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The Tragedy of Lumumba


Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the independent state of the Congo, was in power for only twelve weeks, but he has become a legend—to some a saint and martyr, to others a psychotic demagogue. Recently several books, a film, and a Belgian painter, Luc Tuymans, have portrayed Lumumba as a defining figure of his time, a heroic victim of Western greed, prejudice, and brutality. Detailed revelations about his death have, in terrible detail, filled in the gaps in previous accounts.

The tragedy of Lumumba touches on, and sometimes illuminates, many historical themes—colonialism and neocolonialism; African decolonization and the problems of transition and leadership; the influence of great international corporations; the cold war’s disastrous effect on parts of Africa during the liberation period; the limitations of the UN’s peacekeeping role; and, not least, the creation of myths and legends.

Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo was the darkest episode in all the murky history of European colonialism. To feed King Leopold II’s manic appetite for ivory and rubber, mutilations, mass executions, and the use of the chicotte—a hippopotamus hide whip that cut through skin and muscle—administered by the indigenous Force Publique commanded by Belgian officers had halved the population within a few years and left a legacy of oppression and cruelty that poisoned forever the relations of Congolese and Belgians.

At the Congo’s independence on June 30, 1960, the young King Baudoin, in a paternalistic speech, praised his ghastly ancestor’s achievements. Lumumba’s fiery response brought into the open the latent rage and resentment of his people. Perhaps for the first time, Belgian officials realized that after independence, with Patrice Lumumba as prime minister, things would not, as they had hoped, go on much as before.1

The Congo, unlike most African colonies, had no longstanding liberation movement either at home or abroad, or any internationally recognized independence leaders like Mandela, Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Nkomo, Nujoma, and others. Such liberationist activity as there was had been sanctioned only in 1957 and was led by Joseph Kasa Vubu, who was to become the Congo’s first president. Lumumba, a former postal clerk and beer salesman, became the leader of the nationalist, supratribal party, the Mouvement National Congolais, in Stanleyville, his political base. He was arrested for the first time in November 1959 and then released to take part in the Brussels Roundtable that set the scene for the Congo’s suddenly accelerated independence, precipitated in part by Charles De Gaulle’s abrupt granting of independence to France’s African colonies. Congolese independence was in every way a last-minute arrangement.

Whether because they believed that independence would be little more than a formality or because of the superiority and contempt they felt for their unfortunate African subjects, the Belgians, unlike other colonial powers, made no practical arrangements for an independent Congo. No Congolese had ever taken part in the business of government or public administration at any important level. Only seventeen out of a population of 13.5 million had university degrees. There was not one Congolese officer in the Force Publique, which was to become the Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC). No colony had ever faced independence so ill-prepared.

Events in the first days of independence went at a diz- zying pace. The army mutinied and threw out its Belgian officers. Europeans were roughed up, and there were reports of white women being raped. The Belgian population panicked and left. Belgian paratroopers were deployed to protect the remaining Europeans. These troops, believed by the Congolese to have been sent to reverse independence, clashed with the soldiers of the ANC—which had no officers—in the major cities. With the connivance of Belgium, the richest province, Katanga, whose president was Moise Tshombe, seceded from the new republic. Public administration, law, and order evaporated and were replaced by chaos and anarchy.

President Kasa Vubu and Prime Minister Lumumba were, understandably enough, unable to stem this tidal wave of misfortune and appealed to the United Nations for help. The UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, brought their request to the Security Council, which on July 14, despite the reservations of Belgium’s NATO allies, the United States, France, and Britain, called on Belgium to withdraw its troops from the Congo. The Council also authorized the secretary-general to provide the Congo government with such military assistance as was necessary until its national security forces were able to meet their tasks fully. The American UN undersecretary, Ralph Bunche, already in Léopoldville and soon to become the head of the UN mission, tried to explain the nature and limitations of the UN operation in his talks with Kasa Vubu and Lumumba. The UN troops could, he told them, only use force in self-defense and could not be used to influence the outcome of any internal conflict.2

The first UN troops, from Morocco, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Tunisia, arrived two days after the Security Council decision, and within ten days ten thousand soldiers, initially all from African countries, were deployed throughout the country except in Katanga. A military training mission under a Moroccan officer, General Ben Hammou Kettani, was set up to train and reorganize the ANC. The UN also organized a large civilian task force to run the abandoned public services—communications, central bank, airfields, police, hospitals, etc.—and to train the Congolese to take them over.

It soon became clear that Lumumba was not going to be an easy person to help. His dealings with the UN quickly deteriorated into a bewildering series of pleas for assistance, threats, and ultimatums. He issued impossible demands and expected instant results. He made urgent requests for protection, punctuated by accusations that the UN was collaborating with the Belgians. In fact the UN mission was daily struggling with the Belgians in an effort, ultimately successful, to get their troops out of the Congo.

After the Belgian troops had left the rest of the Congo, the secession of Katanga became the new government’s primary obsession. Lumumba refused to understand that under their mandate, the UN peacekeepers could not reverse the Katanga secession by force and would have to deal with it by other, less dramatic means. Hammarskjöld was convinced that war between the various parties in the Congo would only turn a bad situation into a catastrophe. “I do not believe, personally,” he told the Security Council in reply to a Soviet demand that the UN troops should use force to annul the Katanga secession, “that we help the Congolese people by actions in which Africans kill Africans, or Congolese kill Congolese, and that will remain my guiding principle in the future.”

In mid-August Hammarskjöld took the considerable risk of personally leading the first UN troops into Katanga to provide the basis for the withdrawal of Belgian troops, as had been done successfully in the rest of the country. He did not take Lumumba with him on this already hazardous venture; the prevailing hatred and fear of Lumumba in Katanga would almost certainly have ensured a violent and bloody end of the mission, and probably of Lumumba and Hammarskjöld as well.

This kind of pragmatism was lost on Lumumba, and, resenting his exclusion from the Katanga venture, he violently attacked Hammar- skjöld and the UN mission, his words being faithfully parroted by his new ally, the Soviet Union. He also refused to meet with Ralph Bunche, the head of the UN operation.3 Bunche, who considered that access to the prime minister was vital to the UN’s mission, asked to be replaced by someone with whom Lumumba would be willing to deal.

Far more disastrous, Lumumba dispatched units of the ANC, untrained and without logistics or leadership, in an attempt to deal by force both with Katanga and with a nascent secessionist movement in neighboring Kasai. He appealed for Soviet support in this desperate venture, and was given trucks, advisers, and ten transport planes. The planes and advisers were quickly withdrawn when the situation became too dangerous, but not before they had helped the ANC to massacre more than a thousand of Kasai’s Luba people.

Lumumba had visited Washington in July and talked with Secretary of State Christian Herter and Undersecretary of State Douglas Dillon. According to Dillon, Lumumba impressed both men as an irrational, almost “psychotic” personality, and the willingness of the United States government to work with him began to evaporate.4 Lumumba’s rejection of the UN and his call for Soviet military aid confirmed Washington’s worst fears of a Soviet takeover in the Congo, with Lumumba as an African Fidel Castro. As a US Senate inquiry later showed, the Eisenhower administration authorized the prime minister’s assassination.5

The bloody fiasco in Kasai aroused even the placid President Kasa Vubu to action. With the encouragement of Belgium and the United States, he dismissed Lumumba for governing arbitrarily and plunging the country into civil war. Half an hour later Lumumba declared on the radio that Kasa Vubu was no longer chief of state and he called upon the people to rise up and the army to die with him. The Western nations sided with Kasa Vubu, the Soviet bloc with Lumumba, and the UN operation was caught in the middle. As Bunche’s successor, Rajeshwar Dayal, put it,

The UN is here to help but not to intervene, to advise but not to order, to conciliate but not to take sides…. We have refused to take any position if it could only remotely be considered as an act of intervention. But how can the duty of maintaining law and order be discharged without taking specific action when necessary? That is the problem that faces us daily and which is yet to be solved.

All sides—Belgium, the United States, the Soviets, Lumumba, and Joseph Mobutu, Lumumba’s military aide—loudly criticized the UN, a foretaste of Bosnia thirty years later, where the UN’s much-despised neutrality and impartiality in a controversial conflict pleased no one.

On the evening of September 14, Joseph Mobutu—who had suddenly and unexpectedly broken with Lumumba and was establishing a power base of his own in alliance with Kasa Vubu—announced over the radio that he was “neutralizing” the chief of state, the two rival governments, and the parliament until the end of the year. In the meantime, he said, he would call in “technicians” to run the country. For his part Lumumba threatened that in eight days’ time Soviet troops would come to the Congo, as the English translation puts it, “…in order to brutally expel the UN from our Republic…. If it is necessary to call on the devil to save the country, I will do it without hesitation, confident that with the total support of the Soviets, I will, in spite of everything, emerge victorious.”6 Four days later, in a complete about-face, Lumumba sent Hammarskjöld a reconciliation agreement with Kasa Vubu “which effectively puts an end to the Congolese crisis.” In it he asked for full UN assistance and assured the secretary-general of his full cooperation.

  1. 1

    The Belgian command inscribed the slogan “Après l’Indépendance = Avant l’Indépendance” on blackboards in the barracks of the Force Publique.

  2. 2

    I should explain here my own connection with the Congo. I was Ralph Bunche’s chief assistant and in that capacity was in the Congo throughout the summer and early fall of 1960. We were in touch with Lumumba more or less on a daily basis during this time, until he broke off relations with Bunche. In the fall of 1961, after Hammarskjöld’s death on a mission to the Congo, I became the UN representative in Katanga, was kidnapped and severely beaten up by Moise Tshombe’s troops, and was in charge of the UN side during two weeks of fierce fighting after which Tshombe agreed to end the secession and reunite Katanga with the Congo.

  3. 3

    Bunche, who had drafted the chapters of the UN Charter on decolonization and trusteeship and was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, had a unique record as a promoter and expediter of decolonization and was the friend and mentor of many of the African independence leaders. Lumumba once asked me angrily why Hammarskjöld had sent “ce nègre Américain” to the Congo. I replied with some heat that Hammarskjöld had only sent the best man in the world to deal with such a situation. Lumumba did not revert to this subject.

  4. 4

    See Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, interim report of the Senate Select Committee known as the “Church Report” (Norton, 1976), p. 53.

  5. 5

    Alleged Assassination Plots, pp. 13–16.

  6. 6

    chasser brutalement l’ONU de notre République…. S’il est nécessaire de faire l’appel au diable pour sauver le pays, je le ferai sans hésitation, persuadé qu’avec l’appui total des Soviets, je sortirais malgré tout victorieux.”

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