Panthers in Congo

The film 'Congo Oyé,' pulled from the archives of a New York City library a decade ago, explores different interpretations of revolution, Black sovereignty and liberation.

Still from Congo Oyé ©.

The beginning of 1971 was a rough time for prominent Black Panther Party militant Eldridge Cleaver. In exile since 1968 following a shootout with the Oakland police, he was living in Algiers and attempting, with his wife Kathleen, to hold together the “international section” of the Panthers. But conflicts over strategy within the party, fueled by FBI infiltration and violence, reached a breaking point that February, when party co-founder Huey Newton expelled Eldridge Cleaver and the rest of the Algiers group. To make matters worse, the “Marxist-Leninist” states that Cleaver had been most enamored with—China and North Korea—began to soften their relations with the Panthers’ primary adversary: the US government.

Feeling abandoned and isolated, the Cleavers jumped at an invitation to visit Brazzaville, capital of the recently-proclaimed People’s Republic of Congo, in April. Having tried to build a movement in the US that fused Black liberation and socialist revolution, the Cleavers were enticed by Africa’s first self-declared Marxist-Leninist government. At the end of the trip, returning full of excitement about what he saw in Congo, Eldridge wrote:

What the Soviet Union meant to Europe, what China meant to Asia, and what Cuba meant to Latin America, the People’s Republic of the Congo means to Africa and to black people everywhere… Now for the first time in history, Africa and the Black World have such a center of people’s power. And this center of people’s power is destined to exercise the same kind of influence upon Africa and black people as the other centers did in their parts of the world and upon their peoples.

But the trip to Brazzaville was also an opportunity to experiment with a new medium of communication at the time: video. The Cleavers, joined by two other Panther activists, brought a new handheld video camera to Brazzaville, entrusted to photographer Bill Stephens. Stephens quickly edited the footage (with guidance from French filmmaker Chris Marker over the phone), and it was then narrated by Eldridge. As historian Sean Malloy explains, the resulting film, Congo Oyé (We Have Come Back) became the start of the Revolutionary People’s Communications Network. The network, driven by Kathleen Cleaver, attempted to quickly create, replicate, and distribute videos that would connect disparate groups of former Panthers and their supporters around the world. But Congo Oyé seemed to quickly disappear until a copy was found preserved at the New York Public Library about a decade ago.

Roughly cut and coming in at just over 46 minutes, it is a deceptively complex film. Eldridge Cleaver’s narration molds the footage into a lesson for Black Americans about the power of Black sovereignty and armed struggle. But in the spaces between Cleaver’s narratives, the film also offers a rare glimpse into a little-known African revolution and the thinking of its most committed leaders, some of whom would be executed just two years later. What the film so compellingly shows is how these militants—some American and some Congolese—arrived at different interpretations of the revolution.

Into an unknown revolution

The former Panthers touched down in Brazzaville more than seven years after the start of the Congolese revolution. Yet, for them, it was new. In contrast to Eldridge Cleaver’s confident narrative over the film, the camera mostly captures the Cleavers listening to their Congolese counterparts, with Kathleen taking copious notes and translating. They were there, the film implies, as diligent students of a revolution they were only learning about for the first time.

Since the early 1960s, Black American activists had paid close attention to events in Congo, but not that Congo. Rather, it was the other Congo, the massive Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with its capital located directly across the Congo River from Brazzaville, that was known around the world. The DRC had been the site of one of the most egregious displays of neo-colonial interference by the US and its Cold War allies in Africa. Belgian and US authorities actively worked to destabilize the newly independent government and facilitated the assassination of the first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961—sending the country into crisis and paving the way for the rise of the US-backed military officer Joseph Mobutu.

Lumumba’s murder radicalized a generation of young African and African-American activists in the early 1960s, who, like Malcolm X, began to talk about “the Congo” as being synonymous with the extension of American white supremacy abroad. But international attention on the crisis in the DRC meant that the revolution unfolding on the other side of the Congo River went largely unnoticed.

Unlike Lumumba, the first president of Congo-Brazzaville, Fulbert Youlou, had little interest in confronting the entrenched power of the former colonial power, France. Youlou was an avid anti-communist, deeply hostile to Lumumba, and also to the young radical intellectuals, students, and trade union leaders in Brazzaville. But in August 1963, Congo’s three trade union federations came together to call a general strike that soon turned into an urban rebellion and toppled Youlou’s government. It was the first popular uprising in Africa to overthrow a postcolonial government.

The next five years of the revolution were messy. Into the political void created by the 1963 uprising, a group of young students and recent university graduates came together to launch a series of “youth” initiatives in defense of the revolution. Through mass rallies, debates, study groups, and a new newspaper, they exposed thousands of young Congolese to Marxist and anti-colonial concepts. While mobilizing young city residents to repair streets and sewers, the new youth leaders also recruited Cuban advisors to help organize their followers into armed urban militias. Protective of their autonomy, youth leaders kept these initiatives mostly independent of both the new government and the national army.

In the process, emerging youth leaders became increasingly influential in state politics. The Congolese leaders that the Cleavers interviewed in Congo Oyé—Jean Baptiste Ikoko, Ange Diawara, and Claude-Ernest Ndalla were, by 1971,  “veterans” who had built their influence through their earlier work in independent youth organizations. On multiple occasions in the mid-60s, young militants had turned back attempts from both sides of the Congo River to overthrow the new government.

Far more coherent in their political goals than the “elders” who ran the new Congolese government, the youth leaders were also able to push through reforms aimed at achieving what they called “true independence”: the expulsion of French troops from Congo, the nationalization of the education system (then run by foreign administrators and missionaries), and the nationalization of Congo’s French-owned utility companies. At the same time, activists like Ndalla helped make Brazzaville a center for leftist exiles from across central Africa. Angolan anti-colonial activists from the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) arrived in 1964 and that same year, Che Guevara came to Brazzaville to meet them, beginning a thirty-year Cuban campaign of support for the MPLA and Angolan independence. During the Cleavers’ tour, Congolese authorities made sure to facilitate their trip to MPLA training camps along the border.

But control over the direction of the revolution became increasingly fraught by 1968, when a group of young army officers stepped in and took power. Led by the 29-year-old captain, Marien Ngouabi, some of the youth leaders agreed to follow him and incorporate the youth militias into the national military. This was how the Cleavers’ interlocutors in the film, Ikoko, Diawara, and Ndalla, came to occupy prominent roles in Ngouabi’s government. By the end of 1969, Ngouabi had declared Congo to be Africa’s first “Marxist-Leninist” government, eschewing the ideological ambiguity of the first revolutionary government.

Marxism-Leninism, an amalgamation of Maoist and Stalinist interpretations of Marxism at the time, was the same framework through which Cleaver and the Black Panthers had developed their own political perspectives in the United States. Thus, much of the language and iconography of Ngouabi’s regime looked familiar to the visitors. Stephens’ camera captures posters and placards featuring portraits of Guevara, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Vladimir Lenin. Such images were not specific to Congo’s new “Marxist-Leninist” turn—all would have been regular sights in Brazzaville, raised on the streets by youth organizations since 1964. But they represented a shared canon of Third World Marxists familiar to militants from both sides of the Atlantic.

Bringing Africa back to the US

Though shot exclusively in Congo, Congo Oyé is addressed to a prospective Black American audience. Opening with a plan of a slave ship and footage of the Cleavers visiting a site of memory from the era of Portuguese slaving, Eldridge romantically recounts the visceral feeling of reunion he had with the people they met in the “land of our fathers” after “400 years of slavery in Babylon.” Cleaver refers to Harlem renaissance poet Countee Cullen’s famous poem, Heritage, in which Cullen asked: “what is Africa to me?” Cleaver replies:

In the Congo, we were getting that answer for ourselves. We walked among the people, and mingled with them freely and we talked to them about our common plight, our common history … it was as though we had come home from a long journey, to find ourselves there waiting for us.

And yet the Panthers’ interest in Congo was not simply rooted in nostalgia for a lost homeland. Cleaver instead felt that he was reviving Malcolm X’s insistence on conceiving Black liberation as a global struggle. He thus began his pamphlet on the Congolese revolution, published shortly after his visit, with a section entitled “After Brother Malcolm.” Malcolm was, in Cleaver’s telling, the one who “achieved the historic task of connecting the Afro-American struggle for national liberation and the revolutionary struggles of Africa” through his travels in the continent, his friendship with Zanzibari revolutionary Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu, and his attempt to create the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Cleaver continues: “He, more than any other single influence, raised our consciousness to a level where we became even more directly prouder of Africa and our African ancestry and heritage.”

But the death of Malcolm X created a divide among Black American radicals—one that the Eldridge Cleaver felt the revolution in Congo could resolve. For him, Malcolm’s death led some to embrace “African culture” while repudiating Malcolm’s call for an armed, militant struggle. Partly in response to the rightward shift in the politics of “cultural nationalism,” other activists who remained committed to Malcolm’s strategy of “revolutionary Black nationalism” (including the Panthers) became fixated on “the gun” and moved away from their connection to Africa.

For Cleaver, the revolution in Congo offered the potential to resolve this divide and revive Malcolm’s vision:

The historical fact of the existence of a Marxist-Leninist nation in Africa destroys all arguments supporting the perpetuation of the contradiction between the revolutionary black nationalists and the cultural nationalists, which for several years has bottled up and stifled an unestimated amount of revolutionary energy.

Halfway through Congo Oyé the viewer hears Cleaver recount the moment of this realization.

Yet such a historical task was a heavy burden for a small African nation of just over one million people. In the film, Jean-Baptiste Ikoko, a former youth militia activist turned leader of the new Congolese government, is hesitant to make the Congo the standard-bearer for global Black liberation. In reflecting on his time as a student in the US, Ikoko is frank: far too many people he met in the US held a romantic view of Africa, as a land where people lived free of exploitation and class conflict. “It’s not true,” Ikoko tells his visitors, lamenting, in particular, the exploitation of Congolese women. For Ikoko, there was nothing virtuous about celebrating aspects of “African culture” that ran counter to the egalitarian and liberatory goals of the revolution.

Further, Ikoko challenged any notion that race or Blackness was a natural source of pride or unity—“this is not the main point. The main point for us is to get out of the exploitation.” In the film, we don’t see or hear how the Cleavers respond, but Ikoko’s comments complicated Cleaver’s perception of the revolution. As Sarah Fila-Bakabadio argues, Cleaver saw the Congo he wanted to see, as a symbol that proved the compatibility of the Panther’s merger of Black nationalism and Marxism. Congo was to be the place where a specifically Afro-American struggle organically connected to the Third World. But Congolese leaders were, at the end of the day, focused on building a nation-state, not a global revolution. And as Ikoko’s comments suggest, “race was not the main denominator in their struggle.” Though Eldridge Cleaver had hoped to make Congo the new home of the Panthers’ international section, the Congolese government had other priorities.

Revolution by the gun

Cleaver’s adoration of the militarization of the revolution also masked problems beneath the surface. Much of the footage in the second half of the film focuses on the “People’s Army”—the new name for Congo’s national military, which was meant to embed a politics of socialism into military culture. With the government now led by an army officer, Marien Ngouabi, it was no surprise that the army began to play an elevated role in politics. Stephens shows a May Day placard indicative of this: “Without an army of the people, the people would have nothing.” The film also captures the call and response chants often led by Ngouabi himself and answered by young soldiers: “Down with neocolonialism! Down with imperialism! Down with tribalism! Honor to the people!”

The sight of a sovereign black nation with a national military, whose stated aims were an end to imperialism and support of the lower classes, was extremely alluring to Cleaver—especially in an era when the US military had expanded its war in Southeast Asia and clearly stood for the opposite. In contrast, Congo offered hope that “someday,” Cleaver narrates, “the Afro-American people will also have their gun, and their army, and they will be free.” When he asks Congolese leader Claude-Ernest Ndalla for a message to the Afro-American people, Ndalla replies:

The fight that we have against the American imperialist in Laos, Cambodia, Congo, Chile, Vietnam, those fights don’t have—can’t have—the same impact that the fights that the Afro-Americans lead against the imperialism within their own country. To the Afro-Americans…you have to fight through violence, revolutionary violence, you have to respond to the imperialists with revolutionary violence.

From Ndalla’s call to arms, the film cuts to a final shot of Congolese soldiers singing an ode to the Black Panthers and their struggle. Celebrating the downfall of American power, the soldiers sing of the US, “Having been hidden, the revolution is in his house.” But as much as Ndalla’s words validated Eldridge Cleaver’s own perspective on the need for armed resistance, for Congolese leaders there was no question that Black Americans and Congolese had their own unique struggles. As Fila-Bakabadio points out, in Cleaver’s urgent desire for global solidarity, he chose not to acknowledge how much his project differed from that of the Congolese government.

The visitors were also likely unaware of the troubled situation in Congo. What the Panthers could not see during their brief three-week visit was how little the military regime’s rhetorical commitment to anti-imperialism and Marxism extended into practice. This situation frustrated two of the young Congolese leaders interviewed for the film: Ikoko and Diawara. In February 1972—less than a year after they appeared in Congo Oyé—Ikoko, Diawara and other former youth activists orchestrated their own attempted coup, which they hoped would be accompanied by a popular uprising in Brazzaville. The uprising never materialized and the attempt to take power failed, sending them into the forests just west of Brazzaville, where they tried to build a guerrilla force. They were captured and executed in 1973 under Ngouabi’s orders. Today, interest in Diawara, Ikoko, and their rebel companions has been revived among young Congolese interested in radical alternatives to the seemingly interminable rule of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Importantly, Congo Oyé offers the only known audio recordings of these martyred revolutionaries.

Though the film showcases major figures from Congo’s past, they are greatly outnumbered by shots of unidentified people out in public: men enjoying rumba music, school children marching, women at a market, young soldiers listening to commanders, and spectators straining to see the 1971 May Day parade. The film does not dwell on any one particular person for long, soon moving to the next. But Stephens’ choice was clear: The Congolese revolution  could not be understood solely through the words of government officials. Congo Oyé instead presents the revolution—and the potential of solidarity across the African diaspora—as being the work of all kinds of people, not just the most recognizable leaders.

Further Reading

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