Fifty years ago Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first leader after independence, was murdered with Western support. Leo Zeilig looks at his legacy and the fight against imperialism
Today the Democratic Republic of Congo is depicted as a place of horror. Recent fighting in the country is presented as a continuation of ancient blood-letting between eastern tribes and ethnic militias.
These lies hide the reality of a country that has been the scene of imperial pillage for more than 130 years.
But there is also a rarely told story of extraordinary resistance to oppression.
The greatest leader of this resistance was a black African called Patrice Emery Lumumba. On 17 January 1961, Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo, was executed in a small forest clearing along with two other members of the government.
A Belgian officer organised the firing squad. The bodies were quickly buried, near where they had fallen.
The following day, another Belgian officer dug up the bodies, chopped them up and dissolved them in acid. The assassins were determined to hide all traces of their crime.
When Lumumba’s murder finally became public knowledge on 13 February there was uproar and protests across the globe.
In the 1940s, the Belgian Congo, as it was known, was emerging from an exceptionally brutal period of colonisation. Between 1891 and 1911 famine, forced labour and systematic violence had killed more than ten million Congolese people.
But after the Second World War the Belgians promised a new way of running the colony.
Industry was developed and mining communities were established across the country. Copper was at the centre of the boom. It was produced in huge quantities in the south and mined by the public-private giant Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (UMHK).
The Belgian Congo was the source of huge profits for the colonisers and private businesses.
Lumumba was a self-educated nationalist leader. Born in 1925 in Congo’s Kasai province, he was expelled from school and ran away to the regional capital of Stanleyville—now called Kisangani.
He arrived in the city in 1944 and quickly became a leading member of the city’s évolués—“the evolved”.
They were a group of educated Congolese men who were trained to take part in the “civilising” mission of the Belgian state.
They were given low-ranking jobs in the administration and groomed to regard themselves as champions of the “Belgian Congo” community. Lumumba became a clerk in the Stanleyville post office.
Congo was an apartheid state—strict segregation determined every aspect of life. Juliana, Lumumba’s daughter, explained, “When you reached 18 years old you had to carry a permit. If you were stopped, you had to justify why you were in town… And if a black man looked at a white woman, he could find himself in prison.”
In the early 1950s Lumumba shared the ideas of the majority of the évolués. He was an advocate for the “civilising” colonial project. This began to change in June 1956. Arrested and imprisoned for embezzlement, Lumumba started to see through the lies of the Belgian rulers.
Lumumba decided to make a new life in the capital Leopoldville (today’s Kinshasa) after his release in September 1957. The city was infected by the ideas of independence and political liberation.
By November 1958 Lumumba was elected to lead what became the principal party of national liberation—the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). But Belgium was desperate to retain control and it sought to manipulate and divide the country’s emerging political parties.
Other Western states wanted to ensure that Congo’s independence did not mean real political and economic autonomy. The US had been heavily involved in the region since the start of the 20th century.
Lumumba’s politics had remained conciliatory, but two events changed this. First, he was inspired by Ghanaian independence in 1957, as Kwame Nkrumah became Africa’s first black post-colonial leader.
The second was more important. On 4 January 1959, Leopoldville erupted in violence. The colonial army crushed a demonstration, killing hundreds. The belief that a long transition and common understanding could pave the way to independence was ended.
Congolese society was transformed. Mass meetings took place, strikes spread and the movement for independence finally broke away from the ranks of the évolués. This was Congo’s revolution.
Lumumba threw himself into the excitement. His militancy rose with the radicalisation. Now he demanded independence without delay.
But other évolués saw their future in an alliance with the colonial power, and later with the US.
The political centre of gravity had profoundly shifted, and not just in the towns and cities. In many rural areas villagers refused to pay taxes.
New political groups sprang up. The colonial project unravelled in months.
Lumumba was acutely aware of the tensions that existed between the mass of people who supported the MNC and the leadership of the party who were often overly cautious.
In April 1959 he said, “The masses are a lot more revolutionary than us. They do not always dare to express themselves in front of a police officer, or make their demands in front of an administrator but when we are with them it is the masses who push us, and who want to move more rapidly than us.”
Arrested, beaten and imprisoned at the end of 1959, Lumumba was only released when negotiations were launched in Brussels in January 1960.
He refused all compromises. The state of Congo would not be divided up—with the country’s wealth controlled by the provinces—as the Belgian rulers had hoped. Nor would the MNC accept the Belgian king as the head of state in an independent Congo.
The date was set for independence—30 June 1960. But Lumumba’s radicalism meant that he was hated by the Belgian elite. A Belgian government communiqué in January stated that they wanted Lumumba’s elimination. At this stage, that meant his removal from the political scene.
But the MNC emerged victorious in elections in May. Lumumba refused to do deals with the departing power.
On independence day he told his audience, which included the Belgian king, “For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won.”
The colonialists went into convulsions of rage at the “insolence” of a black man—and former subject. But forces on the left around the world rejoiced. Malcolm X, the radical black leader in the US, called on every black person to memorise the heroic speech.
Celebrations were quickly extinguished. In July, Belgium promoted the secession of the mineral-rich provinces Katanga and Kasai.
It recognised, supported and armed these new “states’’. Some évolués—using the language of ethnic divide and rule—helped provide an African veneer to these artificial provinces.
Lumumba had appealed to the United Nations (UN) for support—but it supported the moves by the imperial powers to overthrow his regime.
As his power began to slip away, Lumumba turned to the ranks of the MNC and those who had propelled the Congo to independence. But the forces against them were too great. Leading nationalists fell to bribes and co-option.
Colonel Joseph Mobutu—the future dictator of the country, but until then an ally of Lumumba—was bribed by the US and organised a coup in September.
Lumumba fled the capital in November. He headed for Stanleyville, where he hoped to regroup his supporters. But when he was arrested days later he knew that this probably meant death.
Writing in prison he said, “History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets.”
Less than two months later he was dead. Lumumba’s murder was not the end of the matter. His supporters resisted, until their defeat in 1965.
Western powers backed Mobutu’s second coup that year. He ruled for over 30 years, crushing dissent and ensuring that Western countries and multinationals could pillage Congo’s resources.
In his last months, Lumumba began to edge away from the politics of national liberation and pay attention to what other forces were doing.
Francois, his son who is now a political activist in Congo, explained, “He discovered in the course of 1960 that not all Congolese had the same interpretation of independence.
“So in his actions and in his speeches he became more precise and spoke of workers, justice and equality.”
Lumumba’s intransigent resistance to Western attempts to break Congo’s independence needs be celebrated today. He has rightly become a symbol of the fight against imperialism.
Leo Zeilig is the author of Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s lost leader, which is available form Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop for £9.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk