A People’s Historian: an interview with Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

ROAPE’s Ben Radley interviews the Congolese historian and scholar-activist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. He explains that the overriding motivation of his work is solidarity with the oppressed and an uncompromising quest for the truth to elucidate the political history of the Congo and Africa generally from the colonial period to the present.

Ben Radley: Can you please describe to us your memories and experiences growing up as a child in the Congo under Belgian colonial rule and coming of age during the national liberation struggle, and how these experiences shaped your early politics and student activism?

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja: Growing up on the American Presbyterian Congo Mission (APCM) station of Kasha, some 10 km from the state post of Luputa and a major railway station on the BCK network between Lower Congo and Katanga, the first experience I remember from my childhood was the consciousness of skin colour. As Frantz Fanon has described all colonial settlements, this  mission station was built as a Manichean city, with whites on the one side with modern houses and electricity, and black people on the other side in thatched roof houses lit with kerosene lamps on unlit streets. A large cordon sanitaire or a huge open space comprising the church, the medical centre, school buildings and the football field and other sports facilities separated the city of light from the city of darkness, which rejoiced only under moonlight.

Since our parents worked for the mission in various capacities as teachers, nurses, maintenance workers and domestic servants for the American missionaries from Dixie, we as their children could play with the few white kids present. By the time we all attained puberty, these children’s games ceased, and it was not unusual to hear the white kids calling us by the N word. Racial consciousness evolved on both sides, and this was reinforced for the Congolese each time we went to Luputa to catch a train or to shop at the stores owned by the Greek, Italian and Portuguese merchants. While in Luputa, we also witnessed whipping of prisoners by the police under the stern watch of the Belgian administrator at 6:00 a.m. or 12:00 noon near the flagpole with the red, yellow, and black Belgian standard. At the train station, black people stood in a long queue under the sun to buy tickets, but a white person could simply walk straight to the ticket box and walk away with his or her ticket in a minute.

You briefly held a number of academic positions in the Congo in the early 1970s, shortly after Mobutu came to power, and before beginning your long period of exile from the country. What impact has having spent such a long time away from the Congo had on you personally?

I had spent eight years and a half in the United States completing one year of secondary school, four years of undergraduate studies and three years of postgraduate studies, from July 1962 to February 1971. During this period, I had the opportunity of spending two months and a half in the Congo during the summer vacation of 1965, which allowed me to visit my very large family, and to even visit newly independent Zambia for a week. It was therefore very difficult to spend 17 years and a half, between December 1973 and August 1991 without seeing members of my family. Both parents and one sibling had passed away during that period. But those years of exile strengthened my commitment to the struggle for political change and genuine democracy in the Congo. I participated in numerous meetings and spoke on the Congo in the United States and Canada, Europe, and several African countries.

This self-imposed exile from Mobutu’s Zaïre was due to the harassment and threats I had experienced from the regime during my two years of work at the Lubumbashi campus of the National University of Zaïre, including a four-hour interrogation by the security police in November 1973. The harassment was renewed in Washington, DC in the 1980s when I became actively involved in supporting the mass democratic movement led by the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). In 1989, my passport was confiscated by the Congolese ambassador to the U.S., Mushobekwa Kalimba wa Katana, following my request for a renewal. After several months of inaction, I received a letter dated 26 December 1989 from the ambassador stating that he took away my passport on the grounds of my opposition to the regime. Although I did get the passport back after the liberalization of the system on 24 April 1990, I still introduced a plaint against Mr. Mushobekwa for violations of my rights as a citizen through the Foreign Affairs Subcommission of the Political Affairs Commission at the Sovereign National Conference on 29 June 1992. He appeared before the subcommission and admitted that he had indeed violated my civil rights but added that he had acted on orders from the secret police in Kinshasa. It was, for him, a question of a choice between renewing my passport or losing his job. The subcommission cleared him.

You were heavily involved in the Sovereign National Conference in 1992, which represented the culminating moment of around a decade of resistance to Mobutu’s dictatorship in the struggle for multiparty democracy. Can you describe the atmosphere in the Congo at that time, and the meaning and significance of that historical moment, both for yourself but also politically for the country and for the Congolese?

It is almost 29 years now since I joined the Conférence Nationale Souveraine (CNS) in April 1992 as one of seven “scholars of international renown” co-opted by the Conference to make their contribution to this nationwide palaver. Following my general policy statement on the 14  May 1992, my name became a household word in the Congo. My declaration was one of the most popular speeches at the CNS, judging by the number of applauses. Cassette recordings were made and sold in the Congolese diaspora in Belgium, and in a country where the post office was no longer functioning very well, over 500 letters were sent to me by young people from all over the country. On a trip to Goma from New York in April 2007, an immigration official looked at my passport and said to me: “Aren’t you the Professor Nzongola of CNS fame?” When I said yes, he started chastising me for having abandoned the struggle by returning abroad. Even today, people over 50 in Kinshasa would recognize me because of the CNS.

I have given a comprehensive assessment of the CNS in my book The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History (2002). Most of its 23 commissions and over 100 sub-commissions produced excellent reports on what had gone wrong in the past and proposals on charting a new path for freedom, peace, and well-being in the country. As a member of the Political Affairs Commission, I had expressed interest in chairing the sub-commission on external affairs. But the people who had advanced the foreign agenda in the Congo like Justin Bomboko and Victor Nendaka did their best to exclude me from that sub-commission. As a consolation, they allowed me to chair two sub-commissions, on current affairs and political files, the latter being basically the rewriting of Congolese history by revisiting all the major political events in the country since Independence on what happened, why it happened, and what we should do to prevent such events in the future. When the late Professor Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba joined us, I managed to pull him from the Scientific Research Commission to make him the rapporteur for Political Files. He wrote an outstanding report on our deliberations.

The CNS succeeded as an educational forum and a political mobilizer. For all plenary meetings were carried on national radio and television. In most places of work, people did what they could do between 7:00 AM and 12:00 PM and went to sit by their radio or television to follow the deliberations at the Chinese built People’s Palace, home of our Parliament.

However, the CNS failed to achieve its immediate objective, which was to remove the dictator Mobutu from power and put the country on the path of multiparty democracy, economic recovery, and the improvement of the living conditions of ordinary people. The main reasons for that failure were the reluctance of Mobutu and his clique to leave power and its attendant privileges; the weakness and immaturity of the opposition; and the lack of support from the major Western powers for radical change in the resource-rich centre of the African continent.

I illustrate the latter factor with the way the international community refused to accept the democratic decision of 4 August 1992 by 2,842 delegates at the CNS representing all strata of the Congolese population to abandon “Zaïre” and to go back to the majestic name of “Congo.” This was a confirmation of a decision by another popular assembly, the Constitutional Convention of 1964 at Luluabourg (now Kananga), to make the official name of the country “The Democratic Republic of the Congo” (DRC). In May 1997, the same international community had no problem accepting the actions of Laurent-Désiré Kabila who, by the stroke of a pen, changed the country’s name to DRC and proclaimed himself the new president of the country. The major powers, beginning with the United States, accepted this unilateral decision, like Mobutu’s earlier decision imposing the name “Zaïre” in October 1971.

Today, the CNS remains a major historical reference for political and social change in the DRC. None of the numerous conferences, dialogues and consultations that have been held since then have brought anything new in terms of democratizing the political system, cleansing the state of its deadwood and corrupt oligarchs, and empowering the people to ensure that they are not only the primary sovereign, but also the beneficiaries of state action. In accordance with Etienne Tshisekedi’s credo, the business of government is “le peuple d’abord” or the people first. This is the popular and progressive legacy of the CNS, and the alpha and omega of democratic and developmental governance in the DRC.

UNDP participant at a meeting of African ministers of public administration, AU, Addis Ababa 2006.

We have recently marked the 60th anniversary of Patrice Lumumba’s murder, and to commemorate the occasion ROAPE published an extract of a keynote speech you gave in 2018, in which you discuss Lumumba’s rise and influence as both a nationalist and pan-Africanist leader. Before discussing Lumumba, I’d like to briefly touch on the late Etienne Tshisekedi, the main opposition leader to Mobutu in the 1980s and 1990s, and father of the current President Felix Tshisekedi. You served at one point as a diplomatic advisor to Etienne Tshisekedi, who himself was an advisor to Lumumba’s Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) in the late 1950s. How do you position Etienne Tshisekedi in relation to Lumumba and the broader emancipatory struggle of which they were both a part?

Yes. As a law student at Lovanium University, Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba served as an advisor to the newly created MNC for one year, 1958-59. Thus, I do assume that they did get to know each other, given the fact that only 7 years separated them in age, as Lumumba was born on 2 July 1925 and Tshisekedi on 14 December 1932. In September 1959, the MNC split into two separate wings, the radical and unitarist Lumumba wing, known as MNC/L, and a more moderate wing led by federalists under Albert Kalonji, known as MNC/K. Following his service on Mobutu’s College of general commissioners from 14 September 1960 to 9 February 1961 as deputy commissioner for justice, Tshisekedi went to work for Albert Kalonji in secessionist South Kasai, where he served as minister of justice.

Tshisekedi’s stoicism in the face of unending persecution and humiliations by Mobutu, Laurent and Joseph Kabila, was exemplary in his steadfast fight for democracy, the rule of law and the instauration of a government that works for the people. His courage and persistence recalled those of Patrice Lumumba. This made him very popular among the people, who reverently called him “Moses,” in the Biblical sense or, more affectionately, as “Ya Tshitshi” or “Big Brother Tshitshi.” By his courage, stoicism, and intransigence on key principles of democracy, justice, equality and service to the people, he was the Congolese political leader closest to the character of Patrice Lumumba. As for the son, he is nicknamed “Tshitshi Béton,” or someone as hard as concrete and capable of facing any challenge, including getting rid of the Joseph Kabila dictatorship.

Moving onto Lumumba, then, how strong an influence do you think his political legacy continues to hold in the popular Congolese imagination today, and across Africa more broadly?

Given the lack of regular polling on the knowledge and attachment that people do have about Patrice Lumumba and his martyrdom, it is difficult to assess the strength of his political legacy in the Congolese political imagination today. People do frequently hear his name on national radio and television, which remind them of his eminent status as our national hero and the 17 January, the day of his assassination along with Sports and Youth Minister Maurice Mpolo and Senate Vice President Joseph Okito, is a national holiday.

In Africa, boulevards, major avenues, squares, and streets are named after him. In most of the countries I have visited, the place I like the best is the African Heroes Square in downtown Bamako, Mali’s capital, which has a very impressive statue of Lumumba. When he was killed, many parents across the continent gave his name to newly born sons. Two of them were serving as members of the Nigerian Parliament when I lived in Abuja in 2000-2002. Kenya has a distinguished professor of law who goes by the name of Patrick Lumumba. Finally, many literary and nonfiction books were written in honour of Lumumba following his death.

Lumumba’s Independence Day speech remains a major treasure for African freedom fighters, even among the lost sheep. In the 1980s, during my days as a professor at Howard University in Washington, I had a visit to my office one day from Roberto Holden, then exiled leader of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). I asked him if it was true that he had always been a paid collaborator of the CIA. To refute this accusation, which was nonetheless well-established, he and his assistant stood up and recited Lumumba’s famous speech in its entirety, in French. I was so moved by this gesture that I momentarily forgot about his crimes in Angola.

Sixty years after Lumumba’s demise, the people who really know about his leadership and his trials and tribulations, in the Congo or elsewhere in Africa, are generally past the age of 75. The two generations who came after 1961 may have heard tales about him, read books and articles on him or seen films and videos about him. But they have very little knowledge of Lumumba because they live in countries that, in most cases, are ruled by political leaders who have no interest in progressive and visionary leaders determined to put people’s needs above their own selfish class interests. Patrice Lumumba was such a leader, and most of his peers in this category, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Mehdi Ben Barka of Morocco, Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel of Mozambique, Amilcar Cabral of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, and Ruth First and Chris Hani of South Africa, were destroyed by imperialism and their cronies in Africa through military coups d’état and/or assassination.

Lumumba’s name was also associated, positively or negatively, with the popular insurrections of 1963-68 for a “second independence.” This was a movement based on the grievances of peasants, workers, secondary school students and lower civil servants, including teachers and nurses, whose organic intellectuals had clearly shown that the flag independence of 1960 was a sham. Politicians had promised everything under the sun during the electoral campaign of May1960 but delivered nothing in terms of expanding freedom and improving the living conditions of the population. Since they were no different from their Belgian predecessors, the Congolese rulers constituting the new privileged oligarchy were in the eyes of the people “the new whites” because they were just as brutal in their repression as the former colonialists, on whom they continued to rely for military support, and ‘liars” because they excelled at making false promises.

The popular movement for a “second independence” was led by the former lieutenants of Patrice Lumumba. It had two distinct wings and fields of armed struggle, the Kwilu revolution, led by Pierre Mulele, Lumumba’s former minister of education and a Marxist-Leninist, and the Eastern or Simba Rebellions, led by Christophe Gbenye, Lumumba’s former minister of internal affairs and successor as head of the MNC/L. This is the wing that also included Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Thomas Kanza and Gaston Soumialot. Of the two wings, Mulele’s was the most politically successful by its revolutionary engagement and commitment to ordinary people’s interests, while the Gbenye wing was more militarily successful but betrayed Lumumbism by its brutal and unprincipled goal of regaining the power Lumumba’s lieutenants had lost in Kinshasa at any price.

Once they conquered a city, the first thing they did was occupy the residence of the provincial governor or district commissioner to find the loot, which included gold, money, and fine alcohol. They paid no consideration to people’s needs and interests, while pretending to be fighting for ordinary people. Rhetoric aside, they were no different from the new oligarchy led by army general Mobutu, intelligence chief Victor Nendaka and perennial foreign minister Justin Bomboko. Later, Gbenye would remain head of one of a dozen MNC/L factions and joined Mobutu’s and Joseph Kabila’s political coalitions; Thomas Kanza would become Mobutu’s candidate for prime minister at the CNS in 1992 and a minister in Laurent Kabila’s government; Gaston Soumialot became a very successful farmer with Mobutu’s support; and Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu with military support from Rwanda and Uganda in 1997. The multiple errors of the “second independence” movement and the co-optation of most of its leaders by the MPR, Mobutu’s ruling party, weakened Lumumbism as a political force, but the hold of Lumumba’s legacy in the Congolese imagination has remained strong thanks to Congolese popular music and popular urban art.

In June 2021, the return from Belgium of what is left of Lumumba’s remains, namely a tooth that one of the Belgian police officers who cut up the bodies of the three martyrs of 17 January 1961 took as a souvenir before dissolving them in sulfuric acid, will be observed with national honours in Kinshasa. In a continent in which funerals occupy a very important place in our culture, President Félix Tshisekedi is doing everything possible to lay Lumumba to rest in a manner befitting a great chief and warrior. This is another event that should have great impact in strengthening the hold of Lumumba’s legacy in popular Congolese imagination today.

For those readers interested in my views on Lumumba’s leadership, his legacy for Africa, and the role of the CIA in his assassination along with the Belgians, the British M16 and corrupt Congolese leaders, a good place to start is my blogpost published by ROAPE on 15 January 2021.

On a mission for the AAPS (African Association of Political Science) in Nairobi in November 1994.

I’d like to move on to discuss now your scholarly work. What has been the motivation for your historical enquiry over the years, and what do you regard as your most important work and contribution?

I am not a historian by training since none of my university degrees are in history. I have a B.A. in philosophy (Davidson College, 1967), an M.A. in diplomacy and international commerce (University of Kentucky, 1968) and a Ph.D. in political science (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1975). Despite my training as a political scientist, only six years of my academic teaching since 1971 have been in a department of political science: one year at the Congo Free University in Kisangani (DRC), two years at the National University of Zaire, Lubumbashi Campus, two years at Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University) in Atlanta (USA) and one year at the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria. My longest two jobs as a teacher have been at Howard University (1978-97) and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, since 2007.

I taught in the Department of African Studies at Howard, a unit of the Faculty of Social Sciences, offering M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in African studies with a focus on public policy and development. At Carolina I am teaching in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, which offers undergraduate degrees in African studies and African American and Diaspora studies. Moreover, I have held the presidency of both an interdisciplinary professional organisation, the African Studies Association (ASA) of the United States, the largest scholarly organisation of Africa-area scholars in the world, in 1987-88, and a disciplinary one, the African Association of Political Science (AAPS), 1995-97. With 33 years spent teaching in interdisciplinary departments, I see myself as an interdisciplinary scholar, and I am above all a scholar-activist.

As a youngster whose political awakening coincided with the struggle for independence in the Belgian Congo, and whose dream of becoming a medical doctor was derailed by my own choice to participate in civil rights demonstrations against racial injustice and discrimination in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1963-65, political activism has been an integral part of who I am since I was expelled from the United Secondary School (Presbyterian-Methodist) of Katubue in April 1960 for participation in protests in favour of Congolese independence. Consequently, my scholarly work has been focused on the political history of the Congo and Africa, with the aim of understanding colonialism, African resistance to foreign rule, the independence struggle, and the betrayal of the people’s expectations of independence by the new African oligarchy, which is more concerned with enriching itself and clinging to power to protect itself from political and economic crimes. My first major scholarly article dealt with the role of different African social classes in the struggle for independence, and it was published as the lead article in the December 1970 issue of The Journal of Modern African Studies, while the French translation appeared three months earlier in the Cahiers Economiques et Sociaux, the social science journal of Lovanium University in Kinshasa.

This article, along with my very first article published in the December 1969 issue of Mawazo, a Makerere University journal, on the massacre of university students in Kinshasa on 4  June 1969, set the tone for all my subsequent publications. The most important work in these publications is The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History (2002). This book, which I finished writing while working for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Nigeria, won the Best Book Award from the African Politics Conference Group (APCG), an affiliate organization of the African Studies Association and other professional groups. It is an organisation made up mostly of American political scientists studying Africa. To make it available to Congolese and other Francophone readers, I published an updated French version of it as Faillite de la gouvernance et crise de la construction nationale au Congo-Kinshasa: Une analyse des luttes pour la démocratie et la souveraineté nationale (ICREDES 2015), which is translated in English as “Governance failure and the crisis of nation building in Congo-Kinshasa: An analysis of struggles for democracy and national sovereignty.”

This is the main thread running through my work and comes out clearly in my major books and articles, such as my presidential addresses at the African Studies Association in 1988 and the African Association of Political Science in 1997 entitled “The African Crisis: The Way Out,” and “The Role of Intellectuals in the Struggle for Democracy, Peace and Reconstruction in Africa,” respectively. The first address seeks to answer a question that many African scholars have raised but which is best articulated by Claude Ake in the London magazine West Africa of 17 June 1985 with a simple interrogation: “Why Africa is not developing.”

The American sociologist Barrington Moore has provided the correct way of approaching such a question. Generally, he argues, intellectuals analyse society either from the standpoint of the dominant groups, which have a vested interest in mystifying the way society works, or from the perspective of ordinary people, who have nothing to lose from truthful analyses of their predicament. For him, it is this latter class perspective that comes closer to objective scientific analysis. He writes: “For all students of human society, sympathy with the victims of historical processes and skepticism about the victors’ claims provide essential safeguards against being taken in by the dominant mythology. A scholar who tries to be objective needs these feelings as part of his ordinary working equipment”.

At the same time, sympathy with the popular classes does not mean creating other mythologies that have nothing to do with reality. Here I take advice from the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty on the social responsibility of intellectuals, which includes thinkers like Socrates, Karl Marx, and Cheik Anta Diop. According to this tradition, intellectuals are to be philosophers and, as such, critics of the status quo. For to philosophize, Merleau-Ponty maintains in his book Éloge de la philosophie (In Praise of Philosophy) – his brilliant inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1953 – implies that there are things to see and to say. And what a philosopher sees and says may not agree with society’s conventional wisdom and dominant interests. This is a position that is in perfect agreement with the Socratic view of philosophical practice as an uncompromising quest for the truth. A quest, it must be added, that involves a critical appraisal of all ideas, values, and conventions. According to this view, the philosopher is one who investigates and announces the results of this investigation regardless of the price to be paid for her/his commitment to the truth, the ultimate price being, as in the case of Socrates himself, giving up one’s life.

These are the two basic principles of my scholarly practice and contribution to knowledge: sympathy with the oppressed and uncompromising quest for the truth. I have attempted to rely on them to elucidate the political history of the Congo and Africa generally from the colonial period to the present.

UNDP technical assistant at a meeting of ICGLR (International Conference on the Great Lakes Region) MPs at the People’s Palace in Kinshasa, March 2007.

Which political figure from Congolese history do you think has been the most misunderstood or overlooked, and is deserving of greater attention today?

In terms of political history and social analysis, the one intellectual who fits this category the best is Mabika Kalanda. A philosopher and a political activist formerly known as Auguste Mabika Kalanda, he received an excellent education in the classical Greek and Latin curriculum of Belgian schools at the famous Catholic secondary school of Kamponde in the Kasai province of the Belgian Congo. In 1954, he was one of the first Congolese to enrol in a full-fledged university at Lovanium in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). He graduated in 1958 with two undergraduate degrees in psychology and education and political science. After one year of professional training as an assistant in the Ministry of Interior and the provincial government of Brabant in Belgium, he returned to the Congo as the sole Congolese member of the European-only corps of territorial administration officials.

Four years later, he would become the second person to hold the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs, from 14 April 1963 to 8 July 1964. When Pierre Mulele returned to Kinshasa on 3 July 1963 disguised as a West African following his training in guerrilla warfare in China, he apparently received support from Minister Mabika Kalanda, who gave him a new Congolese passport and helped facilitate his return to the Kwilu bush on 27 July. The popular insurrection for a “second independence” was about to start. A Lumumbist and a strong advocate of Lumumba’s vision for the Congo, Mabika Kalanda was head of one of the MNC/L factions at the CNS in 1991-92.

Mabika Kalanda wrote several books on different topics, ranging from the intra-ethnic conflict between the Lulua and Luba-Kasai to mythology, but his most important book with respect to postcolonial Africa is La Remise en Question: Base d’une Décolonisation Mentale (1967), in which the author calls for mental decolonisation in Africa by the calling into question of ideas, values and behaviour inherited from colonialism. The manuscript was sent to the publisher in 1965, but the book did not appear until two years later. By the time Mabika Kalanda began writing it in 1964, he had already dropped using his “Christian” or “European” name of Auguste, nearly eight years before Mobutu launched his “recourse to authenticity” drive in February 1972, which ordered his compatriots to use African names only and to promote African culture. Before that, in 1963, Mabika Kalanda had written a book in Tshiluba, one of the four national languages in the DRC, entitled Tabalayi, or open your eyes, for the Lulua and Luba-Kasai who are not fluent in French, but who share the same mother tongue, to resist the manipulations of ambitious politicians who were stoking the fires of division and war for their own interests.

Today, when you go into academic forums in the United States and in Anglophone Africa, you hear scholars heap praise on the distinguished Kenyan writer and academic Ngugi wa Thiong’o, formerly James Ngugi, as the person who first came up with the concept of mental decolonisation in his book Decolonizing the Mind (1986), although Ngugi himself gives a lot of credit to Frantz Fanon for this idea. Unfortunately, both Anglophone and Francophone scholars in Africa know little or nothing about Mabika Kalanda and his work. One can understand why Anglophone scholars could not have heard of him in the absence of translations. In the case of Francophone scholars, on the other hand, the main issue is the fact that we seem to notice great African intellectuals only after they have been discovered by Europeans or Americans.

When reading your work, and especially your most seminal contributions, the spirits of Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral are ever present. Could you talk a little about their influence on your intellectual development and writing?

I discovered Frantz Fanon in 1964 at Davidson College and Amilcar Cabral in 1968 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One day, while walking past his office in the main building of the college, Dr Richard Gift, then a professor of economics at Davidson, called me in to show me the 1963 Grove Press edition of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon’s masterpiece. He asked me whether I knew this revolutionary thinker of African descent. He was surprised by my ignorance and told me that every Third World student must study Fanon. I took his advice seriously and went to the college library, where I found the original of Fanon’s book in French (Les damnés de la terre, 1961), other books by him, and several of his articles as well as critiques of his work in French scholarly journals.

Since then, Fanon’s writings have influenced my intellectual outlook and my analysis of African politics. I was greatly inspired by his central message to African intellectuals, that they should follow the path of revolution by going to the school of the people rather than be captured by the bookish knowledge of the Ivory Tower, to transform the inherited structures of the economy and the state to serve the interests of the wretched of the earth instead of those of the imperialist bourgeoisie and its lackeys in Africa. This message rang so true in my mind not only because it reinforced similar messages from other great intellectuals such as Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and Barrington Moore, but also and more importantly because it reminded me of the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.

With reference to Amilcar Cabral, I came across his brilliant address on “Presuppositions and objectives of national liberation in relation to social structure,” which is best known as “The Weapon of Theory,” in 1968. This is the speech he had delivered on behalf of the peoples and nationalist organisations of the Portuguese colonies to the First Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America held in Havana on 3-12 January 1966. This and subsequent readings of Cabral’s other speeches and writings confirmed his affinity with Fanon’s central message. As a trained agronomist, his writings were fact-based and he combined a high level of empirical analysis with a very clear theoretical compass for understanding social realities, in addition to being a great strategist in the armed struggle against Portuguese fascism and colonialism. His writings on imperialism and national liberation were so superb that they were cited as an inspiration by the young Portuguese military officers who carried out the democratic coup d’état of April 1974, which is better known in Portugal as the Carnation Revolution.

The Amilcar Cabral Foundation learned of my appreciation of Cabral’s scholarly work at the 25th anniversary meeting of the African Studies Association, which was held in November 1982 in Washington under my leadership as the Program Director and chief organizer, that they invited me to the First Amilcar Cabral International Symposium held on 17-20 January 1983 in Praia, Cape Verde. These dates were chosen to coincide with the assassinations of Lumumba and Cabral himself, the first in 1961 and the second in 1973. I have had the privilege of participating in the 2nd symposium in September 2004 and the third in January 2013, all of which were held in Praia.

Lastly, it seems we are living through a period of some hope in the Congo, where in the first instance the courage, activism and sacrifices of Congolese people taking to the streets and in some cases laying down their lives made it politically unfeasible for Kabila to fulfil his desire to change the constitution and continue for a third term (and beyond), and more recently, the current President Felix Tshisekedi (Etienne’s son) has pulled off a succession of significant strategic moves to weaken Kabila’s political coalition and grip over the country, and replace it with what he is calling a Union sacrée de la nation (Sacred Union of the Nation). This is all very much ongoing as we speak, but what is your initial reading of the current political moment, and do you share the view that this is indeed a period of hope?

Africans tend to be eternal optimists, and I am one of them. In April 2019, on his first official visit to the United States, President Tshisekedi told a Congolese audience that his sees his job as that of ousting or taking down (déboulonner in French) the dictatorial and corrupt system that he found in power. Lots of people laughed at this statement, but he was dead serious about it. He started the process by unleashing the judiciary to let them do their job without being dictated to by Kabila and his cronies, and the prosecutors went after the President’s own chief of staff. Next came changes in the military high command and the Constitutional Court. The Kabilists overreacted with insults and acts of insubordination, particularly by the Justice minister and the Prime Minister, and fell into their own trap. The President stopped collaborating with them and cancelled the weekly cabinet meetings. Meanwhile, he appealed to patriotism and organized consultations with all strata of the population for a full month to gauge the spirit of the nation. The result was overwhelming support for breaking the coalition with Kabila’s political group and the desertion of hundreds of MPs from Kabila’s camp to the Union Sacrée de la Nation, the new parliamentary majority.

There is no doubt that some of the MPs who have changed political camps have done so in the hope of getting ministerial and parastatal posts. While fragile, the new majority made up of the pre-2019 opposition and the deserters from the Kabila camp will help the President in the short term in reorienting the country towards the rule of law and fiscal discipline likely to improve revenue collection to allow the state to pay civil servants and to provide to the population basic services such as water, electricity, health care and free education in primary and secondary schools. This will create a new departure for DRC citizens, who are tired of living in a banana republic, but one with an enormous wealth in the natural resources necessary to ensure decent livelihood. Popular support is one of the main reasons for the success of Tshisekedi’s political gamble, and the majority of the population stands behind the son of Etienne Tshisekedi. It is also the main reason for hope. Our politicians are aware of this reality. Being human, they do not want to see the people’s anger directed at them.

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is Professor of African and Global Studies in the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA). He is also a member of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), former president of the African Studies Association (ASA) of the United States and the author of many books, including The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History and Patrice Lumumba.

Featured Photograph: Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja as a lecturer at the Lubumbashi campus of the National University of Zaire in December 1973.


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