Moïse Kapenda Tshombe

Moïse Kapenda Tshombe (1919-1969), a Congolese political leader, was the figurehead of the Katanga secession. His chief stock-in-trade was his cynical reliance on foreign-interest groups and white mercenaries.

Moïse Tshombe was born at Sandoa in southwestern Katanga, the son of a well-to-do father who combined success as a trader with social prominence in his traditional milieu, that of the Lunda (Aruund). Moïse Tshombe himself married a daughter of the Mwantayaav (emperor) of the Lunda, and his uncle and brother were subsequently enthroned as emperors while he was at the height of his political career. Tshombe was educated by American Methodist missionaries and joined his father in his business, only to prove himself a rather incompetent manager. He repeatedly had to be rescued from commercial failure and after his father's death in 1951 became involved in questionable deals which reportedly put him at the mercy of European creditors.

Tshombe's early steps into public life, first as a nominated member of the advisory Katanga Provincial Council, then as local chairman of an association of middle-class Africans, were undistinguished. His emergence on the political scene really began in November 1958, when the Lunda tribal association (Gassomel), of which he had been elected chairman, took part in the creation of Conakat (Confédération des Associations du Katanga), along with other ethnic associations such as Balubakat, the association of Katanga Baluba, led by Jason Sendwe. Within a few months, however, Conakat had accepted the affiliation, as well as much of the political program, of the leading white settlers' organization in Katanga, a decision that led to Balubakat's withdrawal.

Now led by Tshombe, Conakat sought maximum autonomy for Katanga in a context of close association with Belgium, a position which placed it squarely at odds with leading advocates of Congolese nationalism, particularly Patrice Lumumba's Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). Locally, Conakat's insistence that all responsible positions in Katanga should go to "authentic Katangese" (a category in which they were willing to include white settlers but not immigrants from neighboring provinces of the Congo) led to the alienation of an important and influential segment of the African urban population and contributed to establishing the party's reputation for separatism.

The views defended by Conakat and by its settler associates found little audience at the Round Table Conference, where, in early 1960, the foundations of an independent Congo were laid down. Conakat won only eight seats out of 137 in the National Assembly in the May 1960 elections, but in Katanga itself, where it actually gained fewer votes than its adversaries, it managed to secure a one-seat margin in the Provincial Assembly and to exclude the opposition from the provincial government. A first attempt at secession two days before independence was foiled by the Belgian authorities, but less than two weeks later, under a transparent pretext, Tshombe declared Katanga's independence (July 11, 1960).


Katanga Secession

The new "state" was organized with massive military and civilian assistance from Belgium but had to face the hostility of a considerable portion of its population (mostly in northern Katanga). Prime Minister Lumumba's attempt to end the secession by force failed when he was dismissed from his post by President Joseph Kasavubu, and the deposed Lumumba was eventually delivered into the hands of the Katanga government and assassinated in Elisabethville, although Tshombe himself apparently played only an indirect role in this episode. Negotiations to secure the Congo's reunification were pursued during most of 1961, leading at one point to Tshombe's brief imprisonment by the central government, but it was only through the repeated intervention of United Nations forces (backed by the United States) that the Katanga secession was finally brought to an end in January 1963.

Tshombe himself was not arrested, due to the influence of Western powers, but he found his position increasingly uncomfortable and left the Congo in June 1963. During the following 12 months he actively prepared his reentry on the Congolese political scene from his Spanish abode, but, despite the fact that mercenaries and troops of the former Katanga state were kept in readiness in neighboring Angola with Portuguese complicity, his second chance came not from a reactivation of the Katanga secession but from the fear of a fast-spreading peasant insurrection.

In June 1964, having spurned offers to serve under Premier Cyrille Adoula, Tshombe was recalled as prime minister of the Congo. In a sense, his best qualification for the job was his demonstrated readiness to turn over the running of the country to Western technicians and soldiers. This he promptly did, and with the help of white mercenaries and some direct intervention by Belgium and the United States he presided over the ruthless liquidation of the rebellion. His attempt to organize a nationwide political party under the name of Conaco was much less successful, however; and although the party won an overwhelming majority in the highly irregular election of 1965, he still lacked a genuine power base.


Exile and Death

More importantly, Tshombe had exhausted his usefulness once the rebellion had been contained, and he now was increasingly viewed as an embarrassment to the regime and to its Western backers. Tshombe's avowed ambition to wrest the presidency from President Joseph Kasavubu put him on a collision course with the durable, soft-spoken head of state, who dismissed him from office on Oct. 13, 1965. Like Lumumba 5 years earlier, Tshombe fought back to a stalemate, but on November 25 the army under Gen. Joseph Mobutu took power, thus eliminating Tshombe from the scene.

From his exile in Europe, Tshombe continued to plot his return to power, hoping to draw support from Belgian mining interests threatened with nationalization by the Mobutu regime. Not only were the two uprisings carried out in his name unsuccessful, but Tshombe himself was kidnapped on June 30, 1967, and delivered into the hands of the Algerian government. The extradition of Tshombe, who had been sentenced to death in absentia, was never carried out, and he remained confined in Algeria until he died (allegedly from a stroke) on June 29, 1969.


Further Reading on Moïse Kapenda Tshombe

My Fifteen Months in Government (1966; trans. 1967) is Tshombe's own account of his administration. Two biographies are Anthony T. Bouscaren, Tshombe, with an introduction by Daniel Lyons (1967), and lan Colvin, The Rise and Rall of Moise Tshombe: A Biography (1968). A recent work on the Congo's major crisis is by Jules Gérard-Libois, Katanga Secession (1963; trans. 1966).