Lumumba and the Congo Crisis

    Who was Patrice Lumumba, and why was he so horribly murdered by the forces of the counterrevolution in Central and Southern Africa, which included the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, major mining companies, white settlers from Congo’s Katanga province to the Cape of Good Hope, and right-wing extremists in Western Europe and the United States? In this series of articles, we revisit his life and discuss the case for reparations for his assassination.

  • By Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Senior Historian
  • August 18, 2021
  • In Educate
Patrice Lumumba
Patrice Lumumba in New York in 1961 Photo Credit: here

The Congo Crisis, whose major outcome and catalyst was the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, cannot be fully understood without reference to the Belgian-engineered Katanga secession in collaboration with international mining companies, which recruited white mercenaries in Southern Africa and Europe to join Belgian troops in backstopping the secession. The refusal by United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld to use force to expel Belgian troops and the mercenaries from Katanga in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions led to the dispute between him and Prime Minister Lumumba. Hammarskjöld and his American and British advisers shared the same worldview as major Western powers, and were very hostile toward Lumumba, as shown by the cable traffic in UN archives (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002; Nzongola-Ntalaja 2010; Nzongola-Ntalaja 2017/2014).

The racism, double-standard, and patronizing behavior of the West were clearly demonstrated in the manner in which Lumumba was treated by the Western governments and press. Lumumba was accused of lacking respect toward the Belgian king in his very nationalistic Independence Day speech, but none of the accusers had nothing to say about the insulting and condescending address by the king to the Congolese people. These powers also took the side of Dag Hammarskjöld against Lumumba, when it was the latter and not the UN Secretary General, who made a correct reading of UN resolutions. As usual, these resolutions, which were actually drafted by the Secretary General’s staff, were meant to placate Third World countries when Dag Hammarskjöld and his Western backers had no intention of implementing them, except when they served Western interests.

Three major events unleashed the Congo Crisis: a) the July 5 mutiny of the Force Publique, engineered by the Belgian commander in chief of the force to create chaos and thus discredit Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and remove him from office; b) the July 10 Belgian military intervention as the mutiny created panic and the exodus of most of the 100,000 Belgians then living in the Congo; and c) the secession of the mineral-rich province of Katanga, which took place on July 11. The secession was the work of the Belgian government and meant to balkanize the Congo, with the support of all the partners of the counterrevolution in Central and Southern Africa mentioned above (Gérard-Libois 1966/ 1963; De Witte 2001/2000/1999; Nzongola-Ntalaja 2018). While the opposition to Lumumba by these reactionary forces was primarily based on the threat that he represented to their economic interests, particularly their access to the strategic minerals of the Congo, they found a very useful cover in framing him as an anti-Western leader within the context of the Cold War. Thus, when Lumumba obtained logistical military equipment from the Soviet Union to deploy his army to Katanga when the UN had refused to do so, he became an assassination target for the United States and its allies.

On August 18, 1960, following a cable from the CIA station chief in Kinshasa stating that Lumumba was becoming another Fidel Castro and that time was running out for the West, U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower gave the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) an order to assassinate Lumumba. While the CIA did not pull the trigger in getting rid of the Congolese leader, it worked hand in hand with the Belgians, who already had their own assassination plot, and Lumumba’s Congolese political rivals to remove him from power and, eventually, to eliminate him physically.

Joseph Kasavubu, the ceremonial head of state, signed a decree revoking Lumumba as prime minister on September 5, 1960, despite the fact that the latter had majority control in both houses of Parliament. Since Parliament rejected the president’s decision as null and void, Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, a former protégé of Lumumba, staged a coup d’état on September 14, removing him from power. Since Lumumba as a prisoner remained very popular among the people, and even among soldiers, the Belgian government pressured its Congolese clients to send him to Lubumbashi (then Elisabethville), knowing fully well that he would be killed there. The transfer took place on January 17, 1961, and Lumumba was murdered in the evening of the same day along with Senate Vice-president Joseph Okito and Youth and Sports Minister Maurice Mpolo by a Belgian execution squad made up of soldiers and police officers detached by Brussels to ensure the security of the puppet secessionist regime in Katanga.

Of all the parties involved in this heinous crime, only Belgium has acknowledged its responsibility in Lumumba’s death. A parliamentary commission set up to investigate the matter following the publication of The Assassination of Lumumba, an outstanding book by Belgian sociologist Ludo De Witte, found that Belgian authorities, from the ground all the way to King Baudouin had a moral responsibility in Lumumba’s assassination, for failing to prevent it when they knew that sending him to Katanga would result in his death. The Belgian House of Representatives approved the commission’s report on February 5, 2002, and the report was endorsed by the Belgian government, except for the king’s responsibility. The commission had also recommended the establishment of a Patrice Lumumba Foundation for the promotion of democracy, with details to be worked out with members of the Lumumba family.

Conclusion

There cannot be a full restitution for Lumumba’s murder. No amount of money or other form of compensation would do justice to the harm suffered by the Congo in losing a thirty-five-year-old visionary leader who could have helped build a great country. No amount of money would do justice to his children after having grown up without a loving and supporting father to guide them through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. And the same goes for his late wife and other relatives, whose loss could not be mitigated by material acquisitions. What is needed from all the accomplices in Lumumba’s murder is, first of all, an acknowledgment of the crime they committed against him, his family, the Congo, and Africa; an apology for the harm done in this regard; and an effort to honor the Congo’s first democratically elected leader by promoting his legacy and political heritage through schools, public education, and cultural events in all the countries whose leaders took part in his disappearance, beginning with the Congo itself.

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a Professor of African and Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences. He is a Senior Historian at The Africa I Know.