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Congo’s Patrice Lumumba: The Winds of Reaction in Africa

Photograph Source: Official portrait of Prime Minister Lumumba – Public Domain

The Congo won independence from Belgium in June 1960 with Patrice Lumumba, age 35, as Prime Minister. Immediately it began to fall apart, under revanchist Belgian assault, Cold War pressures, adjacent settler colonial reaction and collaborationist Congolese elites like Moise Tshombe and Joseph Desire Mobutu. On 12 July Lumumba and President Kasavubu asked UN Secretary General Hammarskjold to urgently despatch military assistance “to protect the national territory of the Congo against the present external aggression” (Katanga had broken away under Tshombe with big Belgian support). In early July, Dag Hammarskjold, UN secretary general, stressed that ONUC (the UN mission, already 3,500 strong was “not under the orders of the [Congolese] government “nor [was it] party to any internal conflict”.

By month’s end ONUC had some 11,000 troops on the ground with its own air capacity. Nevertheless, an attempt to ‘station troops in Katanga in early August failed’, and at much the same time, Hammarskjold visited Elisabethville to meet Tshombe. Additionally, the Secretary General narrowed ONUC’s role even further: “it cannot be used on behalf of the central government…to force the provincial government to a specific line of action.”

Melber observes that ‘as a result, cordial relations with Lumumba ended abruptly.’ Lumumba felt that Hammarskjold was taking sides with the Belgians and Tshombe. When Lumumba sought assistance from the Soviet Union, President Kasavubu dismissed him as Prime Minister on 5 September 1960, as Mobutu, the army strongman, stood by (Henning Melber, Dag Hammarskjold, 2019, 77-79, 81, 84). Shortly after, Hammarskjold backed the decision of his special representative, Andrew Cordier,[1] to close down Leopoldville radio station, effectively preventing the Prime Minister from broadcasting, and closed the airports to all but UN operations.

According to Ludo De Witte, Congolese law gave parliament, not the president, the power to dismiss a prime minister, and on 7 September, after a strong speech, Lumumba won the support of the House of Representatives by 60 votes to 19. On 14 September, then Colonel Mobutu staged his coup. ‘Isolated both by a cordon of Blue Berets and by Mobutu’s men’, a virtual prisoner, Lumumba decided that ‘it was time to try and escape and get back to Stanleyville’ where he had strong popular and organisational support. On 27 November, at night in the rain, he set out. Dayal informed Hammarskjold that “if Lumumba manages to get to Stanleyville the situation would change in a flash” (Ludo De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba, 2001, 27, 52).

It was an act of hope and desperation.[2] On 1 December he was taken by Mobutu’s soldiers. Sustained brutality followed, until he and his two comrades were slaughtered on 17 January 1961. Patrice Lumumba was not yet 36, and it was the 201st day of Congo’s independence. De Witte quotes him saying months earlier: “If I die tomorrow, it will be because a white has armed a black” (2001, 119-121).

The obliteration of the bodies followed their killing. Over hours through 22-23 January 1961, the three corpses were dismembered, doused in acid, burnt and pulverised: ‘nothing was left of the three nationalist leaders’ (De Witte, 141). It was a prelude to acts which recurred during the Apartheid Wars in the 1980s.

Hammarskjold was reportedly ‘devastated for days’ after the news of Lumumba’s torture and death, but he also thought it was ‘an entirely senseless act’ (Melber, 7), when it was clearly planned and purposefull. He makes reference to ‘the winds of change’, in Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase. But the winds of reaction were then as or more powerful, and they eminated directly from Pretoria and Salisbury.

The Sharpville Massacre occurred on 21 March 1960, when 69 carefully peaceful marchers were shot dead that day. The British diplomat, Brian Urquhart, said: ‘The assassination was condoned by the United States, which feared that Lumumba was becoming an African Fidel Castro.’

The UN, with its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of the Congo, abandoned Lumumba. President Kwame Nkrumah’s eulogy was firm: The UN ‘not only failed to maintain the law and order [they’d been invited to preserve], but also denied to the lawful government…all other means of self-protection’. They failed ‘to prevent his arrest by mutineers or his transfer through the use of airfields under [their] control, into the hands of the Belgian dominated government of Katanga’ (De Witte, 2001, 149).

By 1958-1960, Lumumba had ‘broke[n] away from the Congolese elite and its bourgeois ambitions.’ He resolutely decided upon full decolonisation to benefit the people, and tried to ‘shape a nationalism based on three political pillars: revolutionary and coherent nationalism, political action relying on a mass movement, and an internationalist perspective’ (De Witte, 176).

He faced implacable, ruthless opposition, which stemmed down from President Eisenhower. Hammarskjold was a leading Swedish diplomat, completely out of his depth in Congo. He was killed when his DC-6 aircraft (‘Albertina’) was brought down near Ndola on 18 September 1961. Though information still remains hidden, the likelihood is that it was shot down by a Fouga aircraft operating out of Katanga.

In contrast to the ten weeks accorded Lumumba, Mobutu remained in power for over 30 years until July 1997. His presidency was outstanding for its despotism, corruption (one of the world’s richest men) and the neglect of the needs of the people, backed throughout by international political and financial institutions. In the lifetime of Pierre Mambele, a taxi-driver in Kinshasa, ‘Congo had gone from brutal Belgian colonialism, to brief independence under Patrice Lumumba to dictatorshup under Mobutu before the Kabila clan took over. He had met Lumumba at rallies in Kisangani (Stanleyville), and liked him.’[3] In destroying Lumumba and preserving Mobutu the major Western and regional powers inflicted grave harm on the Congolese.

Notes.

1) Cordier with Ralph Bunche were two American members of the small ‘Congo Club’ of staff members involved both in the Secretariat and on the ground. Conor Cruise O’Brien and Rajeshwar Dayal were others. These officials, in the words of Nzongola-Ntalala, “shared a common Cold War outlook with Western policy makers”. Ralph Bunche’s difficulties with Lumumba were a strong example of the political clashes that occurred (Melber, 88-89).

2) Ronan Bennett offers a vivid account of Lumumba and his circle at this time, including Larry Devlin, CIA station chief in Elisabethville, a key plotter on the ground, The Catastrophist (1997).

3) ‘Obituary: Pierre Mambele’. The Economist, 20 July 2019.

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