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Iterations of assassinations in Africa

It wasn’t just Patrice Lumumba his assassins wanted to kill, it was the genuine self-determination, dreams and aspirations of African people, writes Horace Campbell, reflecting on the murder of the DRC’s (Democratic Republic of Congo) first prime minister on 17 January 1961.

In the experiences of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and of Africa, the iterations of assassinations were meant to kill the genuine self-determination of the African peoples. Of these crimes, the murder and cover up of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba continues to reverberate across Africa, crying out for a break from the recursive patterns of genocidal politics and economics. Patrice Lumumba was the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo. The DRC won its independence in June 1960, but the wishes of the Belgian colonialists were that the conditions after independence should not be different from that of the colonial era. In the Congo, Belgium – a small divided society in Europe – had worked to get a seat at the table of imperial overlords. In the eyes of the Belgians, the crime of Patrice Lumumba was that he refuted the speech of the King of Belgium at the independence celebration in June 1960. Lumumba refused to accept the representation of the Belgian mission as one of civilising and modernising the Congolese peoples. Lumumba was removed from office less than two months after independence. He was placed under house arrest; he escaped but recaptured, beaten, tortured and eventually eliminated. This pattern of murder, torture and destruction continues today, 50 years after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

From the time of the assassination of Lumumba, almost every African leader who sought to chart a course for genuine independence was assassinated, whether it was Eduardo Mondlane, Amilcar Cabral, Herbert Chitepo, Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, Felix Moumie, Chris Hani or Steve Biko. Violence against leaders was accompanied by the intimidation and assassination of journalists, students, opposition leaders and any social force that challenged oppression of Africans and the plunder of their resources. This nested loop of genocidal thinking, genocidal economics and genocidal politics has generated 11 wars in the Congo since 1960, and all of these wars have had implications for almost all the regions of Africa in relation to genocide, militarism, dictatorship, economic plunder and patriarchal models of liberation.

The task of reconstruction and the recovery of the dignity of the Congo and of Africa is a challenge that requires a decisive and revolutionary break with the ideas, organisations and the modes of political and economic practices that dehumanises Africans. The youth of Africa are everywhere calling for an elaboration of their humanity, and are challenging the devaluation of life. From Tunisia and Egypt in the North to South Africa and Zimbabwe in the South, the youths are seeking new organisations and ideas that can break from the centuries of oppression. The celebration of Lumumba should be accompanied by the spirit of healing and reconstruction and calls on the peoples of Africa to draw from the determination of Patrice Lumumba to continue the struggles for emancipation and unity.


Despite the history of European plunder, looting and savagery in the Congo from the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the present, the intellectual culture of the West represents the peoples of the Congo and Africa as uncivilised, open to atavistic violence and awaiting modernisation projects from Europeans. In November, I attended a session of the African Studies Association meeting in San Francisco, USA, where there were some young scholars making a presentation on Eastern Congo. In the main, the quality of the work was so shallow and devoid of historical context that one Congolese scholar in the back of the room asked if the presenters were aware that there were Congolese scholars who have been doing scholarly work on reconstruction and peace in the Congo. This question is very pertinent in the present moment in so far as many of the scholars and researchers from Turkey, India, Brazil, China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan turn to the work of European and US conservative scholars to orient their ‘humanitarian’ projects in Africa. Jacques Depelchin, Nzongola Ntalaja and countless others have documented the horrors of the forced labour, brutality and the genocide of over ten million Africans by the Belgians but their brand of scholarship and activist intervention was marginalised by the dominant Western intellectual institutions.

The documentation of Western atrocities in the Congo has also been brought to a wider audience by the writer Adam Hochschild, whose book, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’, has reached a wider community than that which was accessible to African researchers and scholars. Hochschild built upon the work of Mark Twain in bringing to a larger audience the plunder and murder of the colonial enterprise. In his day, Malcolm X challenged mainstream historians and linked the history of genocide in the pan-African world to the murder of Lumumba and the search for self-determination by the peoples of the Congo.

Scholars trained in African studies centres of the West could not write clearly about the iterations of assassinations because of the ways in which the academy had been polluted by the modernising discourse that was supposed to depoliticise Africans. Malcolm X challenged US scholars to detail the massacres in the Congo. In a well-publicised exchange at Brooklyn College on 24 November 1964, the professors told Malcolm X that he was an alarmist and that Leopold civilised the Africans in a humanitarian campaign. It was in this intellectual climate that Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives was reared. Gingrich wrote his doctoral thesis at Tulane University on the civilising role of the Belgians in the Congo. In some academic centres, such as the African Studies Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison, there were specialists on politics in the Congo. The students of these professors have dominated the US bureaucracy and academia for the past 40 years, reproducing modernisation theories and the failings of the ‘tribal’ African.

Malcolm X himself was assassinated in February 1965 when he articulated a clear understanding of the linkages between racism and oppression in the United States and massacres and murders in Africa. His famous dictum, ‘You cannot understand what is going on in Mississippi if you do not understand what is going on in the Congo’ is as true today as it was when he uttered these words. The current military crisis in the DRC (especially in the Eastern regions) brings out the need for activists to grasp the burden of history in order to understand the present and chart a new course for the future.

These utterances by Malcolm X were part of his work as a mobiliser and truth teller. Malcolm X met with Abdurrahman Babu and Che Guevara in 1964 after the Johnson administration supported mercenaries to abort the second independence struggle in the Congo. Their meeting had agreed on a strategy to move beyond political mobilising to put in place a plan for liberation in the Congo and in the Americas. Four months after this historic meeting between three great freedom fighters, Malcolm X was gunned down in Harlem and the CIA hunted down and murdered Che Guevara. (See details in the book by Karl Evanzz, ‘The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X’). Professor Manning Marable is also working on a new book that exposes the conspiracy to murder and cover up.

The iterations of assassinations had taken their own roller coaster ride so that not even the president of the United States was immune to this mindset of killing and murder. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 by the forces of the military industrial complex and the intelligence agencies that continue to promote death tendencies all over the world. James Douglass, in his book, ‘JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters’, has documented in extensive detail how the cover-up of the assassination has been even more elaborate and meticulous than the actual assassination. This same cover-up continues in the cases of Martin Luther King Jr and hundreds of freedom fighters whose lives have been snuffed out at an early age.


Since the murder of Lumumba, mainstream intellectual work inside Europe and North America has covered up and distorted the conditions under which Lumumba was assassinated. Former officials of the United Nations have written a number of books on the influence of the United States over the decision making processes in international bodies dealing with the Congo at this time. The record has been established by various authorities on the manipulation of the major international institutions in order to cover up murder. The United States manipulated the United Nations on the question of the Congo so that Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah who had called for UN intervention against European mercenaries found that the UN was working to support the same mercenaries and their employers in Belgium, France, and the United States. When Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary general of the UN, woke up to this manipulation, he himself was assassinated. Many UN operatives who were appalled by the callous behaviour of the US and the CIA have written about the sordid tale of Moose Tshombe (puppet leader of Katanga) and the secession in Katanga. Kwame Nkrumah wrote ‘The Challenge of the Congo’ to underline the centrality of this challenge for the unification and liberation of Africa.

Richard Mahoney who wrote the book, ‘JFK: Ordeal in Africa’ had studied the tremendous energies invested in the control of the Congo in the period when the US was implicated in the murder of Patrice Lumumba. Mahoney termed the whole thrust of the policy a story of stupidity. This study, the product of a doctoral dissertation at John Hopkins University, detailed how the Congo became the centrepiece of US African policy in the 1960s. Mahoney made the argument that the US foreign policy was confused in purpose and contradictory in execution. But he did not challenge the fundamental realist and androcentric assumptions of graduate training. The role of the CIA and elements of the State Department in building alternatives to Patrice Lumumba leading to the massive support for Mobutism has been the subject of numerous studies. One of these explicitly entitled, ‘America’s Tyrant: The CIA and Mobutu of Zaire’ covers the whole military, economic and intelligence apparatus that was provided to enable Mobutu to rule in a tyrannical manner over the peoples of the Congo. President Clinton, in clear reference to the linkages between the US government and Mobutu, apologised to the people of Africa in Kampala, Uganda in March 1998 by declaring that during the Cold War, the US was blinded by its confrontation with the Soviet Union and hence supported elements such as Mobutu. How can the activists ensure that these apologies of the leader of the USA are not simple political gimmickry? Up to the present, there needs to be a clearer exposure of the US establishment and these assassinations. The attempt to poison Patrice Lumumba exposed the mindset of biological warfare that was to be later experimented in Africa. One scholar also opened the reality that it was in the Congo that the US first experimented with extraordinary rendition.

Neither the speech of the-then President Clinton nor policy formulations from the current National Security apparatus link the present policies of transnational corporations to the kind of policies that connived to perpetrate the elimination of Lumumba. The linkages between the bureaucracy and the University in the Cold War produced a generation of scholars who were steeped in the realist paradigms and went between the foundations, the universities, the Pentagon, the think tanks and the National Security Council. It was like a revolving door where they quoted each other, supported each other and provided a barrier to truth. From time to time, the production of Area Handbooks provided a basis for the assembling of the ideas sanctioned by scholars. These scholars participated in an elaborate exercise to provide political legitimacy for the US foreign policies in Africa. Henry Kissinger best symbolised these realists who could be termed organic scholars of the bourgeoisie. Many of his protégés staffed the African Bureau in the State Department and have left an indelible mark on the conceptualisation of war and politics in Africa. Noam Chomsky has written of the callousness and dehumanisation of the officials who have overseen murder and violence in the name of strategic minerals and strategic interests. He noted that, ‘Self-righteousness comes naturally to those who are able to achieve their will by force. They may also rest confident that the doctrinal system will properly efface and sanitise the past, at least among the educated sectors who are its agents and, arguably, its most naïve victims.’


There is now a spate of books on the role of the CIA and the obsession of the US government with the so-called communist threat. What many of these books did not make clear was the level of coordination between the US and Belgians in the plot to eliminate Lumumba. The book that broke the mould and painstakingly outlined the plot in the clearest terms was that of Ludo De Witte, ‘The Assassination of Lumumba’. De Witte spent several years doing archival work and interviewing those involved in the assassination. It was after this book was published that the government of Belgium was forced to open up a parliamentary inquiry into the assassination. This parliamentary inquiry heard testimonies from a wide cross section of operatives in the Belgian state.

In February 2002, the government of Belgium accepted moral responsibility for the assassination of Lumumba. The Belgian Foreign Minister declared in February 2002 that, ‘[i]n light of criteria applicable today, certain members of the government at the time and certain Belgian actors of that period carry an irrefutable responsibility for the events that led to the death of Patrice Lumumba.’ (quoted from Thomas Turner, ‘Crimes of the West in Democratic Congo: Reflections on Belgian Acceptance of “Moral Responsibility” for the Death of Lumumba’, in ‘Genocide, War Crimes and The West’).

The declaration by the government of Belgium came after 40 years of research and writing on the assassination. The cables from Washington and the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in organising the plot are now well known. In 1975 Senator Frank Church carried out investigations on the ‘Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders,’ published in Senate Report 94-465, 94th Congress 1975.

Despite the record of the Church Committee and this parliamentary inquiry in Belgium, the reality is that the information on the conspiracy to murder Lumumba is not widely circulated. Belgian and European scholars continue to represent their work in the Congo as that of civilising Africans. More significant, has been the fact that this killing and the subsequent traditions left by Mobutu has poisoned the political culture and political life of the society. Mobutu’s government carried out extra judicial killings and murdered students and trade union leaders for thirty years. In 1990 there was an attempt to develop the basis for a national Palaver in a Sovereign National Conference. Neither the Congolese political careerists nor the imperial supporters in Washington, Brussels and Paris wanted the truth to come out. The genocidal wars in the Central Africa region and the deaths of over five million since the removal of Mobutu attest to the fact that once the politics of impunity are embedded in a society it takes generations to heal.

When Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 there were many discussions on the need for the US to open the files on the Congo. Lawrence Devlin, the ageing head of the CIA in Kinshasa at the time of the assassination of Lumumba turned up at one of the seminars. What was implicit in his presence was that there should be no revelation on the role of the USA in the crimes of Mobutu and that the ranks should be held. At the end of 1999, it was officially confirmed by a story in the Washington Post that President Eisenhower had given a direct order for the elimination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1960. This revelation confirmed what had been public knowledge for forty years, that President Eisenhower had given direct instructions to Allen Dulles, then director of the CIA for the assassination of Lumumba. Now in the aftermath of the Cold War, there are demands for opening the files so that there can be a new beginning for the societies that were destroyed.

In order to distort the real truth behind the assassination, before his death, Devlin wrote his own book, ‘Chief of Station’. Devlin’s book reproduced what had become the defining element of the US foreign policy, a lame attempt to rekindle the Cold War distortions that Lumumba was a communist and that the USA was acting to prevent the spread of communism in Africa. This brand of intellectual work was reinforced by section of the US bureaucracy that ingratiated itself with Mobutism and the circus of ‘humanitarian’ actors and actresses who have descended on the Congo and Eastern Africa. This circus has been underwritten by the massive investment of the World Bank to perpetuate a ‘conflict resolution’ paradigm in Africa, to obfuscate the iterations of assassinations. Throughout the misrule and oppression by Mobutu, the World Bank and the IMF were partners in the oppression. After Mobutu was removed, the Bank sought to link violence and warfare in the DRC to ‘primary commodity production’. The intellectuals of the World Bank joined in the discourse with reports on the Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their Implications for Policy. After decades of foreign aid, foreign investment and economic reforms, the Development Research Group of the World Bank noted in their publication ‘Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their Implications for Policy’: ‘[A]s of 1995 the country with the highest risk of civil conflict according to our analysis was Zaire, with a three in four chance of conflict within the ensuing five years.’ What was most revealing from the analysis of the World Bank on the relationship between primary commodity extraction and warfare was the extent to which questions of democratic participation on the one hand and the global armaments culture on the other are excluded from the policy alternatives offered for peace. Paul Collier, then the director of the research group of the World Bank argued that:

‘…the most powerful risk factor is that countries which have a substantial share of their income (GDP) coming from the export of primary commodities are radically more at risk of conflict…. Thus, without primary commodity exports, ordinary countries are pretty safe from internal conflict, while when such exports are substantial the society is highly dangerous. Primary commodities are thus a major part of the conflict story.’

Collier graduated from this World Bank research position to establish himself as an intellectual entrepreneur and high priest of the enterprise of studying Africa. He pontificates on warfare and violence from the safety and comfort of Oxford, where he suggests military interventions and coups as solutions for democratic governance in Africa. William Reno, Christopher Clapham and many others have turned the study of war-lordism into an academic industry without linking the plunder, mass rape and warren that support these military entrepreneurs. The conflict paradigm without historical reference to the experiences of the Belgian mining companies and the role of foreign corporations under Mobutu is represented with the full authority of the name of the World Bank to argue that countries ‘with Congo like geography’ and reliance on primary exports are prone to ‘Civil Conflict.’

What was also missing was clarity on the differences between the wars of plunder of elements such as Foday Sankoy’s and Charles Taylor’s and the righteous struggles for liberation that had been initiated by Patrice Lumumba. In the World Bank model there is no room for the explanation of the struggles for African dignity. Without this kind of interrogation of the role of the World Bank, the West can continue to think of the World Bank as an institution that can formulate development plans for the reconstruction of the DRC for a new era.


In the experience of the Congo and Central Africa, there continues to be a distortion of the actual conditions that generate warfare, rape and plunder today. One of the outcomes of this distortion is that the US military can represent itself as a force for peace by the ideas that are put forward as justifications for the establishment of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). The counterinsurgency scholarship that was unleashed by the Pentagon during the cover up of the assassination of Lumumba is now being refinanced through the Africa Command Social Science Research programme. However, this research agenda comes up against the new energies of organisations and individuals who want to make a break with the iterations of assassinations. Whether it is the lobbying groups who are opposed to AFRICOM or the peace and justice campaigners organised as Friends of the Congo, there are many who are using the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba as a platform for the exposure of the crimes of US imperialism and Belgian complicity.

Lumumba’s assassination is relevant to current global politics and the struggles for social transformation in Africa. As de Witte quoted from Fanon who had noted that: ‘If Africa was a revolver and the Congo its trigger…the assassination of Lumumba and tens of thousands of other Congolese nationalists, from 1960-1965, was the West’s ultimate attempt to destroy the continent’s authentic independent development‘ (xxv). De Witte rightly argued that:

‘After his death, the corrupt and dictatorial puppet regimes that popped up throughout Africa, supported by Western money and weapons, effectively stifled African nationalism and independence. Attempts to cover-up the assassination not only dishonor an innocent man, but perpetuate the violence and slavery of Africa.’

It is up to us to actualize the dream of Lumumba for the Congo and for Africa. In a letter to his wife before his assassination, Patrice Lumumba wrote:
‘No brutality, mistreatment, or torture has ever forced me to ask for grace, for I prefer to die with my head high, my faith steadfast, and my confidence profound in the destiny of my country, rather than to live in submission and scorn of sacred principles. 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. Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity.’

The celebrations of the life and work of Patrice Lumumba draw heavily from his last statements on the need for Africa to make a break and move in a new direction. We can draw inspiration from the optimism of Lumumba, stating:

‘I write you these words without knowing if they will reach you, when they will reach you, or if I will still be living when you read them. All during the length of my fight for the independence of my country, I have never doubted for a single instant the final triumph of the sacred cause to which my companions and myself have consecrated our lives. But what we wish for our country is right to an honorable life, to a spotless dignity, to an independence without restrictions…

‘They have corrupted certain of our fellow countrymen, they have contributed to distorting the truth and our enemies, that they will rise up like a single person to say no to a degrading and shameful colonialism and to reassume their dignity under a pure sun.

‘We are not alone. Africa, Asia, and free and liberated people from every corner of the world will always be found at the side of the Congolese. They will not abandon the light until the day comes when there are no more colonizers and their mercenaries in our country. To my children whom I leave and whom perhaps I will see no more, I wish that they be told that the future of the Congo is beautiful and that it expects for each Congolese, to accomplish the sacred task of reconstruction of our independence and our sovereignty; for without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there are no free men.’

Even in captivity, Lumumba never wavered in his belief that Africa will be free from the imperial overlords and their puppets. He called on Africans to stand firm and to work for Africa’s emancipation. Lumumba ended the letter to his wife with these words:

‘[D]o not weep for me, my dear companion. I know that my country, which suffers so much, will know how to defend its independence and its liberty. Long live the Congo! Long live Africa!’

Patrice Lumuba’s words give courage to the current freedom fighters of Africa who should not mourn him but organise for the freedom and unity of the continent. We must also struggle to free Africa from African leaders who have Africanised the iterations of imperialist tools of oppression and assassination. Indeed, there must be an intensification of the struggle to make a break with the iteration of the assassination of African peoples’ dreams and aspirations. We must work harder for the kind of Africa Lumumba foresaw when he asserted that Africa will write its own history of dignity and glory. We must not rest until this dream is realised. This is the burden that history has placed on us.


* Horace Campbell is a teacher and writer. Professor Campbell's website is His latest book is '[email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.