Was Comrade Patrice Lumumba a threat to imperialism?

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Patrice Lumumba speaks at the Senate meeting opposing him to Justin Bomboko in Leopoldville, Congo. AP

Patrice Emery Lumumba was born on the 2nd of July 1925 and died 17 January 1961. He was a Congolese politician and independence leader who served as the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Republic of the Congo) from June until September 1960. He played a significant role in the transformation of Congo from a colony of Belgium into an independent republic. Ideologically an African Nationalist and Pan Africanist, he led the Congolese National Movement (MNC) party from 1958 until his assassination.

Shortly after Congolese independence in 1960, a mutiny broke out in the army marking the beginning of the Congo Crisis. Lumumba appealed to the United States and the United Nations for help to suppress the Belgian supported Katangan secessionists led by Moise Tshombe. Both refused. So, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for support. This led to the growing differences with President Joseph Kasavubu and Chief of Staff Joseph Desire Mobutu as well as with the United States and Belgium, who opposed the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Lumumba was subsequently imprisoned by state authorities under Mobutu and executed by a firing squad under the command of Katangan authorities. Following his assassination, he was widely seen as a martyr for the wider Pan-African movement. In 2002, Belgium formally apologised for its role in the assassination.

In the White House, President Eisenhower held a National Security Council meeting in the summer of 1960 in which at one point he turned to his CIA director and used the word “eliminated” in terms of what he wanted done with Lumumba. The CIA got to work. It came up with a series of plans – including snipers and poisoned toothpaste – to get rid of the Congolese leader. They were not carried out because the CIA man on the ground, Larry Devlin, said he was reluctant to see them through.

Murder was also on the mind of some in London. A Foreign Office official called Howard Smith wrote a memo outlining several options. “The first is the simple one of removing him from the scene by killing him,” the civil servant (and later head of MI5) wrote of Lumumba, who was ousted from power but still considered a threat. MI6 never had a formal “licence to kill”. However, at various times killing has been put on the agenda – but normally at the behest of politicians rather than the spies.

Anthony Eden, prime minister at the time of Suez, had made it clear he wanted Nasser dead and more recently David Owen has said that as Foreign Secretary, he had a conversation with MI6 about killing Idi Amin in Uganda (neither of which came to anything). But in January 1961, Lumumba was dead.

The comments attributed to Daphne Park by Lord Lea are subtler than saying that Britain killed Lumumba. Lord Lea claims Baroness Park told him that Britain had “organised” the killing. This is more possible.

Among the senior politicians in the Congo who made the decision to hand Lumumba over to those who eventually did kill him were two men with close connections to Western intelligence. One of them was close to Larry Devlin and the CIA but the other was close to Daphne Park. She had rescued him from danger by smuggling him to freedom in the back of her small Citroen car when Lumumba’s people had guessed he was in contact with her.

Do these contacts and relationships mean MI6 could have been complicit in some way in the death of Lumumba? It is possible that they knew about it and turned a blind eye, allowed it to happen or even actively encouraged it – what we would now call “complicity” – as well as the other possibility of having known nothing.

The killing would have almost certainly happened anyway because so many powerful people and countries wanted Lumumba dead. Whitehall sources describe the claims of MI6 involvement as “speculative”. But with Daphne Park dying in March 2010 and the MI6 files resolutely closed, the final answer on Britain’s role may remain elusive.

Just as planned, Lumumba’s death was announced a month later, on February 13, 1961. Interior Minister Munongo announced that the three prisoners killed their guards and escaped in a getaway car before they were recognized by villagers, who beat them to death. The truth was hidden despite international protests at Belgian embassies nationwide until 1999 when Ludo De Witte’s book titled, The Assassination of Lumumba, presented new evidence taken from documents long hidden in official archives and interviews of surviving witnesses.

The Belgian Parliament established a commission of enquiry three months after the book was published to determine the circumstances of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and if the Belgian government was involved.

The report was presented after 18 months of investigation in 2002 and then published as a book in 2004 for the public. It concluded that Belgium had a moral responsibility in the assassination of Lumumba and that it “acted under pressure from the Belgian public, which had heard for days about violence against Belgian citizens in Congo.”

It said there were plans to kill Lumumba and the Belgian government showed little respect for the sovereign status of the Congolese government. The commission confirmed that secret funds (about $8 million today) were used to finance the policy against the Lumumba government by the Ministry of African Affairs, reports the Brussels Times.

The success of the European conquest and the nature of African resistance must be seen in light of Western Europe’s long history of colonial rule and economic exploitation around the world. In fact, by 1885 Western Europeans had mastered the art of divide, conquer, and rule, honing their skills over four hundred years of imperialism and exploitation.

When Europeans turned to Africa to satisfy their greed for resources, prestige, and empire, they quickly worked their way into African societies to gain allies and proxies, and to co-opt the captured kings and chiefs, all to further their exploits.


Dr Mustafa Mheta is a Researcher and of the Head of Africa Desk at the Media Review Network based in Johannesburg, South Africa.