Students, the Church, and Decolonization in the Congo

Our fifth session Boko Café took place on June 22th, 2021 between 3-5pm (Berlin time) with our guest Dr. Pedro Monaville, a historian of modern Africa and a professor of History at NYU Abu Dhabi, UAE. He gave a presentation on “Students, the Church, and Decolonization in the Congo.

Dr. Monaville’s current research project focuses on the role of student activism in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and notably on how Congolese university students helped give meaning and content to their country’s independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Through their activism and intellectual work, students introduced and mediated new ideas about culture, politics, and the world. In his current book project, Dr. Monaville follows the collective trajectory of the Congolese students of the 1960s. The project shows how students contributed to reimagine the Congo as a decolonized polity by connecting their country to global discussions about revolution, authenticity, and equality.

Dr. Monaville suggested three readings for the participants:

  • Monaville, P. (2019). The political life of the dead Lumumba: Cold War histories and the Congolese student left. Africa, 89(S1), S15-S39. doi:10.1017/S000197201800089X
  • KANTROWITZ, R. (2018). CATHOLIC SCHOOLS AS ‘A NATION IN MINIATURE’: CATHOLIC CIVISM IN SENEGAL AND BENIN, 1960–1970s. The Journal of African History, 59(2), 221-239. doi:10.1017/S0021853718000300
  • Biaya, T. (1999). Société Parallèle, “Mobutucratie” et Nationalisme Post-colonial en République Démocratique du Congo. African Journal of Political Science / Revue Africaine De Science Politique, 4(1), 63-82. Retrieved June 20, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23493688

Three Questions to Dr. Pedro Monaville

You recently finished a book about students politics in the Congo. Can you tell us more about this project?

The book is currently titled Students of the World: Decolonization and the Global 1960s in the Congo.

It will be published by Duke University Press in the Spring of 2022.

The main intervention of the book is to replace the Congo within the global 1960s and to show that students in Kinshasa were as important a political force in their country, as student protesters were in Berkley, Berlin, Mexico, Paris, and Rio.

Like their peers around the world, students in the Congo were deeply internationalists and imagined and real connections with distant people, ideas, and struggles shaped their perception of politics in the Congo.

My book is also an attempt at revisiting the history of the Congo’s decolonization, and particularly to understand the impact of the Congo crisis of the early 1960s and of the Mobutu dictatorship on the invention of independent Congolese statehood.

During your talk, you explained that Lumumba was a major figure for Congolese students in the 1960s. What explains his influence over them?

Lumumba’s assassination had indeed a major impact on the trajectory of student politics. In the mid-1950s, the Belgian state had finally authorized the opening of a university for the colonized, based on the idea that higher education would produce “moderate” Congolese who would be willing to work hand in hand with the Belgians and who would counter the influence of anticolonial politicians.

Initially, many students indeed were critical of the radical anticolonialism of Lumumba. Actually, in the aftermath of President Kasa-Vubu’s dismissal of Lumumba as Prime Minister in 1960, the government that Mobutu put in place to replace Lumumba’s executive was made exclusively of university students and recent graduates. These students were in charge when Lumumba was arrested and then sent to Katanga, where he was assassinated in January 1961.

However, the assassination reverberated very strongly among the Congolese educated youth and it created a shift towards the left. The fate of Lumumba opened the eyes of many about the nature of neo-colonialism. What I also argue in the book is that the worldwide emotion around Lumumba’s assassination mattered a great deal in students’ awakening to left nationalism. It was through their association with the figure of Lumumba that they existed in the eyes of the world, and this new Lumumbist identity was key in opening up doors through the decades.

What the role of Catholicism in student politics in the Congo in the 1960s?

The Catholic church dominated the education sector in the Congo. Most students had been trained in Catholic seminaries and high schools. After independence, the Church became an even more important institution, in great part because it was able to maintain its resources and structures while the crisis of the early 1960s had seriously undermined state capabilities.

At the same time, there were conversations within Catholic intellectual circles about the decolonization of the Church and of Catholic liturgy. These discussions percolated among students and influenced to some degrees students’ understanding of cultural nationalism.

Yet, for an increasing number of students in the 1960s, the Church was seen as a conservative force – still very much a colonial institution. The main university in the country, Lovanium, was a Catholic institution, but many students there resented the relative rigidity of Catholic education. For them, Catholicism embodied the right, and in contrast they saw themselves as a left avant-garde, and many embraced various forms of socialism.

However, it is also striking to note how many people form this generation returned to the church later in their life, and how they used religion as a resource in the political during the tensed period of democratization in the early 1990s.

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