Fulbert Youlou

Fulbert Youlou (1917-1972) was a Congolese priest who became a political leader and rose to the presidency of the Republic of the Congo.

Fulbert Youlou was born on July 9, 1917, near Brazzaville, a member of the Balali tribe, largest of the three major subgroups of the Bakongo people. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained on his thirty-second birthday, becoming a parish priest in Brazzaville in 1949. His relations with his superiors were stormy, and his growing interest for politics led to disciplinary action against him. By the end of 1955, the diminutive priest had made up his mind to enter politics on a full-time basis, although he continued to wear priestly garments long after he had been enjoined from performing any pastoral duties.

Prior to 1956, politics in the (then) French Congo had been monopolized by Félix Tchicaya's Parti Progressiste Congolais (PPC), based in Pointe Noire and the neighboring Kouilou-Niari region, and by Jacques Opangault, leader of the Mbochi tribe of middle Congo, with the Balali (the dominant group in the city of Brazzaville) remaining on the sidelines. In the 1956 election, however, Youlou managed almost overnight to unfreeze this bloc of votes and to canalize latent Balali militancy, thus transforming a bipolar party system into a triangular one. Within a few months, by skillfully maximizing his newfound support, utilizing the prestige of his habit, and exploiting internal divisions among his adversaries, he not only organized a new party, the Union Démocratique pour la Défense des Intérêts Africains (UDDIA), but also won upset victories in the November 1956 municipal elections in Brazzaville (of which he became mayor) and Pointe Noire. The PPC collapsed almost entirely at that point, leaving only Youlou and Opangault as contenders in the 1957 election, which resulted in a stalemate. The tug-of-war between the two factions, only briefly interrupted by the collapse of the Fourth French Republic and the introduction of the Franco-African Community (which both leaders endorsed), continued unabated during 1957 and 1958. Through a number of dubious maneuvers, Youlou eventually managed to undermine Opangault's position and was elected prime minister in November 1958 as the opposition walked out. Antagonism between the Balali and the Mbochi culminated in serious riots in Brazzaville (February 1959), which had to be put down by the French army and which the wily Youlou utilized to clamp down on the opposition. After new elections, characterized by unabashed gerrymandering, his party gained 84 percent of the seats with only 58 percent of the vote (April 1959); and by the time the Congo became independent (August 1960), a chastened Opangault agreed to serve under Youlou in a largely symbolic position.

Youlou, who had previously extended his assistance to Joseph Kasavubu before the latter had become president of the former Belgian Congo, now became deeply embroiled in the politics of that neighboring country. He first offered Kasavubu logistical support in eliminating prime minister Patrice Lumumba from power; then, possibly under the influence of right-wing members of his French entourage, he championed the cause of Katanga's secessionist leader Moïse Tshombe among the states of former French Africa, which came to be known as the "Brazzaville group" after the December 1960 conference held in Youlou's bailiwick.

Domestically, Youlou consolidated his position by introducing a presidential system of government and by having himself elevated to the presidency through an election in which he was the only candidate (March 1961). In August 1962 he announced his intention to move toward a single-party system, and during the next 12 months he concentrated his efforts on eliminating his opponents (rather than coopting them into the system as he had done previously).

Increasing opposition on the part of labor unions during the spring of 1963 escalated into a full-blown conflict, and on Aug. 13-15, 1963, widespread rioting in the capital city resulted in Youlou's overthrow and imprisonment. The new government had to contend with his Balali supporters, but the danger of a pro-Youlou counter-revolution really became serious when Tshombe returned to Kinshasa as premier. After one of several plots allegedly engineered by Tshombe, Youlou escaped to Kinshasa (February 1965), where he pursued his oppositional activities until Tshombe's fall from power. Hamstrung by the Joseph Mobutu regime, Youlou slipped out of Kinshasa in early 1966 and, after having been refused entry into France, settled in Madrid, where he died on May 5, 1972.

Further Reading on Fulbert Youlou

For information on Youlou see Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff, The Emerging States of French Equatorial Africa (1960), and John A. Ballard's "Four Equatorial States" in Gwendolen M. Carter, ed., National Unity and Regionalism in Eight African States (1966).