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This Sunday, the 17th January 2021, marks the anniversary of the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961.

The story of Patrice Lumumba’s death is one that is fictionalised by Fiston Mwanza Mujila for our forthcoming anthology The American Way: Stories of Invasion.

This new anthology re-examines the history of 75 years of US-led invasions, CIA-sponsored coups, election interference, stay-behind networks, rendition, and weapons testing, with stories that explore the human cost of these interventions on foreign soil, by writers from that soil. From nuclear testing in the Pacific, to human testing of CIA torture tactics, from coups in Latin America, to all-out invasions in the Middle and Far East; the atrocities that follow are often dismissed in history books as inevitable in the ‘fog of war’.

All the stories in The American Way, as with the other titles in our History-into-Fiction series, are followed by afterwords written by historians and experts. Today we’re sharing the afterword to Fiston’s story, written by Emmanuel Gerard, to offer some context to what happened to Patrice Lumumba sixty years ago.


On 13 February 1961, Godefroid Munongo, Interior minister in the secessionist government of Katanga, announced the death of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba at a press conference in Elisabethville (today Lubumbashi). Almost a month earlier, on 17 January, Lumumba and two of his political companions had been transferred from a military camp near Leopoldville (today Kinshasa), under the custody of Colonel Joseph Mobutu, to the capital of the secessionist province. The press had covered the arrival of the heavily beaten Lumumba at the airport of Luano, but for a month, no news of Lumumba’s fate had been conveyed to the outside world. Indeed for decades, the circumstances of Lumumba’s death have been hidden. Munungo had claimed at the time that three prisoners had simply escaped custody, and then been caught and killed by commoners in a village, whose name he did not reveal. From the start, however, fingers pointed in the direction of the Belgians and the Americans. Their role and that of the Katangese in Lumumba’s end is now well documented.

            On June 30, 1960, Belgium accorded independence to its vast colony in the centre of Africa without any solid preparation. Brussels had ignored the “winds of change”. The decision had been taken only a few months before, at a round table conference in January, gathering the Belgian government and Congolese representatives. In hastily giving way to the pressure of the Congolese demands, Brussels’ hope was to maintain its influence. However, in the May elections Patrice Lumumba, a proud nationalist and leader of the Mouvement National Congolais, was victorious and became Prime Minister. Brussels worried, since leading industrialists dubbed him a communist, and it took measures to protect Belgian business interests. On the eve of independence, Belgium imposed a Treaty of Friendship putting its officers and civil servants in key positions in the Congolese government.

            In a famous speech, Prime Minister Lumumba, on the very day of independence and in the presence of the Belgian King, denounced 80 years of colonialism as a form of slavery. He deepened the mistrust between Belgium and the new Congo republic. Shortly after, the mutiny of the Congolese army, still under European command, started a dramatic episode that would lead the new republic into chaos and almost destruction. Violence against Europeans provoked their exodus and gave Belgium an excuse to send in some 10.000 paratroopers without consulting the Congolese government. Brussels justified the operation as humanitarian. However, in Katanga, the southeastern corner of the country, the Belgian military supported the secession of the region proclaimed by its leader Moïse Tshombe to shield the Anglo-Belgium mining company Union Minière from Lumumba’s interference. Behind closed doors, the Belgian government expressed an intention to bring down the Lumumba government, which it regarded as ineffective and even illegitimate.

From the end of August, the CIA set up a number of covert operations with the express objective of killing the prime minister.

            Lumumba made an appeal to the UN to end the aggression. The Americans saw Congo as an important piece in their domino theory and considered any chaos there as a likely breeding ground for communism. Keeping the Cold War out of the Congo would become the American mantra. The Soviets should not get any pretext to intrude in Congolese politics. For that reason, US President Eisenhower supported a substantial UN intervention to prevent bilateral help from any corner. The Swedish UN Secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld saw Lumumba’s demand as a window of opportunity to put his organization into the foreground. Decolonization was changing the world and the UN could steer it in a new direction. Thus the Congo crisis, which held the attention of the entire world, was born.

            Lumumba expected the UN to help him oust the Belgian military and to end the secession. The UN deployed an impressive force of 20.000 “blue helmets” to the Congo. However, the cooperation between Lumumba and Hammarskjöld broke down when the UN Secretary general, facing the complexities of international diplomacy, refused to use UN troops to smash the secession, arguing that this was an internal problem. Consequently Lumumba wanted the UN operation terminated. This rupture between Lumumba and Hammarskjöld altered the geo-politics.

            Eisenhower faced a difficult situation. His support for the UN operation and his stand against Belgian policy in the Congo created tensions in the NATO alliance, crucial to his Cold War with Russia. The civilian head of NATO, the Belgian politician Paul-Henri Spaak, threatened to resign. Eisenhower was also apprehensive that the end of the UN intervention in the Congo might invite the Soviets in, so he decided that the Congolese Prime Minister should be eliminated. From the end of August, the CIA set up a number of covert operations with the express objective of killing the prime minister. These plans were unearthed in 1975, when in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the American Congress forced the CIA to hand over documents pertaining to its covert operations.

            Since the UN refused to use force to put Tshombe down, Lumumba decided to end the secession in the South-Kasaï and Katanga with his own troops, the Armée Nationale Congolaise. For this operation, he got logistic support from the Soviets who put planes and trucks at his disposal. Eisenhower, but also Hammarskjöld, found in the Soviet support and the civil casualties in South-Kasai fresh arguments to get Lumumba out of the way. The Americans, the UN and Belgium found themselves in an awkward coalition to oust Lumumba and they found an ally in Lumumba’s sometime associate Joseph Kasa-Vubu, president of the Congo.

            On 5 September, in a speech on the Leopoldville radio, Kasa-Vubu dismissed Lumumba as prime minister. At the president’s demand, the UN closed the airports to prevent Lumumba from bringing in military support. However, Lumumba did not give way, and in another radio speech, he dismissed the president. A few days later, he got the support of a parliamentary majority. The chaos deepened and on 14 September, Joseph Mobutu, chief of staff of the ANC, seized power. Lumumba did not yield. Americans and Belgians now coalesced in actions to put him down. They advised and put pressure on Mobutu to arrest Lumumba. However, they met with UN resistance. Hammarskjöld altered course after heavy criticism from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In a stormy General Assembly session of the UN, Khrushchev demanded Hammerskjöld’s resignation for his role in the Congo crisis. UN troops now protected Lumumba in his Leopoldville residence.

            This stalemate lasted until the end of November. A major event then changed the equation. The UN General Assembly recognized Kasa-Vubu and not Lumumba as the legitimate representative of the new member state. Seeing no future in Leopoldville, Lumumba fled his residence and started the long journey to Stanleyville (today Kisangani), were his deputy Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga had reassembled his followers and a part of the military. Lumumba’s escape provoked panic in Leopoldville, but on 2 December Lumumba was seized by Mobutu’s troops. When he arrived as a prisoner at Leopoldville airport, journalists and photographers were able to take pictures of the mishandled Prime Minister. These were the last images taken of Lumumba – indeed one of them is mentioned in Fiston’s short story here.

Lumumba’s death altered the course of the Congo’s history. For the peoples of Africa and Asia, Lumumba became the icon of their emancipation struggles.

            A civil war was in the making. In December and January, Gizenga’s troops conquered the Kivu province, made an incursion into Katanga and started an offensive to the east. Lumumba became a nuisance and a danger. If he were liberated, he would become the leader of a mighty and military victorious coalition. There was also uncertainty about what policy towards Congo the incoming American president J.F. Kennedy, whose inauguration would take place on 20 January, 1961, would follow. Therefore, the Leopoldville leadership decided to get rid of Lumumba. They chose Katanga as the scene for the crime. The transfer was prepared by Belgian advisers and got the approval of the Belgian government. To make it happen, the CIA representative in Leopoldville withheld information about the imminent transfer from Washington.

            Victor Nendaka, head of the Congolese intelligence agency, was in charge of the operation, assisted by his Belgian adviser. On Tuesday 17 January in the early morning, he took Lumumba and two of his companions, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, out of prison. The route went by car and by plane. They arrived at 5pm in Elisabethville. That same evening, the three prisoners were executed in the bush in the presence of Tshombe and his ministers. A Belgian police officer and three Belgian officers of the Katangese Gendarmerie were present at the scene. The next day, Munongo ordered the corpses to be reburied and finally again unearthed and destroyed.

            All those involved denied their participation in it. US ambassador Adlai Stevenson, at a tumultuous session of the Security Council of the UN on February 13, when the news of Lumumba’s death became public, demanded without any sense of irony the free and untrammeled exercise of democracy for the Congolese people.

            Lumumba’s death altered the course of the Congo’s history. For the peoples of Africa and Asia, Lumumba became the icon of their emancipation struggles.

Emmanuel Gerard, 2021 


References:

Ludo De Witte, translated by Ann Wright and Renée Fenby, The assassination of Lumumba, Verso, 2001

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A people’s history, Zed Books, 2002,

Leo Zeilig, Patrice Lumumba. Africa’s lost leader, Haus Publishing, 2008

Lise Namikas, Battleground Africa. Cold War in the Congo 1960-1965, Stanford UP, 2013

Emmanuel Gerard & Bruce Kuklick, Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba, Harvard UP, 2015

Matthias De Groof, ed., Lumumba in the arts, Leuven UP, 2020


The American Way is forthcoming from Comma Press in May 2021.

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