by Agustín Velloso
There is only one top imperialist: the United States. But within the imperial orbit there are greater and lesser national players, who act as “handlers” to individuals that are useful to the imperial project. Joseph Mobutu was one such individual. So was Moise Tshombe, who sometimes passed through Spain’s hands during the bloody contest for control of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Spain's support isn't for Tshombe and Mobutu in the main, but for US imperialism, which finally decides to bet on Mobutu amongst the contenders for power in the DRC.”
Tshombe, Spain and the DRC's independence
by Agustín Velloso
This article previously appeared in Pambazuka News.
“The United States was prepared to get rid of Lumumba by all means at its disposal, including assassination.”
Spain's relations with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which began soon after independence in 1960, are marked by their support for Belgian plans against it, backed up by the United States.
Moise Tshombe, executor of those plans, visited Spain several times between 1963 and 1966, but his only official visit as president of Katanga was in 1965. Much less known than his involvement in the murder of Patrice Lumumba, 50 years ago, is his subversive activity during those visits.
The Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation (MAEC), through its directorate general for external cooperation, publishes periodic reports on countries with which Spain maintains relations of various kinds. A publication in April 2008 was dedicated to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
It summarizes “Spanish VIP visits the DRC and vice versa.” The first, in 1965, is presented in concise form: “04/06/1965 Moise Tshombe, Prime Minister.”
There were no more official VIP visits until 1973, and up to 2008 there was no cooperation agreement between the two countries. There were few official exchanges, but what is interesting is that the official visit by Moise Tshombe recorded by the MAEC was not his first one to Spain. Nothing is said of the Spanish stage Tshombe played on in 1963 and during a subsequent stay in 1966.
Struggle for Independence
On 30 June 1960, the DRC declared its independence and Patrice Lumumba was its democratically elected prime minister. Belgium, the colonial power, formally recognized it, but worked against it even before it happened. Immediately after, the United States was prepared to get rid of Lumumba by all means at its disposal, including assassination.
Tshombe declared Katanga's secession on 11 July 1960. He requested military aid from Belgium, and got it. Then Lumumba broke relations with Belgium and sought UN intervention. Belgium's first goal was to ensure its control of Katanga’s natural resources, putting them beyond the reach of the state to gradually undermine the position of Lumumba through other actions, and finally to deprive him of power.
On 6 September 1960, the Spanish daily newspaper ABC questioned the ability of the government of Lumumba to restore national unity (not mentioning the imperialist alliance against him, of course) and highlighted the views of Tshombe (due to this very same alliance). Conflicts multiplied in the country.
Of course, what really worried the ABC, as well as the US and Francisco Franco's Spain, was not Tshombe's attack on the integrity of the DRC and the legality of his government, but that “Soviet intervention must be countered.”
Thus the newspaper presented the US argument as expressed by Nelson Rockefeller, who said: “If the Soviet Union intervenes in the Congo, the United States should also take action, but through the United Nations. If we are for freedom, we must be willing to fight for it, whether it's in Korea, the Congo or Hungary, or anywhere else that's threatened. We must be willing to protect the forces of freedom. I don't think the Soviets have acted in good faith in this case.”
Lumumba was imprisoned by order of General Mobutu, who sent him handcuffed to Katanga, where he was tortured and killed along with a couple of comrades, probably with the personal involvement of Tshombe, on 17 January 1961.
On 23 June 1961, the ABC returned to the fray with its anti-communist material. Gathering information from EFE news agency, the ABC wrote: “Tshombe said he had reached agreement with General Mobutu to form a common front against communism. He added that there was complete military agreement to organize all the Congolese armed forces, including Katanga’s, without help from the United Nations. The United Nations aren't necessary he said, ‘since for the moment we have, in General Mobutu, a man who can be trusted completely.’”
“Lumumba was imprisoned by order of General Mobutu, who sent him handcuffed to Katanga, where he was tortured and killed.”
Tshombe attempted to get rid of the UN politically and militarily, but ultimately the secession ended two years later when the UN gained control of the province. Tshombe left the country and settled in Spain.
The ABC used this opportunity to insult the dead and victims caused by the war organized by Tshombe and felt it appropriate to recall the 9 January 1963 words of the perpetrators of the crime: “US Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut said the other day: ‘The attack on Katanga is a blatant and inhuman act of aggression by the new imperialism of the United Nations. The UN initiative, intervening militarily in a country to force unification and impose a certain constitution, establishes an extremely dangerous precedent that could end one day in a moral and political disaster.’”
A week before the 21 January 1963 defeat of Tshombe's forces by the UN, the ABC reported on the 10th three opinions on the situation, all opposed to international law and the DRC legislation. There was the US position: “The US Commission for Assistance to the Freedom Soldiers of Katanga has published a petition asking Congress to vote the necessary funds to arm Katanga. Vote early and with generosity the necessary funds to send them the weapons they need,” Republicans and Democrats asked together.
Journey to Power
In Madrid Tshombe devoted himself to organizing his return to power in the DRC. He was in a convenient place, away from black Africa and near the diplomatic services (read intelligence services from the USA and Belgium).
On 25 June 1964 Tshombe met the Belgian foreign minister at the ministry's headquarters and then with the US ambassador in Brussels, after which he left by plane for the DRC. The ABC reported the next day that the first visit consisted of a half-hour chat and that the second was a courtesy visit. On arrival in the DRC he joined a coalition government as prime minister.
Through Radio Kinshasa, the DRC government accused Tshombe of organizing attacks by his troops in Kisangani from Madrid, devastating the town, killing its inhabitants and burning houses. Riots, assaults, murders, robberies and other abuses occurred in the DRC. All this was presented in the West as tribal fighting, while hiding the role of the spies and multinationals operating in the DRC.
Meanwhile, Tshombe continued his regular political activity and also made a visit to Italy. The Italian communists spread leaflets in the streets of Rome to denounce the visit of “those who asked foreign mercenaries to carry out the extermination of their own people,” showing that “the Italian government is guilty of tolerating this infamous presence on our soil” and demanding “the immediate expulsion of Tshombe from Italy.” The ABC correspondent wrote that he was just passing through Rome on the way to the US to “try to see Paul VI.”
The ABC wrote that “whatever the personal and political characteristics of Tshombe, there could be no more talk of his being on the side of the victims or the murderers. Tshombe has been with the victims, for order in their country and with understanding toward Europe. It is Italian communism that is on the side of the murderers.”
Therefore, for the newspaper, responsibility for the disaster in the DRC was not Tshombe's, but “at the hour of truth we can see how communism is the tool mounted in the service of attitudes that have little to do with civilisation.”
Much Information, But Little of Interest
Meanwhile, what happens in the world that the Western press does not see is that Mobutu, free of Lumumba, negotiated with Tshombe, President Kasavubu and foreign powers until he could also get rid of the first two. After a coup against Kasavubu, he charged Tshombe with treason. In order to escape death he returned to Spain in 1966. Ironically herein lies his political decline. During another trip he is arrested and imprisoned in Algeria and as compensation gets a tomb there.
Once Mobutu settles into power with US support, it's his turn, with his wife and ministers, to travel to Spain mainly for stop-overs, on their way to Belgium and the United States. In fact, Spain's support isn't for Tshombe and Mobutu in the main, but for US imperialism, which finally decides to bet on Mobutu amongst the contenders for power in the DRC.
The bottom line is that Spain allowed Tshombe to carry out political activity from Madrid and turned a blind eye both to his criminal record and his subversive plans for the DRC. While doing this Spain supported the survival of imperialism in Africa on behalf of Belgium, the United States and the multinational extractive industry corporations in Katanga, as well as the gross violations of the human rights of the Congolese.
It is impossible to measure the harm caused by this partnership, but it is known that the DRC is a country which has suffered before and since independence under foreign powers, and that Spain has some responsibility for this tragedy, even as a minor accomplice of the perpetrators of the disaster.
It is not unreasonable to think that if Spain had refused to welcome Tshombe, or better yet, if it had denounced him to the UN, the history of the DRC may have been different. At least Spanish history would have been.
However, the relationship of subservience to the United States – as happens also today – made Spain carry out activities unrelated to its own interests and which were certainly contrary to international law, and to the right of peoples to struggle to be free from imperialism.
Agustin Velloso is a lecturer at the Spanish National University for Distance Learning. He can be reached at: [email protected].