Last Friday marked the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. Miriyam Aouragh looks at his legacy and western complicity in his murder.
In Une Saison au Congo (A Season in the Congo) from 1966, Aimé Césaire tells an unapologetic story about brutal colonial exploitation and the subsequent transformation of the Belgian Congo into place of bloody civil war. It is first and foremost a tale about the time after the murder of Patrice Lumumba and western complicity in his death. In the play, Césaire narrates how US collusion with Belgium goes back to 1885, being the first country to recognize King Leopold’s claim of the Congo as his personal property. Une Saison au Congo should be read again, as we remember Lumumba’s assassination.
Patrice Lumumba was the first democratically elected leader of Democratic Republic of Congo, which declared its independence from Belgium in 1960. Barely in his mid-30s, he was an inspiring, principled, charismatic and intelligent leader who had warm relationships with other independence figures such as Ben Bella and Nkrumah. He represented the MNC (Mouvement National Congolais) in 1958 at the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra, Ghana. One of his most memorable speeches was during the independence day ceremony, attended also by Belgian King Boudewijn. After the boring, polite speech of President Kasa-Vubu, Lumumba’s mentioned the suffering under Belgian colonialism and humiliated the Belgian King who had talked about the progress the Belgians had brought to Congo. The legend is that he ended his speech with “Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques” – we are no longer your monkeys.
Lumumba was dangerous. Not because he promoted violent revenge against the whites still present in the Congo, but because he pledged to govern based on the interests of the people and on international cooperation with other anti-imperial entities. He was replaced by the ruthless Mobuto who renamed the country Zaire and amassed enormous wealth in foreign banks.
Lumumba was considered a threat amid the cold-war tensions, in part because he did not toe the US’s line, and was explicit about not doing so, but also because the Congo was, and is, very rich in natural resources. Lumumba was planning to nationalise the big money making sectors of the country which had been very lucrative for everyone except the Congolese. Thus, when he finally kicked out the Belgians from the mineral-rich Katanga province, it was clear that he actually walked the talk. This was his death sentence.
Mobuto – former-friend-turned executioner – was funded and armed by the Americans and Belgians, in secret, to be a good bulldog, and on 14 September 1960 his coup d’état succeeded. We should also remember the role other figures, with their own selfish interests, such President Kasa -Vubu who dismissed Lumumba as PM, played. They should not be whitewashed from this historical tragedy. However, nothing can be understood without placing his death in the context of the brutal Belgian colonial reality; without the CIA involvement; and finally, without the MI6. The British have always denied involvement, but, as newly released secret documents revealed a few months ago, they were complicit from the very beginning.
Lumumba was abducted only a few months into his presidency and executed by firing squad on 17 January 1961. It was telling that this happened under the command of the previous Katangan authorities. The UN knew what happened but did not intervene. Belgian commandos led the firing squad. The execution team dug up the bodies of Lumumba and two of his comrades and reburied them at the border with what was then Northern Rhodesia. Lumumba’s body was later cut up and dissolved in acid by two Belgian agents. It took weeks after his brutal killing before a statement was released. When news finally reach the world the response was deep. Other radical political figures, such as Malcolm X reacted to his death with fury. Street protests erupted everywhere. In the former Yugoslavia protesters sacked the Belgian embassy, in London people marched to the Belgian embassy and demonstrations at the United Nations Security Council spilled over into the streets of New York City.
Despite all the evidence and protests, the Belgian government refused to acknowledge its role. For decades the issue was taboo. The state only agreed to an investigation when the brilliant book The Assassination of Lumumba by Ludo De Witte came out.
Lumumba was loved and admired by many, which is why he was a threat, and western media tried to frame him as a dangerous terrorist. The most bizarre example is perhaps this American commerical news spot, which even shows unique videos of his abduction.
We should honour Lumumba by remembering him at our dinner conversations and in our lectures and essays. Gather together a few fellow students or colleagues, and watch one of the films and documentaries. His legend lives on, but his brutal assassination unleashed a series of events that help explain one of the bloodiest civil wars the continent has seen.
There have been many popular reflections on Lumumba, including Leo Zeilig’s book. The novel The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and the award-winning film LUMUMBA by Raoul Peck are the works that have struck me most. They re-create the shocking reality of colonial rule, the incredible strength and commitment of ordinary people and the extraordinary events behind the birth of the country that became Zaire during the atrocious reign of Joseph Mobutu. Many ‘what-if’ thoughts spring to mind, when you think about how different the continent as a whole probably would have been if Lumumba was given a chance to fulfil his political dreams.