On 17 January 1961 Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic first and only elected prime minister of Congo, was brutally murdered. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery, the identity of his killers unknown.
In 1956 Lumumba was a post office clerk; four years later he would be prime minister. In between he had been an ‘évolué’ — one of Congo’s tiny black middle class — a beer salesman, and a prisoner, twice for his political motivation.
His imprisonment radicalised him and by 1958 he had co-founded a political party, the National Congolese Movement, the MNC that was distinctively pan-Africanist.
Independence Day was celebrated on 30 June in a ceremony attended by many dignitaries including King Baudouin and the foreign dignitaries and press. Patrice Lumumba delivered his famous independence speech after being officially excluded from the event programme, despite being the new prime minister. The speech of King Baudouin praised developments under colonialism, his reference to the ‘genius’ of his great grand-uncle Leopold II of Belgium glossing over atrocities committed during the Congo Free State.
The King continued, ‘Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms, and don’t replace the structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better. . . . Don’t be afraid to come to us. We will remain by your side, give you advice.’
In his speech, addressed directly to Belgium’s monarch and ministers, Lumumba reclaimed the history and dignity of the Congolese people in their decades-long struggle for independence:
‘For this independence of the Congo . . . no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. . . . We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.’
Lumumba was prime minister for only about two months before he was removed illegally from office and eventually killed. This occurred under the auspices and coordination of a section of the United Nations loyal to the Belgian government, the Belgian authorities and the US Central Intelligence Agency.
On 11 July 1960, the resource-rich Katanga province announced it was seceding under the leadership of Moise Tshombe. Belgium’s troops promptly entered in support. This move provoked a wave of international outrage, in particular criticism by the socialist bloc, spearheaded by the Soviet Union, and the decolonising nations in Africa and Asia. The Belgians withdrew in favour of UN troops, but the UN did not nullify Tshombe’s secession. Prime Minister Lumumba appealed to the UN and United States, but the imperialist powers turned a deaf ear to the new African leader. He turned to the Soviet Union, which provided loyal forces with aid and transported troops to help end the secession.
On 5 September, the pro-imperialist president, Kasavubu, illegally removed Lumumba from office. Lumumba brought his case directly to the parliament, which reaffirmed his post. In response, Kasavubu dismissed the parliament.
UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold publicly endorsed Kasavubu’s move. A section of the UN forces loyal to the Belgian government had earlier hampered Lumumba by closing a radio station he was using to plead his case with the people. Amid the struggle, Colonel Joseph Mobutu took power in a CIA-backed coup d’état on the side of Kasavubu and the United States. Lumumba was placed under house arrest, ‘protected’ by UN troops actively intervening against his rule.
Lumumba understood that the UN was acting as the armed forces of the Western imperialist powers. Rather than stay under house arrest, he decided to flee. As he was fleeing, he was captured by Mobutu’s forces on 1 December 1960. Mobutu handed over Lumumba to the secessionist Tshombe, who had him executed on the very night of his capture. The whole capture by Mobutu and turnover to Tshombe was orchestrated by Belgian authorities with the full knowledge and aid of the CIA.
Mobutu gained in power under the new government, eventually ruling as a brutal dictator with the support of US imperialism until he was ousted in 1997.
This year, the Democratic Republic of Congo has celebrated 50 years of independence, and amidst the noise and cacophony, the name of one of Africa’s greatest ancestors and his significant contributions to the African liberation movement has gone silent.
The meaning of the life and the work of Patrice Lumumba was rooted in his determination to fight against the forces of domination and oppression that were represented by the European world in the most turbulent period of the history of the Congo, and as such, as the Democratic Republic of Congo held festivities to mark 50 years of independence and symbolically usher in a new era breathing in new ethos and values, focus should have been to reflect on the steadfast efforts of Lumumba in his quest for the real movement of the people of Africa.
The celebration should have been to reflect on Lumumba’s main contribution to the Congolese struggle, his articulation of the idea of a united Congo, a vision that sought to build a united nations across all ethnic and tribal divisions despite fierce European opposition. A vision that paralleled his Pan-African sentiment of African unity, both ideals that were unacceptable to the imperialist powers, which sought a Congo and Africa riven with internal strife in order to be held in submission.
As the political elite in the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to suffer from the hangover of toasting with their Belgian masters, after their heavy indulgence, and celebrations marked by the entertainment parading of their poverty-stricken populace, who could not comprehend what was happening, let us reflect on and walk the legacy of Patrice Lumumba. A legacy reflected in the pan-African aims, institutions and policies of the African Union and in the guiding ethos behind the adoption of the Ezulwini Consensus, which proposes a permanent African seat in a reformed United Nations Security Council.
His ability to evoke so powerfully the extent of his people’s subjugation derived from a rare understanding of the inherent duplicity of the colonial discourse. As Jean Van Lierde put it:
‘He was the only Congolese leader who rose above the ethnic difficulties and tribal preoccupations that destroyed all the other parties. Lumumba was the first real pan-African.’
Shortly before his assassination, Lumumba penned the following words in a farewell letter: ‘The only thing we wanted for our country was the right to a decent existence, to dignity without hypocrisy, to independence without restrictions. . . . The day will come when history will have its say.’
In conclusion, we can say that the external enemies, (or the enemies from without), and internal enemies (or the enemies from within), led to the demise and death of Patrice Lumumba. But, fortunately, his legacy lives on.
Mwaura Kaara is the youth focal point at United Nations Millennium Campaign, Africa. This article was first published in Pambazuka News on 8 July 2010 under a Creative Commons license.