TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains information, description and pictures about extreme physical violence.
Patrice Émery Lumumba was born on the 2nd of July 1925 in the Kasai province of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was once a postal clerk and also a travelling beer salesman. Tall, slim, and handsome, Lumumba had a dazzling smile, and piercing eyes that glittered through a signature pair of spectacles. He had 3 wives and many relationships – a danger to the ladies. But it was when he got into politics that Lumumba became truly dangerous to the old colonial order.
Lumumba’s faith in the system began to waver when he realized that despite the many efforts required for attaining a higher status, the Congolese remained less than human in the eyes of the Belgians. And nothing could change that. Because Congolese status was tied to their Blackness. And nothing could change that. When Lumumba saw other African states achieving independence, his resolve for Congolese independence was strengthened. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana encouraged Lumumba to be Pan-African. So, Lumumba founded the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) in 1958, a political party, to help realize the Pan-African project. In his view, a unified and independent Congolese state, representing all the Congolese people democratically, was a prerequisite for joining the rest of Africa in accomplishing the Pan-African dream.
After extensive negotiations between the Belgians and the Congolese nationalist leaders – including Lumumba – elections were planned for May and June 1960 and independence was scheduled for 30 June 1960. A coalition led by Lumumba won the elections and he was appointed Prime Minister of the new government with Joseph Kasa-Vubu as President. At independence he gave a strident speech which vilified the colonial order and eulogised the struggle that brought it to an end, saying ‘We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.’
Many in the West were alarmed by his speech. And with that speech, as the events that followed suggest, Patrice Lumumba may have signed his own death warrant.
On the 11th of July, with the support of the Belgian government, Katanga – the mineral-rich economic heart of the Congo – seceded. In the ensuing chaos, Lumumba was dismissed as PM by Kasa Vubu on the 5th of September 1960. Lumumba in turn took over the radio airwaves to denounce and depose Kasa-Vubu as a traitor. The constitutional crisis this created was ended by a coup in September of 1960 led by Colonel Mobutu (more about him later). Lumumba was arrested on the 1st of December 1960.
His imprisonment proved to be a source of sectarian tension. So on 17 January 1961, he was forcibly put on a plane to Elizabethville. On arrival, he and his associates were conducted under arrest to the Brouwez House where they were brutally beaten and tortured by Katangan and Belgian officers. Later that night, Lumumba was driven to an isolated spot where three firing squads had been assembled. A Belgian commission of inquiry found that the execution was carried out by Katanga’s authorities. It reported that President Tshombe and two other ministers were present, with four Belgian officers under the command of Katangan authorities. Lumumba, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito were lined up against a tree and shot one at a time. The execution is thought to have taken place on 17 January 1961, between 21:40 and 21:43 (according to the Belgian report). The Belgians and their counterparts later wished to get rid of the bodies, and did so by digging up and dismembering the corpses, then dissolving them in sulfuric acid while the bones were ground and scattered.
Angry groups protested Lumumba’s death across the world, in London, Beijing, Moscow, Dublin, Accra, Bombay, New Delhi, Paris, and Washington DC. In Cairo, Egyptians burned the Belgian embassy. In New York City, sixty protesters burst into the auditorium of the UN in protest and a scuffle ensued. The protesters believed at the very least the UN’s inaction contributed to the death of Lumumba. There were also suspicions of greater complicity.
No one has ever been charged or prosecuted for the killing of Patrice Lumumba, but a lot of people have been considered responsible for it. In the words of Hochschild:
Lumumba believed that political independence was not enough to free Africa from its colonial past; the continent must also cease to be an economic colony of Europe. His speeches set off immediate alarm signals in Western capitals. Belgian, British, and American corporations by now had vast investments in the Congo, which was rich in copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, tin, manganese, and zinc. An inspired orator whose voice was rapidly carrying beyond his country’s borders, Lumumba was a mercurial and charismatic figure…Less than two months after being named the Congo’s first democratically chosen prime minister, a U.S. National Security Council subcommittee on covert operations, which included CIA director Allen Dulles, authorized his [Lumumba’s] assassination. Richard Bissell, CIA operations chief at the time, later said, “The President [Dwight D. Eisenhower]…regarded Lumumba as I did and a lot of other people did: as a mad dog … and he wanted the problem dealt with.” [Hochschild: 1999, 304]
Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (mentioned earlier and later known as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga) increased in power after the death of Lumumba and became one of the classic African dictators (read my post on the myth of the African dictator) though it was very, very, strongly suspected that he was propped up by the US for his 30-something years in power.
The life of Patrice Lumumba may have been snuffed out like candlelight, but his words still illuminate his vision and passion for a new Africa:
‘…[N]o Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle, a persevering and inspired struggle carried on from day to day, a struggle, in which we were undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood. It was filled with tears, fire and blood. We are deeply proud of our struggle, because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to the humiliating bondage forced upon us. That was our lot for the eighty years of colonial rule and our wounds are too fresh and much too painful to be forgotten.’
‘We have experienced forced labour in exchange for pay that did not allow us to satisfy our hunger, to clothe ourselves, to have decent lodgings or to bring up our children as dearly loved ones. Morning, noon and night we were subjected to jeers, insults and blows because we were “Negroes”. Who will ever forget that the black was addressed as “tu”, not because he was a friend, but because the polite “vous” was reserved for the white man? We have seen our lands seized in the name of ostensibly just laws, which gave recognition only to the right of might.’
‘We have not forgotten that the law was never the same for the white and the black, that it was lenient to the ones, and cruel and inhuman to the others. We have experienced the atrocious sufferings, being persecuted for political convictions and religious beliefs, and exiled from our native land: our lot was worse than death itself. We have not forgotten that in the cities the mansions were for the whites and the tumbledown huts for the blacks; that a black was not admitted to the cinemas, restaurants and shops set aside for “Europeans”; that a black travelled in the holds, under the feet of the whites in their luxury cabins.’
‘Who will ever forget the shootings which killed so many of our brothers, or the cells into which were mercilessly thrown those who no longer wished to submit to the regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation used by the colonialists as a tool of their domination?’
‘We have long suffered and today we want to breathe the air of freedom. The Creator has given us this share of the earth that goes by the name of the African continent; it belongs to us and we are its only masters. It is our right to make this continent a continent of justice, law, and peace. All of Africa is irrevocably engaged in a merciless struggle against colonialism and imperialism. We wish to bid farewell to the rule of slavery and bastardization that has so severely wronged us. Any people that oppresses another people is neither civilized nor Christian. The West must free Africa as soon as possible.’
‘Westerners must understand that friendship is not possible when the relationship between us is one of subjugation and subordination.’
We often decry our current African leaders, their incompetence, corruption, complete lack of willingness to stand up for the good of their countries or their people. But while we decry them – and we must do that with all that we have – let us not forget that we sometimes had leaders who gave their all to the struggle. Their blood, their lives, their spirit, their souls. Let us not forget what happened to them. Let us keep their visions alive as we fight to breathe the air of freedom in a new Africa.
Patrice Lumumba: Speech at The Ceremony of The Proclamation Of The Congo’s Independence, June 30, 1960 https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/lumumba/1960/06/independence.htm
Patrice Lumumba, “Speech at Accra” December 11, 1958, Assembly of African Peoples, an international Pan African Conference sponsored by Kwame Nkrumah, the Prime Minister of newly independent Ghana. http://www.blackpast.org/1958-patrice-lumumba-speech-accra
Patrice Lumumba, “African Unity and National Independence” (1959) speech given at the closing session of the International Seminar organized by the Congress for the Freedom of Culture held at the University of Ibadan in Ibadan, Nigeria. http://www.blackpast.org/1959-patrice-lumumba-african-unity-and-national-independence
Gerard, Emmanuel, and Bruce Kuklick. Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba. Harvard University Press, 2015.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s ghost: A story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.
Klein, Olivier, and Laurent Licata. “When group representations serve social change: The speeches of Patrice Lumumba during the Congolese decolonization.” British Journal of Social Psychology 42, no. 4 (2003): 571-593.