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.
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 …