It is now twelve years since Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo, was killed. Time enough, one would think, for the passions he aroused to have died down. And yet the name of Lumumba still signifies for many people either the height of African heroism or the personification of the darkness and disorder of African independence. But though these public images exist (and probably always will), material is now available which makes it possible to go behind them and make a more searching analysis of Lumumba’s situation and the role he played.

Lumumba Speaks is a collection of Lumumba’s speeches and writings from December, 1958, when he suddenly emerged at the All African Peoples Conference in Accra as an outstanding leader, to January, 1961, shortly before his death. The collection was first published in France in 1963, and has only now been translated into English. It contains all of Lumumba’s published speeches and writings, together with a number of personal letters and transcripts of speeches not otherwise available.

Inevitably a collection of this kind raises the question whether one can make any just assessment of a person through his public utterances, designed as they often are to project an image and to conceal reality. Certainly this collection conveys a very vivid picture of the immediate situation and Lumumba’s response to it, and also of the development of Lumumba’s thinking. But obviously one needs to know a great deal more about the historical context, the situation within which he was working, the nature of his support, and so on. This book is exceptional in containing, as well as the direct voice of the man, exactly this kind of analytical material, supplied in the introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, which, in spite of having been written as early as 1963, remains the best assessment so far of Lumumba and deserves to be much better known.

The basic question posed by this collection and by Sartre’s analysis is as follows: How did this man, whose outlook was petty bourgeois, who believed firmly in law and order, and whose program (where it existed) was reformist rather than revolutionary, come to be so feared by the Western world that he had to be first ousted from power and then killed? Some comments by Arghiri Emmanuel in a recent article raise the same question.1 As he sees it, Lumumba’s style of leadership (strong enough to project an image of unity and nationalism but without a radical base or any really radical program) was in fact very well suited to the needs of international capitalism. It was Moise Tshombe, as the representative of the white settlers, who by attempting to establish the rich province of Katanga as a separate state posed the real threat to the big capitalist interests.

This goes a long way to explain Lumumba’s initial situation and why Katanga secession was eventually so ruthlessly destroyed, but it does not explain why Lumumba himself was killed. The answer to this question, as these documents and other newer material suggest, would seem to lie more in Lumumba’s own personal development over this period and in changes in the situation in the Congo.

The documents contained in the first section of this book (1958-1959) give some idea of Lumumba’s basic position. His main theme is unity. All groups in the Congo—tribes, regions, rich and poor—must join together to claim their rights and make the Congo great. At no time does he suggest, or even hint, that there might be any conflict of interest among these groups, or even different ideas about which “rights” are most important. The group to which his main appeal is made, however, is the petty bourgeoisie, those Congolese who like himself have been moved by the colonial situation just far enough out of the tribal structure to have a wider perspective, and to see the advantages of modernization, but who have been prevented from developing any further by the restrictions inherent in the colonial system itself.

Thus the early speeches of Lumumba contain many typically petty bourgeois demands (for easier credit, more access to higher education, less job discrimination, etc.) which were certainly not the demands of the masses. But Lumumba himself was an idealist (the nature of his idealism is very well analyzed by Sartre) who believed passionately that the assumption of power by himself and others like him would lead to a better life for all. And it is in this bottomless sincerity and optimism that his initial strength as an orator and as a leader lay.

At this stage Lumumba had much in common with many other rising nationalist leaders in Africa. This is why, though he had had hardly any earlier contacts outside the Congo, he fitted so well into the atmosphere of excitement and euphoria generated at the Accra conference. The nationalism which he projected (together with other factors such as the obdurate tribal opposition of the Ba-Kongo and a general failure of nerve on the part of the Belgians) was enough to set in motion the train of events which led to the granting of independence. And here Emmanuel is probably right. Had Lumumba been left alone and given a free hand, he would almost certainly have been forced by the nature of his support and the situation in the Congo to accept some form of neocolonial compromise.


But it was inherent in the Congo situation that Lumumba could not be left alone or given a free hand. Though early on there were signs that Belgian high finance did see the possibilities of his leadership (initially his party, the Mouvement National Congolais, was supported by the Belgian Liberal Party, traditionally the vehicle of these interests), there were other groups, representing smaller business interests, the administration, and the military, which were determined that the Congo should be ruled by someone more pliable and subservient to their interests.

The power of these groups was made much greater by the decision to grant immediate independence. For in analogous situations in the French and British colonies, recalcitrant elements, not only among those who were taking over power but also among those who were giving it up, were weeded out at leisure during the various stages which led to independence. It was these groups then, dominant in the Congo administration and powerfully represented in the Belgian government, that began systematically to harass Lumumba and the MNC. The most obvious examples of this harassment were the imprisoning of Lumumba in Stanleyville in November, 1959, on a fairly obviously manufactured charge of responsibility for riots, and the prolonged attempts to prevent Lumumba from forming the government in June, 1960, although his party had clearly won the elections.

Lumumba’s reaction to these maneuvers showed two characteristics which were to become more and more pronounced. First, his response to opposition or harassment was essentially combative, especially if he could see that such opposition was unjust or hypocritical. In spite of his idealism (or perhaps because of it) he was never one to take opposition quietly or to ignore it; his immediate response was to leap to the attack. Secondly, he always did this in the open and with the maximum of publicity. Lumumba seems to have had a great contempt for secret diplomacy or undercover dealings indeed for many of the traditional techniques of the politician in power. Instead he preferred to spread the facts and his case before his supporters and the people in the belief (sometimes right but more often wrong) that if the truth were only widely enough known, his position would be assured. The memorandum in which he refutes, point by point and in immense detail, the governor’s reasons for imprisoning him in Stanleyville is an excellent example of this.

The documents in the second section of the book (January to June, 1960) show another side of Lumumba’s thinking. The main emphasis as before is on unity and the common purpose, but he also goes out of his way to reassure the Belgians that their property will not be harmed and that their investment is needed. Though much of this was probably tactical, the fact that at the same time he does not seem to have seen any urgent need to Africanize the administration or the army clearly suggests that at this point he really did not appreciate the extent to which this all-pervading Belgian presence would limit his freedom of choice and hamper his carrying out even the simplest project.

Lumumba may have reached independence day in June, 1960, with some of his euphoria and beliefs intact. They cannot have lasted much beyond that point. For from then on disaster followed disaster. Lumumba was clearly deeply upset by King Baudouin’s crudely paternalistic and manipulative speech on independence day, and further amazed by the Belgian reaction when he attempted to put the record straight by recounting some of the realities of the colonial period. He must also have been disturbed by the blatant nest-feathering activities of many of those Congolese whom he was counting on to run the country.

But all this was as nothing to the situation four days after independence, when the Congolese army mutinied and Belgium responded by flying in paratroop detachments, without any reference to the wishes of the Congolese government. And while Lumumba traveled ceaselessly around the country, attempting to calm down the soldiers, restore law and order, and save Belgian lives and property, he was abused and insulted by Belgian residents, vilified in the Belgian press, and forcibly prevented from entering Katanga by the Belgian army. Characteristically, he refused to be intimidated and called on first the Americans, then the Russians, and finally the United Nations to help him. Here again he made no backstairs bargains but tried by every means to keep the country informed about what was going on. His account to parliament of his actions and of the reactions of Belgium, which conveys his deep sense of outrage at the whole situation, still makes very moving reading.


This style of working made it impossible for Lumumba to cooperate with an organization as cumbrous and as conspiratorial as the United Nations. Thomas Kanza, who was Lumumba’s minister at the UN and who has recently given some account of his experiences, records interestingly that even before there was any open dispute between Lumumba and the UN, Dag Hammarskjold, the UN secretary general, already felt considerable resentment against Lumumba.2 This, says Kanza, was primarily because Lumumba refused to have any “off the record” dealings with him or to accept him as an adviser, but remained always and punctiliously the Congo politician.

When Lumumba became convinced that the UN could not or would not serve his needs, he once more appealed for help to the Russians. This instantly earned him the label “communist,” though it must be quite clear from the above account that his ideology and outlook had nothing in common with any real definition of that word. In fact the appeal to the Russians was little more than a demonstration of nonalignment, such as he had learned in Accra. It provided the occasion, however, for all those who felt themselves threatened by his actions to sink their differences and unite against him. As a result he was finally ousted from power on September 5, 1960.

From this point on, when Lumumba ceased to have any official position, the documentation inevitably becomes much thinner. It is possible, however, from these and other sources to follow at least something of his development. By this stage Lumumba seems at last to have given up the idea that all elements in the country could be united in a common cause, and to have realized that some people and some interests were antagonistic to the ideals he believed in. He writes rather sadly in his last letter to his wife that what he wanted for the country “was never wanted by Belgian colonialism and its Western allies.” He does not seem to have reached this conclusion through any deeper analysis of the situation facing the country, but rather through his own bitter experience of double-dealing and treachery. This experience did not make him any less combative, but replaced his former euphoria with something close to fatalism, and a conviction that it was his task to struggle on for what he felt was right whatever the consequences and whatever the difficulties.

The panic which united Lumumba’s enemies in September, 1960, soon gave way to clearer thinking. It quickly became apparent that the removal of Lumumba from power had been primarily to the advantage of those Belgian interests which were backing Katanga and of those Congolese politicians who had been prevented by Lumumba’s rhetoric and ideals from wielding complete power in their own territory. It had not been to the advantage of those with wider capitalist interests, who now saw Katanga consolidating into a separate state out of their grasp and the rest of the Congo sinking into chaos. Thus in certain quarters, in retrospect, Lumumba’s vision of a united Congo and his tireless battles to preserve it seemed suddenly to have some merit. In other words, international capital began to see where its true advantage lay.

The first sign of this switch in attitude can be seen in the decision of the UN to put a guard on Lumumba’s residence in Leopoldville, to prevent him from being either abducted or assassinated by his now numerous enemies. And it is from this point on, and very gradually, that the idea of a “government of national reconciliation,” which would be able to restore order in the Congo and deal with Katanga, and might conceivably include Lumumba himself, began to be circulated.

But Lumumba was no longer interested in such ideas, and in November, 1960, he finally decided to leave UN protection in Leopoldville and make his way back to Stanleyville in the east of the country, where his real support lay. The statement he issued when he left said that his motives in leaving were “personal,” that he intended to return, and that he still believed in “national reconciliation.” It is now fairly clear, however, that the main purpose of this statement was to disarm pursuit, and that Lumumba’s intention in leaving was to form a more radical alliance that could confront both Katanga and any new regime in Leopoldville. This is confirmed by an interesting telephone conversation that Thomas Kanza had with Lumumba just before he left. In this Lumumba made it clear that he was leaving in order to show the Congolese people the kinds of options which now faced the country. He also made it clear that he realized that he was risking his life in doing this.

Lumumba never reached Stanleyville. He was arrested on the way and brought back to an army jail near Leopoldville. Once there (according to Kanza) he was offered his freedom if he would help form a new national government. He refused. This refusal made him not the imaginary threat that he had been earlier but, potentially at least, a real threat. For at this stage deteriorating conditions (which two years later were to cause serious rebellions in the eastern half of the country) were beginning in certain rural areas to create unrest. And there was just a chance, if Lumumba had turned his back on his own class and put himself at the service of the masses, that he might have been successful in creating a counterforce. As Sartre puts it: “There could be a radicalization of Lumumba by the masses and a unification of the masses by Lumumba.” Even if this did not happen, no national government could achieve credibility with Lumumba alive but outside it. It was for these kinds of reasons that in January, 1961, Lumumba was transferred from prison in Leopoldville to Katanga, where he was killed on arrival.

By refusing to compromise at this crucial point, Lumumba showed up the underlying ruthlessness of capitalist activity in the Third World, the lack of autonomy of the UN, and the corruption of the Congolese petty bourgeoisie. Once he had been killed, a compromise government under Cyrille Adoula was formed which eventually made possible the ending of Katanga secession. Tshombe himself was then used to rally the rest of the country so that the rebellion in the east could be crushed. Finally, Tshombe was ousted and Joseph Mobutu was brought to power, to create the kind of “credible” regime with which Western governments like to work. But because of Lumumba, all this manipulation took place in the open and crudely, so that for once the inner workings of the machine were clearly visible.

Lumumba was killed then, partly because the contradictions and conflicts inherent in the Congo situation forced him willy-nilly out of his shallow optimism and euphoria, and partly because he had the courage to stand out against the false compromises which were being imposed upon him. That combination was enough to make him a potential threat to the status quo in Africa, which depends so much upon the complicity of those involved and the mystification of the real issues. Unfortunately for Lumumba, the situation in the Congo at that point permitted him a choice of only two roles: neocolonial puppet or martyred hero. There are very few people who would so consciously have chosen the latter.

This Issue

April 5, 1973