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‘The ideals that Lumumba stood for remain very relevant given the situation in which majority of Africans find themselves today,’ writes Lyn Ossome.

The 50th anniversary of Patrice Lumumba’s assassination offers us a solid basis from which to reflect upon the meanings of his life and legacy as a metaphor for Africa today. He remains an iconic and powerful representation of the desire that generations of Africans hold to be able to determine their own political, social and economic path unencumbered by history. Yet the situation in which Africa finds itself at present is one defined by neo-colonial phenomena of globalised capitalism and globalised racism. People in different parts of the continent are, however, slowly rising to the challenge and saying ‘Enough!’ The resurgent popular movements against unemployment, poverty and the alleged corruption of the ruling elite, and resistance to the corruption of electoral democracy are symbolic grasps at defining a different future. This resistance is symbolic too of the values that Lumumba stood for and rallied around during his brief political life, marked by intolerance towards injustice, indignity, and oppression.

He detested the brutalities and indignities suffered by his people under Belgian colonial rule, and made clear his mission to ensure that Congo’s mineral wealth was put to the service of the people. Perhaps his most important contribution to the larger Pan-African discourse, his famous Independence Day speech on 30 June 1960 remains a treatise of the critical introspection and actions he believed would seal freedom for the liberated Congo and other African countries. In it he implored his people to look towards transcending ethnic divisions, proclaiming that ‘...our country is now in the hands of its own children. Together, my brothers and sisters, we are going to begin a new struggle, a sublime struggle, which will lead our country to peace, prosperity, and greatness. Together, we are going to establish social justice and make sure everyone has just remuneration for this labour’.

He believed that the dignity of his countrywomen and men could only be restored through a political and economic system that levelled the playing field for hard work to be rewarded: ‘We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make the Congo the center of the sun’s radiance for all of Africa. We are going to keep watch over the lands of our country so that they truly profit her children. We are going to restore ancient laws and make new ones which will be just and noble. We are going to put an end to suppression of free thought and see to it that all our citizens enjoy to the full the fundamental liberties foreseen in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. We are going to do away with all discrimination of every variety and assure for each and all the position to which human dignity, work, and dedication entitles him. We are going to rule not by the peace of guns and bayonet but by the peace of the heart and will…’

He predicted at the time that Congo’s independence would mark a decisive step towards the liberation of the entire African continent, and whereas this came to pass, few of the optimisms he voiced at independence have taken root 50 years on. Congolese power elites back then displayed a cavalier disregard for their great nation’s rich mineral resources, lending a willing hand in the country’s repeated plunder by the U.S. and Belgium. Today due to greed powered by its own African neighbours, who under the watchful eye of the United Nations continue to fuel ethnic conflicts and amass far too many civilian casualties, the country lies in political, economic and social tatters. The paranoid miscalculations of the U.S. and its allies during the Cold War cost Africa many inspiring leaders and perpetuated conflict in a number of countries that have paid long and hard, among them Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, and the DRC. In Sudan, a long civilian war robbed Southern Sudan of its economic soul for more than two decades, and the semi-autonomous region that stands poised to secede from its northern counterpart today is one that is desperately clinging to the hope of Pan-African solidarity and visionary, steadfast leadership. At the contentious heart of its secession lies its enormous mineral wealth, caught within the same crosshairs of imperialist interests and intervening African interests against which Lumumba struggled until his death.

Paradoxically, the Congo seems to fall back in history but is also one of the most important countries fuelling the modern globalising economy going forward. It is a country larger than the whole of Western Europe, which it powers through conflict minerals like the precious coltan, mined for its use in mobile phone technology, but is incapable of powering itself due to the desperate social and economic crisis gripping it under the selfish leadership of the national bourgeoisie in cahoots with multinational corporations. This was the humiliating state of affairs from which Lumumba and his nationalist compatriots sought to rid the Congo of, and which unfortunately still pertains.

If there is one thing the WikiLeaks phenomenon has left us with it is the certainty that there still exist in our governments the same enemies to solidarity as those that betrayed Lumumba to the powers that wanted him out of the way in 1961. It is also clear from the leaked cables that US foreign policy is still not quite guided by the same democratic principles against which it calibrates the rest of the world, especially Africa. The lesson, if we are to pick one, is to trust ourselves more, to look back in towards the continent to resolve its own problems, straighten out its bad leadership, and to honour the peoples’ power.

As President Joseph Kabila campaigns to change the voting system from the customary two round system to one, no doubt to ease himself back in more smoothly during the coming elections, his Ivorian counterpart is equally, adamantly clinging on to whatever strands of power he can muster to support his arrogance. Beyond questions of democratic accountability lies the disturbing message that Africa appears to be sending to the world: that 50 years into independence, and 20 years into democratisation we still need referees with interests to tell us how to manage this seemingly ‘strange’, ‘borrowed’ concept of elections. Cameron Duodu (New African, January 2011) shares the exasperation of many when he suggests that the AU should spend 2011 thinking about setting up a permanent electoral body to go and conduct elections in volatile countries and enforce the verdict with military power! Lumumba might have reminded us that independence was not granted to us magnanimously, and that we must guard it jealously. In the same way, the concept of democracy is not foreign to Africans, and we must resist all attempts to alienate us from its fruits of freedom and justice, through poorly contested elections.

While failing to distinctly voicing his opinions regarding the gender basis upon which his vision could be achieved, Lumumba was a dynamic and passionate nationalist. He was the only Congolese leader who, from very early in his career, attempted to build a Congo-wide political organisation. His approach to power was grounded upon a broad interest in movements that did not necessarily relate directly to politics. In this way, he rallied his people in general towards the task of nation building. On the whole, however, African nationalist movements and projects have always subsumed concerns that were not considered immediately integral to promoting the aims of what were considered to be urgent tasks at the time, those of liberation, of nation building, of forming unitary states. Numerous studies have documented the ways in which the rights of women, even those that had contributed to struggles, often fell by the roadside in the post-independence period.

To be fair, Lumumba’s premiership was too short-lived and punctured by betrayal and insubordination to meaningfully deduct his attitude towards women’s empowerment, yet he seemed to have had an evolving ideology that might have made substantive space for addressing women’s concerns within the Congo’s political discourse. Were he to resurrect today, I would add my voice to those of thousands of African feminists who have witnessed and are incensed by the sheer scale and brutality of sexual violence taking place particularly in eastern Congo; who are confused by the irony of the silencing of female political voices despite massive and concerted international attention of a political nature in that country: and who are concerned about the plunder of natural resources and inequitable distribution of land and other productive resources.

We would ask him simply, in his thinking; in what way would an African revolution seek to transcend the customs and traditions that hinder the full participation of women?

Lumumba’s ideals can still be rescued by all those who are invested in the bright future of this continent. His truth and his spirit live on, and his vision, grounded upon a deep love for Africa, did not leave with him. New leaders in Africa are afraid of ideas that inform and conscientise the people, especially those generated and informed by our past struggles. They are seeking to create a new narrative that does not re-affirm past ideals. Modern leaders will rarely quote revolutionaries like Thomas Sankara, Samora Machel or Julius Nyerere, whose words have all but found their way out the histories that young people are learning in schools now.

The ideals that Lumumba stood for remain very relevant given the situation in which majority of Africans find themselves today: Of economic hardship, political marginalisation and the resultant fundamentalisms that these two factors fuel. Africa’s rich history of struggle and introspection is a strong weapon in our hands and there is hope that the result might be a stronger, more conscious, more unified people. We must be willing to question the conspicuous silencing of those who liberated this continent and remain vigilant of the hegemonic forces still robbing us off our leaders. We are also obliged to interrogate the continued patriarchal domination of women and other marginalised groups, in particular sexual minorities and ethnic minorities on the continent, and remember what it means to be human together. We must retrace the footsteps of Lumumba in order to understand his outrage at the unjust systems we inherited, and in so doing attempt to embark on a renewed journey for the betterment of the lives of all Africa’s people.


* Lyn Ossome is a Pan-African feminist activist and scholar.
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