During his exile in the 1980s, Mr Holden Roberto – president of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) – and one of his collaborators, visited me in my office at Howard University in Washington. In order to counter accusations (incidentally well-founded) levelled at his party, of colluding with American imperialism and selling out on their commitment to Pan-Africanism, my two visitors began by reciting in its entirety Patrice Emery Lumumba’s famous speech at the Congolese independence ceremony on 30th June 1960. This gesture – which strongly affected me – shows the attachment you still find across the whole African continent, even among its lost sheep, for this martyr for African nationalism and the struggles of oppressed peoples all over the world.
Rare are the African countries where one does not find streets, even main roads, named after Lumumba. Many African children born after his assassination have ‘Lumumba’ as their forename. The former executive secretary of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (2002-5) and president of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (2010-11) is called Patrick Lumumba, and his passion for change and eloquence recalls those qualities in his namesake.
These two references to the political heritage of Lumumba show how the assassination of this great African leader resonated – and continues to resonate – with Africans. In his excellent book, The Assassination of Lumumba, Belgian sociologist Ludo de Witte shows the significance of this particular assassination in the history of Western tactics against the anti-imperialist revolutions of the 20th Century – from Mossadegh’s Iran to Nasserist Egypt, Castro’s Cuba, Lumumba’s Congo and Sankara’s Burkina Faso.
It is in this context – the struggle between the interests of the international bourgeoisie and those of the popular masses – that we must understand the factors contributing to Lumumba’s assassination, its political consequences for Congo, and the place of this Congolese hero in the pantheon of universal defenders of the emancipation of peoples.
The assassination of Lumumba was the outcome of two conspiracies closely bound together with the American and Belgian governments, which relied on the complicity of certain Congolese leaders and a Belgian firing squad composed of soldiers and policemen under the Katanga puppet regime.
Patrice Lumumba – the man and his political project
Who is Patrice Lumumba, and why was he so violently assassinated by the forces of counter-revolution? Born on 2nd July 1925 in Onalua, a small village in the region of Katako-Kombe, Lumumba received his education at primary school as well as among Belgian Catholic missionaries at Tshumbe Sainte-Marie and the famous Methodist mission in Wembo Nyama. He was not appreciated there, neither among the representatives of the colonial trinity (the State, big business, the Catholic Church) nor by the American missionaries – themselves fervent believers in the ideology of white supremacy prevalent in the Southern states of the USA, and too weak to contest colonial repression. An intellectually precocious pupil who rebelled against the thundering paternalism of the missionaries, the young Lumumba decided to leave Sankuru in 1944 without obtaining his certificate of study in order to spread his wings elsewhere. After several months in the region of Kindu, he would go on to pursue a career as a bureaucrat in Kisangani (then Stanleyville). It was during this long stay at Kisangani (1944-57) that Lumumba developed his characteristic traits; moral and intellectual integrity, immovability on points of principle, and exceptional bravery even in the face of death. As one of the members of the firing squad which killed him recalled, Lumumba maintained a glacial calm in front of the executioners.
At Kisangani, Lumumba distinguished himself as president, vice president, or secretary, of at least seven organisations of Congolese évolués – literally meaning ‘evolved people’, this term was used by the Belgian colonial establishment to distinguish a class of ‘Westernised’ blacks. An autodidact, with the exception of a year of professional training at the École Postale in Kinshasa (then Leopoldville), he succeeded in acquiring immense knowledge about the contemporary world through extensive, self-guided reading on politics and history. According to Thomas Kanza, his collaborator and biographer, Lumumba ‘read all that fell into his hands’. As leader, he was a convincing and effective representative for the Kisangani evolués, liaising with the governor of the province, the Belgian minister of the colonies, Auguste Buisseret, and the young king, Baudouin I, during his first visit to Congo in 1955. Still a believer in the idea of the Belgo-Congolese community, promulgated by amicales belgo-congolais, clubs comprising evolués and those Belgians open to a gradual process of integration, Lumumba was invited to Belgium for the first time in 1956.
Fearing his perspicacity and well-founded criticisms of colonial racism, the colonial authorities welcomed his return from Brussels with a charge of tax avoidance, followed by a sentence of two years in prison by a trial court in Kisangani. The public prosecutor, judging this punishment insufficient, made an appeal, but the court of appeal in Kinshasa confirmed the sentence of two years. This punishment was reduced to four months, which he had already served in preventative detention, followed by a royal order granting grace, signed on 27th August 1957.
If Kisangani had given him the political apprenticeship he needed to master the mysteries of organisation and political practice, these two experiences of Kinshasa, of the École Postale and his incarceration, contributed in a decisive way to the awakening of his political consciousness. During his training in postal service administration in 1948, Lumumba made a short visit to Brazzaville, on the right bank of the River Congo opposite Kinshasa. Thirsty from walking, he stopped outside a café with the hope of finding a waiter who would give him a glass of water. To his surprise, it was the European café patron who noticed him, and invited him to sit where the whites were seated and brought him, not tap water, but mineral water. For the sociologist Pierre Clément – for whom he would work as a research assistant four years later –here was the first time that Lumumba realised that another world was possible, habituated as he was to the system of apartheid practised in Belgian Congo. Reinvigorated by the model of assimilation among the French in Congo-Brazzaville – though the ‘card of civic merit’ in 1948 and formal registration in 1952 did not succeed in guaranteeing equality of access to jobs, medical treatment, housing, social services and recreation – an évolué Lumumba felt his long-cowed spirit emboldened enough to dream of a more beautiful country than Belgian Congo.
This dream of radical change would reinforce itself further during his months of incarceration, during which Lumumba had the occasion to lead a serious reflection on the future of Congo and to read the famous ‘Plan de trente ans pour l’émancipation politique de l’Afrique belge’ by A.A.J Van Bilsen, a little known professor at the Colonial University of Anvers, together with the two Congolese reactions to this document: first, ‘Manifeste de la Conscience Africaine’, the work of a group of catholic intellectuals represented by Joseph Ileo, Joseph Malula (future cardinal) and Joseph Ngalula; second, the counter-manifesto by l’Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO), an ethnic association led by Joseph Kasavubu. After leaving prison, Lumumba installed himself in Kinshasa where, from 1957, he launched himself into the political struggle. Joining up with Ileo and Ngalula, he succeeded, in October 1958, in taking the leadership of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), a political organisation started up with the intention of eventually becoming a credible political party at the national level.
By a happy confluence of circumstances, the year 1958 ended with the emergence of Patrice Lumumba as one of the principal leaders in the struggle for independence. The turning point was the visit to Kinshasa by two east African leaders on their way to the first ‘Conference des peuples Africains’, held in Accra between the 5th and 13th December 1958. Concerned that a large country like Congo risked missing out on this great African rendez-vous, A.R. Mohamed Babu of Zanzibar and Tom Mboya of Kenya asked a hotel worker where they could find the political leaders of the emerging independence movement. The worker in question was very happy to bring about a meeting with Patrice Lumumba, then the commercial director of the Brasserie du Bas-Congo (Bracongo), which produced the beer Polar. Lumumba often offered this to clients, ostensibly for promotional purposes but often using this as an opportunity to awaken the clients’ political consciousness. Babu and Mboya were so impressed by Lumumba that they sent a telegram to the Pan African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) asking for money to bring a Congolese delegation to Accra.
And so Patrice Lumumba, Gaston Diami and Joseph Ngalula accompanied Babu and Mboya to Accra, where Lumumba attracted the notice of the delegates at the conference, which brought together representatives from the 8 independent countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia) and those of the political parties, trade unions and other organisations of the civil society of the Pan-African world. There he met the leaders of national liberation movements such as Félix-Roland Moumié of the Union des Populations de Cameroun (UPC), Frantz Fanon of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) of Algeria, and Amilcar Cabral of the Parti Africain pour L’independence de Guinéeet du Cap Vert (PAIGC), and he established strong working relationships with some great African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Modibo Keita and Ahmed Sékou Touré.
On his return to Kinshasa, Lumumba organized a popular demonstration on Sunday 28th December to inform the Congolese population of the resolutions of the Accra conference and their implications for the independence movement in Congo. Following the refusal by the first Belgian mayor of Kinshasa to allow ABAKO to hold a similar meeting the following Sunday, 4th January 1959, the population of Kinshasa rose in a three-day rebellion which sounded the death knell for the Belgian colonial regime in Congo. “Indépendance immediate”, the slogan of protestors, became a non-negotiable demand in the struggle of the Congolese people for their total freedom. Instead of the thirty years suggested by Van Bilsen in 1956, independence was obtained in four. The mobilisation of the population by radical political parties like ABAKA and MNC-L was responsible for the erosion of legitimacy, as much as the repressive abilities, of the colonial regime. Lumumba benefited from this new situation by placing the MNC-L throughout all the provinces of the country, to the point that his party became the spearhead of the Congolese independence struggle.
The assassination of Lumumba
For more than 128 years, the US and Belgium played key roles in fashioning the destiny of the Congo. In April 1884, seven months after the opening of Congress in Berlin, the US became the first country in the world to recognise the claims of King Leopold of Belgium to the Congo basin territories. When the atrocities linked to the brutal economic exploitation of Congo led to millions of deaths, the US joined with other global powers to force Belgium to put an end to the status of Congo as a personal possession of King Leopold II and to give it the status of an ordinary colony. During the colonial period (1908- 60), the US saw Congo’s strategic advantage due to its abundant natural resources, above all its uranium, which was used to created the first atomic weapons, the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
With the launching of the Cold War, it was inevitable that Washington and her Western allies would not be disposed to give Africans control over their own strategically valuable natural resources, for fear that they would fall into the hands of their Soviet enemies. Because of this, Patrice Lumumba’s attempt to secure an authentic independence and to obtain effective control over the resources of Congo, with the aim of improving the living standards of our people, was seen as a threat to Western interests. In their fight against him, Washington and Brussels used all the tools and resources at their disposal, including the United Nations under Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld and his U.S. assistant Ralph Bunche, Lumumba’s Congolese political enemies, and his assassins.
In Congo, the assassination of Lumumba is, for good reason, considered the ‘original sin’ of the country. Occurring less than seven months after independence (30th June 1960), it was a stumbling block for ideals of national unity, economic independence, and the African solidarity for which Lumumba had advocated, as well as being a terrible blow to the hopes for freedom and material prosperity of millions of Congolese people. In place of this, the country was divided into four parts: the west of the country under the central government of Kinshasa; the north west under a rival central government led by Lumumba partisans; and the mining provinces of Katanga and Sud Kasaï under the secessionist regimes of Moïse Tshombe and Albert Kalonji, at Lumumbashi (Elisabethville) and Mbuji-Mayi (Bakwanga) respectively.
The neo-colonial regime of Kinshasa was born from the dismissal of Lumumba by president Kasavubu in 1960 and the coup d’etat of 14th September by which colonel Joseph-Desiré Mobutu claimed to neutralise both protagonists of the institutional crisis. Based on an obscure article of ‘La Loi Fondamentale’, the temporary constitution bequeathed to Congo by Belgium, this action ran contrary to all the political conventions of a parliamentary system where the prime minister enjoys a majority in parliament. This was the case with Lumumba: the two chambers rejected Kasavubu’s action as invalid. The Western puppet-masters understood then that there would have to be a military intervention to remove Lumumba from power, and Mobutu had already been making preparations to this end from the beginning of the Congolese crisis in July. A former ally of Prime Minister Lumumba, he was at the same time linked to the forces of the counter-revolution as an informer for the Belgian and American security services.
It was this man who became the real master of Kinshasa, in his role as head of the Binza Group. So-labelled because its members lived and met up in the well-off residential district of Binza, this powerful clique drew its power from its members’ influence over crucial institutions and politicians; the army (Mobutu); the police (Victor Nendaka); the ministry of foreign affairs (Justin Bomkoko), the ministry of the interior (Damien Kandolo), the Central Bank (Albert Ndele). These individuals worked in close collaboration with Prime Minister Cyrille Adoula and President Kasavabu, and no important decision could be taken by these last two without the approval of the Binza group, the hub of neocolonialism in Congo.
The secessions of Katanga and Sud Kasaï
Of these two secessions, that of Sud Kasaï is the lesser-known one yet it also played an important role in the political and physical assassination of Patrice Lumumba. Proclaimed on 8th August 1960 in Lumumbashi, the Sud Kasaï secession forged close links with its Katangan counterpart, siding with the interests of international high finance and the counter-revolution, with La Societé Diamantifère Forminière in Kasaï playing the same role – of money-lender – that the Union Miniere du Haut Katanga (UMHK) played in Katanga. The smaller secession took place as the Lumumba administration was receiving logistical assistance from the Soviet Union in order to fight a war against the secession in Katanga, due to the refusal of UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld to allow the Security Council to perform its remit of helping the Congolese government expel the Belgian forces and white mercenaries and put an end to the secession. The soldiers of the National Congolese Army (ANC) en route to Katanga received the order to put an end to the small secession of Sud Kasaï before crossing the border. Unfortunately, the undisciplined soldiers committed atrocious massacres against innocent civilians, including close to a thousand men, women and children who believed themselves safe from danger in the sanctuary of the Catholic Cathedral of Mbuju-Mayi (today Bakwanga).
Dag Hammarskjöld defined these killings as ‘genocide’ against the Luba and pointed the finger at Prime Minister Lumumba. Aside from the fact that the atrocities committed in Sud Kasaï did not correspond to the definition of genocide in international law, these odious crimes were not the sole responsibility of the head of government, but of the entire chain of command: the superior officers on the ground; the Chief of Staff, Mobutu; Prime Minister Lumumba; and President Kasavubu, in his capacity as supreme commander of the armed forces. As such, neither Hammerskjöld nor Kasavabu had any justification either for accusing Lumumba of genocide, or for illegally dismissing him when the responsibility for this incident was largely a collective one.
The capital of Sud Kasaï would be baptised ‘la boucherie’, because it was the chosen site for the summary execution of Lumumbists whom the neo-colonial regime of Kinshasa wanted to destroy. The most famous among the victims is without doubt Jean-Pierre Finant (1922-61), the first democratically-elected governor of the eastern province, of which Kisangani is the capital. Of mixed Belgo-Congolais descent and father of the famous Congolese singer Abeti Masikini (Betty Finant, 1954-94), he was executed on 17th February 1961, exactly one month after the assassination of Lumumba, with eleven companions, including Jacques Lumbala (a former colleague of Mobutu), Emmanuel Nzuzi and Jacques Fataki. As in the case of Lumumba, who was handed over to Katangan secessionists, the Binza group saw no contradiction between collaborating with the secessionist regimes which it needed to destroy, and assassinating their common enemies, the Lumumbists.
The secession of Sud-Kasaï collapsed through its internal contradictions, mainly due to the struggle for power between Joseph Ngalula and Albert Kalonji, who was proclaimed Mulopwe or emperor of the Luba-Kasaï, a people who had never been under the leadership of a single leader since leaving their ancestral birthplace in Katanga in the 18th century. Having returned to Kinshasa to become minister of education for the central government, Ngalula plotted with the Binza group to destroy Kalonji and bring an end to the secession. This came about in September 1962, following an armed revolt under the direction of Kalonji’s Chief of Staff.
Contrary to the Sud-Kasaï secession, where the internal dimension was as crucial to its failure as it was to its birth; in light of the Lulua-Baluba conflict and its poor management – by first, the Belgians, later, Lumumba – the external factor was a defining one in Katanga. As Jean Ziegler aptly described it in his work La contre revolution en Afrique, in its progression towards the south of the continent, the African national liberation movement hit the wall of counter-revolution, whereby the white colonists, mining companies and their right-wing allies in the West, banded together to defend their privileges. Then, from Katanga to the Cape of Good Hope, the white counter-attack manifested itself in the creation of states controlled by white colonists, either directly, as in the case of South Africa, in Namibia and in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyassaland, indirectly through the colonial state (Angola and Mozambique), or via a puppet government of paid-up blacks (Katanga). The essential continuity was that all these regimes succeeded in defending and promoting the interests of colonialists and of the corporations that sought to maximise their profits through the exploitation of badly-paid and quiescent labour. In the context of the cold war, the counter-revolution had no problem in inserting itself in the hegemonic discourse of Western values, Christian and democratic, which excluded communism, atheism and authoritarianism.
Well before the Rhodesian colonialist Ian Smith signed his ‘internal settlement’ with Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Pastor Ndabaningi and Chief Jeremiah Chirau in Zimbabwe, another agreement had already been negotiated in Congo, between the Conféderation des associations tribales de Katanga (CONAKAT) of Moïse Tshombe and Godefroid Munongo, the UMHK and the Union Katangaise – an association representing white colonialists – to allow Katanga to secede from Congo and become an independent state. In this sense, CONAKAT was just a way of giving voice to the interests of white colonialists through African mouths. Without the financial support of the UMHK, the military and technical support of Belgium, and the management of administrative and economic structures by the colonialists, Katanga could not survive as a political entity. Moreover, the secession relied on considerable external support; not only from Belgium, but also from France, the United Kingdom, and the US. In the country of Uncle Sam, the Katangan secession enjoyed solid backing in reactionary circles – lobbyists for the cause included influential senators Barry Goldwater of Arizona (a radical conservative), Thomas Dodd of Connecticut (a Democrat reprimanded by the Senate for corruption), and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (a notorious racist, despite having fathered a daughter with a black woman).
Following on from the assassination of Lumumba, the Katangan lobby in the US and Europe lost its influence with the key deciders such as John F. Kennedy and Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian minister of Foreign Affairs. These men understood that in the context of the Cold War, the territorial integrity of Congo was more useful to the West than a secessionist province which would continue to sow dissent across Africa and in the Third World in general, in turn raising difficult questions about the West’s responsibility for the death of Lumumba. Besides, these deciders no longer perceived a great threat to the economic and strategic interests of the West in Central Africa, given the physical elimination of Lumumba and the marginalization of Lumumbists after Lovanium. It is within this context that Kennedy would give the green light for the UN to put an end to the secession with force. Taking place on 29th November 1962, the UN intervention succeeded, with an agreement of capitulation signed by Tshombe on 17 January 1983. Ironically, the restoration of national unity to which Lumumba had given his life was realised by the interests of the imperial powers and their puppets in the neo-colonial regime in Kinshasa.
These efforts succeeded in putting an end to the Lumumbist regime of Kisangani in August 1961, to the secession of Sud-Kasaï in September 1962 and to that of Katanga in January 1963. The end of these three regimes would consecrate the rise of General Mobutu and his clique, the Binza Group.
Hardly had this process of unification finished before a radical social movement pronouncing a ‘second independence’ rose up to contest the neo-colonial state in Kinshasa and its pro-Western leaders. This mass movement brought together peasants, workers, the urban unemployed and students, alongside low and mid-ranking officials, who found an enthusiastic leadership among the former lieutenants of Patrice Lumumba, of which the majority had reformed to create the Conseil National de Libération (CNL) in October 1963 in Brazzaville.
Divided on the field into two wings – the Kwilu front, led by Pierre Mulele, and the Eastern front under Christopher Gbenye, Gaston Soumialot and Laurent-Desiré Kabila – the strengths and weaknesses of the movement can be used to gauge the global heritage of Patrice Lumumba, for Congo and the whole of Africa. The most positive aspect of this legacy is reflected in Pierre Mulele’s dedication to a radical program of change to satisfy the deep aspirations of the Congolese people for democracy and social progress. On the other hand, the Lumumbists of the Eastern front were more interested in power, and the privileges it conferred, than in genuine social change. In the latter case, it was all rhetoric and no action. In effect, the challenge for all those who want to follow in the footsteps of Lumumba is to make the leap from words into action.
A struggle that is far from over…
According to unconfirmed reports, Walter Kansteiner – US Secretary of State for African Affairs under George W. Bush, between June 2001 and November 2003 – designed a plan for the division of Congo into four countries. The justification for such a Balkanisation would be that, in its present dimensions, the country is too large and ungovernable. For the extreme right of the US Republican Party, and those with interests in the resources of tropical Africa – as is the case with the family business W.H Kansteiner, Inc of Chicago – this would facilitate access to resources, and make their transfer to outside markets easier. Besides, if Rwanda and Uganda could play the role of facilitator, why not?
For those nostalgic for the ‘White Man’s Burden’, and their lackeys in Africa, the reality is that their project for the recolonization of Congo will always stumble against the determination of the Congolese people to defend their unity, their national patrimony, and the territorial integrity of their homeland. The legacy of Patrice Lumumba, Pierre Lulele, André Kisase Ngandu and so many other martyrs brings women, men and children to shout “No” to balkanization and “Yes” to a “United Congo, a strong nation.” Just as the progressive leaders of the struggle for independence chanted this slogan on the eve of the achievement of sovereignty – united and nationalistic men and women of integrity – the real children of Lumumba continue to defend, against the odds, the greater interests of the Congolese nation.
Article by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja