The Long Shadow of Patrice Lumumba's Assassination
Source Dave Anderson
Date 11/01/17/22:54
An Assassination’s Long Shadow

TODAY, millions of people on another continent are observing the 50th
anniversary of an event few Americans remember, the assassination of
Patrice Lumumba. A slight, goateed man with black, half-framed
glasses, the 35-year-old Lumumba was the first democratically chosen
leader of the vast country, nearly as large as the United States east
of the Mississippi, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This treasure house of natural resources had been a colony of Belgium,
which for decades had made no plans for independence. But after
clashes with Congolese nationalists, the Belgians hastily arranged the
first national election in 1960, and in June of that year King
Baudouin arrived to formally give the territory its freedom.

“It is now up to you, gentlemen,” he arrogantly told Congolese
dignitaries, “to show that you are worthy of our confidence.”

The Belgians, and their European and American fellow investors,
expected to continue collecting profits from Congo’s factories,
plantations and lucrative mines, which produced diamonds, gold,
uranium, copper and more. But they had not planned on Lumumba.

A dramatic, angry speech he gave in reply to Baudouin brought
Congolese legislators to their feet cheering, left the king startled
and frowning and caught the world’s attention. Lumumba spoke
forcefully of the violence and humiliations of colonialism, from the
ruthless theft of African land to the way that French-speaking
colonists talked to Africans as adults do to children, using the
familiar “tu” instead of the formal “vous.” Political independence was
not enough, he said; Africans had to also benefit from the great
wealth in their soil.

With no experience of self-rule and an empty treasury, his huge
country was soon in turmoil. After failing to get aid from the United
States, Lumumba declared he would turn to the Soviet Union. Thousands
of Belgian officials who lingered on did their best to sabotage
things: their code word for Lumumba in military radio transmissions
was “Satan.” Shortly after he took office as prime minister, the
C.I.A., with White House approval, ordered his assassination and
dispatched an undercover agent with poison.

The would-be poisoners could not get close enough to Lumumba to do the
job, so instead the United States and Belgium covertly funneled cash
and aid to rival politicians who seized power and arrested the prime
minister. Fearful of revolt by Lumumba’s supporters if he died in
their hands, the new Congolese leaders ordered him flown to the
copper-rich Katanga region in the country’s south, whose secession
Belgium had just helped orchestrate. There, on Jan. 17, 1961, after
being beaten and tortured, he was shot. It was a chilling moment that
set off street demonstrations in many countries.

As a college student traveling through Africa on summer break, I was
in Léopoldville (today’s Kinshasa), Congo’s capital, for a few days
some six months after Lumumba’s murder. There was an air of tension
and gloom in the city, jeeps full of soldiers were on patrol, and the
streets quickly emptied at night. Above all, I remember the
triumphant, macho satisfaction with which two young American Embassy
officials — much later identified as C.I.A. men — talked with me over
drinks about the death of someone they regarded not as an elected
leader but as an upstart enemy of the United States.

Some weeks before his death, Lumumba had briefly escaped from house
arrest and, with a small group of supporters, tried to flee to the
eastern Congo, where a counter-government of his sympathizers had
formed. The travelers had to traverse the Sankuru River, after which
friendly territory began. Lumumba and several companions crossed the
river in a dugout canoe to commandeer a ferry to go back and fetch the
rest of the group, including his wife and son.

But by the time they returned to the other bank, government troops
pursuing them had arrived. According to one survivor, Lumumba’s famous
eloquence almost persuaded the soldiers to let them go. Events like
this are often burnished in retrospect, but however the encounter
happened, Lumumba seems to have risked his life to try to rescue the
others, and the episode has found its way into film and fiction.

His legend has only become deeper because there is painful newsreel
footage of him in captivity, soon after this moment, bound tightly
with rope and trying to retain his dignity while being roughed up by
his guards.

Patrice Lumumba had only a few short months in office and we have no
way of knowing what would have happened had he lived. Would he have
stuck to his ideals or, like too many African independence leaders,
abandoned them for the temptations of wealth and power? In any event,
leading his nation to the full economic autonomy he dreamed of would
have been an almost impossible task. The Western governments and
corporations arrayed against him were too powerful, and the resources
in his control too weak: at independence his new country had fewer
than three dozen university graduates among a black population of more
than 15 million, and only three of some 5,000 senior positions in the
civil service were filled by Congolese.

A half-century later, we should surely look back on the death of
Lumumba with shame, for we helped install the men who deposed and
killed him. In the scholarly journal Intelligence and National
Security, Stephen R. Weissman, a former staff director of the House
Subcommittee on Africa, recently pointed out that Lumumba’s violent
end foreshadowed today’s American practice of “extraordinary
rendition.” The Congolese politicians who planned Lumumba’s murder
checked all their major moves with their Belgian and American backers,
and the local C.I.A. station chief made no objection when they told
him they were going to turn Lumumba over — render him, in today’s
parlance — to the breakaway government of Katanga, which, everyone
knew, could be counted on to kill him.

Still more fateful was what was to come. Four years later, one of
Lumumba’s captors, an army officer named Joseph Mobutu, again with
enthusiastic American support, staged a coup and began a disastrous,
32-year dictatorship. Just as geopolitics and a thirst for oil have
today brought us unsavory allies like Saudi Arabia, so the cold war
and a similar lust for natural resources did then. Mobutu was showered
with more than $1 billion in American aid and enthusiastically
welcomed to the White House by a succession of presidents; George H.
W. Bush called him “one of our most valued friends.”

This valued friend bled his country dry, amassed a fortune estimated
at $4 billion, jetted the world by rented Concorde and bought himself
an array of grand villas in Europe and multiple palaces and a yacht at
home. He let public services shrivel to nothing and roads and railways
be swallowed by the rain forest. By 1997, when he was overthrown and
died, his country was in a state of wreckage from which it has not yet

Since that time the fatal combination of enormous natural riches and
the dysfunctional government Mobutu left has ignited a long,
multisided war that has killed huge numbers of Congolese or forced
them from their homes. Many factors cause a war, of course, especially
one as bewilderingly complex as this one. But when visiting eastern
Congo some months ago, I could not help but think that one thread
leading to the human suffering I saw begins with the assassination of

We will never know the full death toll of the current conflict, but
many believe it to be in the millions. Some of that blood is on our
hands. Both ordering the murders of apparent enemies and then
embracing their enemies as “valued friends” come with profound,
long-term consequences — a lesson worth pondering on this anniversary.

Adam Hochschild is the author of “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of
Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa” and the forthcoming “To
End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.”

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