Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent nation of the Congo, was born July 2, 1925 in Onalua in Kasai province of the Belgian Congo. With just a primary education, Lumumba emerged to become one of Africa’s most vocal critics of colonialism. Early in life, he developed interests in grassroots union activities and joined the Postal Union. As secretary-general of the union, Lumumba began publishing essays critical of Belgian colonial rule, and advocating independence and a unified centralized Congo. His writings appealed beyond ethnic and regional loyalties to a national constituency.
In 1955, Lumumba became regional leader of the Circle of Stanleyville and joined the Belgian Liberal Party. In 1956, he was arrested and charged with embezzling union funds and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Released after twelve months, Lumumba became sales director of a brewery in Leopoldville. To solidify his political base, in 1957 Lumumba helped found a broad-based organization that appealed beyond ethnic and regional loyalties—Movement National Congolais (MNC). The following year, he represented the MNC at the Pan-African conference in Accra, Ghana.
His relentless attacks on Belgian rule soon fractured the MNC, resulting in leadership split in July 1959. Undaunted, Lumumba insisted on complete dismantling of Belgian rule. In October 1959, he was arrested for allegedly inciting anti-colonial riots and sentenced to six months. Shortly thereafter, the Belgian government summoned a conference in Brussels to discuss the future of the Congo. Confronted by MNC threat of boycott, the government released Lumumba. At Brussels, Lumumba boldly condemned Belgian rule and advocated immediate independence. Convinced of the imminence of Congolese freedom, Belgium set aside June 30, 1960 as Independence Day.
The Movement National Congolais won the majority in the general election held in May, 1960, and Lumumba became Prime Minister of the Congo, with his political rival Joseph Kasavubu as President. Lumumba’s scathing denunciation of colonialism ruffled feathers not only in Belgium but also in the United States and Great Britain. Unfortunately, his tenure was brief and marred in crises. It began with the army revolt and secession in Katanga and Southern Kasai.
When the United Nations ignored his repeated appeals for intervention, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union. This move only strengthened western opposition to his regime. Using the crises as an excuse, Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as Prime Minister. Though reinstated by the National Assembly, Lumumba was subsequently overthrown by Col. Joseph (later Sese Seko) Mobutu, and placed under house arrest. He made the fateful attempt to escape to Stanleyville where his supporter had gained control. He was apprehended by secessionist rebels and assassinated on January 18, 1961.
This heinous crime was a culmination of two inter-related assassination plots by American and Belgian governments, which used Congolese accomplices and a Belgian execution squad to carry out the deed. Ludo De Witte, the Belgian author of the best book on this crime, qualifies it as “the most important assassination of the 20th century”. The assassination’s historical importance lies in a multitude of factors, the most pertinent being the global context in which it took place, its impact on Congolese politics since then and Lumumba’s overall legacy as a nationalist leader.
For 130 years, the US and Belgium have played key roles in shaping Congo’s destiny. In April 1884, seven months before the Berlin Congress, the US became the first country in the world to recognise the claims of King Leopold II of the Belgians to the territories of the Congo Basin.
When the atrocities related to brutal economic exploitation in Leopold’s Congo Free State resulted in millions of fatalities, the US joined other world powers to force Belgium to take over the country as a regular colony. And it was during the colonial period that the US acquired a strategic stake in the enormous natural wealth of the Congo, following its use of the uranium from Congolese mines to manufacture the first atomic weapons, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
In Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on 30 June, 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.
The assassination took place at a time when the country had fallen under four separate governments: the central government in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville); a rival central government by Lumumba’s followers in Kisangani (then Stanleyville); and the secessionist regimes in the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and South Kasai. Since Lumumba’s physical elimination had removed what the west saw as the major threat to their interests in the Congo, internationally-led efforts were undertaken to restore the authority of the moderate and pro-western regime in Kinshasa over the entire country. These resulted in ending the Lumumbist regime in Kisangani in August 1961, the secession of South Kasai in September 1962, and the Katanga secession in January 1963.
Lumumba became a martyr and symbol of Congolese and African freedom. He is remembered today as one of only a handful of African leaders truly dedicated to national unity and genuine independence. In February 2002, responding to a Belgian Commission’s Report that implicated Belgium in Lumumba’s death, the Belgian government acknowledged “moral responsibility” and officially apologized. Lumumba remains an inspiration to African politicians. Several of the major political parties in the 2006 Presidential election in the Congo invoked Lumumba’s legacy.