The celebrations of DRC’s independence on June 30, 2022, were different. Having received the remains of Patrice Lumumba whose golden tooth was taken by a Belgian officer when his body was dissolved in acid in 1961, the people of Congo had an opportunity to finally say goodbye.
That was an act of great symbolic meaning, one which provided a reminder of one of the saddest episodes in African history.
It started in September 1874, when Henry Morton Stanley arrived in Zanzibar for a journey that was going to change Congo forever. The goal was to determine where the Congo River ended, thus establishing a route for navigation into the interior. After three years, Stanley’s work opened Congo to European colonisation.
The next 80 years were the most brutal in Africa. The Belgians took the people of Congo as slaves – and they did not hesitate butchering whole villages to have their way. 10 million people died.
Therefore, when the Belgian King called independence “the crown of the work conceived by the genius of Leopold II” and called Leopold II “a champion of civilization” on the day of independence in 1960, he touched a very raw nerve. Lumumba wasn’t going to allow that to slide.
“Victorious fighters,” he stated, “I salute you in the name of the Congolese government.”
“No Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that we have won, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood.
“Who will ever forget the massacres where so many of our brothers perished, the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were thrown?”
Thousands of Africans present at the Palais du Nation in Kinshasa gave the speech big loud applause. In New York, Malcolm X called it the “greatest speech” made by the “greatest black man who ever walked the African continent.”
To the Belgians, though, the speech was utter humiliation.
Less than seven months later, at 36, Lumumba lied dead in a ditch next to a Belgian officer who gave the order to kill him. That night the Belgian wrote in his diary “9.43 pm. L. Dead” and Congo was launched into an orbit of chaos it hasn’t escaped since.
Lumumba’s meteoric rise into political stardom has baffled many given his humble beginnings, limited education, and tender age. A decade earlier he was working as a poorly educated postal clerk in Kisangani where in only six years he was married to three women and had two lovers.
But driven with a powerful sense of purpose, he pursued education and soon became the president of the most prestigious African association in Kisangani.
But all that was short-circuited in 1956 when he was imprisoned for ‘creative accounting.’ Lumumba blamed the system: “How can a man improve his standard of living with such an inadequate income?” In prison, Lumumba wrote a book which provided an interesting perspective into Lumumba’s worldview then.
“It is thanks to Belgium that we are what we are,” he wrote. “It is thanks to Belgium that our country, risen from nothing only yesterday, is destined to rise in a few decades to the ranks of the civilised nations.”
That’s a Lumumba that many are unfamiliar with.
Upon release in 1958, Lumumba went to live in Kinshasa and got a well-paying job that connected him to the masses. Before the year was over, he was elected President of Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) that was leading the struggle for independence, his first real political experience.
In the 1950s, Congo was a booming economy. Growth led to an expansion of an educated class of Africans who demanded more rights. But the question of independence was still far away – possibly 30 years away, in the Belgians’ analysis.
But in January 1959, riots in Kinshasa alarmed the Belgians and they started to hastily organise Congo for independence. Thus, independence was granted when it was least expected, and the Congolese were hardly prepared for what was to follow.
Reviewing the months leading to Lumumba’s death reveal that he had many powerful enemies including the US government, the United Nations, the Belgian government, and Africans such as Mobutu, Kasa-Vubu, and Moise Tshombe.
The question of how Lumumba managed to inspire so much hatred in so many people in so short a time requires our utmost attention.
One of the most common reasons given is that Lumumba was an imbalanced individual with a messianic complex. He is often described as erratic, inflexible, dictatorial, radical – you get the picture.
Nonetheless, the more one reads what Lumumba himself said – not what others say about him – the clearer it becomes that he was not a mad man and that many of those accusations are unfounded.
Yes, Lumumba had conflicts with other Africans. Yes, Lumumba increasingly approached Belgians as equals (a cardinal sin!). Yes, Lumumba used his oratory skills and charisma to dominate discussions. But is there any nationalist leader where the above didn’t apply?
One has to look elsewhere for real reasons behind his assassination.
One, Lumumba threatened Belgian interests. The Belgians offered independence knowing that the Congolese would continue to depend on them for years to come. But Lumumba believed that political freedom had to be accompanied by economic freedom.
Two, as a nationalist, Lumumba threatened tribal interests. Moise Tshombe’s Katanga was producing 60 per cent of Congo’s revenues and Tshombe wanted to control that wealth. For the national government, that meant bankruptcy.
Three, Lumumba threatened ideological interests. Often, Lumumba tried to play the US and the USSR against each other. But the timing could not have been worse for such games – the Cold War was raging and Africa was going to be the next arena.
Inexplicably, Lumumba was painted as an African Castro and when Eisenhower commented that all needed to be done to keep the Russians out of Congo, Lumumba’s fate was sealed.
Four, Lumumba threatened personal interests. When the Congolese army revolted, Lumumba promoted 29-year-old Sergeant Joseph Mobutu to become a Colonel, and then made him a Chief of Staff of the army.
But Mobutu was already on the CIA’s payroll and Africa has to thank the West for creating one of the most thoughtless kleptomaniacs in its history.
Converged by many interests
In short, there were many things. Too many interests converged against Lumumba. He had risen too fast. He lacked any machinery to protect him. He was inexperienced. He promoted the wrong people. He didn’t anticipate betrayal.
He didn’t move against Katanga early enough. And he foolishly moved across the country making speeches after his final escape instead of rushing to the safety of his stronghold in Kisangani.
In writing about Lumumba, I have gone from being a critic to being sympathetic. In the process, I have had to reject the notion that Lumumba was imbalanced. I have seen a man that cared deeply for his children and for his nation, and a man that was growing fast.
This is the man whose political career barely lasted three years but was killed because he wouldn’t compromise his people.
Lumumba’s martyrdom made him an African hero. The Congo and the Africa Lumumba left behind have vindicated him – what we see in Africa is exactly what he gave his life fighting against. Africa could use more Lumumbas.
Finally, it needs to be said, Belgium got away with murder. What happened in Congo cannot and should not be relegated to the past. The cold-blooded nature with which the Belgians went about their business in Congo needs to be openly confronted today.
If there is a case for reparation, Congo is one.
Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available at email@example.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.