The Once and Future Lumumba

In a recent painting by a Congolese artist, the figures of Lumumba and his primary rival Kasavubu loom large
In a recent painting by a Congolese artist, the figures of Lumumba and his primary rival Kasavubu, in white, loom large

Following my last blog I have been reminded that there are people I respect and love who lived in Congo at the time of independence and hold a vastly different view of Patrice Lumumba.  When I read a former Congolese missionary’s recollection of Lumumba’s  “frantic and emotional ravings on the radio” I feel I owe him and you a direct response.

It would take a novel to reconstruct the atmosphere of fear and panic among nearly all whites in Congo in 1960 especially after Lumumba’s speech at the independence celebration on June 30.  That the Belgians present were so offended by the “truth telling” of Lumumba’s critique of Belgian colonialism indicates how unprepared the former rulers were for Congolese self rule.  The depth of Belgian loathing of Patrice Lumumba emerges clearly from the numbingly detailed and thorough account of The Assassination of Lumumba by Ludo De Witte.

Published in 2001, this book leaves no doubt that the Belgian government called for the elected Prime Minister’s torture and death at the hands of security officers and government officials of Belgium and the secessionist provinces of Katanga and South Kasai.  More telling though is the book’s evidence of the utter disdain and fear of the nationalist Lumumba among the Belgians.  Following his death, a leftist Belgian newspaper commented, “The press probably did not treat Hitler with as much rage and virulence as they did Patrice Lumumba”.

The De Witte book also notes the U.S.  backing, support and even plotting of the definitive elimination of the Congolese nationalist.

Head of the C.I.A. Allen Dulles wrote the Kinshasa station chief Devlin on August 26, 1960, “We concluded that his (Lumumba’s) removal must be an urgent and prime objective and that under existing conditions this should be a high priority of our covert action”. These efforts to remove Lumumba from power took place with the recognition that no other Congolese politician had a

Patrice Emery Lumumba July 2, 1925 - January 17, 1961
Patrice Emery Lumumba July 2, 1925 – January 17, 1961

comparable following or power to move the people. U.S. Ambassador Clare Timberlake in a 1960 memo to the State Department declared that Lumumba could enter a room of Congolese politicians as a waiter and emerge by the end of the meeting as the gathering’s elected leader. “Kasavubu will be a political zero as long as Lumumba is active” Timberlake wrote in another message.

This brings me to call attention to Lumumba’s naïve and touching trust of the U.S.  In the tape made by a reporter who visited him while in prison shortly before his death, he advanced the U.S. example as a template for the task his people faced:

“I remind you here of the Declaration of Independence adopted by the Congress of the United States in 1766 (sic), which proclaimed the overthrow of the colonial regime, the united colonies’ liberation from the British yoke, and thir transformation into a free and independent state.  The Congolese nationalists have thus merely followed in the footsteps of the French, Belgian, American, Russian and other nationalists. We have chosen only one weapon for our struggle: nonviolence.  The only weapon that would bring victory in dignity and honor.  Our watchword during the liberation campaign was always the immediate and total independence of the Congo.”

Those who would attribute the Congolese post- independence violence and mayhem to Lumumba’s words and not to the machinations of the West, must, in my view, account for the fifty plus years of war, dictatorial rule and increasing misery of the people of Congo after his death.  It is that deplorable record of Congolese rule in the context of neocolonial foreign control of the country’s resources that leads me to state that Congo has lost its way. The words of their first and only democratically elected leader have been suppressed and subsequent leaders have honored him without in any substantive way attempting to realize his vision.

Avenue Patrice Lumumba in Beira
“Avenue Patrice Lumumba in Beira” photo by South African artist in an exhibit documenting Lumumba hommages across Africa

Over the last 50 years, Lumumba’s stature as a spokesperson for the aspirations of oppressed peoples and as the prophet of the African liberation struggle in particular has grown.  As the African journalist Cameron Doudo wrote on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Lumumba’s death, “Patrice Lumumba is, next to Nelson Mandela, the iconic figure who most readily comes to mind when Africa is discussed in relation to its struggle against imperialism and racism”.

The major difference between Lumumba and Mandela’s political careers is that Mandela saw the strengthening of his African National Congress from inside the walls of his prison.   Despite Lumumba’s overwhelming grass roots support in 1960, his assassination cut woefully short his and his followers’ opportunity to organize for nation’s control of the country’s resources.  That is the great tragedy of Lumumba’s life and legacy.  In the midst of the multiple political parties organized on a tribal base of support, the creation of the MNC (National Congolese Movement) as a nation wide political party prior to the 1960 elections demonstrated that Lumumba’s powerful communication skills were matched by political organizing acumen.

Among the unrealized aspects of his legacy was Lumumba’s championing of the role of women in the new nation. In an early 1960 talk in Brussels he encouraged Belgian women in the audience to assist in the education of Congolese women for leadership.

“We want many Belgian girls to come to the Congo to teach and instruct our girls, and tomorrow the young ladies who are here will come to our country as welfare workers to educate our Congolese girls.  Our efforts tomorrow must  bring about a harmonious evolution of our peoples, and we want this evolution, the most fundamental one of all, especially that of our women, which has been somewhat neglected under the colonial regime – we want our women to have the same level of education that we men have, because when a man is educated, it is only the individual who is educated, but when a woman is educated, an entire family, an entire generation is educated.  We want many Congolese girls to come to Belgium tomorrow to get an education, and we want many Belgian girls to come to the Congo to teach and instruct our girls.  And it is so as to ensure equality between men and women that the Congolese movement demands the same political rights for women as for men.  We have proposed that both men and women eighteen or over be allowed to participate in the coming elections.  But certain reactionary circles, those that still insist on regarding women as servants are opposed to this plan and have a hand in the scheme to prevent this from happening.  I am certain that when I go back to the Congo, I shall conduct a noisy campaign on behalf of Congolese women.”

In concluding this overview of the Lumumba legacy, let’s consider what U.S. based Congolese political scientist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja wrote on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination,

“In Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on 30 June, 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.”

One way to summarize the current state of the legacy would be that Lumumba’s ideal of national unity has been preserved at the cost of the nation’s economic independence and pan-African solidarity.

NOTE:  To read the entire Nzongola-Ntalaja article go to:

Dear Mr. President: Help End the Violence in Congo Now

29 Year Old Joseph Kabila took power in 2001 with no training or experience in governing
29 Year Old Joseph Kabila took power in 2001 with no training or experience in governing

In support of the Catholic Church in Congo’s call for resistance to the Kabila administration’s control of the election results, and in response to the Presbyterian Church (USA) urgent call for action in support of democratic rule in Congo, I’ve written the letter below to President Obama.  I’ll be mailing copies of the letter to Secretary of State Clinton and all members of the Senate and House Subcommittees on Africa.

Add your voice to those advocating an end to the cycle of violence in Congo. To assist us, a packet with sample letters and a sample script has been compiled by the Presbyterians. Access the 26  pages of resources by going to this web address:

Included in the packet is the powerful message of the Congo’s Catholic Bishops “to the Catholic faithful and to all the Congolese people”. Let us keep in prayer Archbishop Monsengwo and other clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, who will be calling for an end to the violence in Congo on February 16 and beyond.  Our prayers and expressions of solidarity with them and all those standing up for free and fair elections in the country will strengthen their efforts.

Dear Mr. President:

Next week people in the Democratic Republic of Congo will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of another massacre of fellow citizens in their beleaguered, tragic march toward truly independent self rule.  On February 16, 1992, at least thirty persons were killed during a peaceful demonstration in the streets of their capital city of Kinshasa.  They were holding candles after leaving worship that Sunday, signifying their hope that the Sovereign National Conference would be reconvened.  Once

Voters such as those pictured here in Kisangani waited for hours to vote in the November presidential/legislative election
Voters such as those pictured here in Kisangani waited for hours to vote in the November presidential/legislative election

again, the Congolese hunger for peace and justice to rule in their country had been denied by the forces of the reigning dictator Mobutu.

When the U.S. finally made clear its opposition to Mobutu’s rule in 1996-97, it was too late.  Upwards of eight hundred thousand people had been slain in Rwanda, and the rape and pillaging leading to five million deaths in Congo were to soon begin. Since Congo’s independence in 1960, successive U.S. administrations have backed authoritarian, repressive rule in the country. Our support as the DRC’s foremost international “friend” has helped to deny the highest aspirations and fundamental rights of the Congolese people.

Since the accession to power of 29 year old President Joseph Kabila, two elections have been held in Congo and both have supposedly resulted in the people’s endorsement of this young man’s rule.  The Congolese people don’t buy the fiction of his victory in either election and see both elections as expensive charades which mock and oppose their rights and their will.

At the time of his rise to the presidency as the son of his assassinated father, Joseph Kabila was a virtual unknown.  When the election was held in 2006, he still did not speak Lingala, the language of the capital city where nearly  ten million people live.  Many saw him as an outsider who had spent  most of his adult life in neighboring countries.  He was far from capable of representing the aspirations of the Congolese people with no credentials or background for leading a complex nation with over fifty million people and the greatest wealth in natural resources on the continent of Africa.

On December 14 police round up Tshisekedi's UPDS supporters in Lubumbashi
On December 14 police round up Tshisekedi's UPDS supporters in Lubumbashi

To turn our backs on the Kabila administration’s most recent staging of a sham exercise in democracy would be to condemn this tragic nation to further violent repression of the people’s rights.  It would be to allow once again the hope represented by those thousands of candles lit twenty years ago to be snuffed out.  It would be to condone the continuing cycle of violence caused by dictatorial rule and the support of the U.S. for such rule.

Having followed and studied the background to events in the Congo for more than forty years, I would call your attention to the conclusion of the leading U.S. political scientist on Congo regarding the November presidential polling there.  It is, according to Prof. Nzongola-Ntalaja, “now or never” for the people of Congo.  Should the Kabila administration be allowed to fortify its hold on power with another bogus election there is no stopping Congo’s further descent into chaos and death as the people struggle for self rule.

Mr. President, your hands are not tied and there is another leader ready to take power in Congo.  At present, we are planning to put $900 million in aid into Congo.  Surely we can do more to advance democracy in Congo by withholding such aid until the people’s support for M. Etienne Tshisekedi’s leadership is recognized. M. Tshisekedi may not be the choice of the U.S. to lead the Congo.  But since Mobutu removed him from the position of Prime Minister in 1991, he has embodied the people’s aspirations for an end to military dictatorship. Help turn the hope of the Congolese people into joy by a clear affirmation of his right and the people’s right to a free and fair election of their nation’s President.

Join with the people of Congo in honoring the memory of the martyrs of February 16, 1992 by withholding aid from Congo until a coalition government begins rule in Congo and prepares for the next presidential election in five years. Join in holding aloft the torch of liberty represented by our nation and help bring to an end the cycle of violence in Congo.  Join in stopping the bleeding at the heart of Africa. It’s “now or never” Mr. President.

Sincerely yours,

Rev. Douglas W. Smith

Worldwide protests against the Kabila Administration's rule have recently been organized.  Antwerp's demonstration is pictured here
Worldwide protests against the Kabila Administration's rule have recently been organized. Antwerp's demonstration is pictured here