The assassination of Patrice Lumumba

12 February 2014 | ResolutionPossible

Our third blog in the DRC series concentrates on Congo’s independence and the assassination of Congo’s first legally elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. His assassination is regarded as the most significant of its kind in the 20th century, and Lumumba’s legacy is considered still prevalent in the country.

Patrice Lumumba, Congo, DRC

Patrice Lumumba – the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo. [Image via]

Lumumba was born on the 2nd July in 1925 in Onalua; a small village in the region of Katako-Kombe and belonged to the Tetela ethnic group – a small tribe – which played a fundamental factor in Lumumba’s ideological development. He received his education at primary school before spending time immersed within an ideology of white supremacy with Belgian Catholic and Methodist missionaries. Prevalent in the southern states of the US, the ideology was imposed on the missionaries and wider Congolese people who were considered too weak to contest such colonial repression. Lumumba went on to pursue a career as a bureaucrat in Kisangani (then Stanleyville) which laid the foundations for his well-known characteristics – moral and intellectual integrity and immovability on points of principle.

The influence of Belgium and the US

Belgium and the US had long played key roles in shaping Congo’s political behaviours, and when the atrocities related to the 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. During this time, the US gained a strategic stake in the country’s vast natural-resource wealth and in particular, uranium, used in the manufacture of nuclear bombs.

The Cold War and Independence

With the Cold War, the independence of Congo presented challenges to the US and its Western allies. In May 1960, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) party, led by Lumumba, won the party elections and the party appointed him Prime Minister. While much literature points to Lumumba as a popularly elected Prime Minister, his party only received 25% of the vote. Subsequently he was met with a breakdown of order, with an army revolt and the return of secessionist groups. However, despite the tenuousness of the government, Lumumba was intent on using the power he gained to preserve the political state the Belgians had put together from the various tribal groups that make up the population of Congo, now DRC. Lumumba was one of few election candidates who advocated maintaining national unity.

Lumumba was a controversial figure during this time of change and turmoil, largely due to his ideology and well-founded criticisms of colonial racism. He believed that another world was possible, despite being conditioned to the system of apartheid practiced in Belgian Congo. His determination to achieve genuine independence and have full control over Congo’s resources in order to utilise them to improve living conditions for the country’s people was perceived as a threat to Western interests. It was anticipated this could lead to a situation whereby the country’s invaluable resources could fall into enemy hands as Lumumba allied the Congo with the Soviet Union. The widely believed story tells us that the US, with support from the UN Secretariat, was able to buy the support of Lumumba’s Congolese rivals and organised his assassination for the 17 January, 1961. However, in 2013, a senior British politician claimed that MI6 were involved – although it is not clear on the extent. While the British nor US directly killed Lumumba, they organised the handing over of the Prime Minister to a secessionist group whom they knew would kill him.

Lumumba’s legacy

Lumumba’s death presented a challenge to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that the Prime Minister championed, and destroyed the hope of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity. Following his death, internationally led efforts were undertaken to restore the authority of the moderate and pro-western regime over the entire country.

The greatest legacy that Lumumba left for Congo is the idea of national unity. Not long after his assassination a second independence uprising occurred to contest the neo-colonial state in Kinshasa and its Western leaders. The movement brought together peasants, workers, the urban unemployed and students who found leadership among the former lieutenants of Lumumba, of which the majority had reformed to create the Conseil National de Liberation (CNL) in October 1963.  This aspiration for unity is reflected by the organisations’ dedication to a radical programme of change to satisfy the aspirations of the Congolese people for democracy and social progress. However, despite this positive rhetoric, there has been little action.

We will look at the current situation in the DRC as our series continues. If you want to explore the history of the country further, visit our DRC page.

ResPoss asks:

Why do you think Lumumba faced challenges and resistance from his own people – do you think he was an idealist?

Where might DRC and the rest of Africa be had Lumumba not been assassinated?

What do you think are the main barriers for the DRC in achieving a peaceful democracy and social progress?

Contributing writer/research: Megan Setchell 

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