Patrice Lumumba: a tragic hero
About 55 years ago, yet another great crime was committed on the African continent by imperialist forces. Like many such heinous acts, there was complicity by Africans.
In this case it robbed Africa of one of its brightest prospects, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo of so many possibilities for a better and more prosperous future.
That potentially wealthy central African nation has had a troubled past over the last five decades. It has been a period that has led many to conjecture what might have been, had Patrice Émery Lumumba not been so cruelly snatched from his people at the age of 35.
Lumumba was born Élias Okit’Asombo on July 2, 1925, in the Kasai province of the then Belgian Congo in the village of Onalua.
He was able to hone his love for literature and learning while attending missionary school and borrowing books to read.
After some travels within his country, and acquiring different languages, Lumumba became a postal service clerk during the mid-1940s in what is now Kinshasa, later working as an accountant in another region. He also wrote poems and essays for publication, earning acclaim, and became increasingly involved in political movements, keeping in mind the oppression endured by Africans from the Belgian colonial system.
After having established himself as a leader in organizing unions, Lumumba co-established the Congolese National Movement in 1958. He called for countrywide unity, bringing together different ethnic backgrounds, and freedom from colonial atrocities, with major links to pan-Africanist movements as well.
On June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo officially took its Independence from Belgium, and, at 35 years old, Lumumba became the country’s first prime minister. However, nationwide disarray was to follow with various leaders vying for power, including a Belgian-fortified secession of the region of Katanga, headed by Moise Tshombe.
Lumumba called for United Nations aid to no avail and turned to the Soviet Union for military intervention, with the Congo thus caught in Cold War politics and Lumumba perceived by the United States as having communist ties. Years later it was revealed that a CIA operative in the field during the Eisenhower administration was instructed to poison Lumumba. The agent recounted in a 2008 New York Times article he secretly chose not to do so, though some accounts clash with this.
With the country falling under the control of military leader and future American puppet Joseph Mobutu, Lumumba was captured and, though at one point escaping, was eventually taken to Katanga, where he was beaten and killed on January 17, 1961. His death ignited international outrage and years later continued to provoke dialogue on foreign investment in creating the turmoil seen after his rise to power and African independence in general. Congo soon endured the decades-long, highly-damaging reign of the corrupt Joseph Mobutu, who would become known as Mobutu Sésé Seko.
Lumumba’s death was basically the end result of intertwined plots by the American and Belgian governments, which used Congolese accomplices and a Belgian execution squad to carry out their dastardly deed.
Ludo De Witte, the Belgian author of the best book on this crime, qualified it as “the most important assassination of the 20th century”. The assassination’s historical importance lies in a multitude of factors, the most pertinent being the global context in which it took place, its impact on Congolese politics since then, and Lumumba’s overall legacy as a nationalist leader.
For more than a century, the United States and Belgium had played key roles in shaping the Congo’s destiny. In April, 1884, seven months before the Berlin Congress, the United States became the first country in the world to recognize the claims of King Leopold II of the Belgians to the territories of the Congo Basin.
When the atrocities related to brutal economic exploitation in Leopold’s Congo Free State resulted in millions of fatalities, the United States joined other world powers to force Belgium to take over the country as a regular colony. And it was during the colonial period that the United States acquired a strategic stake in the enormous natural wealth of the Congo, following its use of the uranium from Congolese mines to manufacture the first atomic weapons, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
With the outbreak of the Cold War, it was inevitable that the United States and its Western allies would not be prepared to let Africans have effective control over strategic raw materials, lest these fall in the hands of their enemies in the Soviet camp.
It is in this regard that Lumumba’s determination to achieve genuine Independence and to have full control over Congo’s resources in order to utilize them to improve the living conditions of Congolese people were perceived as a threat to Western interests. To fight him, the United States and Belgium used all the tools and resources at their disposal, including the United Nations secretariat, under Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche, to buy the support of Lumumba’s Congolese rivals, and hired killers.
Lumumba’s assassination, coming fewer than seven months after Independence on June 30, 1960, was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.
The assassination took place at a time when the country had fallen under four separate governments: the central government in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville); a rival central government by Lumumba’s followers in Kisangani (then Stanleyville); and the secessionist regimes in the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and South Kasai.
Since Lumumba’s physical elimination had removed what the West saw as the major threat to their interests in the Congo, internationally-led efforts were undertaken to restore the authority of the moderate and pro-Western regime in Kinshasa over the entire country. These resulted in ending the Lumumbist regime in Kisangani in August, 1961, the secession of South Kasai in September, 1962, and the Katanga secession in January, 1963.
No sooner did this unification process end than a radical social movement for a “second Independence” arose to challenge the neocolonial state and its pro-Western leadership. This mass movement of peasants, workers, the urban unemployed, students and lower civil servants found an eager leadership among Lumumba’s lieutenants, most of whom had regrouped to establish a National Liberation Council (CNL) in October, 1963, in Brazzaville, across the Congo River from Kinshasa. The strengths and weaknesses of this movement may serve as a way of gauging the overall legacy of Lumumba for Congo and Africa as a whole.
The most positive aspect of this legacy was manifest in the selfless devotion of Pierre Mulele to radical change for purposes of meeting the deepest aspirations of the Congolese people for democracy and social progress. On the other hand, the CNL leadership, which included Christophe Gbenye and Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was more interested in power and its attendant privileges than in the people’s welfare.
This was Lumumbism in words rather than in deeds. As president three decades later, Laurent Kabila did little to move from words to deeds.
Lumumba’s assassination led to a parliamentary investigation of the case in Belgium in 2000. In 2002, Belgium’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Louis Michel apologized to Lumumba’s family and the Congolese public for his country’s role in the assassination.
To date, no one has been punished for the crime.