The Consul was having a lunch party to honor a visiting Colonel of the Armée Nationale Congolaise. We gathered at his home overlooking a grassy sward and Lake Kivu beyond. The Vice-Consul and I were in attendance as members of the Consulate family. The guests were Kivu government officials.
I have only a hazy memory of this event – except for something that was said that stuck in my mind. These posts have been crafted from letters I wrote at the time of the happenings, but there seems to have been no letter about this luncheon.
Before parting, the Consul asked the Colonel to say a few words. He was a man in his early thirties, intelligent, but slight, his tunic belted in a way that made him seem almost fragile. He commented briefly about the challenges facing the Congo as it struggled to stabilize itself as an independent country. What stuck in my mind was this comment about himself and our Congolese guests, “Nous sommes une génération sacrificiée.”
“We are a sacrificed generation.” I thought: How fantastic! Here’s a Congolese who understands his role in building the Congolese nation. Other Congolese officials I had observed at this sort of lunch – the Consul held them regularly – regarded the United States understandably as a treasure chest from which they tried to extract bounty. After all, why were we there if not to help them with things, particularly vehicles?
But here was a Congolese Colonel who recognized that his generation was called upon to give more than they got – although receiving nationhood after the experience of Belgian colonialism, which did little to improve the lot of the Congolese, was quite an impressive gift. I wondered if this was a message he felt obligated to repeat over and over to fellow Congolese.
We broke up. We returned to our everyday lives, me to Bukavu’s American Cultural Center, and, although I did not forget his phrase, the moment’s magic dissipated.
The Congolese Colonel was Joseph Mobutu, chief of staff of the Congolese army, but still several years away from taking control of the country.
Did he mean what he said that day? I think he did.
One who had already been sacrificed was Patrice Lumumba, the independent Congo’s first prime minister. However, I’m confident that he was not who Mobutu had in mind that day. Lumumba’s assassination, in which American and Belgian policymakers were complicit, sacrificed hopes of a workable, if turbulent, Congolese democracy. The West was not ready to have an upstart Congolese politician calling the shots in the Congo. American policy was obsessed with preventing Communism‘s acquiring a foothold in Central Africa. Since this was not Lumumba’s goal, he was inconvenient. Lumumba taught Mobutu that he had to play ball with the West, especially with the Americans who basically ran the Congo for several years.
Some of us kept hoping that a George Washington figure would emerge for the Congo. But that was never going to happen. Americans virtually universally revered Washington; he possessed a kind of star-power presence and enjoyed unquestioned primacy throughout the country. He had a somewhat educated citizenry and a model of how to rule. Mobutu had not proven himself to his people. Circumstances forced him to be the Americans’ guy. His people were neither united nor educated, his country was much vaster than the thirteen colonies, and the only model he had was African chieftaincy.
Mobutu and Lumumba were both tragic figures, though of very different kinds. [Some may feel this a too generous assessment of Mobutu.] His greater tragedy was that he impoverished his country. He simply did not know what the sacrifices were going to be that afternoon when he told us, ”Nous sommes une génération sacrificiée.”
Next post: Fred gets a taste of the Equateur, the region of which Coquilhatville is the hub.