Patrice Emery Lumumba was the first Prime-Minister of the Republic of Congo. He took office in June 1960 and lost power in September 1960. His reign was short, but his impact endures till today and many Congolese remember him with painful nostalgia. His attempt to make his country free from the influence and domination of Western powers, especially the United States and Belgium, put him into the crossfire of international politics at the height of the Cold War.
When he sought help from the Soviet Union, the principal opponent of the West, the United States interpreted the move as enemy action. President John F Kennedy of the United States reportedly gave the go-ahead to the Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, to plot Lumumba’s downfall and possible assassination. Lumumba was born in Wenbonya, a village in the Central Kasai Province of the Congo. He had only elementary formal education attending both Catholic and Protestant schools, but he was a precocious child who through home studies soon got introduced into liberal and radical thinkers of the Western world such as Karl Marx and Jean-Paul Sartre.
After his elementary school, he joined the service of the Belgian colonial government, first as a filing clerk and later worked in the post office where he rose to the post of assistant postmaster. He soon became interested in the Congolese agitation for independence from Belgium, joining intellectual groups and he began to contribute to radical journals and newspapers. In 1967, Lumumba moved from the provincial capital of Stanleyville to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) the country’s capital where he took up a job in a brewery. His movement into the capital city put him in the epicentre of agitation for the country’s independence. In October 1958, he joined others to form the Movement National Congolais, MNC, the first truly national political party in the country.
The small Congolese educated elites were aware of events across the country and they were especially influenced by the great Ghanaian leader, Dr Kwame Nkrumah who had led his country into independence in 1957. In December 1958, Lumumba met his hero in Accra when Nkrumah hosted the All African People’s Conference. When he returned, he told a mass rally that he was determined to lead his people to freedom. He declared: “Independence is not a gift to be given by Belgium but a fundamental right of the Congolese people.”From that point on, Lumumba became part of the larger Pan-African Movement with Nkrumah at the epicentre of it. With social unrest and riot, Belgium was forced to grant independence to the Congo on June 20, 1960.
Lumumba became the first prime minister and one of his rivals, Joseph Kasavubu, became the President. At the Independence Day ceremony, Lumumba and the King of Belgium, Bandouin, clashed over the king’s arrogant pronouncement when he advised the new government not to “compromise the future with hasty reforms and replace organisations which Belgium is handing over to you until you are sure of being able to do better.”Lumumba responded by reminding the king that Belgian rule was a disaster for the Congo. Said he: “No Congolese will ever forget that independence has been gained by a struggle paid in tears, fire and blood. The wounds are too fresh and painful, after 80 years of colonial government, for us to drive them from our memories.”
From that point on, Lumumba became a marked man. At independence, Congo was a deeply divided country. The largest party, Lumumba’s MNC, had only 37 seats in the National Parliament of 137 members. The next to it was Kasavubu’s ABAKO which had only 12 seats. There are more than 300 major ethnic groups in the Congo. Most of the parties were based on ethnic groups and each did not have more than one or two members in the Parliament. It was apparent that the Congo was pregnant with trouble. During the colonial period, Belgium had deliberately kept the Congo backwards and therefore there were few Western-educated elites. At independence in 1960, the country had no higher institution. It had only one engineer, no doctor, no lawyer, no architect and only a few teachers and journalists. The symbol of Belgian power was the Force Publique, the military of 24,000 African soldiers and 1,000 Belgian officers. The highest-ranking African in the Force Publique, was a Sergeant-Major Desire Mobutu, a former journalist.
Five days after Independence, the African soldiers in Force Publique, revolted against their Belgian officers, forcing the new Prime-Minister to seek international help. Belgium sent troops. A few days later on July 11, Moise Tshombe, a provincial leader, declared the independence of the mineral-rich province of Katanga, with the suspected backing of the powerful European mining companies. Lumumba sought help from the United Nations and the UN sent troops. Ghana too sent troops. It was a rough start for a young government. But the storm was yet to come. On September 5, 1960, President Kasavubu dismissed the Prime-Minister from office and Lumumba retaliated by dismissing Kasavubu from office. The Congolese Parliament later met and cancelled both dismissals, but the sword had been drawn.
Meanwhile, when the UN peacekeeping contingent would not obey his orders, Lumumba sought help from the Soviet Union. The UN in response closed all Congolese airports and placed the Prime-Minister under protective house arrest in Leopoldville. On September 14, Mobutu announced that the military had taken over power temporarily. The old Force Publique was now reconstituted as Armee Nationale Congolaise. Mobutu announced his promotion to Commander-in-Chief of the new body. He gave himself the rank of colonel. He was believed to have the backing of Belgium and of the United States who were looking for a bulwark against Russian influence.
On November 27, Lumumba escaped from his UN guards and secretly boarded a plane for the Orientale Province where his deputy, Antoine Gizenga, had set up a rival regime in Stanleyville, the provincial capital. It was believed that Lumumba was tricked to run. Lumumba was captured with his wife and three of his leading supporters and handed over to Mobutu. The Prime-Minister was beaten and tortured and later detained in Thysville.On February 13, 1961, Lumumba was tried by his captors and executed with his three companions. He and his fellow victims were buried in an unmarked grave.
His death strengthened the Kasavubu-Mobutu alliance which ultimately led to the great tragedy for the Congo which Mobutu, who was to rule the country for many decades, renamed Zaire. The assassination of Lumumba was viewed as a great tragedy for Africa. The Soviet Union, in appreciation of Lumumba international stature, named a university in his honour, the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University in Moscow. His assassination continues to have an effect on the Congo till today which even more than 60 years after, still suffers from the effect of that tragedy. Since then, the Congo has been the theatre of civil wars, social upheavals, assassinations and unending conflicts.
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