Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of newly independent Congo, was the second of five leaders of independence movements in African countries to be assassinated in the 1960s by their former colonial masters, or their agents.
A sixth, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, was ousted in a western-backed coup in 1966, and a seventh, Amilcar Cabral, leader of the west African liberation movement against Portugal of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde or PAIGC) in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, was assassinated in 1973.
Lumumba’s death in 1961 followed on from that of the opposition leader of Cameroon, Felix Moumie, poisoned in 1960. Sylvanus Olympio, leader of Togo was killed in 1963. Mehdi Ben Barka, leader of the Moroccan opposition movement was kidnapped in France in 1965 and his body never found. Eduardo Mondlane, leader of Mozambique’s Frelimo, fighting for independence from the Portuguese, died from a parcel bomb in 1969.
The loss 50 years ago of this group of leaders, who all knew each other, and had a common political project based on national dignity, crippled each of their countries, and the African continent. The effects are still evident today.
Ben Barka and Cabral were revolutionary theoreticians – as significant as Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. Their influence reverberated far beyond their own continent. At the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, organised by Ben Barka before his death, Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s closing speech referred to “one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa, Comrade Amílcar Cabral, who instilled in us tremendous confidence in the future and the success of his struggle for liberation.”
The Third World Movement, challenging the economic and political world dominance of the colonial powers, the US, and the neocolonial leaders favoured by the west, would have two short decades of ambition and optimism despite the long shadow of its great leaders’ deaths.
Today, it is impossible to touch down at the (far from modernised) airport of Lubumbashi in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo – in 1961 known as Elizabethville, in Congo (then renamed Zaire) – without a shiver of recollection of the haunting photograph taken of Lumumba there shortly before his assassination, and after beatings, torture and a long, long flight in custody across the vast country which had so loved him. This particular failure of the United Nations to protect one man and his two colleagues was every bit as significant as that in Srebrenica in 1995, when 8,000 men and boys were killed.
Lumumba’s own words, written to his wife just four months after the exhilaration of independence day in the capital Kinshasa are a reminder of who he was and why he meant so much to so many people then, and still does today.
“Dead, living, free, or in prison on the orders of the colonialists, it is not I who counts. It is the Congo, it is our people for whom independence has been transformed into a cage where we are regarded from the outside… History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets… a history of glory and dignity.”
Lumumba would not have been surprised that his successor, Joseph Mobuto was the US strategic ally in Africa for 30 years. Congo was too rich, too big, and too important for the west to lose control as they would have had Lumumba lived.
How ironic that Mobuto was succeeded by Laurent Desire Kabila, whose 10th anniversary of assassination, by his own guards, falls just one day before Lumumba’s? (There are conflicting reports as to the exact date of Kabila’s death, a good overview can be found here).
Kabila came to power in 1997 as the useful figurehead of the armies of Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola. He trailed some historical legitimacy from his involvement in one of the rebellions against Mobuto, inspired by Lumumba’s death. Che Guevara was then, in 1965, deep in his second-last catastrophic attempt to change the world, working then from his concept of Lumumba’s Congo.
When Kabila sprang from obscurity in 1997 as leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Che’s African diaries from eastern Congo had not yet been published, with the acid comment, “I know Kabila well enough not to have any illusions about him.”
In Kabila’s first chaotic weeks in power in 1997, the great Tanzanian leader, Julius Nyerere visited Kinshasa and addressed the new and unformed leadership. “There are no uncles any more for Congo, do not wait for them to come and help you – the country is yours and you must take the responsibility for it and for your people,” he said.
As one of those present told me: “They did not like Nyerere’s speech, they could not wait to use their new power to make allies with foreign businessmen and get rich themselves – just like the others.” But Lumumba’s ideas are still alive, and he himself had no illusions that the road to dignity for his people would be extremely long.