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Awino Okech outlines how, following the assassination of Lumumba, the stage was set for ‘political patronage and plunder’ – essentially a pact between elites and former colonial masters. But there is still the possibility for latter day Lumumbas to challenge governments.

‘We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make Congo the center of the sun's radiance for all of Africa.’ – Patrice Lumumba, independence speech, 30 June 30 1960

Like some of my contemporaries, I grew up on the music of Zaire (as it was known then), today known as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Born to parents who represented Kenya’s young and hopeful independence civil servants, the tunes of Franco, Tabu Ley, Simaru and Madilu System remain a nostalgic feature of my past and active part of my present. The possibilities of pan-Africanism were relayed unconsciously and on a daily basis to me through these and other African musical encounters. In fact, my education on the social and political context of the DRC was anchored from a very early age on the musical commentary of these artists. A fuller understanding of the country and its complexities were however developed through my ‘interaction’ with Patrice Lumumba in history classes in secondary school in Kenya.

I remember Lumumba best for his unflinching independence speech in which he made it clear that the fact of Belgium granting Congo independence was not something to be grateful for. He recalled the servitude, abuse and denigration that Congolese had faced at the hands of the Belgian colonial government. His supposedly ‘dangerous revolutionary utterances’, as described by then UN secretary general Dag Hammerskojld, had made him an uncomfortable candidate for the country’s leadership, despite being on record as the only democratically elected prime minister. Begrudgingly included in the independence negotiations and sworn in as prime minister by the Belgians, Lumumba was constructed as dangerous because he did not ‘cotton’ to the coloniser in his expectation that Africans were equal and would negotiate cooperation on the basis of equity and in due recognition of the colonisers role in debilitating the human resource of the country. The fact that at independence Congo had a ‘handful’ of graduates made the task of corralling a diverse country, people and natural resource rich context, where many international interests played out, an impossible task. This is a reality we continue to witness today.

‘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.’ – Patrice Lumumba

Lumumba, like his counterparts such as Thomas Sankara, believed in the imperative of African unity as a prerequisite for a formidable economic and political force to enable a ‘working’ relationship with the West after a history of deplorable subjugation. Such an approach would serve to ascertain a place that did not produce Africa and Africans as ‘other’ and consistently constructed in ‘opposition’ to the West. Lumumba in retrospect did not necessarily represent an ideology or an approach that differed radically from other independence leaders of the pan-African extraction. He believed in the need to re-craft ‘African culture’, which, un-problematised, is a tenuous proposal as can be seen in the deleterious effects of Mobutu Seseseko’s approach to ‘Africanising’ Congo. The ‘dangerous revolutionary’ nonetheless presented exuberance, youthfulness and a belief in ideological grounding as the basis for conceptualising change and informing leadership. Unlike Sankara, who had some time to implement his policies aimed at destabilsing the structural roots of inequality, Lumumba’s possibilities were cut short.

Congo’s radiance and Africa’s dignity as foreseen by Lumumba faced two key challenges. The first was an international community vested in balkanisation and exploitation that continues uninhibited today. The second was the presence of a comprador bourgeoisie -a political elite -invested in amassing personal wealth and instrumentalising power. These challenges remain germane to Congo today and also form the corpus of leadership problems affecting a number of African countries. Being cognisant of the continuity of these challenges despite their metamorphosis into new forms such as negotiated leadership pacts, land grabs or economic partnership agreements requires that our approaches to confronting the construction of the ‘impossibility’ of Africa and African leadership must shift radically. It is to the factors that have inhibited the possibilities of ‘Congo’s radiance’, that stand out for me on the anniversary of Lumumba’s death and which I will turn to now. This piece is not intended to be an in-depth political and/or economic analysis of what is a complex country and conflict.


It would be less complex to retreat into an analysis that places the ‘challenge’ of Congo squarely on the Scramble for Africa. This historical colonial dynamic resulted in the creation of a country that was disproportionately large and which for all intents and purposes was crafted in this way due to the vast repositories of natural resources that were found within one territory.

However, the key question to my mind remains the need to reflect on what mechanisms could have been put in place by subsequent African governments to not only ensure that controlling interests of these natural resources remain with the country and not individuals, but also ascertains the redistribution of resources across the country.

Political theories that develop the idea of clientelist and patrimonial states see them as being purposefully constructed by elites to promote their interests in capital accumulation as a means to maintain power and adapt to the historical constraints of the post-colonial environment. This is done by constructing informal mechanisms of social control and capital accumulation. The chequered political history of Congo highlights how various regimes - through a range of patron-client relations - systematically plundered and accumulated the country’s resources for the benefit of a few.

The attempt at a federal form of government through the cessation of Katanga in 1960 reflects the ways in which regional territories within the Congo have been unable to cohere sectional interests for the benefit of the collective. Ethnicity, religion and class have subsequently become useful mobilisation tools that sustain skewed governance arrangements that see one section of the country positively budding while other sections languish from a lack of basic needs.

The international interests in keeping the Congo conflict alive are evident in the advantages it offers in the seemingly symbiotic relationships used to frame negotiations with various warring groups or post conflict regimes. What would ordinarily be highly lucrative income generating opportunities for national governments result in theft of intellectual property rights and unrestricted repatriation of a corporation’s profits. In exchange for the provision of basic but core services such as health, education and infrastructure, national reserves are signed away leaving governments with a limited controlling interest. Instead the political elite are strategically positioned within the multi-national corporations. A political economy analysis reveals the ways in which competing rules between formal and informal institutions generates shifting coalitions that contribute to the appearance of authority, collapse and/or legitimacy of different groups.

The crisis in the Congo has therefore thrived on a globalised economy of plunder that is sustained by the continuity of the conflict. The mismanagement of Congo’s natural resources highlights an ongoing challenge in many other parts of the continent - Liberia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe to mention a few, in addition to the burgeoning land crisis across most parts of Africa. Effective governance of natural resources is reflective of a larger leadership/governance question and in the Congo it is manifest in peculiarities such as the sheer size of the country, compounded by inaccessibility of vast sections of the country via a reliable road, rail and air network.


Colonialism may have interrupted the potential for effective institutions and systems, but when systems of accountability have evolved either through sub-regional mechanisms or through the African Union how do we ensure that these institutions benefit the majority and not oligarchies?

Perhaps this challenge lies in what Olonisakin (2010) has variously described as elite pacts that are not new occurrences to the continent. I argue that most pre-independence negotiations - whether these were through the Lancaster house meetings for countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe or in the case of Congo – the Brussels Conference where Lumumba’s presence had to be ‘lobbied’ for despite the overwhelming majority by the MNC (Mouvement National Congolais) in the pre-independence elections - were complex compromises between various elites.

The ongoing conflict in the Congo has laid bare its configurations not only in terms of the territorial interest as exercised by neighbouring countries, but also in the complex web of legal and illegal networks that sustain the conflict. The distinction between organised crime and war, especially as it plays out in the Congo, is becoming blurred. These organised networks are facilitated by the presence of a comprador bourgeoisie that is bound to multi-national corporations in its interest in the accumulation of personal wealth. Often sitting in strategic positions, either in government or within strategic sectors of the economy, the comprador bourgeoisie masquerade on occasion as a national bourgeoisie interested in the economic growth of the country through nationalisation or privatisation. The fact that national resources often end up redistributed amongst a group of oligarchs and not to the majority of citizenry indicates the spuriousness of the nationalist claims. In the Congo, the comprador bourgeoisie, as represented through the figures of Mobutu and Tshombe, set the stage quite early for political patronage and plunder.

The significance of the elite pact theory here lies in the continued relationship between the comprador bourgeoisie and the colonial masters, represented today by the intricate web of multinational and local actors. The place of the individual – in the figure of Lumumba representing pan-Africanism and its national antecedents - is thwarted. The challenge lies in the ability to merge individual/s, political and ideological ideals of leadership into systems that work beyond a specific regime.

Nonetheless, the opportunity today lies in the existence of a revived African Union that creates the potential for effective norm and standard setting. The political crisis in the Ivory Coast yet again could serve as a useful test to assess whether collectively African nations can hold each other accountable to basic principles of effective governance. While I am not one to wax lyrical about the power of the collective in holding the nation accountable, there is potential for setting a precedent on minimum standards of ‘good behavior’. Such precedence however, may demand exclusion, criteria for inclusion and creation of a pool ‘stakes’ for members.

The place of the ‘individual renegade’ such as Lumumba and ‘authentic’ pan-African ideals that do not masquerade as comprador or national bourgeois interests are currently limited by the fact that the stakes for exclusion by the collective (such as the African Union) are non-existent, while the role of neutral arbiters (other African states and the international community) is compromised by their complicity as state or non-state actors in elite pacts.

The brilliance of the Rumba that I grew up on was in the number of greats who worked collectively and alone. Franco and his orchestra was home to Simaru and Madilu System - grande maîtres in their own right. They also inspired a host of younger Congolese musicians. The challenge of the figurative Lumumba remains in the solitary and perhaps splintered nature of the revolution. The ‘dangerous revolutionary’ is still ‘unable’ to beget other renegades who can sustain the collective space for the revolution. If the words of Thomas Sankara (’while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas’) are taken to hold some truth, then on the anniversary of Lumumba’s death I muse over the possibilities of many latter day Lumumba’s challenging governments from within, not only for Congo’s radiance but for Africa’s dignity.


* Awino Okech is based at the University of Cape Town.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.