I was starting to wonder, there.
There were absolutely no flights to Frankfurt. So in the end I caught one to Hanover, a few hundred km further north. Caught the last southbound train and arrived in Fulda just before midnight, in time to stand shivering in the falling snow, a long way from the equator. I didn't much care, honestly. I was neither in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nor Charles DeGaulle Airport either.
Speaking of which, I have a tentative idea on why the Congo got so very screwed up. These are from a conversation with Carlos, who is very good at helping me clarify my own thoughts.
Using an AIDS metaphor on African history is probably kind of tasteless. But I'm going to try it anyway. Here goes: the Belgians left their colony without any immune system whatsoever, and Mobutu was an opportunistic infection.
What "immune system"? Well, here's an odd thing about the Belgians: they were good-to-excellent at building stuff. Roads, railroads, mines, plantations, planned towns, nice cities full of fine-looking Art Deco buildings and wide boulevards... you name it. Hell, they even built the foundations of industrialization: hydroelectric plants, a basic textile industry. During the Congo's brief golden age -- roughly the 15 years from the end of WWII to independence -- a tourist could travel all over the country on comfortable trains and steamboats, staying in small but pleasant towns with modern hotels, electricity, good food, and at least a telegraph connection to the world.
So, they were good at building things. But they utterly and totally sucked at building institutions.
Here are some of the things the Congo lacked before independence:
- A free press. Newspapers, magazines and radio stayed under the government's control at all times.
- A colonial legislature, even for the white colonists.
- An independent judiciary.
- Any tradition of executive responsibility or accountability. Colonial governors were appointed from Brussels, and answered only to Brussels.
- Any tradition of free and fair elections. Congo had no elections at all until 1957, when there were municipal elections. The next election, in 1959, was boycotted by so many parties it had to be declared invalid.
- Political parties. (Not allowed until that 1957 election.)
- Unions, except for whites.
- Black university graduates. There were fewer than thirty in the whole country.
- A civil service. Most civil servants were sent from Belgium. Relatively few were recruited from the colony's own whites, and none above the level of postman or clerk were black.)
In short, Congo lacked pretty much all the institutions that can serve as a check on executive power. It also lacked the institutions that keep the executive safe from usurpation, most notably by the military.
Other African colonies shared these deficiencies, to be sure. But few were as grotesquely unprepared as the Congo. The British colonies often had an independent-ish judiciary some modicum of press freedom and, if there were white settlers, some sort of colonial legislature. The French allowed blacks to attend university, form unions, and move upwards in the civil service. Basically only the Belgian and Portuguese refused to build the institutions of civil society in their colonies. Unsurprisingly, the Belgian and Portuguese colonies have had the most miserable post-colonial histories.
I'm viewing these institutions, collectively, as something like an immune system. And if you don't have an immune system, you're going to catch something bad. The details may vary, but it won't be good.
In the case of the Congo, what they caught was Mobutu. Mobutu was pretty bad -- a brutal, utterly selfish, spectacularly corrupt dictator who ruled for nearly forty years. On the other hand, I'm not sure Mobutu was the worst possible outcome. He did give the country thirty years of relative peace and calm. Even as Congo's economy was nosediving, Congolese were still better off than (for instance) the Angolans with their endless war. And Mobutu had no interest in genocide or mass slaughter. Yeah, that's setting the bar pretty low, but on the other hand it's not hard to imagine an alternate Mobutu with the tastes and habits of, say, Idi Amin. On a canvas as large as the Congo, that could have gotten very bad indeed.
Looking at the possible outcomes in 1960, Mobutu, or someone like him, seems pretty likely. Anyone who could get control of the military would end up running the country, or most of it. That's because (1) the first independence government would be fractious, fragile, and inclined to misrule, for the reasons given above, and (2) once the civilians proved their incompetence and willfullness, there was nothing to stop a coup by the military. In the event, Lumumba appointed Mobutu Minister of Defence; Mobutu turned out to be brave, charismatic, and cunning, and quickly turned the military into his personal fiefdom; when Lumumba made some missteps, Mobutu overthrew him. I suspect this was a likely outcome. Though obviously not an inevitable one; a less competent or charismatic Defense Minister might not have been able to pull off a coup, leaving some other power center to take down Lumumba. On the other hand, sooner or later the military would likely get drawn in. And then things would likely unfold rather as they did.
Here's a factoid about African history: in large, multi-ethnic countries like Congo, Nigeria or Kenya, the strongest leaders have tended to come disproportionately from minor tribes. That goes double if the leaders are military men. That's partly because representatives of the larger tribes are often viewed askance, but it's also because the smaller tribes tend to be the most enthusiastic about centralization and strong national governments. After all, they'll never to be able to form a state of their own.
Mobutu fit this perfectly. Given that Congo's early parties formed mostly along ethnic lines, the position of Minister of Defense would almost have to go to an officer from a small tribe. So, again, Mobutu looks like a fairly high-probability outcome.
-- So, are we talking vast forces of historico-social predestination here? Well, yes and no. The character and abilities of the individual leader do make a difference. I don't think it was inevitable, or even all that likely, that Mobutu would turn out to be so very good at gaming the international political and financial systems. But, yeah, someone more or less like Mobutu seems, in retrospect, pretty likely. And while we can all tut-tut over the brutal and utterly conscienceless kleptocrat, no character, however strong to begin with, is likely to remain undeformed after just a few years of absolute power.
Okay, past midnight here. Does anyone else find this sort of speculation interesting?