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The Tragedy of Lumumba: An Exchange

To the Editors:

In the review of my book The Assassination of Lumumba [NYR, October 4], Brian Urquhart focuses on the role of the UN in the Congo crisis (1960–1964). Thus Urquhart draws attention to a subject highly relevant for international politics today. The way he handles the issue, however, is less constructive. Research shows that UN Secretary-General Hammarskjöld played a decisive role in the overthrow of the Congolese government of Patrice Lumumba. Overlooking the facts, Urquhart calls this conclusion “ridiculous.” Once a member of the UN Secretariat himself, he clings to the official view that the UN is neutral and impartial, and that its intervention in the Congo had no other purpose than to keep “the cold war” out of Africa. If only this had been true.

In July 1960 the Security Council sent Blue Helmets to the Congo, where Belgian troops had invaded and seceded the rich copper province of Katanga. The UN mission was to provide the Congolese government with military aid until it could fulfill its tasks properly. Formally responding to the request of Lumumba, the operation was conceived not to hurt Washington’s ally. The UN asked Belgium to withdraw, but without a deadline. UN troops were deployed in the Congo, but not in Katanga. This gave Brussels crucial time to build up a puppet regime in Katanga around Moïse Tshombe. Urquhart pretends that Lumumba was “obsessed” with the secession. Lumumba had good reasons for this: the secession deprived the Congo of two thirds of its income and was throttling the country. UN troops finally entered Katanga, but only after Hammarskjöld guaranteed that the Belgian troops could stay, provided they put on a “Katangese” uniform. Belgian functionaries were unhindered to construct the “independent” state.

In September President Kasa Vubu carried out a coup and deposed Prime Minister Lumumba. Urquhart maintains that the UN didn’t take sides. In fact, the secretary-general had told US diplomats in secret that “Lumumba must be broken.” He gave the green light for the UN to support the coup. The UN closed the airports, so that loyal troops couldn’t come to the help of Lumumba. The UN also closed the radio station, so that Lumumba couldn’t appeal to the population. And the UN distributed money to the Congolese soldiers on condition that they stayed passive before the coup. (In his book Hammarskjöld Urquhart “forgets” to mention that the money was secretly provided by Washington…)

After the coup, the Congolese parliament renewed its confidence in Lumumba. But Colonel Mobutu dissolved parliament, and Lumumba was locked up in his residence, surrounded by a double cordon: one of UN guards protecting him, and a second cordon of Mobutu’s soldiers, who officially wanted to arrest him. Urquhart states that the US wanted Mobutu to arrest Lumumba, but that Hammarskjöld refused this, and wanted a reconciliation between Lumumba and Kasa Vubu and the reopening of parliament. The truth is that the UN and the US agreed to keep Lumumba locked up: this signified “Lumumba’s political death,” as the US ambassador in the Congo wrote. UN leaders sent home a UN official who tried to reconcile Lumumba and Kasa Vubu. While the UN helped to destroy Congolese democracy, the secretary-general built his image of “neutrality.” His aides were to answer Lumumba’s letters for a particular reason: “I think more of our record than of courtesy to a certain individual. It would be good to be able later on, if necessary, to publish replies as having been sent before an attack” on the attitude of the UN…

At the end of November, Lumumba fled his residence to join his supporters in the east. Halfway through his trip, he fell in the hands of Mobutu’s soldiers. Urquhart doesn’t mention that this happened after Lumumba had asked for UN protection but this was refused by UN Commander Von Horn… While in Mobutu’s death cell, and after his transfer to Katanga, while Lumumba was tortured and killed, the UN made not one move to save his life. Urquhart contests that the UN force was “huge.” However, compared with the extremely weak forces of Mobutu and Tshombe, it was overwhelming. In fact, without UN military support the Katangese secessionists would have been toppled by the nationalists long before they could lay their hands on Lumumba. Hammarskjöld’s problem was not a lack of military force, but of political will. Before Lumumba’s death, the UN wouldn’t even consider measures to reopen parliament, although its mandate was to help restore law and order. The UN followed in this the objectives of Washington, who feared Lumumba’s political power. The West and the UN favored the reopening of parliament only after his death, when the nationalist danger was gone.

Urquhart is right that the West criticized aspects of the UN operation in the Congo. However, these criticisms were for public consumption, or a counterweight to the Afro-Asian pressure on the UN leadership to help Lumumba. In itself they don’t prove the “neutrality” of the UN. History shows that this neutrality is a myth. The UN was the most important vehicle of destroying the Congolese government and laying the groundworks for the dictatorship of Mobutu which wrecked the country.

Ludo De Witte
Louvain, Belgium

To the Editors:

Brian Urquhart’s excellent review “The Tragedy of Lumumba” puzzles me on one point. He says that Lumumba was being guarded by UN troops in his official residence, and that Hammarskjöld had refused to allow his arrest.

I talked very briefly to Lumumba on the morning before his fatal drive toward Stanleyville. I was with Rajeshwar Dayal, the chief of UN operations, in the St. George headquarters of the UN in Léopoldville, not at Lumumba’s official residence. Dayal’s office was on an upper floor of a high building from where he had a direct telephone to Lumumba, who had taken refuge with some of his guards in the spacious yard below.

I was privy to a long telephone conversation between Dayal and Lumumba, who was insisting that he was going to leave the premises, repeatedly emphasizing (as Dayal recounted to me) that he was not a prisoner of the UN and was free to go wherever he chose. I heard Dayal tell him that he was of course free to go as he was living voluntarily under UN protection; but he warned him that leaving the protection of the UN was dangerous because Mobutu’s troops were everywhere watching for him. A conversation along these lines went on for some time. In the end Dayal said I would like to have a word with him.

I had to got to know Lumumba reasonably well at the table ronde talks in Brussels when the terms of the Congo’s independence were being negotiated and subsequently met him several times in Léopoldville after he became prime minister. I found him gentle, and advanced in his social ideas, formed by his Christian beliefs and admiration for social democratic ideas. These were collected in a book I subsequently edited, Congo My Country.

But under the pressure of the Congo crisis with the weight of cold war rivalries adding to raw domestic political rivalries he became increasingly unpredictable as he felt himself trapped and powerless.

The last time I saw him as prime minister his eyes were glazed and, disturbingly, nothing was getting through to him. He was clearly under the influence of marijuana. Poor man; who would not crack up under the pressures he was put?

My last telephone contact with him was brief; his voice was angry and somewhat hysterical. There was no meaningful exchange. In the early hours of the next morning, crouched in the back of his car, he was driven unhindered through the gates of the UN headquarters. He succeeded in evading his pursuers until they caught up with him at Mweka in Kasai.

My eyewitness account discounts the many erroneous versions of what happened given by critics who have sought to show UN collaboration in Lumumba’s ghastly fate. Under different circumstances he could have been an impressive leader and saved the Congo from its terrible fate under the likes of the kleptomanic Mobutu.

Colin Legum
Cape Town, South Africa

Brian Urquhart replies:

Ludo De Witte seems to believe that Patrice Lumumba could do nothing unwise or wrong, that he had an absolute right to act regardless of the human consequences and, although De Witte keeps stressing that Lumumba’s was a democratic government, in flagrant disregard for the opinions of its other members. He believes that Lumumba had the right to the unquestioning support, military and otherwise, of the United Nations for his plans and actions.

De Witte maintains that UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was a leading member of a neocolonialist plot to overthrow Lumumba and to promote the dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu. I believe that Hammarskjöld’s actions and public statements relating to the extraordinarily complex and dangerous situation in the Congo, his well-documented principles for the conduct of the secretary-general’s office, and his record in decolonization matters—in early 1960 he had visited some twenty newly independent or about-to-be independent countries in Africa in order to find out how the UN might help them—make nonsense of such an allegation. Hammarskjöld’s chief adviser, and for the first two months of the crisis his representative in the Congo, was Ralph Bunche. Bunche had played a unique part in the decolonization process, and it is inconceivable that he would have acquiesced in, let alone taken part in, De Witte’s alleged neocolonialist plot. Incidentally, Bunche, a key figure in the Congo story, is only mentioned three times, and then only in passing, in De Witte’s book.

De Witte seems to believe that civil war would have been the most effective and desirable means of settling political conflicts in the newly independent Congo. He further holds that the UN force should unquestioningly have taken part in such a war—on Lumumba’s side, of course—although its UN Security Council mandate specifically excluded it from trying to influence the outcome of any internal conflict. I believe that a civil war would have been catastrophic (just as it has been for the last three years in the Congo) and that the UN was right to seek peaceful solutions whenever possible.

De Witte tends to dismiss all UN actions and statements that do not support his thesis as merely “for public consumption.” This seems to me both desperate and unconvincing. I have mentioned previously his highly selective use of archival material.

The Congolese government was, quite rightly, obsessed with the secession of Katanga. The UN’s problem was how to deal with the secession while avoiding a civil war that would very probably have resulted in foreign intervention. De Witte’s elaborate fantasy of Hammarskjöld’s conspiracy with the Belgians to preserve and consolidate the Katanga secession seem absurd to anyone who worked with Hammarskjöld at the time and experienced his frustration and his frequent rages at, and denunciations of, both the Belgians and their protégé, the Katangese leader, Moïse Tshombe.

Hammarskjöld giving the “green light” to what De Witte calls Kasa Vubu’s “coup”—the President’s dismissal of Lumumba for governing arbitrarily and plunging the country into civil war—later became a staple of Soviet propaganda. (Incidentally, Kasa Vubu, as the president of the country, had the authority—although De Witte denies it—under Article 22 of the provisional constitution to dismiss the prime minister, provided the order was countersigned, as it was, by at least one other minister. The prime minister, on the other hand, did not have the authority to dismiss the president.)

In early September 1960, the situation in Léopoldville was particularly tense because of the ongoing massacre by elements of the Congolese army of the Luba people of the Kasai province, and also because of the arrival of eleven Soviet military transport aircraft in Stanleyville, Lumumba’s political base. On September 3, the temporary UN mission chief, Andrew Cordier, a long-serving American member of the UN Secretariat, was summoned by President Kasa Vubu and, in turning down all the President’s requests, categorically refused to have the UN associated with any action against Lumumba. Cordier also warned the President strongly of the disorders that would almost certainly result from such a course of action. (If De Witte read about this interview in the UN archives, he presumably dismissed it as purely “for public consumption.”) After Kasa Vubu’s and Lumumba’s mutual dismissals of each other later on the same day, Cordier warned Hammarskjöld of the imminent possibility of a “complete disintegration of authority,” and Hammarskjöld authorized him to take the necessary urgent action to protect law and order if such a situation arose.

The pervasive near-panic in Léopoldville arose mainly from the fear of street clashes between the rival political youth groups and, above all, from the possibility that the Soviet transports based in Stanleyville would be used to fly in troops to do battle with the garrison of Léopoldville. In this situation, Cordier decided, in the interests of civil security, to reduce the mobility of units of the Congo army by closing the airfields, and to reduce incitements of the population by closing the radio stations. In New York, Hammarskjöld was surprised and taken aback by Cordier’s action, which was soon rescinded, and after the event it was widely criticized as draconian. Living with the tensions of Léopoldville, however, I thought at the time that it made a lot of sense. Cordier’s action was later interpreted by Lumumba’s supporters as primarily a move against Lumumba. (Just for the record, the US ambassador, Clare Timberlake, among others, protested strongly against the exclusion of Kasa Vubu from the radio station, and a week later Lumumba himself asked for the UN guards at the Léopoldville airfield and radio station to be strengthened.)

De Witte cites as fact yet another canard, that “the UN distributed money to the Congolese soldiers on condition that they stayed passive before the coup.” Again, one wishes he had scanned the UN archives with fewer preconceived convictions. The UN, recalling the first Congo army mutiny in July, was concerned that, at a time of such tension, the four thousand soldiers of the Léopoldville garrison had no food and had long been unpaid because the Congo’s treasury was empty. Mobutu, who was at that time still Lumumba’s military chief of staff, had told the UN of Lumumba’s anxiety on this score—a mutiny of the Léopoldville garrison would have been extremely serious for Lumumba—and on September 6 Cordier asked Hammarskjöld to raise immediately the one million dollars required to pay and feed the soldiers. The United States agreed to provide this sum, and on September 9, Lumumba himself approved the arrangements to pay and feed the soldiers. On September 11, Lumumba expressed to the new UN mission chief, Rajeshwar Dayal, his appreciation for this and other financial assistance. De Witte says archly that in my biography of Hammarskjöld I “forgot” to mention that the money was “secretly” provided by Washington. Where else but from Washington did he, or anyone at the time, think that the UN would be able to get an instant contribution of one million dollars in cash? Among many scattershot accusations, De Witte says mysteriously, “UN leaders sent home a UN official who tried to reconcile Lumumba and Kasa Vubu.” Since this reconciliation was the first of the objectives publicly set for the UN mission by Hammarskjöld, and his Congo mission chief, Rajeshwar Dayal, was publicly engaged in this task, this anonymous dismissal doesn’t make sense.

I do not have the space to deal with all of De Witte’s points, but I cannot resist mentioning his reaffirmation of the statement in his book that the UN force in the Congo was a “huge intervention force.” If he really believes that 16,000 lightly armed soldiers, authorized to use force only in self-defense and deployed in small detachments throughout a country the size of Western Europe, were an “overwhelming” force, one can only hope he is never responsible for any serious military planning. At that time, the UN force was heavily outnumbered everywhere in the Congo, and there was also no doubt that the moment it began to fight elements of the national army, the civilian population would be turned against the Blue Helmets, and their position would become impossible. In fact Lumumba himself had pointed this out to Ralph Bunche earlier on, when Bunche was resisting the demands of the United States ambassador that the UN should disarm by force the Congolese National Army.

De Witte states categorically that “without UN military support the Katangese secessionists would have been toppled by the nationalists….” As far as I know, even the Soviets never made such a claim. Far from giving military support to the secessionists, the UN, when given the necessary authority and strength by the Security Council, ended the secession. As one who had a fair amount to do with the dissolution of the Katanga secession, I was not aware that there was, or ever had been, a significant “nationalist” military opposition in or against Katanga, except for Lumumba’s ill-fated campaign in Kasai in August 1960. If there had been a serious “nationalist” opposition in Katanga, it might have saved the UN a great deal of time and trouble.

The political and ideological context that De Witte has constructed around the assassination of Lumumba presents a dogmatic, partisan, and simplistic picture that bears little resemblance to the nightmare realities of a situation in which there were few simple questions and no simple answers. To point this out does not detract in any way from the tragedy, for himself and for others, of the public career and the death of Patrice Lumumba.

Colin Legum’s interesting letter confirms my own impression of the circumstances of Patrice Lumumba’s departure from Leopoldville in November 1960. One one point, I think Mr. Legum’s memory has played him false. “Lumumba and his guards” did not at any time “take refuge” at the UN’s Royale (not St. George) headquarters in Léopoldville before leaving the capital. A day or two after the conversation that Mr. Legum records, Lumumba, without informing the UN representative, Rajeshwar Dayal, left his official residence at night during a tropical rainstorm, concealed in the back of a car. Dayal’s book, Mission for Hammarskjöld, gives a detailed account of this episode.

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