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The Tragedy of Lumumba

To the fury of the United States and its Western allies, Hammarskjöld refused to recognize Mobutu and announced that the UN’s objectives should be to reconcile Lumumba and Kasa Vubu, to restore constitutionality, to reopen the parliament, and to get the government to tackle the now catastrophic internal situation—an empty treasury and the breakdown of public administration, judiciary, tax collection, and functioning schools.

Lumumba was being guarded by UN troops in his official residence, and Hammarskjöld refused to allow his arrest, which the US ambassador in Léopoldville had been urging on Kasa Vubu and Mobutu.7 Washington threatened to withdraw US support from the UN Congo operation, and in November, against Hammarskjöld’s strongly expressed advice, the United States succeeded in getting the UN General Assembly to recognize the Kasa Vubu/Mobutu regime.

After the assembly decision, Lumumba, now increasingly isolated in his UN-guarded residence, with an outer ring of Mobutu’s troops waiting to pounce on him, decided to leave Léopoldville for Stanleyville, his home base. During a tropical downpour, as Kasa Vubu was celebrating his recognition by the UN General Assembly with a lavish dinner party, Lumumba, hidden in the back of a car, secretly left his residence and headed for Stanleyville.

Lumumba had been told repeatedly by UN officials that if he left his residence in Léopoldville it would be at his own risk and responsibility. In accordance with the UN’s policy of noninterference in internal affairs, the chief of the UN operation, Rajeshwar Dayal, gave orders that UN troops across the country should not interfere either with Lumumba’s movements or with those of his pursuers. Mobutu’s soldiers finally caught up with Lumumba at Mweka in Kasai and flew him back to Léopoldville where he was seen, bound and disheveled, before being imprisoned with his two companions. Hammarskjöld’s demands that Lumumba be treated with the respect due to a prime minister and member of parliament and given a fair hearing were ignored.

Even behind bars Lumumba made his captors nervous, and they decided to transfer him secretly to a place where he was sure to be killed. Their first choice was Kasai, where the Luba leader, Albert Kalonji, had vowed to make Lumumba’s skull into a flower vase. When, at the last minute, they found that UN troops were stationed on Kasai’s Bakwanga airfield, Kasa Vubu told the initially resistant Tshombe that Lumumba would be sent to Katanga. His Belgian handlers soon convinced Tshombe to go along with the plan, and Lumumba, after six hours of savage beating in the plane by Luba guards, was dumped on the tarmac in Elisabethville.


Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba and Ludo De Witte’s The Assassination of Lumumba both give graphic accounts of Lumumba’s gruesome death, based on De Witte’s research in the Belgian archives and on many interviews with those involved. Although the Belgians attempted to pin responsibility for the assassination on the Congolese—“a Bantu affair”—they had, according to De Witte, conceived the plan, and Belgian officers and officials were pres-ent throughout Lumumba’s last hours. Their intentions, and Lumumba’s transfer, had of course been carefully concealed from the United Nations.

After Lumumba and his two companions were dumped, bloody and disheveled, in a remote corner of the Elisabethville airfield, they were beaten again with rifle butts, and thrown onto a jeep and driven two miles from the airport to an empty house in the bush, where a veteran Belgian officer, Captain Julien Gat, took charge. A series of visitors—the notorious Katangese interior minister Godefroid Munongo and other ministers, Tshombe himself, and various high-ranking Belgians—came to the house to gloat over the prisoners, who were again beaten. Some of the Belgian visitors later spoke of Lumumba’s courage and dignity under this treatment, but none saw fit to stop it. The soldiers were ordered to kill Lumumba if UN troops located the house.

During the evening, drinking heavily, Tshombe and his ministers decided that the three should be executed at once. Around 9:30 PM the inebriated Katangese ministers returned to the house in the bush. After once again being beaten up, the prisoners were stuffed into a car with Captain Gat and police commissioner Frans Verscheure, and, in a convoy that also carried Tshombe, Munongo, and four other “ministers,” were driven at high speed to a remote clearing fifty kilometers out in the wooded savanna. Joseph Okito, the former vice-president of the Senate, was the first to face the firing squad; next came Maurice Mpolo, the first commander of the Congolese National Army; and finally Patrice Lumumba. Their corpses were thrown into hastily dug graves.

This was not the end of the atrocious affair. During the night, the Belgians, increasingly apprehensive, began to concoct an elaborate cover plan under which Lumumba and his companions had been well treated, but had later managed to escape and had been killed by the inhabitants of an unnamed “patriotic” village. The Belgians also decided that the corpses must disappear once and for all. Two Belgians and their African assistants, in a truck carrying demijohns of sulphuric acid, an empty two-hundred-liter barrel, and a hacksaw, dug up the corpses, cut them into pieces, and threw them into the barrel of sulphuric acid. When the supply of acid ran out, they tried burning the remains. The skulls were ground up and the bones and teeth scattered during the return journey. The task proved so disgusting and so arduous that both Belgians had to get drunk in order to complete it, but in the end no trace was left of Patrice Lumumba and his companions. Lumumba was thirty-six years old.


Raoul Peck has recreated Patrice Lumumba’s brief and tumultuous public career in a remarkable movie. His wonderful actors, especially Eriq Ebouaney as Lumumba and Alex Descas as Mobutu, portray the principals in a way that is both moving and convincing. His European cast, particularly Rudi Delhem as the Belgian commander, General Janssens, convey brilliantly the Belgian attitude—arrogant, patronizing, obstinate, but increasingly querulous and nervous—which had so much to do with the tragic debacle of the Congo’s independence.

Peck gives a lively impression of the confusions and rivalries on the Congolese side, and of the gulf between Kasa Vubu’s passive postcolonial tribal federalism and Lumumba’s dream of a national state that transcended both colonialism and tribalism. Lumumba is presented as a great hero, but Peck also hints at the frenetic atmosphere that he created, and the fears, conspiracies, and hatreds that flourished around him. Lumumba’s speech to the parliament after Mobutu’s coup shows movingly the oratorical—some would call it demagogic—flair that made his rivals and enemies so fearful of him. Peck’s film, shot in Zambia, Mozambique, and Belgium, conveys a strong physical impression of the Africa where the tragedy unfolds—its vastness, loneliness, and melancholy beauty, and the pulsing life of its cities.

In his book The Assassination of Lumumba, De Witte has performed an important service in establishing the appalling facts of Lumumba’s last days and Belgium’s responsibility for what happened. As a result of his book the Belgian parliament has set up a commission of inquiry, and it will be interesting to see what its response will be.

The ideological setting in which De Witte frames his findings is less convincing. De Witte proclaims that what happened in the Congo in 1960 was “a staggering example of what the Western ruling classes are capable of when their vital interests are threatened.” He dumps Belgium, the Western Europeans, the United States, and the United Nations into this capacious ideological basket. He claims that they engaged in a vast neocolonialist conspiracy to negate Congolese independence and the revolutionary promise of Lumumba, whose selfless “vision of creating a unified nation state and an economy serving the needs of the people” would have been an insurmountable obstacle to their neocolonialist plans. While this thesis may have some validity when it comes to the Belgian government of the time and the multinational corporations that exploited the Congo’s phenomenal natural wealth, it is seriously misconceived with respect to the United States, and ridiculous when applied to the United Nations. It also omits Lumumba’s own calamitous contribution to the confusion, violence, fear, and hostility that blasted the early hopes of the Congo’s independence.

During and after World War II, the United States, to the consternation of its main European allies, took the lead in establishing decolonization as a primary objective of the allied war effort. The process, with the United Nations as a catalyst, went much faster than had been expected. What was not foreseen was that in some African states cold war rivalries would turn decolonization into a nightmare—a nightmare from which a country like Angola has yet to awaken.

In July 1960, both the United States and the Soviet Union were keenly interested in the future of the newly independent Congo, the third-largest and, in natural resources, the richest former colony in Africa. The size and activity of the Soviet embassy in Léopoldville particularly alarmed Washington. Lumumba’s visit to Washington in July 1960 went badly, and a month later his rejection of the UN and appeal to the Soviet Union for military assistance confirmed the Eisenhower administration’s worst fears. The consequent authorization by the Eisenhower administration of the CIA to assassinate Lumumba, an elected prime minister, was an outrageous, almost hysterical, decision, fortunately frustrated by the UN troops protecting Lumumba’s residence and by a lack of enthusiasm among CIA field officers for using poisoned toothbrushes and other equally loony devices for eliminating Lumumba.8

Washington supported both Kasa Vubu’s dismissal of Lumumba and Mobutu’s coup, and strongly criticized Hammarskjöld and the UN mission for protecting Lumumba and refusing to recognize Mobutu. The obsession of the US with the cold war, not neocolonialism, accounted for the outlandishness of United States Congo policy. And talking of neocolonialism, would a Soviet takeover in the Congo and its active support for the wars that Lumumba seemed to think were the only way to deal with his opponents really have been such a blessing for the Congo and for Africa?

De Witte claims that the UN, and specifically Dag Hammarskjöld, was part of the neocolonial conspiracy, or, as Nikita Khrushchev told the UN General Assembly in a violent attack on the “colonialists,” “…They have been doing their dirty work in the Congo through the Secretary-General of the United Nations and his staff….” It is odd to find the straight Soviet line regurgitated by De Witte in such pristine condition forty years later. He even solemnly repeats the old Soviet canard about the “Congo Club,” “a group of senior UN officials intent on making sure that the international organization safeguarded Western interests in the Congo.”9

If De Witte’s reading of the UN archives had been less selective, he might have noticed that Hammarskjöld’s major confrontations were as much, or more, with the Belgians and the United States as with the Soviets. Hammarskjöld had expected the Belgians to be obstructive, and they exceeded his expectations at every turn. However, his main preoccupation was to keep the cold war out of the Congo (and Africa), and he saw this as one of the main purposes of the UN operation.10This was why he, and many others, regarded Lumumba’s appeal for Soviet military aid as the height of irresponsibility.

De Witte claims that the UN was, from the outset, opposed to Lumumba. As one of the UN officials who took part, during those tense early months in Léopoldville, in the seemingly interminable struggle with the Belgians and in our frequent and heated disagreements with the ambassadors of the United States and Britain, I find this puzzling. The UN was pledged to assist the new government, but not in military adventures that were neither wise, nor permitted by its mandate, nor feasible in view of its limited strength and armament.

De Witte, excoriating Hammarskjöld for refusing to use force to squash secessionist Katanga, writes that “Hammarskjöld…had a huge intervention force in the Congo.” This blatantly misleading sentence describes exactly what the UN force in the Congo was not. It was not Hammarskjöld’s personal plaything but a mission authorized and supervised by the UN Security Council. At the time, the UN force numbered some 16,000 lightly armed troops deployed in small detachments throughout a country the size of Western Europe. (The present NATO force in Kosovo has 42,500 heavily armed troops in a country smaller than Connecticut.) The UN force was precisely the opposite of an “intervention force.” It was expressly forbidden by the Security Council to intervene in internal conflicts, and only in February 1961, after Lumumba’s death, did the Security Council extend the UN’s authority to use force to stopping civil war and to dealing with foreign mercenaries—scarcely a broad military mandate even then. Such flagrant and deliberate misstatements in support of a flawed ideological thesis do nothing for De Witte’s credibility.


Patrice Lumumba’s assassination was an unpardonable, cowardly, and disgustingly brutal act. Belgium, Kasa Vubu and Mobutu, and Moise Tshombe bear the main responsibility for this atrocity. The United States, and possibly other Western powers as well, tacitly favored it and did nothing to stop it.

Nor, in view of what subsequently happened, can the United Nations escape responsibility. After protecting Lumumba for two months in his official residence in Léopoldville, it stuck rigidly to its policy of noninterference in internal political conflicts after he left secretly for Stanleyville. In refusing to help or hinder either Lumumba or the Kasa Vubu/Mobutu regime (now recognized by the UN General Assembly), the UN force missed, at Mweka in Kasai, the last, slim chance of saving Lumumba from his enemies.11 Seen with the advantage of hindsight, the failure to protect Lumumba after his secret departure from Léopoldville joins the list of tragedies (including the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica) that the UN failed to prevent by not taking action when action was still possible.

De Witte glowingly describes Lumumba as the hero of the “struggle between an international neo-colonial coalition on one side and the nationalist Congo on the other.” He believes that Lumumba belongs “in the pantheon of the universal defenders of the emancipation of the people.” He briefly mentions some of Lumumba’s mistakes and the “political weakness of Congolese nationalism, including the weakness of its central leader…,” and believes that Lumumba was deluded in thinking he would get help from Africa and Asia, from Moscow, and from the tiny Congolese elite that originally supported him. He does not say how much Lumumba’s personal conduct was responsible for this loss of support. African governments, for example, were shocked, and scared, by Lumumba’s appeal to the Soviet Union for military aid.

There is, unfortunately, a vast difference between noble aims, which Lumumba expressed eloquently, and the capacity and temperament to govern. The latter quality is especially important when a country is teetering on the brink of chaos. After independence and the worldwide publicity that engulfed him, Lumumba became increasingly autocratic, mercurial, and irresponsible. He frightened and alienated his government colleagues, and their growing fear of him and of his increasingly erratic conduct made them receptive, when the time came, to Belgian and other intrigues against him. When he launched the ANC into Kasai, 250,000 Luba became refugees in addition to the one thousand killed. De Witte sees Lumumba’s attack on the Luba of Kasai as a statesmanlike response to the prospect of secession, but it created serious doubts about his judgment, even his sanity, both within the Congo and outside it.

I cannot pretend that members of the UN mission, or anyone else that I know of for that matter, found that attempting to help Lumumba was a pleasant or rewarding experience. We had hoped to work with him in the desperately urgent task of restoring some degree of security and order and of getting his country going again. The UN was providing the only possible means and personnel for this purpose, but Lumumba preferred abusive rhetoric, ultimatums, threats, and demands for instant results. He cut off contact with Hammarskjöld and Bunche and appealed to the Soviet Union for military assistance. Saying that “blood will flow,” he threatened to violently expel the UN operation that was the one stable and constructive element in his country. Nonetheless Hammarskjöld, to the indignation of Belgium and the United States, protected him and made a prolonged attempt to bring about a reconciliation of Lumumba with Kasa Vubu and Mobutu—hardly the behavior of a neocolonialist.

At independence, it seemed possible that Lumumba would lead his people toward a bright future as a nation, a brief hopeful moment that Raoul Peck’s film poignantly captures. For many reasons, including the behavior of Lumumba himself, this promise was not to be fulfilled. The subsequent decline of the Congo under Lumumba’s successors, still continuing after forty years, is an even greater tragedy than Lumumba’s terrible death.

In 1963 and 1964, with all secessions ended and the full parliament reconvened, it seemed just possible that the Congo might begin to move forward as an independent nation. Such frail hopes were dashed in 1965 by the return to power of Washington’s supposedly anti-Communist protégé, Joseph Mobutu—reborn as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. For thirty-two years, under the admiring gaze of Western governments, Mobutu systematically plundered the Congo’s economy, leaving no financial or economic base for a future leader to build on, and a huge foreign debt.12

Mobutu’s replacement, Laurent Kabila, was no improvement. Since 1998, a war in the eastern part of the country, involving half a dozen neighboring countries, has been responsible, according to the International Rescue Committee, for 2.5 million deaths from various causes.13 A wide variety of international efforts, and the accession, after his father’s assassination, of Kabila’s reportedly sensible and responsible young son, have yet to turn the tide of disaster. The Congolese people, who, for more than a hundred years, have known only oppression, strife, and penury, are still waiting.

  1. 7

    See Madeleine G. Kalb, The Congo Cables (Macmillan, 1982), pp. 134–139.

  2. 8

    For details, see the Church Report, and Madeleine Kalb, The Congo Cables, pp. 128–133.

  3. 9

    The “Congo Club” became the informal name for the constantly changing group of officials who came together, usually when the rest of the day’s business was finished, to discuss the Congo situation with the secretary-general. It comprised, at different times, European, African, Asian, Latin American, and American secretariat officials. The Soviets latched onto the name as evidence of yet another Western conspiracy.

  4. 10

    If the cold war settles in the Congo,” Hammarskjöld cabled Bunche on July 23, “our whole effort is lost.”

  5. 11

    The only sure means of protecting Lumumba would have been to take him into protective custody before his pursuers caught up with him. Lumumba, who until his arrest had been conducting a fairly leisurely and successful political swing through the country, would certainly have violently resented this, and one can easily imagine what his supporters in the outside world would have said about it.

  6. 12

    Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo (HarperCollins, 2001) not only describes Mobutu’s calamitous kleptocracy, but also gives a perceptive, down-to-earth, and affectionate description of the people of the Congo under Mobutu’s tyranny.

  7. 13

    Not Since World War II,” The Washington Post, August 26, 2001, p. B6.

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