Issue 255 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review


Vengeance in blood

Black leader Patrice Lumumba was murdered 40 years ago. Karen O'Toole reviews the events
Demonstration in London to protest at Lumumba's assassination--one of many protests worldwide
Demonstration in London to protest at Lumumba's assassination--one of many protests worldwide

On 17 January 1961 at 5.30am Patrice Lumumba, the first black prime minister of the newly independent Congo, was taken from his prison cell and driven to an airstrip where he and his aides were pushed onto a plane bound for Katanga. His jailers felt easier with the early start so the soldiers at the camp wouldn't mutiny.

Planes didn't often land that early in Lukala, where they made a stopover. But on this particular morning, hearing the noise of the engine, several workers from the cement plant headed for the airstrip to see what was happening. They recognised one man in civilian clothes as he was pulled from a parked car. It was the prime minister, his face swollen and covered in blood.

The flight lasted several hours, during which time the prisoners were tortured. Lumumba's goatee and several tufts of his hair were torn out. Then he was forced to swallow them, a sight which made the radio operator sick. When the plane touched down in Katanga province at 4.50pm he and his aides had exactly seven more hours to live.

In charge of the prisoners was Captain Gat. He had been one of the pillars of the old Belgian colonial regime. At a time when the rest of the army had been crumbling because of soldiers' demands for 'Africanisation', only Captain Gat's unit in Katanga had stayed loyal to the old regime. Katanga was the safest bet to take a deposed prime minister to. Its secession from the newly independent Congo had been instigated by the Belgian ruling class, overseen by the United Nations, and endorsed by the rest of the world powers. Its president, Moïse Tshombe, and his men were loyal to their former masters' interests.

From the airfield Lumumba was taken to a house where Belgian dignitaries, President Tshombe and his minister, Kibwe, paid a final visit. Lumumba asked Tshombe for protection. Bits of wood had been stuck under the prisoner's toenails and fingernails. Kibwe said, 'Lumumba, I told you at the round table conference in Brussels that if you set foot in Katanga you would piss blood and your head would roll at my feet. Tomorrow we will glorify our men.You will be dead by then.' At that, the ministers left for Tshombe's house, where they celebrated late into the night. The servants noted bloodstains on the president's clothes.

Forty years ago this year these events really happened. A new book*, involving seven years research of official US, UN, Belgian and British official files, is so devastating in its exposure that its publication has forced the Belgian government to hold an official commission of inquiry due to report this autumn. Concentrating directly on the events leading up to the assassination, it is also the author's response to countless cover-ups published by the murderers and their accomplices over the years.

In 1960 (the UN's declared 'Year of Africa') no less than 16 African states gained their independence. Time and again the West had to change its policy of overt domination to one of indirect control. From the new nationalist leaders they expected nothing short of absolute respect for the neocolonial order. The largest and potentially richest of these countries was the Congo.

But Patrice Lumumba was no puppet of the West. His aim was an African state run by Africans, not unreasonable for a victorious leader of a national liberation movement. His Independence Day speech in June 1960 in the presence of King Baudouin of Belgium incensed the old colonial power.

A plot was hatched for the 'élimination définitive' of Patrice Lumumba. Events moved quickly. The reactionary (white) commander in chief of the army wrote a provocative equation on the board in front of his assembled troops: 'Before independence = After independence'. The Congolese troops rebelled immediately. Lumumba did the unthinkable. Not only did he side with the soldiers, but he raised public sector wages by 30 percent, encouraging miners in Katanga province to demand more pay from the owners. One of the owners just happened to be King Baudouin, and it was one thing to be humiliated in public, but Katanga was the jewel in the crown of Africa. Copper deposits were buried in the ground across an area nearly half the size of Belgium. One company alone controlled 70 percent of the Congolese economy.

Even though finally the Belgians assassinated Lumumba, all of the imperial powers had blood on their hands. The US, Britain, France and Portugal shared intelligence in order to get rid of him. File number JB1015/401 in the Public Record Office in London contains memos of the Lord Privy Seal (Edward Heath, later prime minister) and his advisers discussing the 'possibilities of eliminating Mr Lumumba from the political scene'.

Ludo De Witte concludes his study with an analysis of Lumumba's politics. He describes him as a revolutionary nationalist, shifting to the left and radicalised by the mass movement itself, raising independent workers' demands such as the wage rises. To the many detractors of Lumumba who claim that he left no legacy, De Witte replies, 'Surely the Western powers which led these operations did not ignite one of the biggest crises since the Second World War solely to get rid of an isolated and unique political leader.' But he points out some of the more fatal mistakes, such as his reliance on the supposed neutrality of United Nations forces. When Katanga seceded, the UN recognised Katanga, imprisoned Lumumba in his own home, and gave the West precious time to organise their offensive. This 'relegated to the role of spectator' the huge and potentially powerful working class. 'If Africa were a revolver and the Congo its trigger, the assassination of Lumumba and tens of thousands of others...was the West's ultimate attempt to destroy the continent's authentic independent development.' Next time we need to be prepared for their 'élimination définitive'.
The Assassination of Lumumba
Ludo De Witte, Verso £17

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