O black man, beast of burden through the centuries
Your ashes scattered to the winds of heaven,
Barbaric centuries of rape and carnage
You will make the Congo a nation, happy and free,
In the very heart of vast Black Africa(from “Weep, Beloved Black Brother,” Patrice Lumumba).
. . .
“We are not alone, Africa, Asia, and free and liberated people from every corner of the world will always be found at the side of the Congolese….To my children whom I leave and whom perhaps I will see no more, I wish that they be told that the future of the Congo is beautiful and that it expects for each Congolese to accomplish the sacred task of reconstruction of our independence and our sovereignty; for without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there are no free men (Lumumba’s last letter to his wife, December, 1960).
. . .
Lumumba is the greatest Black man who ever walked the African continent. He didn’t fear anybody (Malcolm X, June 28, 1964).
The basic cause of most of the trouble in the Congo right now is the intervention of outsiders--the fighting that is going on over the mineral wealth of the Congo and over the strategic position that the Congo represents on the African continent. (Malcolm X, November, 28, 1964).
. . .
The adventures that Africa afforded were tawdry enough, but it became the setting for a sudden epiphany…of the pressing necessity for expounding my America for the 20th century.…It was given to me, equally disconsolate on the edge of a jungle of central Africa, to have thrust upon me the mission of expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States… (from Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller’s remembrance of working on a barge in the Belgian Congo, recorded in his Errand Into the Wilderness, 1956).
On January 17, 1961 Patrice Lumumba, the kidnapped leader of the newly independent government of what now is called Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) was assassinated by a group of army officers encouraged by many imperialist powers including the United States. DR Congo, endowed with enormous riches and a large population, had been under the yoke of Belgian colonialism since the powers of Europe divided up the African continent at the 1884 Berlin Conference. King Leopold II, occupied the land and enslaved the inhabitants of it to work huge rubber plantations. Those who resisted enslavement were brutally murdered, their body parts put on public display to serve as a warning to those who had similar thoughts.
But, as Lumumba’s words suggest, masses of people rose up to extricate colonial rulers not only in the Congo but throughout Africa: including Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and later in Portuguese colonies (Guinea Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique). Following the uprisings in India in the 1940s, the spirit of independence gripped virtually the entire Global South.
Lumumba, inspired by the freedom currents spreading like wildfire in the 1940s and 1950s helped form the Congolese National Movement (MNC) in 1958. The MNC movement joined with the broad Pan African forces at the All-African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana in that year. Sensing the growing demands for change in Africa’s third largest country, the Belgian government began to extricate itself from its colony. National elections were held in May, 1960 to establish the first independent government of the Congo. The MNC won the elections and Patrice Lumumba became the government’s first prime minister, and Joseph Kasavubu its president.
Shortly thereafter, political leaders from the resource rich Congo province of Katanga, encouraged by the Belgians, seceded. Internal strife spread to the Congolese capital. In the fall of 1960 Lumumba, who had become a world renowned symbol of African liberation, was kidnapped by dissident members of the new Congolese army and killed in 1961. Both the United Nations and the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States have long been viewed as being complicit in the assassination.
Before the kidnapping Lumumba appealed for assistance to quell civil war in his country. UN peacekeeping forces failed to support the newly created government. Since Lumumba asked for military equipment from the former Soviet Union the Eisenhower administration became convinced that now Lumumba, the African nationalist, had become an agent of international communism.
After Lumumba’s death, and years of internal political conflict, Colonel Joseph Mobutu, the leader of the plot to capture and kill Lumumba seized state power. In 1971, Mobutu (now Mobutu Sese Seko) renamed the Congo, Zaire, and for over twenty years robbed the country of its wealth. When his regime collapsed in the 1990s, due to internal and external forces, a civil war, often referred to as “Africa’s World War,” ensued. Bloody violence, estimated deaths range from 3 to 5 million people, involving Congolese forces, intervening armies from Uganda, and Rwanda, and indirect support of one side or another from European powers and western economic interests continued from 1998 to 2003. After a short ceasefire and the creation of a new DCR government, civil war in parts of the country resumed.
The history of the Congolese people is complicated but several historical and contemporary lessons can be drawn as we reflect on the fifty-year anniversary of the death of Patrice Lumumba.
First, Patrice Lumumba represents that great generation of African anti-colonial leaders, who, through their words and deeds, encouraged African masses to rise up against colonial masters, neo-colonial leaders tied to traditional empires, and to do so celebrating independent nationhood. Leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, and Nelson Mandela inspired the transformation of the political, economic, and cultural life of the African continent. While their struggles remain incomplete, they did succeed in leading the African masses to overthrow the formal colonial order that had been in place for four hundred years.
Second, Americans, such as historian Perry Miller, experienced Africa only as the backdrop for their own musings about America’s identity. Others described Africa as a continent devoid of people, history, and culture, and ignored leaders like Lumumba who had a tremendous impact on the consciousness of peoples victimized by colonial exploitation and racism everywhere.
Third, as Penny M. Von Eschen points out (Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism 1937-1957, 1997), during the time of anti-colonial struggles there were over 200 newspapers in African-American communities across the United States. Their readers knew much about colonialism and the struggles against it in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Members of Black communities in the United States read reports on Asia, Africa, and Latin America from such prolific writers as George Padmore, W.E.B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson. Fighters for freedom in the United States, such as Malcolm X, knew full well about the trials and tribulations of Patrice Lumumba and drew analogies between struggles against colonialism and neo-colonialism in Africa and campaigns for racial justice in the United States.
And finally, the disintegration of one of the largest countries in the world and its replacement by a brutal dictatorship from the 1960s to the 1990s, had its roots in the 1960 murder of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first prime minister. In addition, the “African World War” of the last decade must be scene as connected to the assassination of the proud African nationalist leader, Patrice Lumumba, fifty years ago.