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International Socialism, Autumn 2001


Charlie Kimber

Dark heart of imperialism


From International Socialism 2:92, Autumn 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Ludo De Witte
The Assassination of Lumumba
Verso 2001, £17

At the end of 1959 Patrice Lumumba was sitting in a prison cell. He had been part of the leadership of a wave of mass revolts against Belgian colonial rule in Congo, a territory the size of Western Europe in the heart of Africa. Within a few weeks the uprisings grew to such a level that the Belgians decided they could not hold on to power. These were some of the most powerful revolts ever against Western rule in Africa – and they included hundreds of thousands of workers. The Belgian government promised Congolese independence within six months. Lumumba was taken from his cell and transferred to Brussels as part of the preparation for Congolese elections.

In May Lumumba was elected prime minister at the age of 35. Foreign intervention began almost immediately after the colony gained its independence – first Belgian soldiers landed, and then United Nations ‘Blue Helmets’. By September Lumumba had been removed from his position and put in prison by an avalanche of Western military pressure. At the start of 1961 he nearly returned to office on a further wave of revolt from below. On 17 January he was murdered.

This is a fearsome story of colonial brutality, of the way in which the United Nations serves the world’s major powers, and of the primacy of profit over democracy. The story of Lumumba’s death is as if the crazed plots to kill Cuba’s Castro had succeeded. It is as if the British had decided to rub out Gandhi in India. This would be important enough on its own. But Lumumba’s history has far wider importance. Congo became Zaire and then the Democratic Republic of Congo. For the last 40 years it has seen political repression, civil war and mass suffering. The key to that experience is the way the West first colonised the area and then ruthlessly put down those who tried to oppose the great powers. De Witte writes:

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. [1]

He goes on to say:

The murder has affected the history of Africa. The overthrow of the Congo’s first government, the elimination of Lumumba, the bloody repression of the popular resistance to the neo-colonial regime: the repercussions of all these events have had disastrous consequences throughout Africa as a whole. [2]

Congo had been granted to King Leopold, King of the Belgians, at the end of the 19th century, virtually as his personal property. He had wiped out some 10 million people, around half the population, in his determination to extract every last penny of profit. [3] This was the colony where Belgium’s African allies delivered piles of chopped-off hands to demonstrate their killing record during raiding parties.

In 1960 it was all coming to an end. Belgium hoped for a calm transfer of power which would leave the same mining companies in charge of the country’s immense mineral wealth. But on independence day the European dignitaries had a rude surprise. The newly elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, leader of the Congolese National Movement (MNC), made a very different speech to the ones from his colleagues. The Belgian king, Baudouin, and Belgian prime minister Gaston Eyskens squirmed in their seats as they heard Lumumba declaim:

We have known sarcasm and insults, endured blows morning, noon and night because we were ‘niggers’ ... We have seen our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but which only recognised the right of the strongest. We have seen that this law was quite different for a white than for a black: accommodating for the former, cruel and inhuman for the latter. [4]

Such a speech made it clear that Lumumba did not conceive that an independent Congo would be one where the same people actually remained in charge with a thin African facade to cover their robbery. The first move to undermine the government came in Katanga, the main copper producing region of Congo. Here the election results had gone against Lumumba. The Belgian parliament unilaterally altered the law after the elections, allowing Belgium’s man, Moise Tshombe, to set up a government made up only of his own party in the Katanga region.

Tshombe’s party was founded in 1956. It was called UCOL, the Union for Colonisation, a name which gives a fair indication of its politics. After it became clear that the name was a bit of a fetter in an era of virulent anti-colonial spirit, UCOL was transformed to stand for the (scarcely better) Union for the Collaboration of the Middle Classes in Katanga.

But in July Lumumba made it clear that he was not going to be removed without a fight. General Janssens, the (Belgian) commander in chief of the Congolese army, called his officers together and wrote on a board, ‘Before independence = after independence.’ The Congolese soldiers rebelled immediately. Janssens was removed and Lumumba told the soldiers to appoint black officers. The move had a horrible implication for the Belgians. De Witte writes:

By Africanising the army and raising wages by 30 percent, Lumumba’s government had not only kept faith with its nationalist rhetoric, it was also inviting the public employees and the black proletariat to follow the soldiers’ lead and consolidate independence with social demands. The capital witnessed a wave of strikes in the private sector. [5]

The Belgians immediately began to look round for a successor to the dangerous Lumumba. The reactionary Belgian officers fled to Katanga province and ‘encouraged’ Tshombe to declare independence from the central government. Lumumba responded by appealing to the UN for military aid. UN troops soon arrived, but their role was quite different to that which Lumumba had hoped for. They acted throughout as protectors of the Tshombe illegal regime, and as a buffer which prevented Lumumba’s forces defeating the Katangan government. The UN was well aware of where its role was leading. In an internal memorandum of 16 August UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold wrote, ‘The UN effort could not continue with Lumumba in office. One or the other would have to go.’ [6]

The great powers behind the UN were soon coming to the same conclusion. On 26 August Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, sent a telegram to Lawrence Devlin. Devlin was a CIA agent in the Congolese capital, Leopoldville:

In high quarters here it is the clear-cut conclusion that if Lumumba continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will at best be chaos and at worst pave the way to Communist takeover of the Congo with disastrous consequences for the prestige of the UN and for the interests of the free world generally. Consequently we concluded that his removal must be an urgent and prime objective. [7]

This was backed up by some highly sophisticated propaganda – leaflets were distributed in Leopoldville saying ‘Congolese, Lumumba will sell your women to Russia’. [8]

At the beginning of September came the Western-inspired blow against Lumumba. President Kasu Vubu, who had been pressured and bribed into supporting the Belgian interests, announced that he was removing Lumumba and six of his ministers from their offices. The UN backed this up by allowing a Belgian aircraft to land in Katanga with nine tonnes of weapons.

Lumumba was now down. But the West was terrified that he was not finished. The Belgians, following the CIA’s lead, set up ‘Operation Barracuda’, a plan to kidnap and then eliminate Lumumba. But the next significant move came from a Congolese army officer, Colonel Mobutu. This was the man who would later become one of the most hated men in Africa, the tyrant who ruled, robbed and raped his country for over 30 years. On 14 September Mobutu declared he was ‘neutralising’ politicians and taking control. He did not act on his own initiative:

UN liaison officers reported that from time to time Western military attaches would visit Mobutu with bulging briefcases containing thick brown paper packets which they obligingly deposited on his table. We could not tell what they contained, but could not help making guesses. [9]

The Belgians now had to finish their bloody work. Georges Denis, a Belgian adviser in Congo, wrote to his home government on 16 September:

The first and only problem was and is to eliminate one man: Lumumba. Use the army to this effect. Ordered Mobutu to stop both chambers meeting this morning; this was done. I am conscious of being part of a major struggle for the West’s ideal of freedom. [10]

The CIA was moving down the same road. Devlin now urged, ‘Only solution is to remove him from scene soonest.’ [11] A CIA scientist, Gottlieb, revealed later that he had been sent to Congo with a box of poison (or possibly the improbable poisoned toothpaste) to kill Lumumba.

Most of De Witte’s focus is on the Belgian government and the US. But the British government also had blood on its hands. On 19 September 1960 US president Dwight Eisenhower discussed the Congo crisis with Lord Home, the British foreign secretary:

‘The president expressed his wish that Lumumba would fall into a river full of crocodiles,’ a declassified US document records. ‘Lord Home said regretfully that we have lost many of the techniques of old fashioned diplomacy.’ [12]

Just a week later Eisenhower met Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan. Lord Home was once again present-and this time he was not musing over the vanished world of gentlemanly diplomatic manoeuvres:

‘Lord Home raised the question why we are not getting rid of Lumumba,’ the US account of the talks reports. ‘He stressed that now is the time to get rid of Lumumba.’ [13]

At the end of September, as the Congolese army was about to arrest Lumumba, there was further discussion at the top of the British state. Howard Smith, a senior Foreign Office official who was later to become the head of MI5, led a discussion recorded in a document released last year:

‘I can see only two possible solutions to the problem,’ said Smith. ‘The first is the simple one of ensuring Lumumba’s removal from the scene by killing him. This should solve the problem.’ [14]

The UN gave its formal blessing to the plan for Lumumba’s killing in November when it voted by 53 votes to 24 not to recognise Lumumba’s delegation as the one which should represent Congo. But at this point Lumumba escaped from his residence (where he was under house arrest) and tried to reach Stanleyville, where pro-nationalist military forces were regrouping. He nearly made it – and probably would have done if he had not constantly been delayed by supportive crowds demanding he spoke to them. But the UN leadership ordered its troops not to protect Lumumba from the pursuing Mobutu forces, and he was captured and imprisoned. As De Witte says, ‘The UN was directly responsible for the former Congolese prime minister’s arrest.’ [15]

Even now the resistance to the West was not finished. At the beginning of 1961 the troops guarding Lumumba rebelled, and soon mutinies spread to many parts of the army. By mid-January troops which had remained loyal to Lumumba controlled roughly half the country. The West poured in military aid for Mobutu and the Katangans, and also gave the nod to remove the man who was the focus for the resistance.

On 17 January 1961 Lumumba, under arrest by Mobutu’s forces, was transferred to Katanga on a Sabena (Belgian airlines) plane. This took place on the order of the Belgian minister for African affairs, Count Harold d’Aspremont Lynden, and Belgian foreign minister Pierre Wigny.

The elected Congolese leader was then assaulted in the presence of Belgian officers and tortured in a villa guarded by Belgian troops before being shot, along with two colleagues. The announcement of this crime resulted in explosions of popular anger across the world. Demonstrations broke out in Belgrade, Cairo, London, Vienna, Warsaw, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Oslo, New Delhi and much of Africa.

There remains the question of why the Western powers were so determined to eliminate Lumumba. There were of course very real material reasons. Katanga was dominated by Belgian mining houses, which controlled the fabulous mineral wealth. The main companies were the Union Miniere de Haut-Katanga, Tanganyika Concessions and the Société Générale de Belgique. The Société Générale held exploitation rights over copper deposits in an area of 15,000 square kilometres, roughly half the size of Belgium. Top figures in the monarchy and the Belgian government had immense shareholdings in these mining companies. Katanga also produced 75 percent of the entire world production of cobalt, a crucial mineral in the aerospace industry – and remember this was during the Cold War.

But there were wider considerations as well. De Witte says:

In order to exploit its colony, Brussels had created a large Congolese proletariat to work in the mines, factories and plantations. As this proletariat grew in self confidence and experience of the struggle it began to think of the fight for independence as a means of social transformation ... In this context Lumumba represented a real threat to the West. If the Congolese masses had taken their destiny into their own hands and set up organisations to defend their interests ... Lumumba’s government would have been able to transcend the independence struggle, mobilise the people and put a broader campaign on the agenda, including taking measures against the control of the nation’s wealth by foreign capital. [16]

So ‘the rationale behind the West’s intervention in the Congo was its determination to nip the process of radicalisation in the bud’. [17]

It was not so much that Lumumba was a raging revolutionary – he was not. But neither was he a reliable barrier against the awakening of working class power in a crucial African country. That is why the West killed him.

One of De Witte’s strengths is that he is not starry-eyed about Lumumba. He respects him and stresses his achievements, but also recognises that he made mistakes. The most important error Lumumba made was to rely on outside forces rather than Congo’s masses:

Lumumba deluded himself about his Afro-Asian allies, about Moscow and about the tiny fraction of the Congolese elite which had sided with him at the height of the anti-colonial revolution. Then he badly misinterpreted the role of the United Nations. During the period [when he was relying on the UN] the Congolese people, who until independence had shown such initiative, courage and fighting spirit, were relegated to the role of spectator. [18]

De Witte’s book is sometimes very detailed and reads like a legal document. That is because his evidence has come under the most intense pressure. Its unravelling of an appalling mass of lies, hypocrisy and betrayals had huge repercussions four decades after Lumumba was killed. The Belgian edition of this book prompted the setting up of a parliamentary commission whose findings are due out later this year. There are still people in the Belgian monarchy and ruling circles who fear they will be found guilty of Lumumba’s murder. That is why the book is good history, contemporary comment on Africa and a sword at the heart of Belgium’s ruling class.

Lumumba wrote shortly before his murder:

One day history will have its say. But it will not be the history they teach at the UN, in Washington, Paris or Brussels, but the history they teach in countries freed from colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history, and it will be one of glory and dignity. [19]

And works like Ludo De Witte’s will have played a really valuable role in unlocking the past. [20]


1. L. De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba (Verso 2001), p. xxv.

2. Ibid.

3. For Congo under colonial rule see the excellent A. Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Macmillan 1999).

4. L. De Witte, op. cit., p. 2.

5. Ibid., p. 8.

6. Ibid., p. 15.

7. Ibid., p. 17.

8. Ibid., p. 18.

9. Ibid., p. 27.

10. Ibid., p. 46.

11. Ibid., p. 47.

12. The Guardian, 28 June 2001.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. L. De Witte, op. cit., p. 55.

16. Ibid., pp. 177-178.

17. Ibid., p. 178.

18. Ibid., p. 182.

19. Ibid., p. 185.

20. There is a tragic postscript to this story. Thirty years after Patrice was murdered his nephew, Omasase Lumumba, fled Congo and sought asylum in Britain. He ended up in Pentonville prison where he died of a heart attack while being ‘restrained’ by six guards. An inquest jury found that Omasase was unlawfully killed as a result of ‘use of improper methods of excessive force’ by the officers. No disciplinary charges have ever been brought against the prison staff responsible.

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