Joseph Kasa-Vubu, alternatively Joseph Kasavubu, (1910 [other sources have 1913, 1915 and 1917] – 24 March 1969) was the first President of the Congo-Léopoldville (1960–65), today the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Little is known about Joseph Kasa-Vubu’s early years, including his actual date of birth. It is known that he was born in the village of Kuma-Dizi, and his early education was in the Kikongo language. Kasa-Vubu was the grandson of a Chinese laborer, brought to the Congo to work on a railroad line between Matadi and Léopoldville. His mother was a member of the Bakongo tribe. In 1925, he took the Christian name Joseph and his parents sent him to receive a Catholic education in Mbata Kiela Kasa-Vubu went on to study theology and philosophy at the Kabwe seminary until 1939, but before graduation, opted to become a teacher, rather than a priest. He later converted to Protestantism.
Kasa-Vubu went on to work as an agronomist, book keeper and civil servant, before attaining the rank of chief clerk, the highest level of employment available to Congolese under Belgian colonial rule. Kasa-Vubu began semi-clandestine political organizing work while still employed by colonial authorities.
In 1955, Kasa-Vubu was elected leader of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) composed primarily of his own people from around the Congo River. Under his leadership, the group swept the first open municipal Leopoldville elections in 1957, and Kasa-Vubu was elected mayor of the Dendale district of the city.
Kasa-Vubu quickly became known as one of the first Congolese leaders to call for independence. At first, he advocated for independence from Belgium on a 30-year timeline, but shortened the timetable as the ABAKO movement gained in strength.In his inauguration speech as mayor of Dendale, Kasa-Vubu reiterated his demand for independence, drawing a reprimand from Belgian colonial authorities, which only strengthened his image as a Congolese leader.
On 4 January 1959, an ABAKO political gathering, organized by Kasa-Vubu erupted into violence, sparking the 1959 Léopoldville Riots, a pivotal moment in the Congolese struggle for independence. Kasa-Vubu was set to address the crowd on African nationalism, but colonial authorities banned the meeting. Unable to calm the crowd, thousands of Congolese began rioting. Kasa-Vubu was arrested, along with several other leaders, and imprisoned for inciting the riot. He was released two months later.
Upon Congo’s independence from Belgium, Kasa-Vubu’s ABAKO party won a significant number of votes in the new parliament, but did not win an outright victory. In a political compromise, it was agreed that Patrice Lumumba, of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) would be prime minister, and Kasa-Vubu would face Jean Bolikango, a former mentor in the ABAKO movement, for the presidency. Kasa-Vubu was elected president by the Congo’s new national assembly, taking office on 30 June 1960.
The new republic was immediately disrupted by political and military strife and regional secessionist movements, while the central government was paralyzed by conflict between the conservative Kasa-Vubu and his nationalistic prime minister Lumumba. While Lumumba advocated for a stronger central government, Kasa-Vubu leaned towards a more decentralized form of government that gave autonomous powers to provinces under a federal system.
Kasa-Vubu was regarded as rather mysterious in his motivations and his actions, frequently preferring to stay silent or give ambiguous answers when confronted. His role as head-of-state was theoretically ceremonial and far less influential than Lumumba’s role as prime minister. During the immediate upheaval following independence, Kasa-Vubu took few steps and made few definitive statements, even as Lumumba appealed for international assistance—to the Americans, the United Nations and the Soviet Union.
Main article: Congo Crisis
On 5 September Kasa-Vubu dismissed Lumumba but the prime minister refused to accept this and in turn announced Kasa-Vubu’s dismissal, creating a stalemate that was only ended on 14 September with army commander Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s seizure of power and arrest of Lumumba. Lumumba was later handed to Moise Tshombe’s secessionist forces in the southern province of Katanga and murdered.
Over the next five years, Kasa-Vubu presided over a succession of weak governments. In July 1964 he appointed former Katangan secessionist leader Moise Tshombe as prime minister with a mandate to end the Simba Rebellion. Tshombe recalled the exiled Katangese gendarmerie and recruited white mercenaries, integrating them with the Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC). Many of these mercenaries had fought for Katanga when Tshombe was leader of the breakaway province. Despite the successes against the Simba rebels, Tshombe’s prestige was damaged by the use of white mercenaries and western forces. He lost the support of Kasa-Vubu and was dismissed from the post of prime minister in October 1965. Mobutu seized power for a second time on 25 November 1965, this time deposing Kasa-Vubu and subsequently declaring himself head of state.
Death and legacy
Mobutu placed Kasa-Vubu under house arrest, before eventually allowing the deposed president to retire to his farm in Mayombe. Kasa-Vubu died in a hospital in Boma four years later in 1969, possibly after a long illness.
Kasa-Vubu had six children. Following his death, his family went into exile, first to Algeria and then Switzerland. One of his daughters, Justine M’Poyo Kasa-Vubu eventually returned to the Congo (then Zaire) in the 1990s. In 1997, she was appointed a cabinet minister by Laurent Kabila and then ambassador to Belgium.
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