Paris. -- My first trip to Africa was to the Belgian Congo, now Zaire, in the mid-1950s, when decolonization had just begun and Africa's elites believed in themselves and in a free Africa's future.
The Belgians, like the French, were much criticized as reluctant decolonizers. Britain was preparing to leave its East African colonies, speeded on by the Mau Mau uprising begun in 1952 in Kenya. A secret society of the Kikuyu people -- whose traditional lands, the ''White Highlands,'' were occupied by Europeans -- the Mau Mau conducted a pitiless, terrifying struggle against whites and their collaborators.
The American view then was that the African colonies should be set free and given a kind of instruction and assistance in democracy only the United States was really qualified to provide -- it had never been an African colonizer.
The early Belgian record in the Congo had been terrible. King Leopold II had held it as a private fief, thanks to the great explorations of Henry M. Stanley, the later of which Leopold had financed. He used forced labor to strip the country's riches, with amputation of hands or feet a means of discipline.
International outrage, and uproar in Belgium itself, forced its government to take over the Congo from the king in 1908 and the atrocities stopped. However, even when I was there 50 years later, upriver in the great fetid forest, in such places as Stanleyville (now Kisangani), one could feel the traces of an unforgiven past.
In the 1950s the Belgians had a 30-year plan for the Congo. Theirs was a paternalistic and pragmatic policy of mass elementary education (the literacy rate was already higher than Brazil's), its level to rise until everyone had a proper basic education -- like the education Belgians had at home. Students were instructed in Flemish as well as French. They were to abandon the status of ''indigene" and accept European values -- eventually to be ''assimilated'' black Belgians: hard-working and sensible people who would understand the value of continuing to collaborate.
Belgians were critical of Britain and France for offering early autonomy or independence to their colonies and for sending Africans to universities in Europe. They said this would give them dangerous ideas. However, a university foundation had just been made in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, with a handful of students.
All this crashed to a halt in 1960, when under pressure of internal unrest and international opinion the Belgians abandoned the Congo, ostensibly to freedom, actually to an anarchic struggle for power and ethnic domination.
This was accompanied by frenzied attacks on Europeans, economic disintegration, a Belgian-sponsored secession try in mineral-rich Katanga, ineffectual U.N. intervention, foreign military intervention, ended by what amounted to an indirect U.S. takeover, justified by Cold War geopolitics. U.S. support settled on Col. Joseph Mobutu, now Marshal-President Mobuto Sese Seko.
Today the marshal-president governs little beyond what he fearfully sees from the deck of his house-boat on the Congo river. The economy has broken down. His U.S. allies have abandoned him.
I think of what an Englishman with me had predicted, ''an old African hand'' who had been with Orde Wingate in liberating Ethiopia from the Italians. What would happen when the Congo was freed?
The forest will take it back, he said. The leopard-men will come back. The old tribal demons will reappear from the Neolithic past. That equilibrium Africans had established to live with a pitiless Nature and punishing climate -- this immense challenge they had successfully mastered through the millennia -- might slowly re-establish itself. ''If they are lucky,'' he added.
He was thought a reactionary apologist for colonialism and the kind of person who was irrelevant to modern Africa. That's what everyone said at the time. And of course, what they said was true.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.