Patrice Lumumba was prime minister of a newly independent Congo for only seven months between 1960 and 1961 before he was murdered, fifty-six years ago. He was thirty-six.
Lumumba’s short political life — as with figures like Thomas
Sankara and Steve Biko, who had equally short lives — is still a
touchstone for debates about what is politically possible in
postcolonial Africa, the role of charismatic leaders, and the fate of
progressive politics elsewhere.
details of Lumumba’s biography have been endlessly memorialized and
cut and pasted: a former postal worker in the Belgian Congo, he
became political after joining a local branch of a Belgian liberal
party. On his return from a study tour to Belgium arranged by the
party, the authorities took note of his burgeoning political
involvement and arrested him for embezzling funds from the post
office. He served twelve months in prison.
historian Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja — who was in high school during
Lumumba’s rise and assassination — points out that the charges
were trumped-up. Their main effect was to radicalize him against
Belgian racism, though not colonialism. Upon his release in 1957,
Lumumba, by now a beer salesman, was more explicit about Congolese
autonomy and helped found the Congolese National Movement, the first
Congolese political group which explicitly disavowed Belgian
paternalism and tribalism, called unreservedly for independence, and
demanded that Congo’s vast mineral wealth (exploited by Belgium and
Euro-American multinational firms) benefit Congolese first.
Belgian public opinion — which played up Congolese ethnic
differences, infantilized Africans, and in the late 1950s still had a
thirty-year plan for Congolese independence — Lumumba and the
Congolese National Movement’s pronouncements came as a shock.
months after his release from prison, in December 1958, Lumumba was
in Ghana, at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah who had
organized the seminal All Africa People’s Conference. There, as a
number of other African nationalists pushing for political
independence listened, Lumumba declared:
winds of freedom currently blowing across all of Africa have not left
the Congolese people indifferent. Political awareness, which until
very recently was latent, is now becoming manifest and assuming
outward expression, and it will assert itself even more forcefully in
the months to come. We are thus assured of the support of the masses
and of the success of the efforts we are undertaking.
Belgians reluctantly conceded political independence to the
Congolese, and two years later, following a decisive win for the
Congolese National Movement in the first democratic elections,
Lumumba found himself elected to prime minister and with the right to
form a government. A more moderate leader, Joseph Kasavubu, occupied
the mostly ceremonial position of Congolese president.
June 30, 1960, Independence Day, Lumumba gave what is now considered
a timeless speech. The Belgian king, Boudewijn, opened proceedings by
praising the murderous regime of his great-great uncle, Leopold II
(eight million Congolese died during his reign from 1885 to 1908), as
benevolent, highlighted the supposed benefits of colonialism, and
warned the Congolese: “Don’t compromise the future with hasty
reforms.” Kasavubu, predictably, thanked the king.
Lumumba, unscheduled, took the podium. What happened next has become
one of the most recognizable statements of anticolonial defiance and
a postcolonial political program. As the Belgian writer and literary
critic Joris Note later pointed out, the original French text
consisted of no more than 1,167 words. But it covered a lot of
first half of the speech traced an arc from past to future: the
oppression Congolese had to endure together, the end of suffering and
colonialism. The second half mapped out a broad vision and called on
Congolese to unite at the task ahead.
importantly, Congo’s natural resources would benefit its people
first: “We shall see to it that the lands of our native country
truly benefit its children,” said Lumumba, adding that the
challenge was “creating a national economy and ensuring our
economic independence.” Political rights would be reconceived: “We
shall revise all the old laws and make them into new ones that will
be just and noble.”
congressmen and those listening by radio broke out in applause. But
the speech did not sit well with the former colonizers, Western
journalists, nor with multinational mining interests, local comprador
elites (especially Kasavubu and separatist elements in the east of
the country), the United States government (which rejected Lumumba’s
entreaties for help against the reactionary Belgians and the
secessionists, forcing him to turn to the Soviet Union), and even the
interests found a willing accomplice in Lumumba’s comrade: former
journalist and now head of the army Joseph Mobutu. Together they
worked to foment rebellion in the army, stoke unrest, exploit attacks
on whites, create an economic crisis — and eventually kidnap and
CIA had tried to poison him, but eventually settled on local
politicians (and Belgian killers) to do the job. He was captured by
Mobutu’s mutinous army and flown to the secessionist province of
Katanga, where he was tortured, shot, and killed.
the wake of his murder, some of Lumumba’s comrades — most notably
Pierre Mulele, Lumumba’s minister of education — controlled part
of the country and fought on bravely, but was finally crushed by
American and South African mercenaries. (At one point Che Guevara
traveled to Congo on a failed military mission to aid Mulele’s
left Mobutu, under the guise of anticommunism, to declare a
one-party, repressive, and kleptomanic state, and govern, with the
consent of the United States and Western governments, for the next
February 2002, Belgium’s government expressed “its profound and
sincere regrets and its apologies” for Lumumba’s murder,
acknowledging that “some members of the government, and some
Belgian actors at the time, bear an irrefutable part of the
responsibility for the events.”
government commission also heard testimony that “the assassination
could not have been carried out without the complicity of Belgian
officers backed by the CIA, and it concluded that Belgium had a moral
responsibility for the killing.”
today has tremendous semiotic force: he is a social media avatar, a
Twitter meme, and a font for inspirational quotes — a perfect hero
(like Biko), untainted by any real politics. He is even free of the
kind of critiques reserved for figures like Fidel Castro or Thomas
Sankara, who confronted some of the inherent contradictions of their
own regimes through antidemocratic means.
such, Lumumba divides debates over political strategy: he is often
derided as a merely charismatic leader, a good speaker with very
little strategic vision.
example, in the famed Belgian historical fiction writer David van
Reybrouck’s much-praised Congo: An Epic History of a People,
Lumumba is characterized as a poor tactician, unstatesmanlike, and
more interested in rebellion and adulation than governance. He is
faulted for not prioritizing Western interests.
denunciation of the Belgian king in June 1960, for example, only
served to embolden his enemies, argues Van Reybrouck. Lumumba is also
criticized by his Western critics for turning to the Soviet Union
after the United States had spurned him.
as the writer Adam Shatz has argued: “It’s not clear how . . . in
his two and a half months in office, Lumumba could have dealt
differently with a Belgian invasion, two secessionist uprisings, and
a covert American campaign to destabilize his government.”
powerful perhaps is how Lumumba operates unproblematically as a
figure of defiance. As the disappointment with national liberation
movements in Africa (in particular, Algeria, Angola, Zimbabwe,
Mozambique, and more recently South Africa’s African National
Congress) sets in, and new social movements (#OccupyNigeria,
#WalktoWork in Uganda, the more radical #FeesMustFall and struggles
over land, housing, and health care in South Africa) begin to take
shape, references to and images of Patrice Lumumba serve as a call to
Lumumba’s native Congo, ordinary citizens are currently fighting
President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to circumvent the constitution
(his two terms were up in December, but he refused to step down).
Hundreds have been killed by the police and thousands arrested.
Kabila, who inherited the presidency from his father, who overthrew
Mobutu, exploits the weakness of the opposition, especially the power
of ethnicity (via patronage politics) to divide Congolese
politically. In this, Kabila is merely emulating the Belgian
colonists and Mobutu.
Lumumba’s legacy may be helpful. Lumumba’s Congolese National
Movement was the only party offering a national — rather than
ethnic — vision and a means to organize Congolese around a
progressive ideal. Such a movement and such politicians are in short
supply in Congo these days.
Lumumba’s story offers not just an invitation to revisit the
political potential of past movements and currents, but also
opportunities to refrain from projecting too much onto leaders like
Lumumba who had a complicated political life and who did not get to
confront the messiness of postcolonial governance. It also means
treating tragic political leaders as humans. To take seriously
political scientist Adolph Reed Jr’s advice about Malcolm X:
was just like the rest of us — a regular person saddled with
imperfect knowledge, human frailties, and conflicting imperatives,
but nonetheless trying to make sense of his very specific history,
trying unsuccessfully to transcend it, and struggling to push it in a
is perhaps then that we can begin to make true Patrice Lumumba’s
critical wish, perhaps as self reflection, that he wrote in a letter
from prison to his wife in 1960:
day will come when history will speak. But it will not be the history
which will be taught in Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United
Nations. It will be the history which will be taught in the countries
which have won freedom from colonialism and its puppets. Africa will
write its own history and in both north and south it will be a
history of glory and dignity.
>> The article above was written by Sean Jacobs, and is re-printed from International Viewpoint magazine.