The Guardian • Issue #2043

Lumumba – The murder of an African hero

The Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in Brussels, 26th January 1960. Photo: Herbert Behrens (ANEFO) – Public domain.

17th January marked 62 years since the brutal assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congolese independence struggle and one of the most impassioned critics of the colonial oppression of Africa.

Lumumba was among the most courageous and principled figures in a generation of young nationalist leaders who came forward in the second half of the 20th century to claim freedom from European colonialism.

His assassination took place less than seven months after the Congo had declared its independence, with Lumumba as its first Prime Minister.

Determined to deny supporters of Congolese liberation even a corpse around which they could rally, the order was given to obliterate every physical trace of Lumumba. So the Belgian soldiers set about the grisly task of destroying the remains using axes, saws, acid and fire.

Belgian colonialism had deliberately kept the African population of the Congo untrained and uneducated, reduced to the status of beasts of burden for the extractive industries that looted the country’s vast mineral and other natural wealth.

On the eve of independence, the Congo, a territory larger than Western Europe, had no African army officers, only three African managers in the entire civil service, and only 30 university graduates.

Yet Western investments in Congo’s mineral resources (uranium, copper, gold, tin, cobalt, diamonds, manganese, zinc) were colossal. These investments meant that the West was determined to keep control over the country beyond independence.

The Belgians attempted to organise the transfer of power in a way that would ensure that “independence” would at best be a formal fiction. They fostered tribal and ethnic differences to splinter the independence movement.

Of 120 different parties, most of them regionally or ethnically based, only one, the Mouvement National Congolais or the MNC, led by Lumumba, favoured a centralised government and a Congo united across ethnic and regional lines.

Following widespread rioting and strikes in 1959, the colonial power plucked Lumumba from a Belgian colonial jail where he had been beaten and tortured for advocating independence. He was flown to Brussels to participate in round-table discussions on Congolese independence.

The Belgians hoped the talks would smooth the way for a painless transition to a regime that would leave Belgium’s financial interests in the Congo intact, while transferring the trappings of state power from the white colonialists to a new, pliable native elite.

In the midst of a ceremony in which the Belgians had congratulated themselves on successfully civilising the Congolese and preparing them for self-rule, Lumumba spelled out in graphic terms the reality of colonial oppression. Describing Belgian rule as 80 years of “humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force,” Lumumba went on:

“We have known harassing work, exacted in exchange for salaries which did not permit us to eat enough to drive away hunger, to clothe ourselves, or to house ourselves decently, or to raise our children as creatures dear to us …

“We have known ironies, insults, blows that we endured morning, noon and night, because we are negroes … We have seen our lands seized in the name of allegedly legal laws, which in fact recognised only that might is right …

“We will never forget the massacres where so many perished, the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were thrown.”

Lumumba’s forthright demands for economic independence, social justice, and political self-determination, and his hostility to a political set-up based upon tribal divisions, which the colonialists had effectively used to divide and rule Africa, sealed his fate.

Shortly after independence, Katanga province, the main mining region, declared itself a separate state under Moises Tshombe, who acted under the protection of Western mining interests and the Belgian military. Belgium sent its army back into the former colony, with the alleged aim of protecting its nationals.

Lumumba’s threat to appeal for Soviet aid as a last resort in his effort to free the country of the continuing domination of the Belgian mining interests and Belgian troops, gave Washington the pretext for allying with the old colonial power in seeking his elimination.

Lumumba invited in UN peacekeeping forces, but they too subordinated themselves to the machinations of Belgium and the US, refusing to take any action to prevent the murder of the new Prime Minister.

In 2001 an all-party Belgian Parliamentary commission of inquiry acknowledged that Belgium had covertly channelled funds and arms to Katanga. It concluded that authorities in Brussels and Belgium’s King Baudouin in particular knew of the plans to kill Lumumba but did nothing to save him.

The report put much of the blame on Baudouin, who had conveniently died in 1993. It alleged that the King pursued his own post-colonial policy without the knowledge of the Belgian government.

Unfortunately for this facile explanation, other investigations have clearly revealed that the assassination of Lumumba was the direct result of orders given by the Belgian government and the Eisenhower administration in the US, acting through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and local clients financed and “advised” by Brussels and Washington.

A book by Flemish historian Ludo de Witte, De Moord Op Lumumba (The Murder of Lumumba), cites a telegram sent three months before Lumumba’s death from Count Harold d’Aspremont Lynden, then Belgium’s Minister for African Affairs, to Belgian officials in the Congo:

“The main aim to pursue in the interests of the Congo, Katanga, and Belgium is clearly Lumumba’s definitive elimination,” said the memorandum.

Given that the Congolese leader had already been deposed from power and placed under house arrest at the time, there was no mistaking the meaning of these words.

Also in 2001, the US government released archival material related to the Kennedy assassination that included an interview with the White House minute-taker under the Eisenhower administration, Robert Johnson.

In a meeting held with security advisers in August 1960, only two months after Congo achieved its formal independence from Belgium, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to “eliminate” Lumumba, according to Johnson’s account. There was a stunned silence for about 15 seconds and the meeting continued,” Johnson recalled.

The CIA’s director, Allen Dulles, referred to the Congolese leader as a “mad dog”. Among the American agents on the ground in the Congo was a young CIA man working under diplomatic cover, Frank Carlucci, who tried to work his way into Lumumba’s confidence in the months before the murder.

Carlucci went on to become National Security Advisor and Defence Secretary in the Reagan administration and the chairman of the Carlyle Group, the influential merchant bank that included George Bush Sr among its directors.

According to Larry Devlin, then the CIA station chief in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), the agency’s chief technical officer arrived in the African nation shortly after the “elimination” order from Eisenhower. With him he brought a tube of poisoned toothpaste that was to be placed in the Congolese leader’s bathroom.

The improbable plot was dropped, however, in favour of a more direct method. Lumumba was delivered into the hands of his bitterest political enemy, Moises Tshombe, the secessionist leader of Katanga.

While Tshombe became Prime Minister after Lumumba’s murder, his reign did not last long. In 1965, Joseph Mobutu, the Congolese army leader who handed Lumumba over to his executioners, staged a bloodless coup, inaugurating a 32-year dictatorship which was legendary for its corruption and greed.

Under Mobutu, the Congo – renamed Zaire – became Washington’s closest ally on the continent and served as a staging area for the USA’s counter-revolutionary interventions against liberation movements in southern Africa.

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