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Patrice Lumumba - African Statesman

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Patrice Lumumba was born on 2 July, 1925, and died on 17 January, 1961. His life began in the Belgian Congo and ended in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation which had won its independence but not its freedom. He served as the country's first and only elected Prime Minister, swept into power on a wave of popular support. He died a violent death mere months later, a victim of colonial greed and Cold War paranoia, beaten, humiliated and then shot dead.

Heart of Darkness

The Belgian Congo (formerly the Congo Free State) changed its name to the Democratic Republic of Congo when it gained its independence from Belgium in 1960, and has been known variously since then as Independent Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zaire, Democratic Republic of Congo (again) or simply Congo. It should not be confused with Republic of Congo (formerly French Congo), which is its neighbour.

In any event, it is a central African country, the third largest on the continent, straddling the equator and the mighty Congo River1. 60 percent of the country consists of the Congo river basin and dense tropical rainforest, which helps to protect some of the earth's most endangered primates (gorillas) from some of its most dangerous primates (us). Congo's steamy jungle is almost completely encircled by mountains, some of which reach elevations of 5,000m or more. Between the rivers and the mountains lies an area of savannah, complete with the characteristic elephants, lions, giraffes and all the creatures that one normally associates with such places.

Congo is the setting for Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, which traces a journey up the Congo River into the heart of the dark continent to expose the dark heart of man. Conrad could have chosen from any number of places to set his classic story of greed, decay and turpitude. But it is probably no coincidence that he chose Congo2.


Patrice Lumumba was born in a small village in Belgian Congo, where the tendrils of racism and vested interest still held the dark heart of Conrad's Africa in a pitiless grip. He was educated at a Protestant mission school.

As a young man he considered himself urbane, with sophisticated views which he expressed in letters and essays written for publication in various Congolese journals. He became a Belgian citizen and found work as a postal clerk in the capital city, LĂ©opoldville (Kinshasa), and, later, as an accountant at the post office in Stanleyville. In 1955, he became regional president of the union which represented Congolese government employees.

The following year, Lumumba was invited to join a group of young Africans to study in Belgium. When he returned to Congo, he was arrested and charged with embezzling money from the post office. He was convicted and served 12 months in prison.

In 1958, Lumumba co-founded the Congolese National Movement3. This was something new on the political scene, a party which seemed to transcend the ethnic divisions typical of the region's politics and promoted an openly pan-African/anti-colonial agenda.

In 1959, Belgium announced a plan ostensibly intended to lead to independence for the colony, but, in reality, geared more towards restricting real progress towards that end. Rioting broke out in Stanleyville as a result and Lumumba was jailed for a second time.

To the dismay of the Belgian colonial administration, the MNC swept the 1960 elections and Patrice Lumumba was asked to form a government. On 23 June, 1960, he became his country's first Prime Minister.

Cold War

The bi-polar world of 1960 was one in which the USA and the USSR trod the world's stage like heavyweight boxers looking for a chance to land a knockout punch and people everywhere seemed to struggle to redefine themselves:

  • The Americans were busy propping and toppling the leaders of banana republics around the world in order to guarantee the uninterrupted production of tropical fruit and other commodities key to America's strategic interests.

  • The Cuban Revolution of 1959 had installed a communist government a stone's throw from America's southern coast which the CIA was secretly planning to overthrow with a ragtag army of Cuban exiles.

  • In South Vietnam the National Liberation Front (better known as the Viet Cong) was formed with the objective of toppling the corrupt presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was widely regarded as an American puppet ruler.

  • Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian bear who embodied jollity and menace at the same time to so many Westerners, announced that an American U2 spy plane had been shot down over Soviet territory.

In short, the world seemed a bleak and dangerous place to anyone with a nostalgic view of the days of empire.

In the harsh light of the Cold War world, the pan-Africanism of Patrice Lumumba seemed merely to reflect Che Guevara's vision of a united South American people's republic and Ho Chi Minh's dream of a Marxist Indo-China. He was seen as a dangerous symptom of things getting out of hand in Africa.

But if the situation in Congo seemed bad to observers in Washington and Brussels, in a very real sense things were much worse for Patrice Lumumba. Within days of Congo's independence, factions of the army rebelled and the province of Katanga in the south of the country announced its own independence. Belgium seized the opportunity and sent in troops, ostensibly to keep the peace and protect Belgian nationals. It soon became obvious, however, that the troops were there to support the secession and to protect Belgian business interests in the mineral-rich region.

There could be no question of allowing Katanga to secede. The economy of the new nation would depend heavily on exports of copper, gold and uranium, which were mined in the province. Lumumba did what he could to salvage the situation. He appealed to the United Nations, which deployed a small peacekeeping force. But it was now patently obvious that Belgium would go to any lengths to secure its stake in the mines, and that, despite the recent pomp and ceremony, real political power in Congo still depended on Belgian troops. The UN, for its part, barely concealed its disdain for the new regime in Kinshasa.

Seemingly with nowhere else to turn, Lumumba accepted aid from the Soviet Union in the form of military transport and possibly arms. The Response in Washington, London and every other capital where anti-Soviet paranoia was de rigueur was as swift as it was predictable: one way or another Lumumba had to go.

On 2 December, 1960, Patrice Lumumba was captured by troops loyal to his rival, Colonel Joseph Mobutu4, who subjected their Prime Minister to a public beating. On 17 January, 1961, Patrice Lumumba was handed over to his enemies in Katanga, where he was beaten again and driven into the bush to be shot by a firing squad, reportedly under the command of a Belgian officer.

Legacy of Darkness

Africa, the so-called 'Dark Continent', was a rich tapestry of ethnic groups, each living within the parameters of sustainable existence in its own particular environment, in balance with its neighbours if not in actual peace. The great ebb and flow of events, the rise and fall of human affairs, occurred at the same pace in Africa as it did in Europe, Asia or anywhere else. African tragedies were of a scale and frequency that could be absorbed by the mythos of the African people no better nor worse there than anywhere.

The great land grab of European colonialism destroyed the relative harmony of this arrangement and replaced it with a mechanism the specific purpose of which was to consume African resources and convert them into European wealth and prestige. Colonial administrations promoted certain ethnic groups, which profited from their collaboration at the expense of others. The result was the deepening of old wounds, the inflammation of old rivalries and the creation of new and bitter enmity that is certain to last for generations.

Nowhere has the collapse of the old world order been more keenly felt than in Africa. The end of empire left a void in the heart of Africa. With few exceptions there was no transition of authority; that which passed for paternalism one day was simply replaced by blatant plundering or hasty divestment the next. In many cases, authority was virtually left for grabs. And the people best positioned to grab it were quite often the ones who were the most ruthless and the best armed.

The Cold War added a new element. The political vacuum created by the vanishing colonies became the ideal environment in which to wage the proxy wars of the new world conflict between superpowers too heavily armed to fight one another. The Great Game5 of the cold war was to snatch up as much of Africa and the rest of the Third World, as it was called, install the most brutal and efficient despot and encourage him to threaten and destabilise any neighbouring territory before it fell under the influence of the rival superpower.

At the time, this no doubt seemed a very sensible way to run world affairs. Now, of course, it seems criminally irresponsible and pathologically destructive. Yet the mechanism which was set in motion half a century ago continues to run its course. The poorest of the poor can scarcely be said to live in countries anymore. The ruling elite that governs their lives may send their children to be educated at Harvard, Cambridge or the Sorbonne, but, in the end it only amounts to an increasingly sophisticated form of gangsterism and the deaths of more innocent people. The consequences we see on the nightly news are increasingly bewildering and pointless coups and counter-coups, border wars and the occasional genocide, such as the massacre of as many as 800,000 people in Rwanda in 19946.


For more information about The Great Lakes region of Central Africa read Shake Hands With the Devil - The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda.

1The Congo is the world's third longest river.2Heart of Darkness was famously retold in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War parable Apocalypse Now.3Mouvement National Congolais (MNC)4Later President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire.5The Great Game usually refers to the competition between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia to win control of Central Asia. A tragic consequence of The Great Game was the fiction of 'Chinese suzerainty' in Tibet, which led to the invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the subsequent international obfuscation of human rights abuses under China's occupation which continues to this day.6Nobody knows how many people died in the Rwandan genocide - 500,000 is a conservative estimate. A UN expert estimated that as many 800,000 people were killed. The death toll in Sudan is yet to be tallied.

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