AFRICANGLOBE – In 2001, Ludo de Witte published his book “The Assassination of Lumumba”. It caused a sensation in his home country Belgium, as his research of the state’s archives laid bare the conspiracy to kill the Congo’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Stephen Williams spoke to the author.
Ludo de Witte explained that in writing his best-seller, “The Assassination of Lumumba”, he made extensive use of the Belgian Foreign Ministry’s written archives; and researched British, US and UN archives, as well as some personal records of Belgian army officers who were involved in the Congo at that time.
But he makes clear that the main collection of documents that shed new light on the events in the Congo some 60 years ago came from the archives of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Actually, I knew what I had to find because in the personal archives of a Belgian officer it was revealed that the Belgian government had a hand in the assassination of Lumumba,” the author clarifies.
But it was no easy task as the Belgian archives were, in De Witte’s own words, “very badly collected and poorly catalogued”.
Nevertheless, this might have been a blessing in disguise as when he started searching the archives he found some documents that the archivists were not even aware of.
“In Belgium, there is a Diplomatic Commission who in principle have to look into all the documents which are 30 years or older, and they can select which you can, or cannot see.
“They can withdraw certain documents if they deem that it is not in the interest of the state to have them released.
“I got a bunch of unclassified papers which proved quite important, and spectacular in what they revealed! The fact that after my book was published the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered the closure of all research of the archives of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi (all former Belgian colonies in Africa) proves that they were appalled that I had ever seen those documents.”
But the question left hanging was whether the state was simply incompetent, or had tried to hush the whole thing up. “In my opinion,” De Witte says, “it’s more about there being a lack of human resources for keeping a close watch on what’s researched and published. The difference with the approach of the Belgian authorities and, for example, the British national archives, is that you only get access to documents in Britain after they have been scrutinised, so you get to see a selection of documents.
“One archivist told me that depending on the subject they covered, only between 6 percent and 14 percent of the documents are made available to researchers.”
The difference appears to be that in Belgium, in principle, you can see all the documents, although technically there is the state’s Diplomatic Commission that will act for the government and go into the archives and take away documents before you can see them.
This, as Ludo de Witte’s experience illustrates, has not been a particularly efficient arrangement, as the archives are so poorly maintained.
“It was a complicity in the political elimination of Lumumba that in the end points to his assassination. But you cannot say that it was complicity in the assassination itself.”
“One of the recommendations of the Lumumba Commission [established after publication of De Witte’s book] given that the state of the archives are so very bad, is that the government was advised to facilitate work to inventorise all the archives — but this recommendation, like all the other the Lumumba Commission made, came to nothing.”
What De Witte describes is, in the field of archival research, something of a cat and mouse game. “We have a situation in Belgium where the archives in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that are 30 years or older, should be freely accessible,” De Witte explains.
“But even these documents, in principle, have to be scrutinised by the Diplomatic Commissioner who can remove documents without the researcher even knowing the documents have been withdrawn. So you have to try to get documents, either through luck or by the generosity of a diplomat who is in a position to help, before they are taken away. That’s basically the situation.”
Before speaking to De Witte, I had come across references to letters that he wrote to the New York Book Review journal discussing what might have been seen as the UN’s complicity in Lumumba’s assassination.[/sociallocker]