He died to live forever — I

Patrice Émery Lumumba was a charismatic Congolese politician and independence leader

He died to live forever — I

“I am not a communist. The colonialists have campaigned against me throughout the country because I am a revolutionary and demand the abolition of the colonial regime, which ignored our human dignity. They look upon me as a communist because I refused to be bribed by the imperialists.” (From an interview to a France-Soir correspondent on July 22, 1960)

“We are neither communists, nor Catholics or socialists. We are African nationalists. We reserve the right to choose our friends in accordance with the principle of positive neutrality.”


atrice Émery Lumumba was a charismatic Congolese politician and independence leader who served as the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from June until September 1960, when he was unceremoniously deposed and later executed by a firing squad on January 17, 1961 with the tacit backing of the former colonial power, Belgium. His body was then buried in a shallow grave, dug up, transported 200 kilometres, interred again, exhumed, and then hacked to pieces. It was eventually dissolved in sulfuric acid. Anything that remained was set on fire.

The Belgian police commissioner, Gerard Soete, who oversaw and participated in the destruction of the remains of Lumumba’s body, took a tooth and two fingers. Soete, in a documentary in 1999, revealed about the tooth and fingers of Lumumba which he took as “a type of hunting trophy”.

According to the BBC correspondent, Damian Zane, “the language suggests that for Belgian policeman, Lumumba who was revered across the continent as a leading voice of African liberation was less than human.” For Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana, “the question was whether the perpetrators were human.” The information provided above warrants the biographical sketch of a man who is our protagonist for this column.

Patrice Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925, to Julienne Wamato Lomendja and her husband, François Tolenga Otetshima, a farmer, in Onalua, in the Katakokombe region of the Kasai province of the Belgian Congo. He was a member of the Tetela ethnic group. He had three brothers (Charles Lokolonga, Émile Kalema, and Louis Onema Pene Lumumba) and one half-brother (Jean Tolenga).

Raised in a Catholic family, he was educated at a Protestant primary school, a Catholic missionary school and finally the government post office training school, where he passed the one-year course with distinction. He was known for being a vocal, precocious young man, regularly pointing out the errors of his teachers in front of his peers, often to their chagrin. This outspoken nature would come to define his life and career. Lumumba spoke Tetela, French, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba.

Outside of his regular studies, Lumumba took an interest in the Enlightenment ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. He was also fond of Molière and Victor Hugo. He wrote poetry, and many of his works had anti-imperialist themes. He worked as a travelling beer salesman in Léopoldville and as a postal clerk in a Stanleyville post office for eleven years.

In 1951, he married Pauline Opangu. In the period following the World War II, young leaders across Africa increasingly worked for national goals and independence from the colonial powers. In 1952, he was hired to work as a personal assistant for French sociologist Pierre Clément, who was performing a study of Stanleyville. That year he also co-founded and subsequently became president of a Stanleyville chapter of the Association des Anciens élèves des pères de Scheut (ADAPÉS), an alumni association for former students at Scheut schools. In 1955, Lumumba became regional head of the Cercles of Stanleyville and joined the Liberal Party of Belgium.

Lumumba helped found the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) party on October 5, 1958, and quickly became the organisation’s leader. The MNC, unlike other Congolese parties developing at the time, did not draw on a particular ethnic base. It promoted a platform that included independence, gradual Africanisation of the government, state-led economic development and neutrality in foreign affairs.

Lumumba had a large popular following due to his personal charisma, excellent oratory and ideological sophistication. As a result, he had more political autonomy than many contemporaries who were more dependent on Belgian connections. Lumumba was one of the delegates who represented the MNC at the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra, Ghana, in December 1958.

At this international conference, hosted by Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, Lumumba further solidified his pan-Africanist beliefs. Nkrumah was personally impressed by Lumumba’s intelligence and ability. In late October 1959, Lumumba, as leader of the MNC, was arrested for inciting an anti-colonial riot in Stanleyville; 30 people were killed. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

The decades old question of how Patrice Lumumba, died—and the related questions of who killed him and why—have finally been answered. The involvement of the CIA and the MI6 has been proven beyond any doubt. During the Cold War era, regime change operations were coupled with the execution of the leaders trying to pursue independent policies at home and abroad. Lumumba was no exception.

Congo’s transition from a Belgian colony to an independent country occurred against the backdrop of the larger decolonisation movement in Africa. It also occurred at a time when the international political climate was dominated by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (and their respective allies).

In Congo, 1960 was an eventful year. The country had achieved independence from Belgium on June 30. At the handover of power, Belgian King Baudouin praised the colonial administration and spoke about his ancestor, Léopold II, his great granduncle as the “civiliser” of the country.

Independence Day was celebrated on June 30, 1960 in a ceremony attended by many dignitaries, including King Baudouin of Belgium and the foreign press. Baudouin’s speech praised the developments under colonialism, his reference to the “genius” of Leopold II of Belgium, glossing over atrocities committed during his reign over the Congo Free State.

There was no mention of the millions who died or were brutalised under his reign when he ruled what was then known as the Congo Free State as his personal property. This failure to acknowledge the past foreshadowed years of denial in Belgium, which it has only now begun to come to terms with.

Lumumba was not so reticent. Lumumba, who had not been scheduled to speak, delivered an impromptu speech that reminded the audience that the independence of the Congo had not been granted magnanimously by Belgium:

“For this independence of the Congo, although being proclaimed today by agreement with Belgium, an amicable country, with which we are on equal terms, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.”

Most European journalists were shocked by the stridency of Lumumba’s speech. The Western media condemned him. Time magazine described his speech as a “venomous attack”. In the West, many feared that the speech was a call to arms that would revive Belgian-Congolese hostilities and plunge the former Belgian colony into chaos.

Patrice Lumumba was a figure of cardinal importance in Congo’s struggle for independence. He advocated for a strong centralised government, was prime minister in a fragile government of compromise that had Joseph Kasavubu, who favoured greater autonomy for Congo’s provinces, as president.

To carry out reforms, it is always vital to have a strong centralised government. Almost immediately after independence, the new government was faced with an army mutiny, which was soon followed by the secession of the strategic mineral-rich province of Katanga, led by Moise Tshombe, another Congolese leader who disagreed with Lumumba’s politics.

Later, it was found out through the declassified documents that the opposition to Lumumba was sponsored by American and British intelligence. Besides, Belgium sent troops ostensibly to protect Belgian nationals in Congo through the unrest, but the Belgian troops landed principally in Katanga, where they sustained Tshombe’s secessionist regime and secured access to its mineral resources.

The government appealed to the United Nations (UN) for assistance, and, although peacekeeping troops were sent to Congo, they did not intervene in Katanga province and did not raise alarm. Both countries supported the Congolese parties who wanted to eliminate Lumumba.

(To be continued)

The writer is Professor   in the faculty of   Liberal Arts at the    Beaconhouse National   University, Lahore.   He can be reached at   tahir.kamran@bnu.edu.pk

He died to live forever — I