical programmes.

However, not every nation was pleased by what the United Nations had done. Russia, France and Belgium refused to pay their part of the $400 million that was needed to pay for the cost of the Congo operation. This nearly pushed the United Nations to bankruptcy.

Those nations that had supported the United Nations were also critical of some parts of what the United Nations did. The role of Dag Hammerskjöld was criticised as it was felt that he had over-reached his authority regarding what the United Nations could do and what it could not. Supporters were also wary of the fact that the United Nations had taken sides in an effort to bring peace to the Congo.