Moise Tshombe's Curious Position In the Line-Up of African Leaders

On October 5, the airplane carrying Congolese Premier Moise Tshombe to the opening session of the conference of unaligned nations in Cairo was denied permission to land on the grounds that the Cairo runway wasn't in condition to receive it. Tshombe's plane went on to Athens. For the rest of the day, planes of other African diplomats landed at Cairo without trouble.

The next day, Tshombe slipped into Cairo before dawn in another attempt to crash the conference. He was captured by Egyptian security forces, placed in a guest house guarded by paratroopers, and held incommunicado. In retaliation, Congolese policemen, and later troops, sealed off the Egyptian and Algerian embassies in Leopoldville. Nasser then announced that he would hold Tshombe until the Congolese police withdrew from the embassy. Congolese forces withdrew from the embassies on October 8, and Tshombe took off for Paris the next morning.

Many of the nations represented at the congress strongly opposed Tshombe's attendance. Three leaders, Nkrumah of Ghana, Ben Bella of Algeria and Hassan II of Morocco, had refused in July to sit with Tshombe at a meeting of the Organization of African Unity. On October 4, Nasser asked Kasavubu, President of the Congo, to come himself and leave Tshombe home. At the congress' opening session, Nasser made a thinly veiled reference to Tshombe's policies in the Congo when he said, "a trade in mercenaries is being practiced without honor and without shame" for the sake of neocolonialism.

South African Curse

Nasser referred to the white South African and Rhodesian mercenaries whom Tshombe has hired to lead his government's troops against the rebels who have taken control of much of the northern and northeastern Congo. Rhodesia and South Africa both maintain an internal policy of white supremacy. Both nations enjoy the frank hostility of most African countries, and Tshombe's hiring soldiers from them has not enhanced his popularity with his African neighbors.


Tshombe's popularity was low to begin with. He is widely regarded in Africa as a tool of European colonialism and the murderer of the Congo's first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba has become one of the greatest heroes of African nationalism and the martyr of the Congo's fight for independence.

During the violent, disorderly days of the Congo rebellion at the end of 1960, when Tshombe was President of the secessionist Katanga province, Lumumba was captured by the forces of the central government, headed by President Joseph Kasavubu. In January, 1961, Lumumba was flown to Katanga. A few days later, a report came from Tshombe's Katanga government that Lumumba had escaped and had been killed by tribesmen. Most African nationalists, to say nothing of the rest of the world, have never believed this story. This February, when Tshombe was trying to overcome hostilities and win support before returning to the Congo, he reiterated in an interview with the French journal Pourquoi Pas that he had nothing to do with Lumumba's death. This time he claimed that Lumumba was dead when his plane arrived in Elisabethville.

A United Nations committee established to investigate Lumumba's death presented quite a different version of the incident on November 14, 1961. It reported that all available evidence indicated that Lumumba and two colleagues were killed on January 17, 1961, "after their arrival in a villa not far from Elisabethville and in all probability in the presence of high officials of the Government Katanga Province, namely, Mr. Tshombe, Mr. Munongo, and Mr. Kibwe; and the escape story was staged."

The committee found President Kasavubu also responsible for handing Lumumba and his colleagues over to Katanga authorities who were obviously "their bitterest enemies."

The world has been much quicker to forgive Kasavubu than Tshombe. But Tshombe has a uniquely broad base of unpopularity. The Congo became independent on June 30, 1960. Within days, troops of the Force Publique began a series of violent acts against European residents and their property. On July 11, Belgian paratroopers arrived to protect Belgian civilians and touched off a widespread revolt by Congolese troops against their European officers. At the same time, Tshombe announced that his province of Katanga had seceded from the Congo. He immediately called in Belgian troops to maintain order and protect him from the national government.

Katanga was not just another province. As then constituted, it produced two thirds of the world's cobalt and was the fifth largest producer of copper; it was an important source of uranium and industrial diamonds; it provided sixty per cent of the Congo's income.

Finance in Katanga

Katango's mines are run by a few giant, foreign-controlled companies, the largest of which is the Union Miniere de Haut Katanga. Tshombe had always worked closely with the Belgian financial interests. The financial interests, in turn, enthusiastically supported Katanga's secession. The secession could easily be seen as a move to destroy an independent Congo, supported by Belgian troops serving the interests of Belgian capitalists.

Tshombe certainly tied himself very closely to these Belgian interests. Years before independence, when Lumumba, Kasavubu and other Congolese political leaders were organizing nationalist groups, Tshombe spent most of his time cultivating good relationships with the Belgians. In January, 1960, when Tshombe and other Congolese leaders attended the Brussels conference that decided on Congolese independence, even the Belgian press criticized Tshombe sharply for his involvement with unsavory financial interests.

During the pre-independence elections, the Union Miniere gave money to Tshombe's campaign. But this has little significance because the company gave money to every one who looked as if he might gain power, including Tshombe's main opponent, Jason Sendwe, and even Patrice Lumumba.