Thursday, 31 May 2018

Katanga 1960-63 - Christopher Othen

This review has been submitted to Sabretache magazine.

Title: Katanga 1960-63
Author: Christopher Othen
ISBN: 978-0-75096-288-9
Publisher: Trafalgar Square Publishing
Year: 2015
Pages: 256
Photos/Maps: 33/1

The nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo has earned, and deservedly so, a reputation for instability, corruption and violence. Following the decision by the Belgian’s to bow to international pressure and declare their Colony of Congo to be independent, factions, vying for control, position and influence, clashed both politically and militarily in an effort to cement their claims to power. Thus rose, in 1960, the nation state of Katanga in the South East corner of Congo under the charismatic leader Moise Tshombe.

What followed over the next three years was a dizzying dance of international and domestic intrigue featuring the Congolese leadership under Lumumba, United Nations, mercenaries, former colonial masters, globalized corporations, East/West manoeuvering and inter-tribal conflict. No institution was free from the stain of violence and assault including, it would appear, the UN. Before it ended in January, 1963, thousands would be dead or maimed, a Secretary-General (Dag Hammarskjold) would be killed and the aspirations of the breakaway country of Katanga, crushed.

The author presents a balanced view of the roles of the different actors in the tragedy of Congo. He spares no one or any organization either praise or criticism as earned. His research is thorough and comprehensive drawing upon a myriad of declassified primary source material from the UN archives as well as interviews and memoires of the participants.

It is particularly interesting to compare the changes in the perceived role of the UN from its Katanga intervention to the present day. For example, there does not appear to have been a declaration of Chapter 6, 7 or 8 by the Security Council and skirmishes with Belgian military seconded to the Katangan government were common. The UN was not, nor did it attempt to appear to be neutral; rather its role was aggressive and very ‘real politique’ in nature. U Thant, replacing Dag Hammarskjold as Secretary-General of the UN is presented as more than willing to use force to shut down Katanga.

The author’s analysis of the foundations of the separatist movement in Katanga is enlightening, revealing the complexities of tribal, colonial and international competition. As he discusses, it was often impossible to determine whose side an individual was on, such was the speed of change. Further adding to the myriad of actors were those outliers who appeared to have no plan or allegiance other than anarchy and murder. The Simba’s, roving gangs of loosely affiliated youth, high on drugs and using terror and the edge of the machete as their preferred method of discussion, overlaid the already crowded battlefield.

Othen’s style is dynamic and engaging; his book reads very well. While it would have been perhaps helpful to discuss the methodology by which the UN operated at this time, specifically with regard to chapter designations in support of operations; Othen is able to show and describe effectively the struggles that the UN had regarding its role and the financing of its operations. There is no question that Katanga represented an unprecedented engagement environment for the UN and that much of what it undertook was unfamiliar ground.

Overall a well written and fascinating study of an event that had a foundational impact on operations within Africa by the International Community as well as the United Nations. Othen has portrayed the complexity and brutality of the conflict in stark and unvarnished terms (including the pictures that accompany the book). While not well remembered today, the conflict surrounding the transition of Congo from colony to independence, was indicative of the challenges faced by the nascent African nations as well as the world community. Recommended.

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