Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with James D. Phillips
PHILLIPS: My job in the political section was following internal politics, trying to figure out who was doing what to whom. I had a lot of contact with politicians and journalists but very little with government officials.
Q: What was the political life like then?
PHILLIPS: In spite of Mobutu's one party state, the Congo was fragmented and driven by ethnic tensions. There was no sense of being Congolese. If you asked a person what he was he would answer “Baluba” or “Lunda” or whatever tribe he belonged to, but rarely “Congolese.” It is very difficult to create a nation state out of so much diversity, in a country where several hundred tribal languages are spoken. So there were tribal and regional politics rather that the kind of party politics that exists in a democracy. Mobutu did not tolerate opposition but he could not stop jockeying among ethnic and regional leaders for power within the ruling party. That is what constituted political life. One of the reasons the U.S. opposed the Katanga secession and stuck with Mobutu was because we believed the Balkanization of the Congo would create worse conditions for economic development and democracy than a unitary state.
Q: In Nigeria we were under a lot of pressure during the Biafran civil war just on that issue. We stuck to our guns on that and most of us in the Foreign Service believed in it.
PHILLIPS: The Africans had decided for themselves at the Organization for African Unity that a cardinal principle and iron rule of post-colonial life was to leave the old colonial boundaries alone. To do otherwise would open a Pandora's box because if you made changes in Zaire you would have to look at almost every other African country. The only time that I know of that this self-imposed rule was broken was when Ethiopia let Eritrea go and become and independent state, and there is still a Pandora's box potential in that arrangement.
Q: And Eritrea did exist on its own before. I thought we might stoat this point. Unless there is something else we should talk about.
PHILLIPS: I would just say on my career story at this point that I had two great first assignments. First I got to know Paris, saw how diplomacy works at a very high level and observed a major Embassy's interaction with Washington. Then I went to a completely different world. Lubumbashi could not have been more different than Paris. Among other things it was a small post where we were “the United States.” Our reporting was largely all that Washington had to go on and we felt a tremendous responsibility to get it right. During the rest of my career I alternated between these two extremes, between Europe and Africa.
Q: How much did the Soviet Union play a role in the thinking at thembassy in Kinshasa?