Remembering Patrice Lumumba: 55 years later

Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, played an important role in the fight for the country’s independence. But he angered many along the way. His abruptly short ruling has left a void of what Congo could have been today, 55 years later.

June 30, 1960 was maybe the beginning of the end for Patrice Lumumba. The crowded Palais de la National in Léopoldville (Kinshasa) was the scene of the transition to the new Congo, a new era. King Baudouin of Belgium, the eldest son of King Leopold III, gave a speech that was meant to mark the harmonious end of Belgian “civilizing mission” begun by his grandfather Leopold II. King Baudouin praised his father's exemplary rule.

"The independence of the Congo is the crowning of the work conceived by the genius of King Leopold II undertaken by him with firm courage, and continued by Belgium with perseverance. Independence marks a decisive hour in the destinies not only of the Congo herself but- I don't hesitate to say-of the whole of Africa.”

He continued: "For eighty years Belgium has sent your land the best of her sons, first to deliver the Congo basin from the odious slave trade which was decimating its population. Later to bring together the different tribes which, though former enemies, are now preparing to form the greatest of the Independent states of Africa."

He advised the Congolese not to "compromise the future with hasty reforms" and assured them that Belgium was ready to help with advice, with technicians and with officials.

President Kasa-Vubu humbly assured the king that they would try hard but 34-year old Prime Minister Lumumba was not as soft in his speech. Spontaneously Lumumba had decided to also make a speech, a speech that caused Western tempers to rise. The audience turned in discomfort as Lumumba denounced the "indispensable struggle to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed on us by force."

Stirring the pot

Lumumba was certain that Congo only could move forward by breaking from its colonial shackles and retain control of the country's natural resources rather than letting it in the hands of foreign countries and corporations. He reminded the full-packed room that Congo would not forget its past.

"Our wounds are too fresh and too smarting for us to be able to have known ironies, insults, and blows which we had to undergo morning, noon and night because we were Negroes. We have seen our lands spoiled in the name of laws that only recognized the right of the strongest. We have known laws which differed according to whether it dealt with a black man or a white.”

"We have known the atrocious sufferings of those who were imprisoned for their political opinions or religious beliefs and of those exiled in their own country. Their fate was worse than death itself. Who will forget the rifle-fire from which so many of our brothers perished, or the goals in to which were brutally thrown those who did not want to submit to a regime of justice, oppression and exploitation which were the means the colonialists employed to dominate us?”

It was clear that he had crossed the line. British newspaper The Guardian reported that “Lumumba's speech soured the taste of many. The Congo has need of all the unselfish friends she can attract, and equally needs to keep those she already possesses."

Lumumba’s government fell apart within twelve weeks of Congolese independence.

Cut in pieces

Another fateful step was Lumumba’s decision to increase the salaries of all government employees, except for the army. Rebellions quickly spread throughout the unstable country and President Kasa-Vubu banned the prime minister from the government. In return, Lumumba declared Kasa-Vubu deposed. The political turmoil left an opening for Colonel Joseph Mobutu, West’s darling and Congo’s future dictator.

On 14 September, Mobutu overthrew both Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu. Lumumba was placed under house arrest. He failed to escape to to Stanleyville, where he planned to set up his own government and army. Mobutu accused Lumumba for inciting the army to rebellion.

The night of The 17th January 1961, a fire squad secretly executed Lumumba and two ministers. Present were four Belgian officers under the command of Katangan authorities. To hide evidence the bodies were cut it up with a hacksaw, and dissolved it in concentrated sulfuric acid.

No punishment

Rumors of the assassination were spread but no statement was released until three weeks after his dead. The death was formally announced on Katangan radio, when it was claimed that Lumumba had escaped and was killed by enraged villagers. Up to date no one the assassination of Lumumba remains unpunished but the Belgians, CIA and MI6 are accused to be involved in the murder.

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm