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Work Shop — Congolese History between the Local and the Global

Wednesday February 2 2011

Seminar at the University of Birmingham (Centre of West African Studies, Arts Building, 2nd floor, Danford Room, 4.45-6.30pm)

‘Congolese History Between the Local and the Global:  Challenging National Frameworks in Colonial and Post-Colonial History.’

Convenor: Dr K. Skinner

Dr Larmer, Miles, lecturer at the U. of Sheffield (UK)

‘Rethinking local agency in the Katangese secession:

The Role of the Katangese gendarmes’

This paper challenges the commonly held view that the secession of Katanga from newly independent Congo (Kinshasa) in July 1960 should be understood simply or primarily as an externally imposed action by the former Belgian colonists, their military officers and multi-national mining corporations, to undermine the radical nationalism of the central government of Patrice Lumumba (De Witte, 2001). Whilst in no way downplaying the crimes of these forces in undermining independent Africa, such arguments, it is argued, downplay the historical legacy of Katangese autonomy, rooted in the specific economic and social trajectory of Haut-Katanga, and the political agency of the Katangese political leadership. The close familial links between these leaders and Lunda royalty found expression in the sustained support for Katangese secession, long after the assassination of Lumumba and the consequent reduction in Belgian support for the secessionist movement. For this ethno-regional leadership, the Congo’s state borders were of less relevance than social and cultural ties to wider Lunda society in Angola and Northern Rhodesia/Zambia, as well as economic ties to the Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt. This provided the basis of an alternative vision of ‘independence’ of greater salience to the actors involved than the weak and ‘distant’ Congolese state and its capital and government in Leopoldville. Whilst this leadership is traditionally presented in two (possibly contradictory ways) as the puppets of western interests and as tribal dogmatists, this paper will suggest this leadership in fact displayed considerable difference, flexibility and agency in seeking to defend their vision of Katangese autonomy/independence.

My research explores these issues through a study of the Katangese gendarmes, the raw recruits of the hastily assembled army of the newly declared Katangese state. Whilst existing literature focuses on the white mercenary leadership of these armed forces, the rank-and-file soldiers were recruited by the Lunda King, the Mwant Yav. They constituted a powerful military force which successfully defended the Katangese state against the weak Congolese  National Army and the forces of the United Nations. Later, after Moise Tshombe took over the political leadership of the Congo in 1964, they were the ground troops utilised in the suppression of the Lumumbist forces in Stanleyville. However, after the ousting of Tshombe in 1965, the gendarmes and their political leadership maintained their challenge to the Congolese state, now under the control of Mobutu, across the post-colonial border in Lunda areas of Portuguese-controlled Angola. In subsequent decades, the gendarmes played an important role in military conflicts within and across the borders of Congo/Zaire, Angola and Zambia. The paper argues that the sustained military and political support for ideas of Katangese independence or autonomy over the following forty years was primarily based not on successive forms of external support, but on a continuing aspiration to a statehood which was more powerful in being imagined across official but barely visible borders and because it had not been underminded by the depressing realities of post-colonial statehood.

Roes, Aldwin, doctoral researcher, U. of Sheffield (UK)


‘The making of the Congolese colonial economy,

1885-1914: some reflections on the power and pitfalls of state-centred narratives.’


I will discuss why, on the one hand, a study of state action is essential for understanding the development of the colonial economy, and – on the other- the limitations of the prevalent state-centred approaches in explaining some of the more interesting features of that economy. I don’t forward an alternative master narrative to the modernisation or dependency/dual economy perspectives, but will largely limit myself to elaborating on two points: (1) the relative weakness of the conquering  state, and its consequences in terms of economic policy, and (2) the fact  that the emerging colonial economy was a co-production between European and  African peoples and social structures – the latter played a more important  role in the making of the colonial economy than is commonly appreciated. I propose that what is most needed to further our understanding of the colonial economy is a shift in focus towards power relations and economic decision making at the local level, though firmly embedded in its national and transnational contexts.

Loffman, Reuben, doctoral researcher at the U. of Keel (UK)

‘The politics of suicide’: political tribalism and the end of Belgian rule in Kongolo, Katanga, 1957 – 1960

Historians are just beginning to examine decolonisation in Congo–Kinshasa. However, political scientists have traditionally dominated this field (Young, 1965). Although these scholars have shed much light onto the turbulent events in Congo during the early 1960s, historical insights also have much to contribute towards our understanding of them. Accordingly, this paper draws on John Lonsdale’s work on the Mau Mau in Kenya (Lonsdale, 1992). It argues that Lonsdale’s definition of political tribalism, in which power ‘flows down from high political intrigue,’ explains much of the post–independence violence in Congo. Lonsdale argued that groups could use the discourse of tribalism either to prevent their mutual exclusion from power or win patronage. This paper analyses a territory in Northern Katanga, called ‘Kongolo,’ and suggests that the two major ethnic groups there each mobilised due to one of the reasons Lonsdale argued were indicative of political tribalism. The Luba–Katanga in the South of Kongolo unified in order to found their own state and so avoid being excluded from power under a newly independent Katangan regime that many felt was populated with Belgian sympathisers. Alternatively, the Hemba mobilised to maintain their access to mission resources. Thereafter, a significant number of Luba–Katanga viewed the Hemba as colonial–collaborators and began to attack them. The various Hemba sub–groups became even closer once Luba–Katanga guerrillas started to assault their villages.


About Congo Research Network

The Congo Research Network (CRN) is a community of researchers working on DR Congo and its diaspora across the Humanities


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