40 years on—Lumumba still haunts the West

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40 years on - Lumumba still haunts the West
By Derek Ingram, Copyright: Panos Limited (2000)

The preliminary report of a Belgian commission of inquiry into the 1961 murder of Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the former Congo, is expected in October. The evidence is that the Americans ordered it and the Belgians carried it out. The episode, reports Gemini News Service, was one in more than a century of horror that is still preventing the country from becoming a stable and prosperous society.

By DEREK INGRAM
800 words approx.

The tragic picture of Patrice Lumumba, hands tied behind his back, being driven in 1961 through the streets of Katanga province, Congo, on the back of a lorry is still today the most haunting symbol of the trials of the African liberation struggle.

Forty years on, at a time when Africa keeps coming under fire in the Western world for not getting its house in order, have come reminders from history of why much of the continent remains in poor political and economic state.

More evidence has emerged that when United States president Dwight Eisenhower met his national security advisers to talk about the situation in Congo two months after the June 1961 independence he said Lumumba, the country's first prime minister, should be eliminated.

It turns up in the transcript of a 1975 interview with a minute-taker at a Senate inquiry into US covert action - just sent to the national archives in Washington.

In tandem, the Belgian government - Congo was Belgium's richest colony - has at last set up a commission of experts to inquire into the circumstances of Lumumba's death. It will make a first report in October, then begin public hearings.

Lumumba's death was in keeping with colonial barbarity. His body was sawed into bits and dissolved in acid somewhere out in the bush.

Like Lumumba, the story of Congo too is one of almost unrelieved horror from the day in 1885 the Belgian King Leopold II took over the huge mineral-rich area as his personal fiefdom and established what was called the Congo Free State.

It was anything but free. The decades of atrocities have recently been chronicled better than ever before in a brilliant book by Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost.*

Millions died. The chopping off of limbs and worse that went on for decades was the forerunner - maybe even the model - for the atrocities that the world has witnessed more recently in Sierra Leone.

Today the horror in Congo continues. African leaders have been sitting once again in Lusaka under the chairmanship of Zambia's Frederick Chiluba trying to extricate themselves from the war there.

Five countries - Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Uganda and Rwanda - have been sucked into the expensive conflict.

Congo still has no proper, ordered government. Never since independence has the writ of the administration in Kinshasa properly run across a land four times the size of France. And no wonder.

When the Belgians scuttled - there is no other word - in 1960 they let Lumumba out of prison, held a short conference in Brussels, ran elections one week and left the country almost the next.

In its 75-year rule the colonial power had produced fewer than 30 Congolese graduates. There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists or doctors.

Leopold II never even went to Congo himself to witness his handiwork. His grandson, King Baudouin, went for the independence celebration and, with massive insensitivity, in Lumumba's presence praised "the genius" of his grandfather and the great work done by him "and continued by Belgium".

Lumumba was forced into an unplanned response. 

He said: "We have experienced contempt, insults and blows, morning, noon and night because we were blacks."

When Lumumba took over on 30 June 1960, he never had a chance. The Cold War was at its peak. Lumumba, who was above all a nationalist, had taken the 'wrong route' - via Moscow. To win independence for his country there was no other.

Within months the young army commander Joseph Mobutu stepped in to stage the first military coup in Africa. He was the West's man.

No matter that he proceeded to milk the country for personal gain just as Leopold had done decades before him - he was anti-Communist and for Washington that was all that mattered.

The US propped up this mega-crook for 30 years. And Europe, and the British, who knew better, tagged along.

When Mobutu finally went in 1997 the country was in as much disorder as it had ever been. But his successor Laurent Kabila did not have much of a reputation. Ironically, in 1965 he had fought alongside Che Guevara who was then in Congo.

Cuban soldiers were supporting Lumumbists against the Mobutu government. Guevara did not think much of Kabila. His diaries, just published, include a letter to Castro written in October 1965 in which he says scathingly: "I know Kabila well enough not to have any illusions about him."

Congo remains, geographically and in terms of natural resources, the heart of Africa.

By virtue of outside forces, it has never had a chance to begin to establish itself as a stable, organised and prosperous state. And that is true of many other parts of Africa.

It ill becomes those same outside forces to go on blaming Africa for not getting its act together.- GEMINI NEWS

*King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild, Macmillan 1999.

About the Author:  Gemini founder DEREK INGRAM has covered Africa for over 30 years. 

GAR275 Copyright: Panos Limited (2000)

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  • Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

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