Content Warning: violence and death
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is only one amongst hundreds of ex-colonies with an especially complex and dark history. Created and designated to the notoriously viscous King Leopold II of the Belgians’ in the second half of the nineteenth century and then passed onto the recently established Belgian government in the early twentieth century, the country saw a variety of external European rule pre-independence. Independence saw the rise and fall of évolué (a native Congolese intellectual, in the European sense of the word), enthusiastic liberationist, and first Prime Minister of the sovereign republic Patrice Lumumba amongst the calamity of decolonisation. Today, Lumumba is best known for his short political life and horrific assassination in which only two teeth remained and were used as evidence of his death and sent to Belgium. In the past year, repatriation claims for that tooth have been agreed upon however there is still ambiguity surrounding it’s return.
During the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885, several European leaders partitioned the continent of Africa amongst themselves. The ancient kingdom of the Kongo was consequentially carved into and a section subsequentially named the Congo Free State was presented to King Leopold II of the Belgians on February 5, 1885. Divided into six provinces – Leopoldville, Équateur, Orientale, Kivu, Kasai, and Katanga – there was little regard for prior social and political boundaries as well as ethnic and linguistic frontiers. Leopold’s hope was to unite a divided Belgium through the anticipated leverage and prestige her colony would provide regardless of the majority of Belgian people having little interest in Empire and most feeling quite dubious about the industry. Private shareholders and corporations were the vanguards of Empire, seeing it as a lucrative business that would benefit their own economic and social status together with the overall state of Belgium. As with most empires, “Leopold discounted the interests of the Africans and ran the immense area to generate revenue for investors,” with special attention on the mineral-rich province of Katanga which was geographically implicated due to its proximity to British Rhodesia – present day Zimbabwe and Zambia – and thus a locus of conflict. With a narrow victory, Leopold secured Katanga which, through privatised mining companies, generated most of the Congo’s profits. Following a series of scandals and investigation into Leopold’s rule in the Congo, the King was condemned for abominable rule alongside growing opposition of the Belgian establishment to his policies and in 1908 he relinquished his fiefdom to the Belgian government.
When Belgium took over, a peculiar protective rule was established and the pact between the state and capitalists persisted. Economic demands were made of the indigenous population who migrated away from their families and homes into European-created cities in order to meet the economic expectations. Though they were provided with living quarters, medical attention, and social environments, these areas were segregated from the white settlers and conducive to what the Belgians thought African life necessitated. This racist and prejudiced attitude moreover ignored the political rights and higher education of the African population. Furthermore, twentieth century tensions between the Flemish and the Walloons in the Congo, and eventually in Belgium, diminished marginally as their perception shifted due to racial theories that situated black people in a different moral space to white people. Urban areas saw the rise of the of African “intellectuals”: the évolués. Critics of colonisation such as Frantz Fanon were extremely cynical of this new class as it was a European intellectuality they were adopting, the epistemology of their oppressors. Fanon called these people the ‘national bourgeoise’: those who lived in,
“a curious world where they were native and foreign… [and] somehow associated with their oppressor, although they hoped for a nonsegregated society.”
After World War II a wave of decolonisation swept across the entire continent, coinciding with the Cold War, American exceptionalism, and colonial dissolution. However, the European view was that Africans might take over but dependency on old colonial governments had a certain plausibility. Politically active Congolese under Belgian rule were labelled nationalists and debated the future of the Congo, but nothing of how it should be run solidified. The two most popular parties formed were the Alliance de Bakongo (ABAKO) under Joseph Kasavubu and the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) under Patrice Lumumba.
Founded in 1958, the MNC’s approach to independence was splintered across the country, popular with people from various ethnicities, and the strength of nationalism was associated with the personal appeal of Lumumba himself. A controversial figure within and outside the Congo, Lumumba was an évolué, multi-lingual orator, and national diplomat who understood and articulated the demands of the wider public as well as a volatile, flamboyant, and impulsive character who was outspoken and was predicted to ‘make the blood of whites boil’ by critics. Europeans – and later Americans – reacted negatively to him, finding his nationalism too assertive, his tactical movements too unpredictable, and his regard for Western prerogatives too constrained. Lumumba’s theories were promising, yet he and his accomplices had neither the apparatus nor the experience to run a country. Following several round-table meetings with Belgian officials which set the precedent for the future political system of the Congo, the country’s first elections on lasting from 11 May to 25 May saw the MNC win majority vote and consequentially Lumumba to be Prime Minister from the 30 June 1960, but not without hurdles. Belgian authorities attempted to block Lumumba’s ascension to protect Western interest, but their efforts were overruled by the Congolese Parliament.
Lumumba’s fall was imminent and can be condensed to two reasons: the first being the hostility of the Belgians along with their Western allies towards him and the second was the people’s disappointment in their expectations of independence. In the tumultuous months that followed – which included an army uprising, Belgian forces interference, imposition by Cold War politics and a fateful plea to the United Nations (UN) for regulatory aid – the United States (US) and Belgium both instituted assassination plots which used Congolese accomplices to perform the deed. Assassination was adopted as a major foreign policy tool by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) against nationalist leaders considered to be anti-Western, it was a solution for a manipulated question of protection of interests which President Kennedy agreed to uninterested about the means that were used. Lumumba was captured on 1 December, denied UN protection and was transferred to multiple destinations where he was imprisoned and tortured. Even behind bars, Lumumba’s effect on his followers were strengthening as his party continued to accumulate support across the country. These developments were of increasing concern to US and Belgian officials who elaborated a conspiracy in collaboration with his Congolese enemies to finally kill him. Since the US had limited ability to operate on the ground, the assassination was assumed by the Belgians who structured the act in a chain from Brussels to the Belgian non-commissioned officers in Katanga. On 17 January 1961 Lumumba was severely beaten on the plane to Katanga, shot on ground, and his body was mutilated and dissolved in sulfuric acid.
Belgium is the only actor that has recognised its responsibility in Lumumba’s death, though only forty years later after the government was asked to comment on the publication of Belgian author Ludo De Witte’s book The Assassination of Lumumba. Though far from satisfactory, it is marginally better than the silence from the UN and the hypocrisy from the US. Recent news has reported that in 2020, what remained of Lumumba held in Belgium is planned to return to his children and further restored to Congo however the restitution has been postponed due to the coronavirus and has recently been delayed from 17 January 2022 to 30 June 2022. Reconciliation has often been used as self-congratulatory occasions for previous empirical nations so hopefully this case will be unique with genuine accountability of colonial violence that led to the assassination, its coverup and the recognition of damage to the Congo state which subsequentially assured instability and unrest.
Written by Megan Sickmueller
Gerard, Emmanuel. ‘Chapter 1: The Congo of the Belgians’ Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. Patrice Lumumba. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014.