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When Washington and Brussels ordered the killing of Patrice Lumumba 50 years ago, ‘little did they know that they were inventing an immortal African martyr for freedom; and making a vital investment for Congo’s rebirth today,’ writes Okello Oculi.

Lumumba as the hero depicted by the legendary poet from Martinique, Aimé Césaire, was a beer salesman whose chant for customers instinctively made Belgian colonial police panic, fearful of a subterranean text and force in his eloquence, the energy of his words uttered like the staccato of a machine gun. It was the kind of panic that guardians of repression in apartheid South Africa feared in Miriam Makeba’s ‘Click Song’; and Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s ‘Umqombothi‘ (My African beer) lyrics. Despite being a clear instrument of colonial commercial exploitation and pacification of the Congolese people, Lumumba seemed to be scratching the surface of a hidden ocean of anger, humiliation, hunger, physical exhaustion from all-year long forced labour – a force of human rage waiting to exact revenge, which was shared by oppressed peoples all across Africa.

Aimé Césaire’s Lumumba was ignorant about the exploits of Dedan Kimathi as war general of the Mau Mau armed struggle in Kenya; had apparently not heard of armed waves that swept as angry waters across the vast plains of colonial Tanganyika against threats of mass starvation under German colonial rule. There is no mention of his knowledge of the armed warfare by Algerians to rid themselves of French suppression. This insulation from political turbulence and the geography of hunger for freedom elsewhere in Africa was a tool used with great skill, tenacity and cynical efficiency by colonial governments. (President Paul Kagame has recently called for an end to a mindset of ‘isolation’ that Rwandans were subjected to since German and Belgian colonial rule.) What is recorded, however, is Lumumba travelling to Accra in 1958 to attend the All-African Peoples’ Conference convened by newly independent Ghana under the visionary pan-Africanist leadership of Kwame Nkrumah. The impact of that brush with Nkrumah’s political flame would be so potent that when Lumumba arrived back in Leopoldville and addressed fellow Congolese, they broke out into violent rioting against Belgian rule.

Lumumba attended four years of primary school education and one year of ‘technical’ training for postal workers. He was a clear victim of a Belgian intellectual genocide which ensured that by the year of independence in 1960, only 136 Congolese children across the country’s one million square kilometers had completed secondary school education; there was a paltry total of 30 university graduates, a larger pool of a mere 600 post-secondary school trained priests, and a miserable three Congolese senior civil servants (against a total of 3,400 Belgian senior civil servants). Savoring their crime against the human resource development of the Congolese people, Belgian colonial strategists rubbed their hands in satisfaction at the prospect that they would set up a ‘McDonald’s hamburger’ regime after independence, in which a thin layer of Congolese politicians would hold political posts at the top; a vast mass of primary-school trained clerks, medical auxiliaries, school teachers would hold the bottom, while the Belgian officials would be the engine of power located in the middle. The livid hatred of Lumumba among Belgians would be quickly rooted in the fact that he scuttled this strategy by forcing Belgians to leave power in hasty panic. All it took was for Lumumba to stand and address a group of Congolese and they would be instantly aroused into violent eruptions against Belgians.

I first heard about Lumumba through sneaking out at night from a school dormitory to tune an unguarded radio in a room in our classroom bloc at St Mary’s College, Kisubi, six kilometers away from Entebbe, the seat of government of the Protectorate of Uganda. The radio broadcast a dramatic story of Europeans fleeing in crowded lorries, trucks, cars and buses being stopped at roadblocks and subjected to savage beatings, violent death, and rapes. Crowds of Congolese were said to particularly target priests and nuns. As a kid who on a daily basis saw Catholic nuns dressed so clinically that we could not see their hair, ears, necks, breasts and curves of the buttocks, there was a shock and a guilt-ridden glee at the thought that these Congolese were discovering the raw womanhood of these seemingly untouchable sect. There was some mention about Congolese paying back their former white rulers who used dry hippo hide (kiboko) to whip those digging roads, digging on farms, digging underground in mines. No explanation was given for attacks on priests. One man whose name the fleeing Belgians were blaming was ‘Patrice Lumumba’, of the Batetela tribe, and who had grown up in Stanleyville (now Kisangani).

The sea of anger that was rousing and surging in erupting waves of anger all across the country came to be associated with a force that was a ready and powerful weapon waiting for Lumumba’s tongue to whip up. In their panic in the face of this gigantic force not yet fully detonated, Belgian colonial officials turned to British wit as once practiced against Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi a decade earlier, as angry surges of Indians’ grabbing for freedom broke British colonial power. The British had turned to the power of personal ambition linked to a religious appeal. Over 40 million people would die all across India as counter-nationalism gave birth to Pakistan as a separate country gouged out of India’s womb. British colonial engineers in London also used this strategy to break up a nationalist momentum started by Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria by arousing Yoruba ethnic nationalism in the south-west and Hausa-Fulani ethno-religious defensiveness across northern Nigeria. In the Congo, Belgian intelligence officers went wild in overplaying their hands and actively assisted in the sprouting of up to 120 ethnic-rooted political parties. It was like hurling back at Lumumba’s nationalist movement a swarm of bees to sting him to death.

The savage hatred that Lumumba aroused in US President Eisenhower was as naked as the bile spewed out of the mouth of Belgium’s minister for African Affairs, Count Harold d’Asprement Lyden. Said the minister: ‘The main aim to pursue in the interests of the Congo, Katanga and Belgium, is clearly Lumumba’s elimination’. America’s President Eisenhower sent out instructions for Lumumba’s ‘assassination’; and that it ‘must be an urgent and prime objective’. For these apostles of elections as the root of political legitimacy, the fact that Lumumba’s party had won a majority (with 33 seats out of a total of 137 seats) in parliament was an irrelevant irritant. Lumumba had quickly exposed the nudity, cynical hypocrisy and determination by colonialism to stay in power in Africa. His thrust is urgently relevant today.

My radio broadcast did not reveal the profile of the political war that had been launched against Lumumba and Congo’s nationalism. The Patrice Lumumba of Aimé Césaire’s beer salesman had been denied information about how Mao Tse-tung (Zedong) and his communist party comrades had fled to the mountains and built military and political machines fused together and had fought their way from 1922 to 1949 to drive his opponents out of power. In his innocence, Lumumba combined hastiness for power with a lack of an intensively trained-and-tested-in-battle military-political party he could use as weapons against the 1,100 Belgian military officers, who commanded a 25,000 strong colonial army of Congolese men.

Agostinho Neto (and his Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola, MPLA); Samora Machel (and the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, FRELIMO); Robert Mugabe ( and ZANU-Patriotic Front); Oliver Tambo (and the African National Congress, ANC); Amilcar Cabral (and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, PAIGC) – all learnt to avoid Lumumba’s mistake of fighting a highly organised power of colonial and imperial capital with bare hands. Whereas Lumumba would be captured like a dangerous cobra – trapped, guarded and hastily hacked to death by hatred- and fear-crazed Belgian police and military officers acting under desperate orders from Washington and Brussels. Little did they know that they were inventing an immortal African martyr for freedom; and making a vital investment for Congo’s rebirth today.

I was given a glimpse of fear of Lumumba as late as 1964 – three years after his assassination – when a region-wide eruption of attempted military coups were linked to the fate of Mobutu Sese Seko. The year 1964 saw Oscar Kambona, the secretary general of Tanganyika African National Union, TANU; Grace Ibingira, secretary general of the Uganda Peoples Congress, UPC, and Tom Mboya, secretary general of Kenya African National Union, KANU, accused of plotting civilian-cum-military coups simultaneously in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Commentators blamed the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for seeking to establish loyal regimes from the shore of the Indian Ocean in the east to the shore of the Atlantic in the west. These regime products of malevolent activities by ‘economic hit men’ were not expected to reject Mobutu as a military dictatorship; and would seal the lid over the disrupted mass freedom that Lumumba had stirred in the Congo. Mobutu conducted his second military coup in 1964.

Lumumba’s condemnation of Dag Hammarskjöld and his United Nations military and bureaucratic machine in the Congo – as tools that took their orders from the United States, Belgium and other non-Communist countries – served as an awakening counterpunch to a propaganda offensive that presented the United Nations as a contingent of ‘saints-without-borders’. A typical case was Ralph Bunche, an African-American diplomat and a top UN official, who described Lumumba as a ‘mad man’ that behaved like a ‘child’. There is no evidence that Lumumba benefitted from Bunche’s pan-African solidarity as he was confronted with Belgian military re-colonisation of his country only four days after independence on 30 June 1960.

In his famous independence speech Lumumba cursed Belgians as ‘exploiters’, who inflicted brutal whips on Congolese labourers from morning till sunset; and subjected Congolese to forced labour all year round. He bluntly debunked the cloak of colonial rule as a civilising force and began in the Congo a school of thought that George Padmore and W.E.B Dubois had thrown at European empires in Africa; an intellectual thrust that Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon would develop and articulate in more systematic forms. At his most opportunistic moment in 1972, even Mobutu Sese Seko – a key collaborator in Lumumba’s murder – would cynically invoke Lumumba’s voice to justify seizing properties of foreign nationalities for distribution and putting ownership of property into his patronage network. This intellectual spear thrown out by Lumumba would suffer from imperialism successfully sheltering eastern, central and western Africa from hearing and anchoring it in their politics. From within the United Nations contingents that came to the Congo from various independent African countries, South Africa’s racist rulers, Israel, and other intelligence agencies would recruit officers who would return to their various countries to carry out military coups against nationalist African leaders. These coups silenced, imprisoned, killed their radical and patriotic critics; and disorganised the power of Lumumbists’ attacks on imperialism as a guide to Africa’s development.

The positive face Lumumba’s offensive was a call to a historic return to the nationalistic development of Africa. His commitment to the unity of the Congo as engineered by Congolese leaders who were disconnected from Belgian and foreign rule, would be echoed in policy inventions by Mwalimu Nyerere as communal cooperative villages (ujamaa) and ‘democracy within a single national and socialistic political party’. It is an intellectual dimension of political independence driven by a passion to end and reverse the intellectual genocide under colonial rule. Its call for grassroots democratic governance is now envisaged by the National Plans of Action of the African Peer Review Mechanism, ARRM, of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, NEPAD. In this regard, Lumumba’s declared war for Africans to seize history’s call to develop Africa on its own terms despite hostile forces in foreign national interests, lives on.


* Okello Oculi is the executive director of the Africa Vision 525 Initiative
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