DRC: May 1960 Elections and the difficult birth of the new state

Extracted from: "Democratic Republic of Congo" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 63-65.

Following mounting internal pressure, colonial and metropolitan authorities met with Congolese political leaders in Brussels in January-February 1960 to discuss the future of the country. Amongst the major decisions made at the Brussels Roundtable were the agreement about the fundamental features of the provisional constitution and the determination of the independence date.

The provisional constitution, better known as the loi fondamentale, was published on 19 May 1960 by the Belgian parliament. The fundamental law adopted structures which were nearly the reproduction of the constitutional monarchy of Belgium. It accommodated both defenders of a unitary state and supporters of a federal state by entrenching the unitary character of the new state while allowing each the six provinces to have its own government and legislature, and equal representation in a 87 seat national senate. The constitution provided for the election by universal suffrage of MPs to the 137 seat Chamber of representatives. A prime minister heading the government, upon whom extensive executive powers were conferred had to come from the majority party or coalition. Finally, a ceremonial State President was to be elected indirectly by the Chambers.

The electoral system provided for under the loi fundimentale was complicated. On 22 May, adult male citizens aged at least 21 years, were voting for the National Assembly and for six provincial councils. Voting was compulsory. For the national elections, parties submitted lists in each district or commune. For the councils, parties compiled lists for each territory, a rather larger administrative division. Both districts and territories were to be represented by a multiplicity of members to allow for the distribution of seats between parties on the basis of their proportional share of votes, parties were required to submit lists of candidates half as long again as the number of seats to be filled. In the allocation of seats the d'Houst formula was used. In each election, voters cast on a single ballot. On this ballot they could indicate either their preference for a particular candidate or for the party slate. This very democratic measure ensured that efforts by party leaders to determine the likelihood of the successful election of their own protégés by deciding on their ranking on the party list could be subverted by popular predispositions.

The Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) of Patrice Emery Lumumba won 38 out of 137 parliamentary seats and entered into coalition with other nationalist parties, such as the Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA) and the Centre de Regroupement Africain, CEREA (Se 1960 National Assembly results). Together, they had a relative majority which enabled them to form the first government of the Congo with Lumumba as the prime minister.

Lumumba made a deal with his main rival, Joseph Kasavubu in order to obtain a smooth investiture of his newly formed government by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Lumumba's move was also aimed at pre-empting Kasavubu's threat to create a separate state in the coastal Bas-Congo region, if he were not elected State President. Thus, the Lumumba government was approved by the Chamber of Deputies by 74 votes against 1 with 5 abstentions and 57 absences. The Senate also approved the government by 60 votes against 12 with 8 abstentions. Subsequently, Kasavubu was elected head of state with 159 votes against 43 with 11 abstentions or spoiled ballots.

On 30 June 1960, the Belgian King, Baudoin the First, handed over power to entirely unprepared African leaders. The average age of the cabinet ministers was thirty-five. Most ministers had only a four-year post-primary education and none had administrative experience beyond the town council level. In addition, the desperate quest for leadership led some politicians to declare the secession of their provinces from the rest of the country or to plot against the newly established government. Thus, five days after independence, the army mutinied because of the conservatism of the Belgian officers. The government of Belgium sent in troops to protect its citizens while supporting Moïse Tshombe's secession in Katanga province and Albert Kalonji's in the South Kasaï region. This marked the beginning of a civil war with factions supported by foreign powers. Kasavubu and Lumumba called in the United Nations to defend the territorial integrity of the new state.

The attempt by the Lumumba government to restore order was accompanied by army massacres, particularly in South-Kasaï. Blaming Lumumba for the troubles, Kasavubu dismissed the Prime Minister in September 1960 under questionable legal circumstances. At once, Lumumba rejected his dismissal as unconstitutional and, in retaliation, dismissed Kasavubu, basing his action on the fact that the latter would not have been elected head of the state without the support of Lumumba's coalition. To end the constitutional crisis, the Army Chief of staff, Colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu suspended both Kasavubu and Lumumba on 14 September 1960, and installed a provisional government made up of university graduates and students, the Collège des Commissaires Généraux. Lumumba was subsequently arrested and kept in house arrest, from where he escaped before being rearrested in December 1960 in Mweka on his way to Stanleyville in the Orientale Province from where he allegedly intended to launch a resistance movement. He was imprisoned, tortured and transferred to the Katanga province where secessionist leaders assassinated him on 17 January 1961, the day of his arrival in Katanga. Kasavubu was subsequently re-installed by Mobutu as the state president in February 1961.

The East-West schism worked against the new state as both superpowers wanted to control this strategically located and mineral rich country. The ensuing chaos led to instability, political assassinations, rebellions resulting in the death of an estimated half a million people, destruction of infrastructure and socio-economic decay.