Joseph Kasa-Vubu, was a Congolese politician who served as the first President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo1960 until 1965.
Joseph Kasa-Vubu was born in the village of Kuma-Dizi in the Mayombe district of the Belgian Congo. His father was a successful farmer who, as an independent entrepreneur, traded with street merchants in Cabinda and built his house at the outskirts of the village. This earned him the animosity of the villagers and in an attempt to assuage their hostility he volunteered to undergo a “poison test” with a substance extracted from a kasa tree.
An industrious student, Kasa-Vubu graduated second in his class in 1936 and was admitted to the Kabwe seminary in Kasai Province. He intended to study three years of philosophy and five years of theology before becoming an ordained priest. Following the completion of the former courses in 1939 he was expelled by the bishop.
Kasa-Vubu subsequently returned to Mayombe and took up work as a bookkeeper for the Kangu mission. Dissatisfied with his salary of 80 francs per month, Kasa-Vubu passed the instructor’s exam and became a sixth-grade teacher at the mission school in early 1941. However, his pay was not increased and he left the mission in open disagreement with the superior and the local bishop. In May he found a new job at Agrifor, an agricultural and logging company. With a monthly pay of 500 francs, he felt financially secure enough to marry; on 10 October Kasa-Vubu wedded Hortense Ngoma Masunda in a Catholic ceremony at the Kangu mission. They had nine children.
In June 1942 Kasa-Vubu earned a job as a clerk in the finance department of the Belgian colonial administration in Leopoldville, the capital of the Congo. He worked there for 15 years, attaining the rank of chief clerk, the highest level of employment available to Congolese civil servants under Belgian rule. In 1956 he was in charge of accounting for all of the administration’s general stores.
Kasa-Vubu began semi-clandestine political organising work while he was still employed by colonial authorities.
Following the resignation of its leader on 21 March 1954, Kasa-Vubu was elected president of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO). Under his leadership, the group swept the first open municipal Leopoldville elections in 1957 and he 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 he 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 Leopoldville 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. They were unable to calm the crowd and 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, the ABAKO won a significant number of votes in the new parliament but not 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, for the presidency. The election of Kasa-Vubu brought about wide-ranging acceptance of the Congo’s new administration. The Belgian press reacted positively to the development, while the Léopoldville’s daily newspaper Courrier d’Afrique, edited by a Kongo, showed much warmer approval of the government. International opinion expressed satisfaction at the striking of a proper balance in leadership.
Belgian politicians hoped that Kasa-Vubu would check Lumumba’s impulses and personal disdain for Belgium. He was officially sworn in as President on 27th June.
The new republic was immediately disrupted by political and military strife and regional secessionist movements, and the central government was paralyzed by conflict between the more conservative Kasa-Vubu and leftist Prime Minister Lumumba. While Lumumba advocated for a stronger central government, Kasa-Vubu preferred a more decentralised 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 he was 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.
Meanwhile, Kasa-Vubu faced criticism from ABAKO and President Fulbert Youlou of Congo Brazzaville for not curbing Lumumba’s authoritarian actions. He resisted their pressure, and on 13 August he broadcast an appeal for unity and support for the government. Nevertheless, he cautioned the government against arbitrariness and excess:
“If I am under a moral obligation to support and defend the government within the limits set by the law, the members of the government themselves have a duty to work together as a team. Their policy must be the policy of the government and not that of one party, one race, or one tribe. It must be a policy which reflects the interests of the nation and which allows humanitarian values to flourish in freedom. This imperative excludes all feelings of hatred, suspicion, and bad faith towards those who have collaborated loyally with us. It is also the duty of the government to respect the institutions which have been set up and to abide by the normal rules of democratic practice”.
On 5 September, Kasa-Vubu dissoved Lumumba’s government which he accused of communist sympathies. Lumumba refused to accept his dismissal and announced Kasa-Vubu’s dismissal, creating a stalemate that endured until 14 September, when Army Commander Joseph Deire Mobutu seized power and arrested Lumumba. Lumumba was later handed to Moise Tshombe’s secessionist state in Katanga and they killed him.
Over the next five years, Kasa-Vubu presided over a succession of weak governments. After the end of the Katangese secession, Kasa-Vubu appointed Tshombe as Prime Minister in July 1964 with a mandate to end the emerging Simba Rebellion. Tshombe recalled the exiled Katangese gendarmerie and recruited white mercenaries, integrating them with the Armee National Congolaise (ANC). Many of the mercenaries had fought for Katanga while Tshombe was the leader of that breakaway province. Despite the successes against the Simba rebels, Tshombe’s prestige was damaged by his use of white mercenaries and western forces. He lost the support of Kasa-Vubu, who dismissed him from the post of prime minister, in October 1965.
Mobutu seized power for a second time on 25 November 1965, now deposing Kasa-Vubu and subsequently declaring himself head of state.
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’s family went into exile following his death, first to Algeria and then Switzerland.
One of his daughters, Justine M’Poyo Kasa-Vubu, eventually returned to the Congo (then called Zaire) in the 1990s. In 1997, she was appointed a cabinet minister by Laurent Kabila and then ambassador to Belgium.
Kasa-Vubu’s role in Congolese history has been overshadowed in literature by Lumumba and Mobutu. Anthropologist Yolanda Covington-Ward wrote that, contrary to Lumumba’s “privileged” position in historiography on Congolese nationalism, Kasa-Vubu and ABAKO were the primary “driving force” behind the independence movement.