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An Exchange on the Death of Lumumba

In response to:

Who Killed Lumumba? from the December 17, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of Lumumba: The Last Fifty Days [NYR, December 17], Catherine Hoskyns touches on the role of the UN, and particularly the UN Ghanaian troops, during Lumumba’s journey toward Stanleyville. While correctly questioning the story that the Ghanaians actually had Lumumba in their hands during the course of his escape and arrest, she is satisfied that Heinz and Donnay’s account establishes that “UN troops were present in sufficient numbers to intervene, had they been so ordered.”

This is a slight, though important, modification of the statement in Miss Hoskyns’s own book, The Congo since Independence, 1960-1961, that “when the news came through of Lumumba’s arrest, their [the Ghanaians’] commanding officer requested permission to rescue him and put him under United Nations protection,” but his request was refused.

In either case, there is an implication that the UN could have successfully rescued Lumumba, but refrained from doing so, and it is on this basis that other, less responsible writers have constructed the legend of a ruthless Hammarskjöld, refusing to rescue Lumumba and deliberately allowing him to go to certain death. Since Heinz and Donnay’s book may have the effect of furthering this legend, it may be timely to dispel it.

My own inquiries among those directly concerned have revealed no evidence that any such request for permission to rescue Lumumba was made by the commanding officer or anyone else after Lumumba had been arrested. What in fact appears to have happened is that, when the news of Lumumba’s departure from Leopoldville reached the Ghanaians, the then commanding officer, Colonel Ankrah, pending policy guidance from Leopoldville, instructed his troops, inter alia, to take Lumumba into protective custody if in danger of arrest or causing trouble. The reply received from Leopoldville, before Lumumba’s arrest took place, was that no action should be taken in respect of Lumumba, since it had always been understood that, if he were to leave UN protection in Leopoldville, he would do so at his own risk and responsibility.1

The question of rescuing Lumumba after he had been arrested was thus apparently never raised. In practice, there is a substantial difference between taking a free person into protective custody and rescuing him after his arrest by other armed forces. If circumstances had been such as to permit the UN to take Lumumba into protective custody, it is extremely doubtful that he would have welcomed any such action, as he was anxious to get to Stanleyville. Moreover, for the UN troops to have done so because they thought he was in danger of arrest would almost certainly have been interpreted as an anti-Lumumbist action, interfering with his freedom of movement.

While there were at least two occasions on which Ghanaian soldiers briefly saw Lumumba under arrest, it does not follow that an attempted rescue would have been either possible or successful. Subsequent situations of a similar character in the Congro, e.g., the massacre of Ghanaian prisoners by the ANC at Port Franqui in 1961 and the killing of hostages at Stanleyville in 1964, suggest that once anyone was a prisoner of the Congolese military, an armed attempt at rescue would more likely than not result in his being immediately killed. Thus, an attempt to rescue Lumumba at Mweka might merely have precipitated his death. This is all the more likely since the ANC in Kasai included many Baluba soldiers, who were bitterly hostile to Lumumba because of the atrocities prepetrated a few months earlier by Lumumbist troops against the Baluba in and around Bakwanga.

Having said this, one may ask what might have happened if the UN had successfully rescued Lumumba without provoking a serious conflict with the ANC. The most likely answer is that Lumumba, far from being grateful, would have again “escaped” from UN protection whenever it suited him; the eventual tragedy might have been postponed but would not have been averted.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that Lumumba made his fatal error when he decided to relinquish UN protection and escape from Leopoldville. Various reasons have been advanced as to why he did this. The most likely was surely a desire to get back to his strongest supporters, in Stanleyville, where he could set up an alternative central government, as was indeed done shortly afterward by Antoine Gizenga. In taking the enormous risk of traveling overland, Lumumba failed to take account of his own flamboyant character in that, reportedly, he stopped frequently en route to address meetings of his supporters, and thus advertised his presence, so that the ANC, an otherwise hardly efficient organization, had little difficulty in tracking him down. Miss Hoskyns writes that Heinz and Donnay’s account of Lumumba’s 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 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…that in a sense he did not mind if he reached Stanleyville or not. The gesture of leaving was what mattered.

This perhaps reads too much into Lumumba’s mind. At that time in the Congo, conditions were so chaotic that “well-laid” plans were a virtual impossibility; any plan that succeeded was something of a miracle. All that can be said with certainty is that Lumumba knew he was taking a great risk and banked perhaps too much on his personal popularity in Kasai province to protect him. Yet it is on this flimsy foundation that Miss Hoskyns constructs her theory that Lumumba foresaw the ultimate danger of “a pseudodemocratic government controlled from outside” and deliberately exposed himself to possible martyrdom.

Again, with the benefit of hindsight, one can say that Lumumba’s arrest inevitably led to his death. But this was far from obvious at the time, and even Lumumba may not have realized it. Until Lumumba and his colleagues were murdered in Katanga, there had been no political killings during the turbulent first half-year of the Congo’s independence. On being brought to Leopoldville, Lumumba was imprisoned at the military camp at Thysville. Such was his personal magnetism that he provoked a mutiny, and Kasavubu, Bomboko, and Mobutu went down to Thysville to intervene. Reportedly for a time it was not clear who would emerge from the camp a free man but, eventually, it was Lumumba who remained prisoner.

It was probably after this unnerving experience that Kasavubu and his colleagues decided that Lumumba must be moved to a safer place of imprisonment, i.e., South Kasai or South Katanga, where he would be surrounded by his enemies. It was only at this stage that Lumumba’s death became inevitable. In the event, Lumumba and his ministerial colleagues Okito and Mpolo were sent to South Katanga, apparently against the wishes of Tshombe, who had initially informed Kasavubu that he did not want to have responsibility for them.

As Miss Hoskyns points out, one of the most interesting features of Heinz and Donnay’s book is their evidence of the network of Belgian agents and advisers that was functioning at that time in most key centers of the Congo. In particular, Heinz and Donnay suggest that it was certain of these Belgians who urged the Congolese authorities to send the captured Lumumba to South Kasai or South Katanga. It is inconceivable that, in doing so, they did not realize the lethal implications of their advice. As already mentioned, Lumumba was bitterly hated by the Baluba of South Kasai and perhaps only a little less so by the Lunda of South Katanga. If Heinz and Donnay’s account is correct, the moral responsibility for the assassination of Lumumba and his colleagues rests first and firmly with these Belgian advisers, secondly with those who accepted the advice, and only last with those who actually wielded the bayonet or fired the revolver.

On this highly controversial question, Miss Hoskyns concedes that “the Heinz and Donnay account would tend to implicate the US and the UN less and Belgium more than has hitherto been supposed.” However, taking a “longer period,” to include the events of September, 1960, she argues that the responsibility of the US and the UN for Lumumba’s death was great.

Throughout her review, Miss Hoskyns’s references to “US/UN” or “US and UN” policy imply collusion between the US and the UN, if not domination of UN decisions by the US. She makes the extraordinary statement that the September coup against Lumumba “had the backing of Belgium, the United States, and the United Nations.” Apart from the laughable idea of Belgium conniving with the United Nations at that time, where is her proof of US/UN collusion? Or does she mean that, by some extraordinary coincidence, each was supporting Mobutu quite independently of the other? It is to be noted that her later references to Mobutu as a “US/UN protégé” and to the US and the UN helping “to engineer the overthrow of Lumumba” make no mention of Belgium. In her own theorizing, how does she explain this curious omission? It is well known that relations between Lumumba and the UN had become extremely strained because of the UN’s refusal to support Lumumba in his military operations against Katanga, on the grounds that such action would have been outside its then mandate. So far as I know, however, there is absolutely no evidence that the UN supported Mobutu or anyone else in the overthrow of Lumumba. The constitutional anchor of the UN, throughout this confused period, was President Kasavubu, and Mobutu’s coup was initially directed against Kasavubu as well as Lumumba.

Another example of lack of clarity and consistency in Miss Hoskyns’s thesis is that, at one point, she refers to “the main direction of US and UN policy” since Lumumba’s overthrow, as though US and UN policy were one and the same and, a few lines later, states that, at the time of Lumumba’s arrest “something approaching the alliance [presumably between the US and UN] of September was briefly recreated” implying that they had, in the meantime, diverged.

Because conditions were so chaotic in the Congo, any attempt, including that of Miss Hoskyns, to draw lines of “external responsibility” for the events leading to Lumumba’s murder tends to be a rather abstract exercise and to engender more heat than light. In the first year or so of the Congo’s independence, the only thing one could safely expect from day to day was the unexpected. It was in these conditions that Hammarskjöld, Dayal, and their colleagues had the virtually impossible task of keeping the peace, yet abstaining from any action that might be regarded as interference in the country’s internal politics. To argue that the UN was anti-Lumumbist in its policies and actions ignores the fact that Kasavubu, Mobutu, and the College of Commissioners, more often than not, were bitterly hostile to the UN. The UN was indeed under almost constant fire from all factions, and this suggests that it was maintaining its objectivity and neutrality reasonably successfully. Incidentally, the final outcome of its efforts was essentially what Lumumba had been seeking, a single, unified Congo.

A. C. Gilpin2

Zambia

Catherine Hoskyns replies:

The heart of Mr. Gilpin’s disagreement with my review lies in his belief that the UN was not in any way involved in the overthrow of Lumumba in September, 1960. He finds it “extraordinary” and “laughable” to state that these events had the backing of Belgium, the United States and the United Nations. Yet to say this is not to imply that representatives of all three sat round a table and planned the coups or that there were not disagreements between them on other issues; it is merely to point out that a successful coup was in the interests of all three and that some support, not necessarily coordinated, was given. I find it hard to see how anyone looking objectively at the evidence can doubt the truth of this statement.

The most likely hypothesis about these events seems to me to be that Belgium helped to engineer the Kasavubu coup against Lumumba which took place on September 5 and that when this seemed to be failing the US and the UN encouraged Mobutu and the army to take control. Obviously until official documents are released, this cannot be proved conclusively, but some significant pieces of evidence about the nature of the US/UN relationship with Mobutu have already come to light. The most important of these are:

a) Subsequent statements from CIA sources that the Mobutu takeover represented a “success for the agency” (see for example Andrew Tully’s CIA—the Inside Story, 1962, pp. 220-2).

b) Statements made to me in 1961 by senior UN officials that at the time of the coup Mobutu had been “the UN man in the army.”

c) The fact that on September 10, four days before the second coup, the UN made money available to pay the troops in Leopoldville with the admitted aim of “strengthening Mobutu’s authority.”

d) The fact that Mobutu’s closest confidant and adviser at this point was a senior UN soldier, General Kettani.

In these circumstances it seems naive to believe that Mobutu would have gone ahead without assurances of US and UN backing, or that at the least some UN officials did not know in advance what was planned and give encouragement.

Because I am personally convinced that the UN backed the Mobutu coup, I find it hard to argue with Mr. Gilpin over what the UN might or might not have done to rescue Lumumba in Kasai. For his on the face of it very cogent reasoning is entirely based on the premise that the UN was acting in good faith as a neutral force. But if one accepts my arguments above, then this reasoning falls to the ground. For if US and British UN officials quietly intervened to help Mobotu oust Lumumba, then there is no reason in logic why Ghanaian UN soldiers should not have quietly intervened to help Lumumba on his way to Stanleyville—an option significantly ignored by Mr. Gilpin. In fact, however, the UN mechanism acted effectively to stop the latter intervention, but not the former.

I did not discuss in detail in the review the question of possible UN action in Kasai because this is not dealt with by Heinz and Donnay. But I did emphasize the fact that they give convincing evidence in passing that there were a substantial number of UN troops in the area because this was denied at the time by Hammarskjold (see his speech to the UN Security Council, February 15, 1961). Mr. Gilpin has misunderstood my point about the alliance of September being re-created. I meant the alliance between the US and the UN on the one hand and right-wing Belgian and European elements on the other, not that between the US and the UN.

On the question of Lumumba’s own attitudes, I advisedly used the word “instinctively.” I did not mean to suggest that he had a worked out rationale for what he did, still less that he deliberately chose martyrdom—just that he became convinced that he must leave Leopoldville and not accept a compromise. It is not true that well-laid plans for escape were an impossibility. Cleophas Kamitatu had already made such plans for other Lumumbists who reached Stanleyville safely. And Heinz and Donnay make it clear that Kamitatu and others urged Lumumba not to leave because these plans had not been completed. (p.10). It was Lumumba who insisted that he must leave there and then. Nor do I think it right to suggest that Lumumba would not have been aware of the dangers of leaving UN protection. He had almost been killed in the ANC camp in Leopoldville in September. He had been the subject of persistent threats by the College of Commissioners and, as Mr. Gilpin himself points out, it was wellknown that the ANC soldiers in Kasai were bitterly hostile to him. I still maintain therefore that Lumumba’s prime concern was to leave Leopoldville, and that this outweighed considerations about the future and his own personal safety.

Finally, I must object to the argument that because the UN helped to end Katanga secession it was serving Lumumba’s purpose. Lumumba was certainly interested in keeping the Congo as one unit but he was more interested in what went on within that unit. And to suggest that the wholesale repression which took place after Katanga had been reintegrated was part of Lumumba’s purpose is clearly absurd. In the end it was the Americans who really wanted to keep the Congo together in order to prevent a Belgian-dominated enclave being created round the copper mines. I believe that it was essentially this interest that the UN were serving in the action they took.

  1. 1

    The wording of Dayal’s orders to the UN military command, as quoted in the report of the UN Commission of Investigation (S/4976), was “that ONUC will not under any circumstances provide intelligence or assistance to the pursuer or the pursued.”

  2. 2

    The author was a UN civilian officer in the Kasai province of the Congo from October, 1960, till June, 1961. He later became Deputy Chief of Civilian Operations. This letter is written in a purely personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

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