Patrice Lumumba assassination and Belgium’s heinous past

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By Lovemore Ranga Mataire

Last Saturday, Belgium inaugurated a public square in Brussels in honour of slain Congo struggle icon, Patrice Emery Lumumba, in what campaigners said was the first step towards tackling its dark colonial past.

The unveiling of the plaque coincided with the commemoration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from Belgium on June 30, 1960.

Lumumba was a Congolese independence leader and the first black Prime Minister of Congo who, as founder of the mainstream Movement National Congolais (MNC) party, played a pivotal role in campaigning for independence from Belgium.

Many viewed the move by Belgium as an attempt to atone for its heinous crimes, which on January 17, 1961, culminated in the assassination of Lumumba.

Hundreds of supporters are said to have cheered as campaigners and officials unveiled a blue plaque bearing the slain Congolese’s name in the square, which is at the entrance to Belgium’s largely Congolese Matonge area.

It is the first public area in the former colonial power to be named in honour of Lumumba who was callously murdered by Belgium, the US and the British agents. Brussels mayor Philippe Close struggled to come to terms with his country’s gory history, as he addressed hundreds of Lumumbists in the Belgian capital.

 A video posted on YouTube showed Close fumbling for an appropriate eulogy that could possibly cleanse him of his ancestors’ debaucheries.

“Today, in the heart of Brussels, by inaugurating Patrice Lumumba Square, we are starting to write our own history. I want this to be an illustrious day that you will keep in your hearts,” said Close. 

Close is said to have been one of the many Belgians who had backed the campaign for a formal honour for Lumumba.

But is the plaque the ultimate atonement for the crimes against humanity committed in the Congo when King Leopold II of Belgium forcibly asserted his imperial authority on a country eight times his own?

Not many Congolese feel satisfied by this latest Belgian move. The murder of Lumumba, which the United Kingdom based daily newspaper, The Guardian, called “The assassination of the Century” was such a devious and heartless act that changed the course of DRC’s history.

The residual effects of that assassination and its attendant consequences are still impacting the lives of ordinary people in the Congo 58 years after gaining independence from Belgium.

Many Congolese are adamant that until and unless the Belgians and all the governments that were involved in the murder of their struggle hero effectively disentangle themselves from their continued looting and involvement in the Congolese politics, none will take their moves to atone for past misdeeds seriously  .

And for the benefit of many, who, because of too much Western rehashing of history, might not be fully aware of how the Congo came to be what it is today, here is a brief history.

The Belgians together with the British and the Americans hatched a plan to liquidate the young and firebrand revolutionary Lumumba, who in his independence speech had unequivocally said the Congo and its resources belong to the Congolese. 

Instead of sanitising the Belgian government, Lumumba squarely blamed the colonial government for gross human rights abuses, the plunder of his country’s resources and called for the restoration of his compatriots’ dignity and the right to decide their own destiny.

Many in the West particularly the Belgians, the US and the British viewed the speech as a direct provocation, an affront to their interests and an impediment to their plans of “long colonialism” in the Congo. 

The speech began with Lumumba addressing the Congolese people and praising independence as the culmination of the national movement struggle rather than the result of Belgian benevolence.

“Although this independence of the Congo is being proclaimed today by agreement with Belgium, an amicable country, with which we are on equal terms, no Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle, a persevering and inspired struggle carried on from day to day, a struggle in which we were undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood,” Lumumba said.

In concluding the speech, Lumumba passionately appealed to the Congolese to make sacrifices for the future and respect the rights of non-indigenous settlers. 

As a pan-African, Lumumba finished his speech by saying that “Congo’s independence is a decisive step towards the liberation of the whole African continent".

Much to the chagrin of Belgian officials present during his inauguration speech, Lumumba exclaimed: “Long live independence and African unity! Long live the independent and sovereign Congo!” 

That speech is regarded by many historians as an enduring badge of an uncompromising revolutionary, which ironically also sealed his “death warrant”. Popular at home, Lumumba was considered too pro-Soviet by the Americans and a plan was hatched to kill him on January 17, 1961, at the age of 35. 

But the Americans, the British and the Belgians had to find a willing black conspirator in a young ambitious Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, who had been promoted by Prime Minister Lumumba to the position of chief of staff of the army.

With the assistance of the Americans, Belgians and the British, Lumumba was apprehended by soldiers loyal to Mobutu. He was humiliated by young soldiers who in the glare of the public in an open truck forced him to swallow a paper which contained his speech.

The crisis in the Congo had emanated from a shaky coalition government formed at independence on June 30, 1960, led by Prime Minister Lumumba and President Joseph Kasavubu.  

The source of the crisis was the continued presence of Belgian army officers occupying positions in the army. This led to a mutiny. Lumumba entrusted his most trusted lieutenant, Mobutu, the chief of staff, to deal with the issue. In his capacity as chief of staff, Mobutu toured the country convincing soldiers to return to their barracks. 

Little did Lumumba know that Mobutu had already been a mole for the Belgians and had his own parochial ambitions. When Lumumba turned to the Soviet for help to quell the secession of Katanga led by Moise Tshombe, the US, the Belgians and the British were vindicated that indeed the young Congolese leader was a communist on a mission to spread communism in Central Africa.

Employing the divide and rule tactic, the US and Belgium urged Kasavubu to dismiss Lumumba, which he did on September 5, 1961. Lumumba, in turn, declared Kasavubu deposed but parliament refused to recognise both dismissals and called for reconciliation. 

Without an agreement in sight, Mobutu, who favoured the withdrawal of Russian presence in the Congo, launched a bloodless coup and declared both Kasavubu and Lumumba “neutralised” and established a new government of university graduates. When Lumumba rejected this action, he was forced to retire to his residence where UN peacekeepers prevented Mobutu’s soldiers from arresting him.

Some believe that the mistake made by Lumumba was to leave his residence which was at the time fortified by UN troops and join his supporters at Stanleyville with a view of establishing a new government. 

In early December of 1960, Lumumba was captured by Mobutu’s troops and incarcerated at his headquarters in Thysville. 

Mobutu still viewed his former boss as a threat and on January 17, 1961, Lumumba was transferred to the rebelling state of Katanga where he disappeared from public view.

It was later discovered that he was murdered the same day by the secessionist forces of Moise Tshombe after Mobutu’s government turned him over. 

The Americans, Belgians and the US seized the opportunity and took hold of Lumumba who was shot, and his body was cut into pieces, incinerated by acid in a sack and reportedly thrown in the Congo River, never to be seen again.

Writing in the British daily newspaper, The Guardian in January 2011, George Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Congolese national who is a professor of African and Afro-American studies at the University of Carolina at Chappel Hill and author of "The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History", says:

“In the Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on June 30, 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.”

So, 57 years after the callous murder of Lumumba, countries that conspired to liquidate the Congolese hero must do more than piecemeal gestures of placing a plaque on public squares. There is need for more than just an apology.

There is need for the US, Belgium and the British to own up to their sordid history in the Congo. And that owning up involves a lot of explanations. Belgium, a country eight times smaller than the Congo, needs to be open how it became the centre of diamond processing when it does not have a single diamond mine.

Belgium needs also to own up to the more than 10 million Congolese murdered by King Leopold II from 1885 to 1908 when the Congo was his personal property. Although Leopold himself never visited Congo, he is believed to have fed himself with the income from the plunder of the country’s resources, including building palaces, monuments and museums and bought expensive clothes and villas for his teenage mistress.

And the Americans need to own up to the historical reality of the fact that the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6-9, 1945, during the final stage of the Second World War was made from uranium mined from Shinkolobwe mine in the province of Katanga.

This was the richest uranium mine in the world with its ore having an average of 65 percent uranium oxide compared with American or Canadian ore, which contained less than 1 percent.

It is also important that while the Americans never acquired colonies, its history in the looting, exploitation and murder of indigenous people in Africa particularly in Congo must be documented in its own education curriculum.

The same applies to Belgium. The attempt to expurgate from Belgium’s official memory of the atrocities committed in the Congo must never be allowed to fester. Many generations in Belgium were brought up with the view that Belgium brought civilisation to Congo, that they did nothing but good. This kind of miseducation does not promote concrete post-colonial mutual understanding.

Finally, if Britain, Belgium and the US are to be taken serious by every contentious being, they must do Africa and the world good by shipping out of the Congo and halt any covet sponsoring of chaos, confusion and all sorts of rebel incursions into the DRC. 

Congolese, like what Lumumba said, deserve “the right to their destiny”.

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