The Life and Times of Patrice Lumumba

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Patrice Lumumba was murdered in January 1961 When his death was finally announced the following month there was uproar. Protests swept cities and towns across the globe. Malcolm X described Lumumba as “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent”

Yes it was the final three years of Patrice Lumumba’s life that are the most important and provide the most valuable lessons for us.

The DRC was occupied by Belgium for its resources of elephant ivory, rubber and minerals. The Belgian ruling class extracted what they could at an inhuman pace. Any Congolese who did not extract a certain amount of rubber each day had one or both hands cut off – including those of three-year old children. Starvation, murder and rape were also used. Over eleven-and-a-half million Congolese were wiped out in a campaign of genocide.

Violent colonial occupation

The barbarity of the capitalists did not stop the Congolese from fighting back. They mounted waves of armed resistance to the Belgians in the late 1800s. Another period of resistance was the 1920 and 1930s. Churches organised religious resistance. But the banner of nationalist independence was not raised.

These were the times that Lumumba was born into in 1925. He ran away in 1944 to the towns and cities. A new colony was developing. Industry was being developed and new mining communities were established across the country. The development of industry gave rise to a working class. Taking its cue from the religious resistance, workers resisted with strikes and Congolese soldiers mutinied. Reasons included wages, working conditions and an end to forced labour, amongst others. Congo’s population was becoming radicalised along class lines.

Arriving in Stanleyville (now Lubumbashi), Lumumba quickly became a leading member of the évolués in the city. The évolués – meaning literally “the evolved” — were a group of educated Congolese men who were trained to take part in the civilising mission of the Belgian state. They were given low-ranking jobs in government, groomed to regard themselves at champions of the ‘Belgian Congo’. For much of the 1950s. But he did not remain that way for long.

In the beginning Lumumba an advocate for the colonial project

In 1957 he relocated to the capital Leopoldville (Kinshasa). Leopoldville became infected by the ideas of independence and political liberation – particularly from Ghana and Nkrumah. Visiting the French colonial city of Brazzaville he was struck by how little racism and segregation it had of Leopoldville.

This influenced Lumumba. He became politically active and in November 1958 he was elected to lead what became the principal party of national liberation –- the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC).

But Belgium was desperate to control the pace of radicalisation. It sought to manipulate and divide the country’s emerging political parties. Other Western states were also desperate to ensure that Congo’s independence did not mean real political and economic autonomy. They wanted access to the minerals like cobalt.

On 4 January 1959 Leopoldville erupted into violence. The demonstration was crushed by the notoriously brutal colonial army. Hundreds were killed. It was the most significant event which led to three important changes. Firstly, the belief that a long transition and common understanding could pave the way to Congolese independence was over. Secondly, it radicalised the Congolese population living in urban areas. Thirdly it broke the conservative hold of the Congolese evolues (elites). This also led to the break-down of master-servant relations that had been solid a year before.

Lumumba was only released from detention when negotiations launched

Congolese society was transformed. Mass meetings took place, strikes spread and the movement for independence finally broke away from the ranks of the évolués. Lumumba threw himself into the frenzy. By March 1959, the MNC had 58,000 members. Lumumba’s militancy rose with the gathering radicalisation. Now he demanded independence without delay. He also provided a voice for the grievances of workers. But other members of the évolués saw their future in an alliance with the colonial power, and later with the US. Arrested, beaten and imprisoned at the end of 1959, Lumumba was only released when negotiations were launched in Brussels in January 1960.

The negotiations led to a date for independence: 30 June 1960. But Lumumba’s radicalism had meant that he was hated by the Belgian elite. They decided to undermine efforts of the MNC to win the May 1960 general election.

However the MNC emerged victorious. Lumumba was now the undoubted leader of Congo’s future. Still he refused to accept deals with the departing power. Congo’s independence would be just that: an independent nation state free to decide on its own path.

But the celebrations quickly ended. In July, Belgium promoted the secession of the mineral-rich provinces Katanga and Kasai. These new “states” were immediately recognised – and armed and supported by the old colonial power. Some évolués – using the language of ethnic divide and rule – helped provide an African veneer to these artificial breakaway provinces.

Appeals for military support rejected by African leaders

Lumumba’s desperate appeals for military support to pan-Africanist comrades, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, were rejected – lofty promises tragically betrayed. Lumumba then tried to mobilise his supporters. As the power he had just acquired began to slip away, he turned to the ranks of the MNC and those who had propelled the Congo to independence.

But the forces against him and his comrades were too great. Leading militants of the nationalist movement fell to bribes and co-option. Joseph Mobutu — the future dictator of the country, until then an ally and friend of Lumumba – was openly bribed by the US and persuaded to organise a coup in September.

By October 1960 there were four operations underway to assassinate Lumumba. Western states openly called for his government to be removed.

Radio stations had either been pulled off the air or refused to broadcast messages from Lumumba. Lumumba fled the capital in November and attempted to reach his supporters in Stanleyville. He was arrested days later. He knew that this meant death. Writing in prison to his wife he said,

“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.”

Lumumba brutally murdered.

Six months after his election, Lumumba was murdered. Most of his body was dissolved in acid. What remained was burned. His murderers were determined to wipe away any memories of him.

Whist the MNC received floods of complaints against vicious employers and low pay, the MNC was unprepared to respond to these demands. Lumumba was well aware of the tensions between the mass of the population and the leadership of the MNC. The MNC leaders were very often too cautious and conservative. The MNC did not have the political ideology to construct a programme of social transformation that meant anything more than nationalist ‘independence’. The leaders of the MNC were petit-bourgeois and student-intelligentsia.

It was this layer that sought to neutralise Lumumba with western assistance. It was this layer that was prepared to fracture the Congo to safeguard its mineral wealth for the elites.

Lumumba also made errors. He turned to the United Nations for help. Officially it sought to protect the Congo’s independence but refused to stop western operations in the Congo. Lumumba also relied on his majority in Parliament. But his enemies knew that matters would be decided on, and settled, outside Parliament.

“Can you have political independence without economic independence?”

Despite these errors, Lumumba is an inspiration. He was a nationalist in the middle of the 1950s. But when the population radicalised, so too did Lumumba. He stood with the masses as they fought. As his son Francois describes the last year of his life

“…he started to move beyond the spirit of nationalism. He discovered in the course of 1960 that not all Congolese had the same interpretation of independence, our “brothers” were fighting for something completely different. In his actions and speeches he became more precise and spoke of workers, justice and inequality. How can you have political independence without economic independence?”

The Congolese movement of 1958-61 showed yet again that urban workers and rural masses have the power to shatter imperialism and its local agents – but also require the political analysis and strategy to bring about victory.

What was required, and what was lacking was an organisation that could respond effectively to the demands of the urban poor and lead them to re-organising Congolese society.

For socialists, this is not just a heroic and tragic story, it is a vital lesson for struggles today and in the future. The story of the Congo in 1958 to 1961 explains how middle class leaders rise to power on the back of popular aspirations – but also betray those aspirations.

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