People who are oppressed cannot project their liberation without taking time to reflect on their history.
Patrice Emery Lumumba, the first prime minister of the former Belgian colony of the Congo is one of the most iconic figures of the African anti-colonial struggles.
The legend of Lumumba was aptly captured on that dramatic independence day on 30 June 1960.
He took on the Belgian King Baudouin’s praise of former ruler King Leopold’s “civilizing mission” to the Congo.
From 1885 to 1908, Leopold’s rule saw nine million Congolese killed. Thousands had hands chopped off by his military because they had failed to deliver the harsh quotas of rubber that the colonialists demanded.
This regime was supported by multinationals like UMHK, a consortium of Belgian and British mining interests and banks. And it was backed by the Catholic Church, which Leopold requested to facilitate colonialism by “disinteresting our savages from the richness that is plenty in their underground, lest they one day dream to overthrow you.”
But in response to Baudouin’s acclaim for Leopold, incoming president Joseph Kasavubu, sheepishly thanked the King.
In an unscheduled speech, Lumumba indignantly rebuffed the Belgian narrative, saying independence was the crowning moment of heroic nationalist struggles from slavery. Lumumba was lauded globally. Malcolm X called him “the greatest living African.”
From that moment Lumumba had crossed the imperialists’ red line. In a rapid sequence of events, the West conspired with Congolese elites to depose and kill him.
Lumumba was born in 1925 to peasants in Kasai province. But his politics was shaped by his rise into the black middle class, the evolues. These included clerks, nurses and teachers.
The evolues mimicked European lifestyles and despised the “uncivilised” masses. Self‑educated and later trained as a postal clerk, by 1955 Lumumba had joined the upper levels of evolue society.
His children attended white schools and he headed the evolue associations in Stanleyville and, later, the capital Leopoldville.
A follower of European Enlightenment radical intellectuals, Lumumba alongside others endorsed Belgian professor Anton Van Bilsen’s call in 1956 for independence within 30 years.
In the 1950s the evolues formed nationalist parties which were largely ethnic and regional.
The Alliance of the Kongo People (Akado), led by Kasavubu, championed Bakongo ethnic nationalism and immediate independence.
In Katanga the regionalist and anti-Communist Confederation of Katanga Associations (Conakata) was led by Moise Tshombe.
The Congolese National Movement (MNC) led by Lumumba called for a unitary state and independence “within a reasonable time.”
After his 1957 release from prison for embezzlement at work, Lumumba was also influenced by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah.
Evolues aimed for a new state where they would work with the West as junior partners in Africa’s second most industrialised country. Congo was a leading world producer of diamonds, copper, gold, cobalt, coltan and the uranium used in the US’s atomic bombs.
But there was a more powerful source of resistance. Congo’s industrialisation saw the rise of a working class which had grown to half a million by the late 1950s. Many of them flooded into the nationalist parties.
Their militant approach and radical demands—such as immediate independence—led to tensions with most of the evolues. But they radicalised a small section of others, including Lumumba.
The evolues were attracted by a nationalist movement that could open the way for them to become leaders in a country free from the bondage of imperialism.
But they were also fearful of workers’ struggles escalating into socialist revolution.
After the 1905 Russian Revolution, the young socialist Leon Trotsky theorised that because of these fears and subordination to imperialism, capitalists and elites of late-developing states could not effectively lead struggles for democracy, national independence and development as had happened in Europe and USA.
At critical stages such elites would compromise with the old order, fearful of revolution. Only workers, allied with peasants, could lead.
But their struggles had to escalate towards socialist revolution. He called this permanent revolution.
Events after 1959 vindicated Trotsky
The turning point was the 4 January 1959 anti-European riots by 35,000 workers and unemployed in Leopoldville.
They were crushed by Belgian general Janssens’ Force Publique with up to 500 people killed.
“Martyrs Day” was a massacre. But it marked the entrance of the working class as the decisive force in the anti-colonial struggles, shifting them in a revolutionary direction.
Riots and demonstrations spread nationwide.
To pre-empt the rising wave of revolt, the panicked Belgians announced independence would be brought forward to 30 June 1960.
Lumumba’s MNC won most seats in the pre-independence elections but without a majority. This resulted in a coalition government with Kasavubu as president and Lumumba as prime minister.
The Belgians’ gamble was that they could create independence under a neo-colonial black elite—and that this group would protect their interests.
But the evolues were weak, divided and inexperienced—and they faced a militant working class.
Conflict erupted within days of independence. The masses expected serious improvements in their lives.
But on 5 July, Janssens told his soldiers near Leopoldville that there was not to be any real change. “Before Independence = After Independence,” he wrote on a blackboard.
This sparked mutiny which spread nationwide into popular uprisings attacking whites, businesses and church property. Janssens demanded deployment of Belgian troops.
Lumumba made concessions to quieten the masses, replacing Janssens. He promoted black soldiers and replaced white commanders.
Now the Belgians manoeuvred with their local allies to destroy Lumumba. They first splintered the country.
Tshombe, supported by Belgium and UMHK, split off Katanga province. The United Nation’s (UN) secretary general Dag Hammarskjold, who Lumumba thought would support decolonisation, refused to intervene.
Instead UN troops protected the breakaway Katangan regime. Lumumba looked around for fresh allies and moved towards Russia. That meant the Western imperialists redoubled their efforts to eliminate him.
Lumumba at times supported all out mobilisation for the popular uprisings. At other times he favoured a cautious approach based on personal charisma and appeals to African states, the UN the US and, later, Russia.
Increasingly the masses who had so scared the Belgians and could have remade Congo were reduced to spectators of a process at the top of society.
Kasavubu, dismissed Lumumba on 5 September. A US-backed coup soon followed led by Colonel Joseph Mobutu.
Lumumba escaped house arrest in December but was captured by Mobutu’s forces assisted by the US and UN.
He was transferred to Katanga where Tshombe’s soldiers under Belgian and US direction executed him and two of his comrades on 17 January 1961. His body was cut into pieces, dissolved in acid and a few teeth left as trophies.
The murder of Lumumba sparked outrage and demonstrations in Yugoslavia, London and New York. The Congo Crisis followed, a proxy Cold War conflict and civil wars that left 100 000 dead.
The 1964 Simba Rebellions by pro-Lumumbist forces and peasants declared a “communist” Peoples Republic of the Congo. They were supported by some African states and Cuba, which briefly sent Che Guevara to assist. But the People’s Republic was crushed after US, Belgian and UN intervention.
Mobutu seized power in another US-backed coup in 1965. With US and Western support he set up, until 1997, one of the most pernicious and corrupt dictatorial regimes in Africa’s history.
Lumumba’s story is still relevant today. As the radical Belgian historian Ludo De Witte wrote, “This drama is much more than an old story, dead and gone.
“It is a staggering example of what the Western ruling classes are capable of when their vital interests are threatened. Assassination then becomes a useful measure.
“The murders of Lumumba, Rosa Luxemburg, Felix Moumie and Malcolm X, as well as the massacres at Guernica, Buchenwald, Dresden, Hiroshima and My Lai, are the expressions of a system which turns men into beasts.”
Lumumba was flawed, and his anti-colonial resistance could not finally be successful. But his bold, dying declaration is as true today as when it was uttered.
“The day will come when history will speak. But it will not be the history which will be taught in Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations.
“It will be history which will be taught in our countries which have won freedom from colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history and it will be a story of glory and dignity.”