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Who Killed Lumumba?

Lumumba: The Last Fifty Days

by G. Heinz, by H. Donnay, translated by Jane Clark Seitz
Grove, 210 pp., $1.45 (paper)

In 1966, when this book was first published, in French, it received surprisingly little serious attention in the press. This was partly because its striking format (lavishly illustrated and with records of Patrice Lumumba’s voice) tended to obscure for some the extent to which it also contained new material and serious research; and partly because to the disappointment of the Belgian press it did not indict specific individuals for the final act of murder.

In the Congo, however, the significance of the book was immediately realized. It was published at a time when Joseph Mobutu, who had seized power for the second time in a military coup in 1965, was trying to increase popular support for his regime and return to representative rule. This policy had a number of strands, among which were the public rehabilitation of the person of Lumumba and the discreet dissociation of Mobutu from any responsibility for his death. Since the book contributed somewhat to both these aims Mobutu ordered that it should be officially distributed through the Ministry of Information. This decision was bitterly opposed by those in the regime who were shown in an unfavorable light by the book, and the director of the Congolese Sûreté ordered that all copies should be seized. Mobutu was apparently not in a strong enough position to challenge this action and the ban remained in force.

These events show clearly that the issue of Lumumba’s death, and what that represented, still lies at the heart of Congolese politics, and that to undertake an investigation into the circumstances surrounding that death is an act of considerable political importance. The English translation of the book now published emphasizes a further dimension. For in this text (which has been shorn of the records and most of the photographs, and appears altogether more sober than the original) the wider international aspect of these events emerges more sharply. And it becomes clear here again that to establish what actually did happen is not just a piece of academic detection but an important contribution to any real understanding of the present relationship between Western capitalism and the Third World.

The Congo became independent in June, 1960, under a coalition government in which Lumumba was Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu Head of State. Immediately after independence the army mutinied. Belgium flew in paratroopers, the rich province of Katanga declared secession, and a United Nations force was brought in to try to restore law and order. In the confusion, Lumumba and his supporters began to pursue an increasingly radical and nationalist line. When in September this seemed likely to threaten the position of Kasavubu and the traditionalists, other elite groups, and external financial and strategic interests, a coup was engineered against Lumumba, in spite of the fact that he still had a majority in parliament and widespread support in the country as a whole.

The fifty days of the book’s title run from November 27, 1960, to January 17, 1961, opening with the situation two months after Lumumba had been overthrown. By this time the Congo was being effectively ruled by three rival regimes. In Leopoldville the coup had brought the army under Mobutu to power, and administration was being carried out by the College of Commissioners, a group of young Congolese graduates very much under Belgian influence. In Katanga, the secessionist government under Moise Tshombe, strongly backed by Belgian financial interests, had consolidated its position. In Stanleyville, Lumumba’s supporters were regrouping with the intention of forming a new government. The Leopoldville regime was rapidly losing control over the interior of the country and it was clear that if a new Lumumbist government were established in Stanleyville it would receive considerable support. Since the coup Lumumba himself had remained in Leopoldville, increasingly in danger of arrest and imprisonment.

The September coup had the backing of Belgium, the United States, and the United Nations, all of which had shown open hostility to Lumumba. But by November the situation had somewhat changed. Although overt American policy was still to support Mobutu and the College, behind the scenes there was growing concern about Afro-Asian reaction to the overthrow of Lumumba, the weakness of the Leopoldville regime, and the new threat from Stanleyville.

UN officials were similarly concerned, and thus some consideration began to be given to the possibility of putting together a “coalition of moderates” which might replace the army in power, negotiate with Katanga, and take the heat out of the Lumumbist threat. There was even talk in some quarters of Lumumba himself being included in the coalition—if he would accept a subordinate role. To keep this kind of option open, UN guards surrounded Lumumba’s house in Leopoldville and prevented his arrest by the College, on the understanding that he would not leave the premises or engage in political activity. The Belgians remained firmly opposed to any reconciliation of this kind and used their considerable influence with the College and with the Katanga politicians to frustrate these maneuvers.

By the end of November all disputes within the Congo had become crystallized in the single issue of what should happen to Lumumba. The attitudes of the different factions are analyzed in detail by Heinz and Donnay, and they show that while the College was determined to arrest Lumumba and “have done,” Mobutu himself was now following the new US/UN line and urging Lumumba to accept a more passive political role. This is important corroboratory evidence for the theory that Mobutu (rather than Kasavubu) had been the US/UN protégé in the September crisis.

In all these moves the key question was whether Lumumba himself would be willing to accept a passive role in Leopoldville in return for his personal safety. The Heinz and Donnay account of his attitudes at this point suggests that he was instinctively aware of the real issues and that his decision to escape to Stanleyville was taken deliberately in order to polarize the political situation and make clear that he was not willing to be manipulated. The plans for his escape were so ill laid that one is tempted to conclude (as Conor Cruise O’Brien does explicitly in Murderous Angels) that in a sense he did not mind if he reached Stanleyville or not. The gesture of leaving was what mattered.

Lumumba’s escape from Leopoldville, the pursuit, and his eventual arrest are described with new material which reveals not only the details of what happened but also much about the situation in the Congo at that point. Outside Leopoldville all administration had broken down and local interests had taken over. Thus neither Lumumba nor his pursuers were able easily to establish their identity, and both were constantly being held up by ferrymen, local officials, and groups of soldiers who trusted no one outside their immediate tribal group. This is one of the main reasons, (another being that when Lumumba’s identity was established everyone wanted to hear him speak) why Lumumba traveled only a short distance in four days.

The actual pursuit was carried out by Congolese, but Europeans were clearly active in the background. Western agents “made offers of assistance to the Congolese.” The first news of Lumumba’s whereabouts came over the radio system of a private company, and a European company supplied a pilot and a helicopter. The authors maintain that UN Ghanaian troops actually had Lumumba in their hands three times during the course of his escape and arrest. From other sources this seems somewhat unlikely (indeed the book seems less reliable when dealing with the UN angle than in other respects) but the account does establish that UN troops were present in sufficient numbers to intervene, had they been so ordered. The pursuers finally caught up with Lumumba on the night of December 1 at Lodi ferry and he was flown back to Leopoldville on the following day.

From December 2 Lumumba was kept under arrest in the paracommando camp in Thysville, ninety miles from the capital. Once he had been recaptured, the debate about his future was resumed, but with the balance altered by the fact that he was now in the hands of the College and the army. Here Heinz and Donnay introduce important new evidence about the role of Belgian agents and advisers. They show that by this time there was a well-functioning network of Belgians in Leopoldville, Katanga, and South Kasai (another secessionist regime) who kept in close touch and whose role was to push decisions in certain ways and keep Belgium fully informed. This network included an “authorized Belgian observer” who was present at every meeting of the College.

They suggest that from the moment Lumumba was recaptured certain of these advisers urged that he should be sent away from the Leopoldville area to some “safer place” such as South Kasai or Katanga. Initially, the Congolese authorities seem to have ignored these suggestions—perhaps because contrary pressures were being applied—preferring to leave Lumumba in Thysville. But in the first two weeks in January the situation in Leopoldville changed dramatically, and unrest in the army and popular hostility (Heinz and Donnay give a detailed account of how widespread both of these were) brought the regime of Mobutu and the College near to collapse. In these circumstances it suddenly seemed urgent to get Lumumba away before he and his supporters could benefit from the situation.

On January 14 a full meeting of the College made a general recommendation that Lumumba should be moved. The key members of the College with certain European advisers then met to decide where he should go. The Europeans strongly advised South Kasai—hoping it seems to avoid further controversy for Katanga—but the Congolese decided on Katanga, perhaps in the hope that with Lumumba in his hands Tshombe would be more willing to negotiate. The authors make it clear that Belgium was kept informed throughout these negotiations, even at one stage being asked to intervene with the Katangese to ensure acceptance of the prisoners. They are more evasive about Mobutu’s role, but it does seem that he was not one of the core group which took the final decision. Thus in great secrecy on January 17 Lumumba and his two close associates, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo, were flown by air to Elizabethville.

The account of what happened in Katanga is probably as near definitive as one can hope for at the moment. It proves conclusively that Lumumba was not “near dead on arrival” as Tshombe claimed in 1964, and that the official Katanga story that the prisoners escaped on February 13 and were killed by hostile villagers was a total fabrication. At the same time it throws great doubt on a document published in 1965, purporting to be a written order from Tshombe for the execution of Lumumba, and suggests that this is a forgery by mercenaries who were seeking revenge on Tshombe for bringing secession to an end.

The reality was much less well planned than this and filled with macabre irony. According to Heinz and Donnay, the prisoners on arrival were taken over by the Katanga military police (whose officers were Belgian mercenaries) and driven to the house of a local Belgian who was then abroad. Meanwhile the Katanga ministers met at Tshombe’s residence to discuss the situation. Initially they seem to have agreed that Lumumba should not be executed or put on trial, because of the likely international repercussions, but should be moved out of Elizabethville to some safe and secure place in Katanga. Much liquor was consumed, however, and later in the evening groups of ministers went across the town to gloat over their captive. Some time in the night, during one of these visits, Lumumba was killed—almost certainly bayonetted by one of the ministers and finished off by the bullet of a mercenary. On February 13 when the death could be hidden no longer, the escape story was fabricated.

The question of external responsibility for these events is one which has caused enormous controversy ever since Lumumba was murdered. Over the time covered, the Heinz and Donnay account would tend to implicate the US and the UN less and Belgium more than has hitherto been supposed. This is perhaps partly because the authors clearly had much greater access to Belgian and Congolese confidential documentation than they did to similar sources for the US and the UN. But at the same time there is no doubt that from November to January the main direction of US and UN policy was changing from open hostility to Lumumba to an attempt to control and circumscribe his power.

If, however, one takes a longer period and includes the events of September, when unquestionably both the US and the UN helped to engineer the overthrow of Lumumba against the wishes of the Congolese majority, then clearly the responsibility is great. For it was this, action that placed Lumumba in the hands of his enemies and started the train of circumstances that led to his death. And it is interesting to note that when for a day or so in November it seemed that Lumumba might reach Stanleyville and regain his freedom of action, something approaching the alliance of September was briefly re-created to ensure his recapture. The same argument applies to Mobutu himself: he may not have been involved in the decision to transfer Lumumba to Katanga but he was deeply involved in the events of September.

Lumumba’s importance lies not so much in his political ideas (other African leaders have expressed radical ideologies) but in the fact that at the crucial moment he refused to compromise and cooperate with those who opposed him. Most leaders in his position would have accepted a temporarily passive role, thinking that when times were favorable they could resume radical action. By refusing to do this, Lumumba made a smoothing-over operation much more difficult and forced the real nature of the situation and the real motives of the participants to emerge. He also made clear by his actions that he considered that a pseudodemocratic government controlled from outside (as was the essence of the new US/UN policy) would be as damaging to the country’s real interests as an openly reactionary and oppressive regime. It is because he forced these realities into the light, at the cost of his own life, that Lumumba has become a hero not only in Africa but in all of the Third World.

Letters

An Exchange on the Death of Lumumba April 22, 1971

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