Why was Lumumba killed? Because he was a ‘relentless,
dedicated, intelligent, passionate anti-colonialist, Pan-Africanist and
Congolese nationalist’ with ‘the unstinting support of the Congolese masses’ who
‘stood in the way of Belgium’s plan to transform Congo from a colony into a
neo-colony,’ writes Carlos Martinez.
Malcolm X, speaking at a rally of the Organisation of
Afro-American Unity in 1964, described Patrice Emery Lumumba as ’the greatest
black man who ever walked the African continent. He didn’t fear anybody. He had
those people [the colonialists] so scared they had to kill him. They couldn’t
buy him, they couldn’t frighten him, they couldn’t reach him.’
This was three years after Lumumba was assassinated by
Belgian mercenaries in the breakaway state of Katanga (southern
Why was Lumumba killed? Because he was a relentless,
dedicated, intelligent, passionate anti-colonialist, Pan-Africanist and
Congolese nationalist; because he had the unstinting support of the Congolese
masses; because he stood in the way of Belgium’s plan to transform Congo from a
colony into a neo-colony.
Until the mid-1950s, the nationalist movement had been
dominated by the small Congolese middle class. It was not a radical movement; it
was composed of clerical workers, mid-level army officers, supervisors and so
on, who were getting a cut of the enormous profits Belgium was making out of
Congo. They opposed direct colonialism in the sense that they disliked white
rule and were sick of being second-class citizens in their own country; however,
the basic economic institutions of colonialism suited them quite well. They were
scared by the Congolese masses – the peasants, the workers, who worked in
slave-like conditions for a pittance, and who bore the brunt of the famines and
the genocidal actions of the colonisers.
The masses wanted control. They wanted the Belgians
out, not just moved from the front seat to the back seat. They didn’t want white
oppressors to be replaced with black oppressors; they wanted freedom and
justice; they wanted democracy; they wanted nationalisation; they wanted to be
listened to; they wanted to rule.
Lumumba was the key figure in mobilising these masses.
Joining the nationalist movement around 1955, he quickly grew disillusioned with
the middle class elite and addressed himself to the most oppressed sections of
society. The peasants and workers of Congo were constantly radicalising him. He
developed a clear strategy for total decolonisation, to be brought about on the
basis of broad political action by the masses.
In 1958, he and others formed the broad-based
Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), which immediately established itself as the
key organisation in the struggle against colonial rule.
The Belgians and their friends in the ‘international
community’ were shocked by the pace of development of the nationalist movement.
In the mid-1950s, Belgium – which had exercised the most vicious, murderous,
plunderous rule over Congo – was confident that it would retain its African
colony for at least another century. However, by 1959, the MNC had gained such
popularity and credibility that the Belgians knew their time was up.
But they had a backup plan: To replace traditional
colonialism (white rule, backed by a military occupation) with neo-colonialism
(black rule in white interests, backed with Belgian money, advisers and
mercenaries). That way, Belgium’s theft of Congo’s sumptuous natural wealth
(including massive reserves of coltan, diamonds, copper, zinc and cobalt) would
Reading the writing on the wall, the Belgians decided
to grant independence much sooner than anybody was expecting, in the hope that
they would prevent the further growth of the nationalist movement; that it would
be denied the chance to develop a coherent organisational structure and would
therefore be heavily reliant on Belgium’s assistance. However, Lumumba had
rallied the best elements of the nationalist movement around him and clearly had
no intention of capitulating.
At the independence day celebrations on 30 June 1960,
Belgian King Baudouin made it perfectly clear that he expected Belgium to have a
leading role in determining Congo’s future. In his speech, he chose not to
mention such unpleasant moments in history as the murder by Belgian troops of 10
million Congolese in 20 years for failing to meet rubber collection quotas.
Instead he advised the Congolese to stay close to their Belgian ‘friends’:
‘Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms, and don’t replace the
structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better…
Don’t be afraid to come to us. We will remain by your side and give you
He and his cohort were therefore shocked when Lumumba,
newly elected as prime minister, took the stage and told his countrymen that ‘no
Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it is by struggle
that we have won [our independence], a struggle waged each and every day, a
passionate idealistic struggle, a struggle in which no effort, privation,
suffering, or drop of our blood was spared.’
Referring clearly to Belgium, Lumumba stated that ‘we
will count not only on our enormous strength and immense riches but on the
assistance of numerous foreign countries whose collaboration we will accept if
it is offered freely and with no attempt to impose on us an alien culture of no
matter what nature’.
Lumumba, caring nothing for being polite to the
Belgian dignitaries in the audience, concluded: ‘Glory to the fighters for
national liberation! Long live independence and African unity! Long live the
independent and sovereign Congo!’
Ludo de Witte writes of this historic speech: ‘Lumumba
[spoke] in a language the Congolese thought impossible in the presence of a
European, and those few moments of truth feel like a reward for eighty years of
domination. For the first time in the history of the country, a Congolese has
addressed the nation and set the stage for the reconstruction of Congolese
history. By this one act, Lumumba has reinforced the Congolese people’s sense of
dignity and self confidence.’ (The Assassination of Lumumba)
The Belgians, along with the other colonialist
nations, were horrified at Lumumba’s stance. The western press was filled with
words of venom aimed at this humble but brilliant man – a man who dared to tell
Europe that Africa didn’t need it. The French newspaper ‘La Gauche’ noted that
‘the press probably did not treat Hitler with as much rage and virulence as they
did Patrice Lumumba.’
In the first few months of independence, Belgium and
its western allies busied themselves whipping up all kinds of political and
regional strife; this led to pro-Belgium armies being set up in the regions of
Katanga and Kasai and declaring those regions to be independent states. This was
of course a massive blow to the new Congolese state. Meanwhile, behind the
scenes, the Belgians (along with their friends in France and the US, and with
the active support of the UN leadership) developed plans for a coup d’état that
would remove Lumumba from power. This was effected on 14 September, not even
three months after independence.
But even under house arrest, Lumumba was a dangerous
threat to colonial interests. He was still providing leadership to the masses of
Congolese people, and he still had the support of the majority of the army.
Therefore the Belgians connived with the CIA and with their Uncle Tom stooges in
Congo to murder Lumumba. That Belgium is most responsible for Lumumba’s death is
amply proven in Ludo De Witte’s book, ‘The Assassination of Lumumba’.
Furthermore, the UN leadership was complicit, in the sense that it could very
easily have put a stop to this murderous act.
Lumumba, along with three other leading nationalists,
was assassinated by firing squad (led by white Belgian officials in the Katangan
police force), after several days of beatings and torture.
When the news of Lumumba’s murder broke, there was
outrage around the world, especially in Africa and Asia. Demonstrations were
organised in dozens of capital cities. In Cairo, thousands of protesters stormed
the Belgian embassy, tore down King Baudouin’s portrait and put Lumumba’s up in
its place, and then proceeded to burn down the building.
Sadly, with Lumumba and other leading nationalists out
of the way, the struggle for Congo’s freedom suffered a severe setback, which
was not to be reversed for over three decades.
There are a lot of important lessons to learn from
this key moment in the history of anti-colonial struggle; lessons that many
people have not yet fully taken on board. As Che Guevara said: ‘We must move
forward, striking out tirelessly against imperialism. From all over the world we
have to learn lessons which events afford. Lumumba’s murder should be a lesson
for all of us.’
To this day, western governments and media
organisations use every trick in the book to divide and rule oppressed people,
to stir up strife, to create smaller states that can be more easily controlled.
To this day, they use character assassination as a means of ‘justifying’ their
interventions against third world governments – just look at how they painted
Aristide in Haiti, or how they paint Chavez, Castro and many others. To this
day, ‘UN intervention’ often means intervention on the side of the oppressors.
To this day, the intelligence services use every illegal and dishonest means to
destabilise and cause confusion. We all fall for these tricks far too
On the bright side, the past decade has been one of
historic advances; advances that point the way towards a different and much
brighter future. The political, economic, military and cultural dominance of
imperialism is starting to wane. As Seumas Milne pointed out at the recent
Equality Movement meeting, the war on terror has exposed the limits of western
military power. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has started to discredit the
entire neoliberal model. The rise of China, the wave of progressive change in
Latin America, the emergence of other important third world players – these all
indicate a very different future.
In Congo itself, progress is being made, although it
often seems frustratingly slow (principally because the West is still sponsoring
armies in support of its economic interests). But, as De Witte writes, ‘the
crushing weight of the [Mobutu] dictatorship has been shaken off’. We can’t
overstate the importance of this step.
As we all move forward together against imperialism,
colonialism and racism, we should keep Lumumba’s legacy in our hearts and
‘Neither brutal assaults, nor cruel mistreatment, nor
torture have ever led me to beg for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head held
high, unshakable faith and the greatest confidence in the destiny of my country
rather than live in slavery and contempt for sacred principles. History will one
day have its say; it will not be the history taught in the United Nations,
Washington, Paris, or Brussels, however, but the history taught in the countries
that have rid themselves of colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its
own history and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history full of
glory and dignity … I know that my country, now suffering so much, will be able
to defend its independence and its freedom. Long live the Congo! Long live
Africa!’ (Lumumba’s last letter to his wife, Pauline).
Article first published in PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Carlos Martinez is a London-based political analyst
who focuses on issues on racism and culture, and runs the website Beat
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