Patrice Émery Lumumba (2 July 1925 – 17 January 1961) was a Congolese independence leader and the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo after he helped win its independence from Belgium in June 1960. Only twelve weeks later, Lumumba’s government was deposed in a coup orchestrated by Belgium and supported by the United States. He was subsequently imprisoned and executed by firing squad, an act that was committed with the assistance of the governments of Belgium and the United States, for which only the Belgian government officially apologized in 2002
Lumumba was born in Onalua in the Katakokombe region of the Kasai province of the Belgian Congo, a member of the Tetela ethnic group. Raised in a Catholic family as one of four sons, he was educated at a Protestant primary school, a Catholic missionary school, and finally the government post office training school, passing the one-year course with distinction. He subsequently worked in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and Stanleyville (now Kisangani) as a postal clerk and as a travelling beer salesman. In 1951, he married Pauline Opangu. In 1955, Lumumba became regional head of the Cercles of Stanleyville and joined the Liberal Party of Belgium, where he worked on editing and distributing party literature. After traveling on a three-week study tour in Belgium, he was arrested in 1955 on politically motivated charges of embezzlement of post office funds. His two-year sentence was commuted to twelve months after it was confirmed by Belgian lawyer Jules Chrome that Lumumba had returned the funds, and he was released in July 1956. After his release, he helped found the broad-based Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) in 1958, later becoming the organization’s president. Lumumba and his team represented the MNC at the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra, Ghana, in December 1958. At this international conference, hosted by influential Pan-African President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Lumumba further solidified his Pan-Africanist beliefs.
In late October 1959, Lumumba as leader of the MNC was again arrested for allegedly inciting an anti-colonial riot in Stanleyville where thirty people were killed, for which he was sentenced to six months in prison. The trial’s start date of 18 January 1960, was also the first day of a round-table conference in Brussels to finalize the future of the Congo. Despite Lumumba’s imprisonment at the time, the MNC won a convincing majority in the December local elections in the Congo. As a result of pressure from delegates who were enraged at Lumumba’s imprisonment, he was released and allowed to attend the Brussels conference. The conference culminated on January 27 with a declaration of Congolese independence setting June 30, 1960, as the independence date with national elections from 11–25 May 1960. Lumumba and the MNC won this election and the right to form a government, with the announcement on 23 June 1960 of 34-year-old Lumumba as Congo’s first prime minister and Joseph Kasa-Vubu as its president. In accordance with the constitution, on 24 June the new government passed a vote of confidence and was ratified by the Congolese Chamber and Senate.
Independence Day was celebrated on June 30 in a ceremony attended by many dignitaries including King Baudouin and the foreign press. Lumumba delivered his famous independence speech after being officially excluded from the event programme, despite being the new prime minister.The speech of Belgian King Baudouin praised developments under colonialism, his reference to the “genius” of his great-granduncle Leopold II of Belgium glossing over atrocities committed during the Congo Free State.The King continued, “Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms, and don’t replace the structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better… Don’t be afraid to come to us. We will remain by your side, give you advice.” Lumumba responded by reminding the audience that the independence of the Congo was not granted magnanimously by Belgium:
For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.
In contrast to the relatively harmless speech of President Kasa-Vubu, Lumumba’s reference to the suffering of the Congolese under Belgian colonialism stirred the crowd while simultaneously humiliating and alienating the King and his entourage. Some media claimed at the time that he ended his speech by ad-libbing, Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques! (We are no longer your monkeys!) –referring to a common slur used against Africans by Belgians, however, these words are neither in his written text nor in radio tapes of his speech.Lumumba was later harshly criticised for what many in the Western world—but virtually none in Africa—described as the inappropriate nature of his speech.
A few days after Congo gained its independence, Lumumba made the fateful decision to raise the pay of all government employees except for the army. Many units of the army also had strong objections toward the uniformly Belgian officers; General Janssens, the army head, told them their lot would not change after independence, and they rebelled in protest. The rebellions quickly spread throughout the country, leading to a general breakdown in law and order. Although the trouble was highly localized, the country seemed to be overrun by gangs of soldiers and looters, causing a media sensation, particularly over Europeans fleeing the country.
The province of Katanga declared independence under regional premier Moïse Tshombe on 11 July 1960 with support from the Belgian government and mining companies such as Union Minière. Despite the arrival of UN troops, unrest continued. Since the United Nations refused to help suppress the rebellion in Katanga, Lumumba sought Soviet aid in the form of arms, food, medical supplies, trucks, and planes to help move troops to Katanga. Lumumba’s decisive actions alarmed his colleagues and President Kasa-Vubu, who preferred a more moderate political approach.
In September, under presure from Belgium the President dismissed Lumumba from government. Lumumba immediately protested the legality of the President’s actions. In retaliation, Lumumba declared Kasa-Vubu deposed and won a vote of confidence in the Senate, while the newly appointed prime minister failed to gain parliament’s confidence. The country was torn by two political groups claiming legal power over the country. On 14 September, a coup d’état organised by Colonel Joseph Mobutu incapacitated both Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu. Lumumba was placed under house arrest at the prime minister’s residence, UN troops were positioned around the house to silence him. Nevertheless, Lumumba decided to rouse his supporters in Haut-Congo. Smuggled out of his residence at night, he escaped to Stanleyville, where he attempted to set up his own government and army. Pursued by troops loyal to Mobutu he was finally captured in Port Francqui on 1 December 1960 and flown to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in ropes not handcuffs. He desperately appealed to local UN troops to save him, but under the influence of western powers they refused. Mobutu said Lumumba would be tried for inciting the army to rebellion and other crimes. United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld made an appeal to Kasa-Vubu asking that Lumumba be treated according to due process of law. The USSR denounced Hammarskjöld and the Western powers as responsible for Lumumba’s arrest and demanded his release.
The UN Security Council was called into session on 7 December 1960 to consider Soviet demands that the UN seek Lumumba’s immediate release, the immediate restoration of Lumumba as head of the Congo government, the disarming of the forces of Mobutu, and the immediate evacuation of Belgians from the Congo. Hammarskjöld, answering Soviet attacks against his Congo operations, said that if the UN forces were withdrawn from the Congo “I fear everything will crumble.”
The threat to the UN cause was intensified by the announcement of the withdrawal of their contingents by Yugoslavia, the United Arab Republic, Ceylon, Indonesia, Morocco, and Guinea. The Soviet pro-Lumumba resolution was defeated on 14 December 1960 by a vote of 8-2. On the same day, a Western resolution that would have given Hammarskjöld increased powers to deal with the Congo situation was vetoed by the Soviet Union.
Lumumba was sent first on 3 December, to Thysville military barracks Camp Hardy, 150 km (about 100 miles) from Leopoldville. However, when security and disciplinary breaches threatened his safety, it was decided that he should be transferred to the Katanga Province.
Lumumba was forcibly restrained on the flight to Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) on 17 January 1961. On arrival, he was conducted under arrest to Brouwez House and held there bound and gagged while President Tshombe and his cabinet decided what to do with him.
Later that night, Lumumba was driven to an isolated spot where three firing squads had been assembled. According to David Akerman, Ludo de Witte and Kris Hollington, the firing squads were commanded by a Belgian, Captain Julien Gat; another Belgian, Police Commissioner Verscheure, had overall command of the execution site.The Belgian Commission has found that the execution was carried out by Katanga’s authorities, but de Witte found written orders from the Belgian government requesting Lumumba’s murder and documents on various arrangements, such as death squads. It reported that President Tshombe and two other ministers were present with four Belgian officers under the command of Katangan authorities. Lumumba and two other members from the government, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, were lined up against a tree and shot one at a time. The execution probably took place on 17 January 1961 between 21:40 and 21:43 according to the Belgian report. According to Adam Hochschild, author of a book on the Congo rubber terror, Lumumba’s body was cut up and dissolved in acid by two Belgians, so as not to leave a martyr’s grave.
No statement was released until three weeks later despite rumours that Lumumba was dead.
His death was formally announced on Katangese radio when it was alleged that he escaped and was killed by enraged villagers. On January 18, panicked by reports that the burial of the three bodies had been observed, members of the execution team went to dig up the bodies and move them to a place near the border with Rhodesia ( now Zimbabwe) for reburial. Belgian Police Commissioner Gerard Soete later admitted in several accounts that he and his brother led the first and a second exhumation. Police Commissioner Frans Verscheure also took part. On the afternoon and evening of January 21, Commissioner Soete and his brother dug up Lumumba’s body for the second time, cut it up with a hacksaw, and dissolved it in concentrated sulfuric acid (de Witte 2002:140-143). Only some teeth and a fragment of skull and bullets survived the process, kept as souvenirs. In an interview on Belgian television in a program on the assassination of Lumumba in 1999, Soete displayed a bullet and two teeth that he boasted he had saved from Lumumba’s body. De Witte also mentions that Verscheure kept souvenirs from the exhumation: bullets from the skull of Lumumba.
After the announcement of Lumumba’s death, street protests were organized by Africans in several European countries; in Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia, protesters sacked the Belgian embassy and confronted the police, and in London a crowd marched from Trafalgar Square to the Belgian embassy, where a letter of protest was delivered and where protesters clashed with police.
“Lumumba’s pan-Africanism and his vision of a united Congo gained him many enemies. Both Belgium and the United States actively sought to have him killed. The CIA ordered his assassination but could not complete the job. Instead, the United States and Belgium covertly funneled cash and aid to rival politicians who seized power and arrested Lumumba.” U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had said “something [to CIA chief Allen Dulles] to the effect that Lumumba should be eliminated”. This was revealed by a declassified interview with then-US National Security Council minutekeeper Robert Johnson released in August 2000 from Senate intelligence committee’s inquiry on covert action. The committee later claimed that while the CIA had conspired to kill Lumumba, it was not directly involved in the actual murder.
In 1975, the Church Committee went on record with the finding that Allen Dulles had ordered Lumumba’s assassination as “an urgent and prime objective”. Furthermore, declassified CIA cables quoted or mentioned in the Church report and in Kalb (1972) mention two specific CIA plots to murder Lumumba: the poison plot and a shooting plot. Although some sources claim that CIA plots ended when Lumumba was captured, that is not stated or shown in the CIA records. Rather, those records show two still-partly-censored CIA cables from Elizabethville on days significant in the murder: January 17, the day Lumumba died, and January 18, the day of the first exhumation. The former, after a long censored section, talks about where they need to go from there. The latter expresses thanks for Lumumba being sent to them and then says that, had Elizabethville base known he was coming, they would have “baked a snake”. Significantly, a CIA officer told another CIA officer later that he had had Lumumba’s body in the trunk of his car to try to find a way to dispose of it. This cable goes on to state that the writer’s sources (not yet declassified) said that after being taken from the airport Lumumba was imprisoned by “all white guards”.
The Belgian Commission investigating Lumumba’s assassination concluded that (1) Belgium wanted Lumumba arrested or killed, (2) Belgium was not particularly concerned with Lumumba’s physical well being, and (3) although informed of the danger to Lumumba’s life, Belgium did not take any action to avert his death, but the report also specifically denied that Belgium ordered Lumumba’s assassination.
Under its own ‘Good Samaritan’ laws, Belgium was legally culpable for failing to prevent the assassination from taking place and was also in breach of its obligation (under U.N. Resolution 290 of 1949) to refrain from acts or threats “aimed at impairing the freedom, independence or integrity of another state.”
The report of 2001 by the Belgian Commission mentions that there had been previous U.S. and Belgian plots to kill Lumumba. Among them was a Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored attempt to poison him, which may have come on orders from U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb was a key person in this by devising a poison resembling toothpaste. However, the plan is said to have been scrapped because the local CIA Station Chief, Larry Devlin, refused permission.However, as Kalb points out in her book, Congo Cables, the record shows that many communications by Devlin at the time urged elimination of Lumumba (p. 53, 101, 129-133, 149-152, 158-159, 184-185, 195). Also, the CIA station chief helped to direct the search to capture Lumumba for his transfer to his enemies in Katanga, was involved in arranging his transfer to Katanga (p. 158, Hoyt, Michael P. 2009, “Captive in the Congo: A Consul’s Return to the Heart of Darkness”), and the CIA base chief in Elizabethville was in direct contact with the killers the night Lumumba was killed. Furthermore, a CIA agent had the body in the trunk of his car in order to try to get rid of it (p. 105, Stockwell, John 1978 In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story. Stockwell, who knew Devlin well, felt Devlin knew more than anyone else about the murder (71-72, 136-137).
In July 2006, documents released by the United States government revealed that the CIA had plotted to assassinate Lumumba. In September 1960, Sidney Gottlieb brought a vial of poison to the Congo with plans to place it on Lumumba’s toothbrush. The plot was later abandoned. The extent to which the CIA was involved in his eventual death is currently unknown .
This same disclosure showed that at that time the U.S. government believed that Lumumba was a communist. Eisenhower’s reported call, at a meeting of his national security advisers, for Lumumba’s elimination must have been brought on by this perception. Both Belgium and the US were clearly influenced in their unfavourable stance towards Lumumba by the Cold War. He seemed to gravitate around the Soviet Union, although this was not because he was a communist but the only place he could find support in his country’s effort to rid itself of colonial rule. The US was the first country from which Lumumba requested help. Lumumba, for his part, not only denied being a Communist, but said he found colonialism and Communism to be equally deplorable, and professed his personal preference for neutrality between the East and West.
Lumumba was an altruistic man of strong character who pursued his policies regardless of opposing viewpoints. He favoured a unitary Congo and opposed division of the country along ethnic or regional lines.Like many other African leaders, he supported pan-Africanism and liberation for colonial territories. He proclaimed his regime one of “positive neutralism,” defined as a return to African values and rejection of any imported ideology, including that of the Soviet Union: “We are not Communists, Catholics, Socialists. We are African nationalists.”