January 4th is a holiday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When I first encountered this holiday last year, I thought it was a little unbelievable. That is, Congo has national holidays.
The holiday remembers the death of Congolese killed on January 4, 1959. Several hundreds died when they demonstrated and rioted for their independence from Belgium.
In the winter of 1958-59, while the Belgian government was debating a programme to gradually extend the political emancipation of the Congolese population, it was overtaken by events. On 4 January 1959, a prohibited political manifestation organised in Léopoldville by ABAKO got out of hand. At once, the colonial capital was in the grip of heavy rioting. It took the authorities several days to restore order and by the most conservative count several hundreds died.
The eruption of violence sent a shockwave through the Congo and Belgium alike. On 13 January, king Baudouin solemnly declared in a radio address that Belgium would work towards the full independence of the Congo "without hesitation, but also without irresponsible rashness".
Without committing to a specific date for independence, the government of prime minister Gaston Eyskens had a multi-year transition period in mind during which provincial elections would take place in December 1959, national elections in 1960 or 1961, after which administrative and political responsibilities would be gradually transferred to the Congolese, in a process presumably to be completed towards the mid-1960s.
On the ground the reality looked quite different.