The Assassination of Lumumba by Ludo De Witte (translated by Ann Wright and Renee Fenby). Pub: Verso Books, London/New York, 2001. (Published in South Africa by Jacana, www.jacana.co.za). Pp 226. Pbk: $15.00.
Few events in contemporary history have been the target of such a vicious campaign of disinformation as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, and a pioneer of African nationalism and unity. Lumumba was murdered on 17 January 1961, less than six months after being elected prime minister of the former Belgian colony. His murder was portrayed primarily as an internal Congolese affair, and nothing to do with the West.
This book turns this version upside-down, and unravels the abysmal mass of lies, hypocrisy and deception that has surrounded accounts of the assassination of Lumumba. By the use of official sources such as the archives of the United Nations and the Belgian foreign ministry, as well as personal testimonies from those directly involved in the murder, De Witte reveals a network of deception that stretches from the Belgian government to the American CIA and the UN leadership.
Congolese independence was primarily an expression of the anti-colonial revolution that pitted the colonialist North against the colonised South. In 1960, sixteen African states gained their independence, the largest, and potentially wealthiest of them all, being the Congo. To counter the obstacle that independence presented, former colonial powers were forced to replace their policy of overt domination with one of indirect control, and the new national leaders were expected to refrain from challenging the neo-colonial order.
The author describes how Lumumba, a radical nationalist whose election to power had surprised Brussels, barred the way to this goal because he advocated a complete decolonisation that would benefit all the people. Lumumba’s government intended to claim its rightful independence immediately, and hoped to persuade the Congolese people to build a unified nation in a democratic state with the rule of law.
In doing so, all vestiges of colonialism and all forms of neo-colonialism were to be destroyed: a situation that would have been detrimental to the interests of the colonial trusts, the missions and the colonial bureaucracy that had just been handed over to the infant state. These pillars of colonialism had expected to hold on to their privileged positions in an independent Congo, albeit with an African veneer.
De Witte brilliantly describes Lumumba’s stirring inaugural speech as prime minister on 30 June 1960. It reinforced the Congolese people’s sense of dignity and self-confidence, and rang an ominous warning bell for the colonial powers. Brussels had reached a turning-point in its relationship with its former colony, and was suddenly facing the anti-colonial revolution it had feared. The "nigger upstart", as Lumumba had been described only a few weeks earlier in the Belgian press, was clearly not going to toe the neo-colonial line, and followed his inspiring words with concrete actions, which ultimately lead to his death.
De Witte shows how the secession of Katanga, the copper-producing province that delivered the only success for Belgium in the elections, was the beginning of the crisis in the Congo. Katanga proved to be an important instrument in the destruction of the Congolese government. He also describes the murder of Lumumba, as well as events leading up to the brutal assassination.
The book tells the story of Lumumba’s overthrow by the international players who engineered intervention and dissent in the Congo from the beginning. The Eyskens government of Belgium propped up the puppet government of Katanga, and installed and supported Moise Tshombe and Joseph-Desire Mobutu as rogue leaders. American presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy supported interventions by the UN to prevent Lumumba from calling on sympathetic African armies or the Soviet Union to combat Belgian-Katangese aggression. Senior UN officials, headed by Dag Hammarskjold, deployed an array of military forces in Katanga and played a decisive role in helping to overthrow the Congolese government. Lumumba invited the UN into the Congo to help preserve law and order. The UN, however, declared itself neutral and refused to lend any assistance whatsoever to the legal government of the Congo.
De Witte shows quite clearly that the UN leadership supported the war that the Western powers were waging against Lumumba’s government, and that at certain times the UN was a willing tool of Western interference: a situation that has barely changed some 40 years later.
A secret CIA unit was assigned the task of eliminating Lumumba, in collaboration with Brussels, which also sent out a commando operation, codenamed Operation Barracuda. In a telegram to Lawrence Devlin, the CIA station chief in the Congo, Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA at the time, wrote:
...it is the clear-cut conclusion that if [Lumumba] continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will at best be chaos and at worst pave the way for a Communist takeover of the Congo with disastrous consequences for the prestige of the UN and for the interests of the free world generally. Consequently we concluded that his removal must be an urgent and prime objective and that under existing conditions this should be a high priority of our covert action.
Eventually the CIA pulled out of the operation to kill Lumumba in December 1960, but Operation Barracuda reached a horrifically successful conclusion on 17 January 1961.
De Witte, however, does not merely present a simple analysis of Western strategies, troop-deployments or state visits. He also gives some attention to the suffering of Patrice Lumumba during the last days and hours. He was then the world’s most famous prisoner, thus making this an essentially human story. He describes how Lumumba and two aides were transferred to Katanga, delivering him into the hands of his worst enemies. De Witte’s interviews with former police commissioner Gerard Soete are startling. They describe how Soete, who disposed of Lumumba’s body, showed journalists two of Lumumba’s teeth and a bullet taken from his skull. He is also reported to have kept one of Lumumba’s phalanx bones as a morbid souvenir. Lumumba’s hair and beard were ripped from his skin while he was still alive.
Lumumba’s blood is also on the hands of the many journalists who demonised him, and portrayed him as a bloodthirsty, power-hungry, revolutionary demagogue. The rhetoric of the media during the period discredited his political achievements, and he was described in the press as an illiterate thief. In the days preceding the secession of Katanga, fabricated stories of rape and pillage by Congolese soldiers appeared in both Congolese and Belgian newspapers, thus prompting an exodus to Belgium. Belgian prime minister Eyskens used this exodus as an excuse to intervene in the Congo. The press and media were also a key element in the cover-up of Lumumba’s murder, portraying the murder as a defensive action by the Belgian authorities. The ecclesiastical hierarchy also proved an important source of support for the western powers. As with apartheid, the church must answer for its role and assistance in such atrocities.
This book is written in a free-flowing style. The narrative is simple and easy to understand, and at times the reader can be forgiven for thinking that this is an exciting political thriller. However, one is jolted into reality by the chilling fact that De Witte’s work is not fiction, but grounded firmly in reality. The Assassination of Lumumba has been painstakingly researched, and De Witte is thorough in his analysis and discussion of the events and role-players. However, too little attention has been paid to aspects of Lumumba’s life, such as his education, political influences and family. Lumumba’s political philosophy is only dealt with in a few pages of the last chapter. Given the impact of Lumumba’s brief, yet successful, political career , his political and philosophical understanding and perceptions should have been explored further.
The book also contains a detailed index, in-depth end-notes, and a selected bibliography that will be a useful research-tool for students of African nationalism and history, international studies and politics. By telling the story of a crime whose victim was a legally elected prime minister, whose only offence was his determination to liberate his people from the tyrannical control of the West, it brings into perspective a factor that is usually ignored in work on African history. As De Witte points out, Lumumba was the leader of an embryonic nationalist movement that, had the West not shattered it, could have transformed Africa. The object of the crime was not merely to eliminate Lumumba physically, but to eradicate his legacy from the collective memory and conscience of young Africans who strove for similar ideals. Unlike other stalwarts of the African nationalism, such as Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, so little is known about Lumumba that people can be forgiven for saying "Patrice who?"
In a farewell letter to his wife, Patrice Lumumba wrote: h istory will one day have its say. It will not be the history taught in the United Nations, Washington, Paris, or Brussels, however, but the history taught in the countries that have rid themselves of colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history, and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history full of glory and dignity.
It is to be hoped that the exposure of Western deception and manipulation in the Congo and other parts of Africa will lead to the development of the dignified and glorious history of which Lumumba wrote. Ludo De Witte has already made a significant contribution to the creation of such a legacy by writing this book.
[Suraya Dadoo is a Researcher at the Media Review Network, Pretoria, South Africa.]