“Dead, living, free, or in prison on the orders of the colonialists, it is not I who counts. It is the Congo, it is our people for whom independence has been transformed into a cage where we are regarded from the outside… History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets... a history of glory and dignity.”
Patrice Lumumba, October 1960
“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
WEB DuBois, Black Reconstruction, 1935
WEB DuBois wrote about the Black Americans who, liberated from slavery, had a moment of optimism — “in the sun” — in the aftermath of the US civil war. The period was short. Soon, African-Americans would become the victims of a racist white counter-revolution and Jim Crow segregation.
Similarly, in the late 1950s, the Congolese peoples lived through a short historical moment full of democratic possibilities. Belgian colonial rule was ending. The slave trade that had devastated the region was long gone. Gone too was the murderous insanity of the period of the Belgian King Leopold II’s personal control of Congo.
The person who symbolised the new period and what it might offer to the Congolese was the left-nationalist and first Prime Minister of the newly independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba. The overthrow of Lumumba, and his subsequent murder in 1961 — with the active complicity of the US and Belgium — was an outrage that prepared the ground for the police state and kleptocracy of Mobutu and the subsequent wars which still blight Congo.
Here, Dan Katz tells the story of the killing of Lumumba.
600 years ago the Kingdom of Kongo was emerging as a powerful force with a capital, Mbanza Kongo, in what is now northern Angola.
In 1483 a Portuguese explorer sailed up the Congo river and made contact with the local population. In the 400 years that followed, the Portuguese slave trade took over 13 million slaves; Arab slavers and other European powers seized millions of slaves too. The local economic and political structures collapsed.
Posing as a benevolent friend, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, proposed to help the Africans by ending the slave trade. Leopold was a greedy and ruthless pig who was determined to share in the European powers’ colonial land-grab. He attempted to acquire colonies in Asia, and South America, but failed. In 1876 Leopold founded a company — the International African Society — which, disguised as a philanthropic association for African welfare, he used to pursue the aim of colonising Congo.
He hired the famous British explorer Henry Stanley (a peculiar chancer and nasty reactionary) to help him. Stanley did much of the ground work in Congo, buying land, charting territory, and preparing the way for Belgian rule.
By flattering and bribing politicians, Leopold got US recognition for what had become his personal project in Congo. Then, in 1885, at the Berlin Conference, by playing off the big European powers against each other Leopold won control of Congo. On 5 February 1865 the Congo Free State was established under Leopold’s personal rule. It was a country 76 times the size of Belgium, with 20-30 million people.
Leopold had pledged to end slavery in Congo. He did defeat the Arab slave traders who operated in the east, but imposed his own staggeringly cruel system of forced labour, policed by his private army, the Force Publique.
Over the next 23 years half the population (10-15 million people) were killed or died as a result of Leopold’s rule. The Congolese peoples were either murdered, or died of exhaustion or disease (chiefly smallpox, which had been brought by the Europeans, or sleeping sickness).
Leopold became enormously rich, behind the back of Belgium’s parliament. His organisation (he never personally travelled to Congo) plundered ivory, and then wild rubber.
Dozens of local rebellions, big and small, took place as the people rose against brutality. Chants and slogans included:
O mother, how unfortunate we are!
But the crocodile will kill the white man,
But the elephant will kill the white man,
But the river will kill the white man.
We are tired of living under this tyranny
We shall make war…
We know that we shall die, but we want to die.
Leopold’s rule became associated with the chicotte (a whip made of hippo hide) and the amputation of hands (from the dead to prove a killing, and from the living as a punishment for failure to fulfil a work quota).
Gradually the barbarity of his rule attracted a mass campaign in Europe and America.
The names of the Africans who rose against Leopold are saldy not well known and mostly lost to us. The international opposition, which began in Britain, was led by E.D. Morel, a former clerk with the Liverpool shipping company which Leopold employed, and Roger Casement, an Irish civil servant working for the British state, who had been based in Congo.
Morel was later jailed for opposition to World War One, became an Independent Labour Party activist and then a Labour MP. Casement joined the fight for Irish freedom, and was hung for treason in Pentonville jail in 1916.
Morel and Casement began the Congo Reform Association (CRA) in 1904. The CRA opposed human rights abuses in Congo rather than demand an end to Belgian rule. Morel did not oppose colonialism per se. In fact, he was able to pull in much of the British establishment behind the cause because the CRA was opposed to Belgium’s abuse of Africans rather than colonial rule as such. Although Morel saw Leopold’s brutality as especially bad, similar systems operated in French Congo and German Cameroon.
The extermination of the local populations in each of these areas was primarily the result of the methods used for rubber extraction. But in other parts of West Africa there was genocide — a deliberate attempt to wipe out an entire people. The authorities in German South West Africa (now Namibia) issued an extermination order against the Herero people. From 1903-6 75% of the 80,000 Hereros were either shot, bayonetted, clubbed to death, or driven into the desert to starve.
The CRA’s activity spread across Europe, and was particularly strong in Britain and America. Morel produced a weekly paper, the West African Mail, and spoke at 50 mass rallies between 1907 and 1909. Many of these meetings had several thousand in attendance, and the CRA had strong support from MPs and the (Protestant) clergy. In the UK, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a book in support of the campaign, The Crime of the Congo, which sold 25,000 copies per week when it was first released, and was immediately translated into several languages. In the US, Mark Twain wrote a pamphlet for the movement, King Leopold’s Soliloquy. Many hundreds of public protest events were held.
Leopold responded by building a formidable propaganda machine of his own. He bought politicians, newspaper people, and lawyers and paid them to protect his vile money-making operation in Congo. However, Leopold came to realise he would have to bend. He transferred his private property — the Congo — to the Belgian state. He then had the state take on 110 million francs of debt, pay 45 million francs towards his various building projects, and hand over a further 50 million francs “as a mark of gratitude for his great sacrifices made for the Congo.”
Before the state took control Leopold burnt all the state archives relating to Congo. His furnaces were burning the material for eight days. Leopold stated, “I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.”
Leopold’s financial network was so complex it is difficult to tell exactly how much he personally gained from mass murder in Congo. Belgian historian Jules Marchal estimates his profit, conservatively, at well over $1 billion in current value.
In November 1908 Congo became Belgium’s colony. Morel immediately warned that nothing much would change.
Much of Leopold’s structure remained intact, only mutating over time because scavenging for wild rubber was replaced by more profitable plantation production.
Forced labour — which was wiping the population out — was replaced by onerous taxation, and repression continued. All political activity was banned. The Force Publique was maintained and until the end of the 1950s no Congolese had risen above NCO rank.
The Belgians opened up copper ore production and gold and diamond mining. Coffee and palm oil production increased, with profits going to Europe in dividends.
The Belgian state ruled the region alongside the Catholic church and in alliance with Belgian capital. The church had a slogan — “No elite, no problem” — which summed up the foreign power’s strategy: they were determined to prevent an educated middle class emerging. By 1958 there were 1.4 million children attending Catholic Primary schools, but only 25,000 in secondary education. At the time of independence, in 1960, there were only 30 Congolese university graduates in the entire country.
Black Congolese lived under a curfew in the cities, from 9pm to 4am. City centres were white-only areas.
Hospitals and shops were often reserved for either whites or blacks.
Significant reforms followed after World War Two. Homes and medical centres were built. In the mid 50s, for the first time, black people were allowed to buy and sell property in their own names. Corporal punishment using the chicotte was abolished.
In 1957, local elections in large towns took place which were open to black voters and candidates. Political organisation spread very quickly in the second half of the 1950s and Congolese people debated various forms of national project: reform or independence? Should the country become independent quickly, or more slowly? Should a unitary state be maintained or some form of federalism adopted?
The Belgians anticipated a decades-long period of movement towards independence. They were unprepared for what happened. The pace of change accelerated sharply, particularly after Ghana and French Congo won independence in 1958.
In 1958 the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) constituted itself as a national political party. It was for a unitary state and was intended to be non-tribal; its most prominent leader was Patrice Lumumba.
Lumumba was born in 1925, the son of farmers. He trained as a postal clerk and later worked as a travelling beer salesman in the capital, Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), and Stanleyville (now Kisangani). Originally, in 1955, he joined the Congolese section of the Belgian Liberal Party, editing its newsletters. In 1956 he helped to found the MNC and by the late 50s was the leader of its radical wing, demanding immediate independence. He represented the MNC at the anti-colonial All-African People’s Conference, held in Accra in December 1958.
1959 opened with riots in Léopoldville when one of the new political parties (Alliances des Bakongo, ABAKO) was prevented from meeting.
The riots were partly driven by unemployment and were brutally repressed by the Force Publique, who killed 49 protesters. The state arrested some of the leaders and flew them to Belgium. But King Baudouin also announced Belgium’s intention to “lead the Congolese towards independence.” Over the next seven months, 40 discriminatory acts were abolished or amended.
There was a great surge of political activity. 50 new parties were registered, nearly all based on ethnic groups. Congo has 250 ethnic groups and many hundreds of different languages and dialects.
Most of the main Congolese political parties met in Luluabourg in April, a meeting dominated by Lumumba and the MNC. A little later the MNC split, with a more moderate group peeling away. The main effect was to weaken Lumumba’s base in Katanga and Kasai, something which would become important in the immediate future.
In September 1959 Lumumba published an open letter declaring his party would no longer cooperate with Belgium. At an MNC conference in October he demanded negotiations for immediate independence, otherwise “1960 would be a year of misery and war.” Riots followed in Stanleyville, with 20 dead, and Lumumba was arrested and jailed.
The Belgians were afraid of becoming embroiled in an independence war of the type the French were fighting in Algeria. In January 1960 a conference was held in Brussels where the Belgians proposed a four-year independence plan. The Congolese demanded Lumumba’s release from prison so he could attend; they demanded immediate independence.
A longer transition would have given a better chance of stability and democracy, but the demand for immediate independence was understandable, especially given Belgium’s attempts to retain all sorts of secondary rights and powers.
Eventually it was agreed that elections would be held on 22 May, and independence granted on 30 June 1960. The Belgians announced that the new government would inherit £350m of public debt.
On 22 May only two parties — Lumumba’s MNC and the moderate Party of National Progress (PNP) — stood lists in more than one region. There was an 81% turnout (of men over 21) and the MNC won by far the biggest share of the vote, 26.6%.
Lumumba entered a coalition with the leftist, anti-sectarian Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA) which had come second in the poll with 12.6%. Lumumba became Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu, of ABAKO, became President.
The Belgian King Baudouin attended the independence celebrations. His visit started badly when a man grabbed his ceremonial sword and started dancing in the road with it.
The King was welcomed warmly by Kasavubu. However the King’s Independence Day speech was patronising, praising the “genius” and “tenacious courage” of the mass murderer, King Leopold II. Baudouin added, “[D]on’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, give you advice.”
Lumumba was not scheduled to speak, but rose anyway, and tore into the King: “[N]o Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that [independence] has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. 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.” The Western powers and press were shocked by Lumumba’s militancy.
Days after independence Lumumba increased all public sector wages except those of the Force Publique. The Force mutinied, demanding the dismissal of their white officers. In Léopoldville arms were seized and the Belgians driven out. Whites were attacked in the streets and martial law declared.
Lumumba attempted to control the situation by Africanising the Force Publique, getting rid of the whites, renaming it the Congolese National Army, and promoting each soldier by one rank.
Without asking permission, Belgium sent in troops. The Belgians not only went to the aid of their citizens (the majority of the 80,000 Belgians who were still working and living in the Congo left within weeks), but also backed the independence of Katanga province which Moshe Tshombe declared on 11 July. Katanga was the centre of Congo’s mineral wealth, where the mining companies were eager to maintain their control.
Lumumba initially asked the US for help against the Belgians. US President Eisenhower refused, and so Lumumba turned to the United Nations. On 12 July Lumumba warned he would appeal to the USSR unless the UN ended the Belgian intervention. On 15 July British planes began flying in African troops under UN control.
Inside Katanga province, where 6,000 of Belgium’s troops secured the secession, and in Kasai, there was resistance to the breakaway, and fighting began. In Katanga, Tshombe’s forces were also backed by the South African regime who enabled a large number of white mercenaries to get into Congo and help the secession movement. Lumumba, tired of the unwillingness of the UN to deal with the Katanga split, arranged to use Russian planes to move his forces. Lumumba was not pro-Russian, but he believed he should be able to use any help he could get to deal with Belgium’s interference.
He declared, “I am not a Communist. The colonialists have campaigned against me throughout the country because I am a revolutionary and demand the abolition of the colonial regime, which ignored our human dignity. They look upon me as a Communist because I refused to be bribed by the imperialists.”
The USSR quickly responded with an airlift of ANC troops into Kasai and a supply of military trucks. In turn the US became enormously alarmed. CIA operations chief Richard Bissell stated President Eisenhower regarded Lumumba as “a mad dog.” And CIA boss Allen Dulles claimed Lumumba was, “a Castro, or worse.”
At a meeting in August 1960, Eisenhower told Dulles that “Lumumba should be eliminated,” and a batch of poison was sent to the CIA station chief in Congo (bizarrely, they intended to kill Lumumba with poisoned toothpaste). Dulles sent a telegram on 26 August saying the “removal of [Lumumba] was an urgent and prime objective.” The Belgians had the same policy, naming their assassination plan Operation Barracuda.
However, on 5 September Kasavubu sacked Lumumba. Lumumba refused to accept the decision. The UN responded by grabbing the airports, which had the effect of stopping the Russian-backed airlift of Congolese troops moving against the secessionist regions. Nevertheless the nationalist fight to reintegrate Katanga and Kasai continued. By this time Belgium had flown in 100 tons of arms, including mortars, machine guns, and automatic rifles, and provided 25 air force planes to back the breakaway. 89 Belgian officers were serving in Tshombe’s guard and 326 Belgian troops were “volunteering” for his army.
On 12 September forces controlled by army chief Joseph Mobutu seized Lumumba, and Mobutu took power in a CIA-backed coup two days later. Mobutu left Kasavubu in place as President. Lumumba, however, was put under house arrest and parliament was shut down.
Lumumba escaped on 27 November, aiming to head for Stanleyville where an armed rebellion against Mobutu was beginning. Lumumba was recaptured on 2 December, and the UN ordered its forces not to protect him. At this point various states which had provided forces for the UN in the Congo withdrew in protest.
The Congo nationalist forces, meanwhile, were beating the secessionists in an offensive launched from Stanleyville; the US and Belgium were afraid that if Lumumba was freed, and parliament recalled, he would immediately regain power. A telegram from Brussels referred to the, “disastrous consequences of releasing Lumumba.”
On 12 January 1961 an army revolt began at Thysville where Lumumba was being held. The next day the CIA in Léopoldville told Washington, “[The] current government may fall within days. Result would almost certainly be chaos and [Lumumba’s] return to power… Refusal to take drastic steps at this time will lead to defeat [of] US policy in Congo.”
As the army rebellion spread to the capital, Lumumba was flown to Katanga — heartland of his enemies — by a Belgian pilot, with US help. He was tortured, and, together with Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, was shot on 17 January by a Katangan firing squad led by a Belgian, Captain Julien Gat. The bodies were buried, then later disinterred; two Belgians cut up Lumumba’s body and dissolved it in acid. Allegedly some teeth and bullets were kept as souvenirs.
Effectively the Belgian state and the US had contracted out the assassination of a democratically-elected and enormously popular leader — but had watched the Katangans closely, to make sure the job was done.
After the killings were revealed in mid-February 1961 many states — especially the Eastern Bloc — chose to recognise the nationalist Lumumba-aligned forces of Antoine Gizenga, Lumumba’s deputy, based in Stanleyville. However, by January 1962 Gizenga was also under arrest.
The USSR had consistently opposed the UN’s Congo policy. Although they objected to the trampling of Congo’s democratic rights — hypocritically and for their own cynical reasons — they were not wrong that the UN policy had served Belgium and the US interests against Lumumba.
With Lumumba dead, the UN finally agreed to act to keep Congo united — a unified Congo was preferable, as long as it was led by a pro-Western “moderate”. At the end of 1961 South Kasai’s independence was ended. And by January 1963, Elizabethville, Katanga’s centre, was under full UN control. Various rebellions followed, the most serious of which was a Chinese-backed uprising, the “Simba” rebellion, in 1964. Che Guevara even turned up for a while.
Belgian and US forces intervened systematically for a stable, pro-Western government, with US planes dropping Belgian paratroopers to put down the Simba insurgency. In the end, in 1965, Mobutu led a coup and instituted a US-backed, one-party, police state whose brutality was matched only by its spectacular, extravagant corruption.
In 2002 the Belgian government apologised, admitting to a “moral responsibility” and “an irrefutable portion of responsibility in the events that led to the death of Lumumba.”
1300s: rise of Kongo empire
1482: first European, Diogo Cao, arrives in Kongo
1600s and 1700s: British, Portuguese and Dutch develop slave trade through Kongo
1870s: Leopold II manoeuvres to set up a colony in Kongo
1885: Berlin conference of European powers gives the Congo to Leopold II as his own personal property
1908: Belgium state takes over control of Congo Free State after 10-15 million Congolese have died
Late 50s: nationalist movement grows
June 1960: Congo wins independence. Patrice Lumumba is first Prime Minister.
December 1960: Lumumba arrested
January 1961: Lumumba murdered with Belgian and US help.
1965: Joseph Mobutu leads coup and begins decades of US-backed dictatorship. After 1971 country is known as Zaire
1984: By this date Mobutu is estimated to have stolen and hidden away US$4 billion
1994: genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda
1996-7: First phase of Congo war: Rwanda and Uganda invade, Mobutu overthrown and Laurent-Desire Kabila takes power. Country reverts to name Democratic Republic of the Congo.
1998: Second phase of war, involving nine African states and many private armies. 5.4 million people die over the next decade
2006: Joseph Kabila elected President in first real elections since 1960. Conflict in east of Congo ongoing