Patrice Lumumba – “A Man of the People”

PL color“Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity.”

 

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.patrice-lumumba-bet

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.

 

The Stranger by Albert Camus

“He wanted to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I only had a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.”

 
Albert Camus was a French-Algerian writer best known for his absurdist works, including The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Camus started his involvement in political activities during his student years, joining first the Communist Party and then the Algerian People’s Party. As a champion of individual rights, he opposed French colonization and argued for the empowerment of Algerians in politics and labour.

“The Stranger”, or sometimes translated as “The Outsider”,  is considered the best at highlighting Albert Camus’ philosophies towards life of absurdism and existentialism. The story has two parts. It follows Meursault, the main character, before and after he commits a murder.  The philosophical contemplations are embodied by Meursault, a pied-noir office worker, who appears as a blank canvas, barren of any real emotions.

 

The novel opens with the news that Meursault’s mother has died – something that he greets with his usual indifference – and goes on to describe his lack of grief at the funeral, and his subsequent relationship with Marie, a young woman he takes to the cinema the day after the funeral. Later, when he is befriended by Raymond, a man of dubious character, Meursault is drawn into obnoxiousness, which ends with his murdering an Arab. The second half of the novel is concerned with Meursault’s subsequent trial and incarceration and, more significantly, his awakening to the absurdity of life, and his passage, in the full knowledge of death, into authentic existence.

 

The Stranger touches on a number of philosophical schools of thought, and Camus borrows from his forbears, notably Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Even though Camus claimed not to be an existentialist, Meursault undoubtedly embodies the existential spirit; he recognises that life is limited to this world and that death, the fate common to all mankind, is inevitable and final.

By embracing authentic existence, Meursault sets himself apart as the outsider. Meursault’s most striking characteristic is his strict adherence to truth; he lives without motive, with a complete congruence between his thoughts and actions. In perfectly embodying one of society’s moral ideals, he causes friction between himself and an hypocritical society who cannot themselves achieve the standards they set. That Meursault will not make concessions, will not bring comfort to others by buying into the illusion, is the true cause of his condemnation.

 

There are philosophical works that offer a deeper and fuller discussion of the human condition, and The Stranger can feel a little lightweight. However, the novel is so luminously constructed, the ideas presented in such an accessible and immaculate form, that it is indisputably one of the very best introductions to existentialism and the ideas surrounding absurdism and authenticity.

The enduring appeal of this work can be attested by the continuous disconnection that we as individual have with norms impose by society. The world that Meursault inhabits is a strange version of our own, and his attitude, his disconnect from society, still strikes a chord.

The Battle of Algiers- “The Revolt that Stirred the World”

The re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 black-and-white film The Battle of Algiers, recreating France’s suppression of the 1950s Algerian uprising, is an extraordinary experience. Granted, the audio dubbing of gunfire sounds a bit rickety now, and the way the intertitles switch between Italian and French is eccentric, but everything else makes this a newer-than-new release. It is of its time in many ways, yet somehow more extreme, and more contemporary, than anything else around. Famously, the Pentagon arranged a special in-house screening in 2003, evidently fascinated by exactly the same qualities that have mesmerised the movie’s followers elsewhere: its icy candour on the subjects of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and the vital importance of torture in eliciting information. Those torture scenes are laid out in montage for us without any self-conscious emotional affect or drama; they include blowtorching the suspect’s naked torso, waterboarding, and clipping electrodes to the earlobes before hand-cranking the voltage. These scenes are presented without any of the internal humanising or dramatising conflict that would be considered vital now: they do indeed look almost like a military training film. Another sort of director, possessed of a more conventional liberal scruple, might have felt the need to show a torturer’s inner pain or the torturee’s hidden backstory. But Pontecorvo shows them in terms of strategy.

The anti-hero is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, the paratroop commander entrusted by the French government with putting down the Algerian revolt. He is a tough, wiry professional soldier of the sort adoringly imagined by Frederick Forsyth: a veteran of the French Resistance who shrugs his shoulders at any possible irony. He is the centrepiece to the most remarkable sequence, captured on the film’s poster. At the head of his troops, he simply leads a triumphalist, introductory parade down the main street, to reassure loyal citizens that the French army will crush the terrorists – and to face down the terrorists themselves. He strides easily, casually, with no sidearm on show, utterly confident in the power of the spectacle he has created. With his fatigues, beret and faintly sinister sunglasses, he looks like a cross between a top para in Northern Ireland and an IRA chief. Mathieu’s face moves in and out of shadow on this sunny day: the result of the natural light that Pontecorvo is using, and integral to his “newsreel” effect.

The French authorities first license a covert bomb attack in the casbah – “state terrorism” before the phrase was invented – but then, under Mathieu, they embark on a disciplined campaign of isolating terrorist cells, torturing them for the names of operatives further up the pyramid-chain until the key figures at the top are obliterated. No nonsense about hearts and minds: this is a military solution to a military problem. “The culprits are presumed to be Muslim …” Mathieu crisply briefs his men, and a 2007 audience holds its breath. “… so they will be able to hide more easily in the Arab quarters.” This film was composed in an era when Islamic identity was not as important as it is today: there are no mosques, no religion here. Then the keyword was “Arab” and it easy to forget that as recently as the first Iraq war in 1991, the question was whether a putative brotherhood of Arab nations would support Saddam. Mathieu’s campaign is crowned with Pyrrhic victory.

The terrorists are beaten, but a later popular uprising drives the French out, precisely as Mathieu had enigmatically appeared to predict, using Dien Bien Phu as his benchmark: the Indo-Chinese imperial burden which the French fatefully handed on to the Americans. Whatever they made of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon, this is a must-see for everyone else now.