The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba
Patrice Lumumba was the first elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is best remembered for his anti-colonial and nationalistic ideas (i.e. Lumumbism). His political party, the Congolese National Movement (MNC), was at the fore front of Congo’s struggle for independence from Belgium in June, 1960.
Lumumba’s tenure as prime minister of the Congo coincided with the break out of the Congo Crisis. In spite of his efforts to keep his government in firm control of the country, Lumumba’s government was ousted out of power by his Army chief-of-staff Mobutu Sese Seko in September, 1960. After he was captured by Kantagese secessionists, Lumumba was executed by a Western-backed firing squad on January 17, 1961.
The article below presents the circumstances leading to the brutal execution of Patrice Lumumba, one of Africa’s finest statesman and anti-colonial fighter.
Early Political Career
Lumumba began his political career working as the president of an organization called Cercles in Stanleyville. Around this time, he was also a member of the Liberal Party of Belgium, where he worked as an editor and distributor of party papers. It was in this position that he picked up vital experiences that sort introduced him to politics. During his stay in Belgium, he also embarked on a number study programs.
Upon his return to the Congo, Lumumba helped in the establishment of the Congolese National Movement (MNC). His political party played crucial role in securing the Congo’s independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960.
After a few months of political negotiations, Lumumba was elected by the Congolese Parliament to serve as the first Prime Minister of the Congo.
Prime Minister of the Congo
As prime minister, Lumumba worked very hard to improve the lives of Congolese. He sought to create a national identity. He reasoned that the only way to attain that was to remove all colonial ideologies and structures from the Congo. He encouraged his various ministers to embody the principles of equality, social justice and liberty.
His quest for national unity was going to be one of the toughest things he had ever done. Some members from the various political parties were sour because their parties weren’t consulted. Some were opposed to Lumumba’s government simply because they were not offered any position in the government. Among those people were deputies from the Katanga and Kasai. Many of them went to the extent of seceding from the country and forming their own autonomous states.
Read More: Top 10 Achievements of Patrice Lumumba
Onset of the Congo Crisis
Lumumba’s efforts to Africanize the Congo caused a lot of concern for elite Belgian politicians and businessmen. The latter had invested interest in vast mineral deposits of the country. Brussels lambasted Lumumba for trying to replace tried and tested Belgian structures with what the West considered as inefficient and unnecessary bureaucratic Congolese system of governance.
As part of his Africanization policy, Lumumba renamed the Force Publique as the Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC) in July 1960. This directive of his was in response to the tensions that flared among Congolese soldiers after General Émile Janssens – Commander of the Force Publique – made disparaging remarks about Congolese soldiers. Lumumba also responded by replacing Janssens with Sergeant Major Victor Lundula.
He promoted all junior minters, including Joseph Mobuto, and Congolese soldiers. He appointed Mobuto to the rank of colonel and chief of staff of the army. With the exclusion of a few foreign military advisors, Patrice Lumumba replaced all European officers with Congolese.
In spite of his actions, the Congo Crisis and mutinies at the various barracks continued. There were several looting and human rights abuses across the nation. At least 20 Europeans died following the chaos in the country. It included the death of Italian vice-consul. Belgium sent in about 6,000 troops to the country to protect its citizens and installments. The troops eventually clashed with Congolese soldiers.
The State of Katanga secedes
On July 11, Katanga seceded and declared independence under the leadership of Moise Tshombe. Lumumba demanded the immediate removal of all Belgian troops. In their stead, he wanted an international peacekeeping force from the United Nations (UN).
The arrival of UN troops (UN Operation in the Congo) did very little to quell the unrest. Lumumba then severed relations with Belgium on July 14, 1960.
Unable to secure tangible support from the U.S. and other Western nations, Lumumba was forced to seek support from Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR. While all that was going, Lumumba clamped down on dissent and publications that brought his government into disrepute. He issued decrees that enabled the formation of military tribunals. Political associations in the Congo could only be formed with approval from his government. There were reports of various summarily arrests and detention.
Westerners Plot with the State of Katanga to kill Lumumba
Amidst all that chaos and political turmoil, the U.S. and its Western partners, including Belgium, plotted to assassinate Lumumba. Fearing that Lumumba was slowly gravitating towards the Soviets, the Central Intelligence Agency of the U.S. and the Mi6 wanted nothing than to eliminate Patrice Lumumba. Declassified reports and documents even indicated that Lumumba’s chef de cabinet acted as a spy for the Belgian government.
In a bid to put down the rebellion in South Kasai, Lumumba was accused by western countries of ethnic violence, rapes, mass torturing and massacres among the Luba people. Lumumba was committed to keeping the nation united; hence, secessionist efforts from the State of Katanga and other regions in the country were met with decisive action from Lumumba. He insisted on having a unitary government while his opponents in Katanga and other regions called for a federal type of government.
The Congo Crisis intensifies
As the conflict raged on, Lumumba called for support from other African countries to help him restore order in the country. All his calls fell on deaf ears. He then turned his attention to the UN peacekeeping forces, asking them to help his government quell the revolt by the Katangese. The UN insisted that it had no mandate to engage in a fight against the secessionists. The Lumumba government was left on its own to fend off the State of Katanga.
Lumumba Falls out with President Kasa-Vubu
Owing to various regional conflicts in the country, his opponents continued to intensify their calls for a federal type of government. In September 1960, President Kasa-Vubu broke away from Lumumba and called for a federalist government. He made a radio announcement of the dismissal of Lumumba and six other ministers from the government. In the days that followed, further political wrangling ensued. Lumumba issued his own announcement which dismissed Kasa-Vubu and his various associates.
The September 1960 Coup
The Congolese Chamber stepped in to resolve the political impasse by nullifying the dismissals of both Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu. By this time, it had become apparently clear that the situation was degenerating into a complete chaos. Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu were poles apart and their chances of reconciling looked very slim.
The impasse between Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba offered Mobutu, then Chief of staff in the army, the opportunity to step in and restore what he called order to the country. The military man made a radio announcement that in effect removed both Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu from office for a time being. He also suspended the Congolese Parliament.
Mobutu, who was once administrative secretary and assistant of Lumumba, refused to rescind his decision even after having lengthy discussions with his former boss. Mobutu tried to create a political platform for the head of state and the government to put aside their differences and work together. Although Lumumba was willing to do so, Kasa-Vubu and Tshombe (the head of state of Katanga) refused any deal that included Lumumba staying in government.
Lumumba gets captured
December 1, 1960 – Lumumba’s convoy was intercepted in Lodi as it made its way to Deputy Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga in Stanleyville. The coming weeks saw Lumumba imprisoned under extremely poor conditions. Congolese politicians and various Western security agencies discussed what their next move was going to be. In the end, an order was issued by Katangees top leaders, in cahoots with Tshombe and Mobutu, to execute Lumumba. The West, which had grown fed up of Lumumba’s growing alliance with the Soviets, facilitated the execution.
Execution of Lumumba
The date was January 17, 1961, Lumumba and his two other associates were tied to a post, blindfolded, and then killed one after the other. The firing squad that killed the former premier was under the supervision of Belgian officers in Katanga.
Prior to that, there were plots by the CIA to murder or facilitate the murder the Lumumba. The U.S. government at the time feared that Lumumba was venturing too deep into the arms of the Soviets. The West certainly could not lose more grounds as it was engaged in a bitter Cold War against the USSR.
The U.S. State Department in 2013 even admitted that the order to kill Lumumba came from US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. To facilitate this mission the CIA had even set aside an amount of $100,000.
Patrice Lumumba’s assassination, despicable as it was, only further enhanced his ideas and appeal across Congo. He became a global icon and martyr for not just Pan-Africanism but for the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Other Interesting Facts about Patrice Lumumba
- At the time of his birth, he was named Élias Okit’Asombo. His surname translates into “heir of the doomed”.
- Due to his exposure to different ethnic groups, Lumumba was fluent in Tetela, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba.
- He spent his formative school years at a Protestant school and then later a Catholic missionary school.
- Fluent in French from an early age, Lumumba took to writing poems that were largely pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist in nature.
- Renowned African-American civil rights activist Malcolm X described Patrice Lumumba as one of “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent”.
- In D.R. Congo, Lumumba’s legacy and discussion of his accomplishments did not become mainstream until the dying years of Mobutu’s brutal reign.
- Initially, Belgians regarded him as a troublemaker and an ungrateful politician. Many French and Belgian scholars stated that his radical and uncompromising anti-colonial rhetoric was likely the reason he go assassinated. Today, however, Lumumba is considered by many Westerners (including Belgium, who apologized in the early 2000s for their complacency in Lumumba’s death) and Africans all over the world as one of the greatest African leaders of the 20th century.
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