Joseph Kasavubu (ca. 1913-1969) was the first president of the Republic of the Congo and provided a continuous focus of power through the struggles of the former Belgian colony to independence.
Joseph Kasavubu was born in the village of Kuma-Dizi in the Mayombe district of Lower Congo. Having lost his mother at age 4, the boy was raised largely by his older brother, who sent him to a nearby Catholic mission, where he was baptized in 1925. After a few years of rudimentary schooling in the Kikongo language, Kasavubu attended a petit séminaire (1929-1936) and then a seminary in Kasai, from which he was dismissed in 1939 with the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in philosophy for reasons that were never made clear. He was nevertheless permitted to take a teacher's certificate and to work in mission schools but for such a meager pittance that the embittered Kasavubu eventually broke with the missions and got a bookkeeping job with the colonial administration in 1942.
Kasavubu's entry into public life in 1946 was sponsored by Jean Bolikango (later his rival for the presidency), who engineered his election as secretary of an alumni association, which position made him an ex officio member of UNISCO (Union des Intérêts Sociaux Congolais), a debating society tied to the Catholic missions. Kasavubu's maiden speech to this association, though cloaked in precautionary language, was sufficiently "radical" to be disavowed by his peers.
President of ABAKO
But Kasavubu's real debut in politics came in 1954, when he was elected president of the Bakongo tribal association (ABAKO) as a compromise candidate. Although political associations were not permitted at the time, Kasavubu transformed ABAKO in such a way as to make it a political party in all but name; when overt political activity emerged in 1956, Kasavubu was ready for action. His well-organized campaign in the first municipal elections (December 1957) resulted in a sweeping victory for ABAKO in the capital city of Léopoldville.
This victory had serious results for the Congo, however. ABAKO was interested only in mobilizing the Bakongo people and did not attempt to transform the party into a nationwide organization. It created a resentment among non-Bakongo residents of the capital which prevented the emergence of a national coalition in which ABAKO might have played a senior role. In addition, the relatively high degree of political mobilization and radicalization achieved by the Bakongo, combined with their sense of national identity, led ABAKO to adopt a semidetached position on the Congolese political scene in the form of claims for separate independence or for pan-Congo "reunification" involving Cabinda and portions of Angola and French Congo. This attitude resulted in a policy of noncooperation, both among the Bakongo and on the part of Kasavubu himself, thus further contributing to ABAKO's reputation for intractability and to the speeding up of Belgium's plans for gradual decolonization.
President of the Republic
After a brief period in jail in early 1959 which made Kasavubu the Congo's first "prison graduate," he became a somewhat reluctant participant in the decolonization process. His unique position (as well as the nuisance value of ABAKO, which had less than 10 percent of the seats in the Congo's first Parliament) was recognized by Patrice Lumumba when he endorsed Kasavubu for the presidency, despite the fact that the ABAKO leader had sought to prevent Lumumba's accession to the premiership. The two men worked in uncomfortable partnership during the first few weeks of the Congo crisis, but on Sept. 5, 1960, through a literal interpretation of his presidential prerogatives, Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba, thus unleashing a chain of events which ultimately led to the prime minister's assassination.
Thereafter, Kasavubu withdrew to a position from which he tried to arbitrate between the various factions and, more importantly, to remain politically alive during the period that saw the gradual erosion and eventual reconstruction of the central government's authority. He lent the cover of his legitimacy to Joseph Mobutu's first coup, thus avoiding early retirement, and then supported the return to civilian government under Cyrille Adoula (1961-1964), only to maneuver the latter out of power in favor of Moïse Tshombe when the Congo rebellion threatened to engulf the entire country.
Although Kasavubu avoided being engulfed in the continent-wide reprobation directed against Tshombe, he also ran the risk of being increasingly treated as a superfluous quantity by those same powers that backed the prime minister. This was especially alarming in view of the fact that his own popularity among the Bakongo had come under serious questioning from a number of quarters. The threat to Kasavubu's position became more precise when Tshombe announced that he would seek the presidency—an office which Kasavubu himself had helped turn into a major power center through the 1964 adoption of a new constitution.
Deposed by Mobutu
With the two men thus bent on a collision course, Kasavubu announced his opposition to the employment of foreign mercenaries and summarily dismissed Tshombe from the premiership. As had been the case in 1960, however, he was unable to secure parliamentary endorsement for his handpicked successor, Evariste Kimba (a former associate of Tshombe), and the ensuing stalemate was eventually resolved in November 1965, when Mobutu dismissed all civilian politicians and established direct army rule.
Mobutu's own lack of a political base, however, soon led him to seek a reconciliation with Kasavubu as a means of securing some sort of legitimacy for his regime. Lacking any real alternative, the deposed president gave the new regime his measured endorsement and accepted an honorary seat in the Senate. He retired to a farm in Mayombe, where he died on March 24, 1969. His death and that of Tshombe (June 29, 1969) signaled the eclipse of the first generation of Congolese politicians.
Kasavubu's political career was helped primarily by his shrewdness and his retiring character. His main achievement, in the eyes of history, may well be to have retained his seat at a time when the Congo's need for some symbol of continuity was highest, although one might argue that this need itself contributed significantly to Kasavubu's relative longevity in office.
Further Reading on Joseph Kasavubu
Studies of Kasavubu and the history of the Congo are in Alan P.Merriam, Congo: Background of Conflict (1961); Catherine Hoskyns, The Congo since Independence, January 1960-December 1961 (1965); and Crawford Young, Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence (1965).