Who Killed Lumumba?

Lumumba: The Last Fifty Days

by G. Heinz and H. Donnay, translated by Jane Clark Seitz
Grove, 210 pp., $1.45 (paper)

In 1966, when this book was first published, in French, it received surprisingly little serious attention in the press. This was partly because its striking format (lavishly illustrated and with records of Patrice Lumumba’s voice) tended to obscure for some the extent to which it also contained new material and serious research; and partly because to the disappointment of the Belgian press it did not indict specific individuals for the final act of murder.

In the Congo, however, the significance of the book was immediately realized. It was published at a time when Joseph Mobutu, who had seized power for the second time in a military coup in 1965, was trying to increase popular support for his regime and return to representative rule. This policy had a number of strands, among which were the public rehabilitation of the person of Lumumba and the discreet dissociation of Mobutu from any responsibility for his death. Since the book contributed somewhat to both these aims Mobutu ordered that it should be officially distributed through the Ministry of Information. This decision was bitterly opposed by those in the regime who were shown in an unfavorable light by the book, and the director of the Congolese Sûreté ordered that all copies should be seized. Mobutu was apparently not in a strong enough position to challenge this action and the ban remained in force.

These events show clearly that the issue of Lumumba’s death, and what that represented, still lies at the heart of Congolese politics, and that to undertake an investigation into the circumstances surrounding that death is an act of considerable political importance. The English translation of the book now published emphasizes a further dimension. For in this text (which has been shorn of the records and most of the photographs, and appears altogether more sober than the original) the wider international aspect of these events emerges more sharply. And it becomes clear here again that to establish what actually did happen is not just a piece of academic detection but an important contribution to any real understanding of the present relationship between Western capitalism and the Third World.

The Congo became independent in June, 1960, under a coalition government in which Lumumba was Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu Head of State. Immediately after independence the army mutinied. Belgium flew in paratroopers, the rich province of Katanga declared secession, and a United Nations force was brought in to try to restore law and order. In the confusion, Lumumba and his supporters began to pursue an increasingly radical and nationalist line. When in September this seemed likely to threaten the position of Kasavubu and the traditionalists, other elite groups, and external financial and strategic interests, a coup was engineered against Lumumba, in spite of the fact that he still had a majority in parliament and widespread support in the country as a whole.

The fifty days of the book’s title run from November 27, 1960, to January 17, 1961, opening with the situation two…

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