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National University of Zaire

The National University of Zaire (UNAZA) [1] first received funds through the University Development Program (UDP) in 1972. While the RF supported Lovanium University (one part of the eventual UNAZA) throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, the civil unrest that followed decolonization prevented, for a time, further RF relations. 

Students in Lecture Hall, Lovanium University, Kinshasa (Congo) 1957

Students in Lecture Hall, Lovanium University, Kinshasa (Congo) 1957

The Promise of UNAZA

Early RF interest in Lovanium University was initially sparked by the school’s high admissions and academic standards, which were in part a result of the school’s well-established relationship with the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. RF funding provided support for a number of programs including nursing and library development.

By 1972 there were many more reasons to consider the school as a candidate for UDP funding. The RF believed that UNAZA offered opportunities in curriculum development and innovation because the school had only been created one year earlier, following a merger of Lovanium University in Kinshasa, the Free University of the Congo in Kisangani and the State University of the Congo in Lubumbashi. In the new organization each campus focused on a specialized discipline. The Faculty of Social Sciences was located in Lubumbashi, the Faculty of Agriculture at Yangambi and the Faculty of Medicine at Kinshasa. This radical reorganization economized resources and avoided duplication of services.

Rockefeller Fellow Dr. Josephine Namboze working at a Child Welfare Clinic, Kinshasa (Congo)

Rockefeller Fellow Dr. Josephine Namboze working at a Child Welfare Clinic,
Kinshasa (Congo)

The potential for experimentation appealed to RF officers. RF trustees were also encouraged that the Zairian authorities had expressed an interest in external assistance, including RF involvement. RF officers believed that Zairians would make their own contributions and eventually sustain the university. A high concentration of natural resources, including mineral wealth, could create a strong Zairian economy. The RF also saw an opportunity for regional impact, since the university already drew students from neighboring African nations.[2]

Signs of Trouble

The first UDP appropriation to the UNAZA allocated $500,000 for staff development. From the outset, however, RF officers harbored concerns about the UDP’s involvement. James S. Coleman and David Court, two RF officers who wrote a history of the program, noted that RF officers in agriculture and medicine expressed opposition to UNAZA receiving UDP funding.  Medical staff did not see much promise in the Kinshasa program, while agriculturalists did not believe that Yangambi offered the best opportunities for research.

Indeed, the choice of Yangambi as the site of a new UNAZA campus was motivated by political rather than research interests.  Zaire’s authoritarian leader, Mobutu, chose a site that had once been home to an agricultural station used by the Belgians for export tree crops, but with soil quality that proved incapable of growing Zaire’s much needed food crops. Yet Mobutu’s authority left no room for dissent.[3]

A number of other obstacles, many political in nature and most beyond the power of the RF, soon arose. As described in the 1978 program review:

A combination of circumstances and developments towards the end of 1975 led to further deterioration of the Zairian economy and as a consequence raised doubts about the survival of the Mobutu regime itself. The debacle of Zairian intervention in the Angolan war, the catastrophic drop from $1.50 to 55 cents a pound in the price of copper (which accounts for 70% of Zaire’s foreign exchange earnings), the indefinite closure of the Benguela Railway, the cumulative effects of the disastrous economic policies of the two prior years aimed at economic independence, the rapid increase in indebtedness which threatened and ultimately did bring Zaire to near bankruptcy (globally the Zairian public debt reached per capita the highest level of indebtedness in the world), the continuing steep rise in the price of imported fuel, and the mounting proportion of scare foreign exchange required for the importation of basic foodstuffs due to a continuing decline in agricultural production -- all transpiring within a context of a global recession – combined to plunge Zaire into a state of economic, social and political affairs from which many analysts believed salvation was impossible.[4] 

All of these conditions directly impacted UNAZA. University administration and financial oversight were basically non-existent. Faculty found it increasingly difficult to earn a living and wanted for basic resources. Morale plunged without pay or academic support. Libraries languished with minimal resources. In 1975 an RF report noted that “[a]nyone familiar with Zairian higher educational institutions is struck (‘shocked’ might be more appropriate) by the abysmal state of the libraries in terms of physical facilities, available books, subscription to journals, and the sheer quality of the management of what pass for libraries.”[5] Money that the Mobutu government promised for infrastructure never materialized, including the construction of roads to the remote station at Yangambi. 

Lovanium University, Kinshasa (Congo)

Lovanium University, Kinshasa (Congo)

Yet the RF did realize some modest success. The Center for Interdisciplinary Research on the Development of Education (CRIDE) and the Institute for Social and Economic Research (IRES) were established with RF funding and organization assistance. The Foundation also supported staff development through individual fellowships.

[1] Zaire is now named Democratic Republic of the Congo. For the purposes of this essay Zaire is used since it refers to the name of the nation during the time period discussed.

[2] “Elements in the Rationale for Selection of the National University of Zaire as an EFD University”, undated, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 1.3, Series 709, Box 31, Folder 394.

[3] James S. Coleman and David Court, University Development in the Third World (New York: Pergamon Press, 1993) 127-135.

[4] Dr. John J. McKelvey et al., “National University of Zaire (UNAZA): Program Review” March 8, 1978, RAC, RG 1.3, Series 709, Box 31, Folder 395.

[5] “Zaire Review: Education for Development” September 1975, RAC, RG 1.3, Series 709, Box 31, Folder 394.