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Why is it that the image of legendary Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba continues be so important to Africa? Chambi Chachage explores.

The name of Lumumba looms large in Tanzania as it does elsewhere in Africa. Or at least it used to. It kept popping up when I was coming to age many years after his untimely death in 1961.

Many a times I meet people who are named after him. Some of them were named so in the early sixties when his assassination in the aftermath of Africa’s ‘Year of Independence’ traumatised the pan-African imagination. Yet others became his namesake at a time when Africans were nostalgically attempting to reclaim Africa’s so-called lost decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

What is so special about this son of Africa? Why does he continue to capture our imagination?

Two images of Lumumba have stuck in my mind, not least because they are now widely invoked in Africa and its diaspora. When I arrive in any African country I sense him standing at the entrance to the aeroplane facing the heart of Africa on his first voyage back home to the then so-called Belgian Congo during the struggle for its independence.

It is an image of a youthful and hopeful African leader full of genuine love for Africa and Africans. In it we see a pan-Africanist visionary who is looking towards Congo and beyond its artificial colonial borders to embrace African unity. He thus celebrated that moment in his poem thus captures this quest:

‘Popular legend had it that Lumumba had expressed the unacceptability of having to wait four years [for Belgium to grant independence to Congo] by deliberately arriving late to a meeting held to discuss the decolonization process; when he finally sauntered into the conference hall and the irate Belgians demanded to know why he was so disrespectfully tardy, Lumumba calmly noted that they were angry because he had made them wait just a few hours, yet they wanted Congolese people to wait years for their freedom.’

To better appreciate this first imagery and make sense of the second imagery one needs to recall, at least in passing, the images of Lumumba’s arrest that culminated in his assassination. I am not particularly fond of them but they explain why Africa is still pathetically locked between its dusk and dawn. They show a betrayed and dejected face of the Africa(n) that fits neatly into Langston Hughes poetic rendition ‘A Dream Deferred’. For a moment, the dream of Congo - and for that matter of Africa - was deferred not least because, as the heart of Africa, it was envisioned, by Kwame Nkrumah and other pan-Africanists, as the capital of the soon-to-be established ‘United States of Africa’. The then chief minister of the then Tanganyika, Julius K. Nyerere, thus captured this cloudy moment very despondently as he attempted to find a silver lining of hope in his adjournment motion during the 36th Session of the Legislative Council on 15 February 1961:

‘It is indeed hard, sir, to see how anything but evil results can flow from the act of violence that has taken place in the Congo, but even at this stage let me express the hope, sir, on behalf of this Government, this Council, and the people of this country, that the Congo’s wounds may yet to be healed.’

Half a century later the wounds of the heart of Africa may yet to be healed. It is not surprising then that some African scholars scattered all over the world are bitterly debating that fully captures our times. No wonder it is frequently invoked online to rebuke the current crop of African leaders. Lumumba’s stern face is sending a clear message to all African people: Take responsibility. Be in charge of your destiny.

The time has come for the Africa Lumumba envisioned to be responsible, that is, response-able. We need to enable ourselves to sternly respond to the new Mobutus who are ready to rape our dignity and hijack our destiny by any means necessary even if that means colluding with the ‘Chief Infiltrators of Africa’ to rob us of our new Lumumbas. After all, we get the leaders we deserve.

Africa’s dawn is dim. Africans may yet be awakened. Pan-Africanism is the way out of dusk.


* © Chambi Chachage.
* Chambi Chachage is an independent researcher, newspaper columnist and policy analyst, based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.