Date: Sunday, 17 January 2021
On 30 June 1960, Independence Day, the Prime Minister delivered an impassioned speech against the Belgian colonisation of his country. It was the spark that set off his eventual downfall.
When he disembarked from the Air Congo DC-04 at Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) on 17 January 1961, shortly before 5 pm, Patrice Emery Lumumba was already in agony.
During the entire flight from Moanda, on the Atlantic coast, the former Prime Minister had been continuously kicked and beaten. His ordeal and that of his two companions, Joseph Okito, former vice-president of the Senate, and Maurice Mpolo, former Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, was far from over. For several hours, Lumumba would be tortured under the supervision of Belgian officers, before being executed in circumstances that are still shrouded in darkness.
The Belgian sovereign was the first to speak, praising the ‘work’ conceived by Leopold II, hoping that the Congolese would prove worthy of the ‘trust’ placed in them.
In any case it was there – in the ephemeral secessionist province of Katanga, the journey of a man who entered history six months earlier, on a Thursday in June 1960, and who would embody more than anyone else the independence of his country – came to an end. An independence achieved through betrayal, the settling of scores and a web of deceit that has not yet revealed all its secrets.
On 30 June 1960, Leopoldville (which was renamed Kinshasa in 1966) was in jubilation. On the Congo’s left bank, the Palace of the Nation was slowly filling up. Lumumba was the first to enter the Hall of Honour.
A few minutes later, King Baudouin took the stage, followed by Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the first president of an independent Congo. The Belgian sovereign was the first to speak, praising the “work” conceived by Leopold II, hoping that the Congolese would prove worthy of the “trust” placed in them. This speech was accompanied by polite applause. Then Kasa-Vubu pays a heartfelt tribute to the former metropolis.
Meanwhile, Lumumba looked over his own speech. It was 11:35 when he got up to speak. In contrast to those measured, even grovelling remarks about the coloniser, the Prime Minister spoke about the oppression and humiliation suffered by the Congolese people.
“We remember the ridicule, insults, and beatings we had to endure morning, noon and night, because we were ‘negroes’. We recollect the atrocious suffering of those persecuted for political opinions or religious beliefs. Exiled in their own homeland, their fate was really worse than death itself,” he said, recalling that this independence was indeed the fruit of a “struggle.”
On his left, side by side on the stage were Baudouin and Kasa-Vubu, who appeared to be caught off guard. The first whispered in the ear of the second, probably looking for an explanation. Neither of them seemed to have been informed of this speech. Only the journalists present had a copy of it.
“Lumumba was an unpredictable person. But he had the opportunity to prepare his coup,” says Congolese historian Jean Omasombo, who has written a biography on him.
Several days before the celebration, the Prime Minister had indeed looked through Kasa-Vubu’s speech. He did not like the tone of it, and for good reason. It had been written in collaboration with Jean Cordy, Henry Cornelis’ chief of staff and the last governor-general of the Belgian Congo. Thanks to his friend Joseph Kasongo, President of the Chamber of Deputies, Lumumba had invited himself to the event to deliver a speech which would mark the beginning of his descent into hell.
The Belgians’ vision of an independent Congo did not correspond in any way to Lumumba’s. The festival, games and fireworks that followed the historic morning did not succeed in calming King Baudouin, who was shocked by the Prime Minister’s “affront”.
“He was not a professional politician, he had never held an elected position. He was a rebel. The king therefore took him for a troublemaker,” says Juliana Lumumba, his eldest daughter, who is now fighting to repatriate his remains, still sealed in Belgium.
After all, five years earlier, on his first trip to Congo, King Baudouin could never have imagined that he would witness the country’s independence so quickly. Ironically, during a visit to Stanleyville (now Kisangani), he had a one-on-one conversation with Lumumba, at the time five years his senior and who had been the young president of a local association made up of “evolved” employees of the local post office.
Three years later, in October 1958, Lumumba, who had already acquired a certain notoriety, created the Congolese National Movement (MNC), a radical and unitary party. The following December, he went to Accra to attend the All African People Conference, along with other leaders of the struggle for independence, including the first Prime Minister of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana Sékou Touré, the Cameroonian Félix Roland Moumié and the Antillo-Algerian Frantz Fanon.
Lumumba returned to Leopoldville energised as the colonial administration was taking heat from all sides. The riots of 4 January 1959 marked a turning point. And those of the following October, marked a point of no return. The round table organised at the end of January-early February 1960 in Brussels between the Belgian government and representatives of the Congolese political class and chiefs paved the way for independence that was set for 30 June.
Uncompromising, Lumumba became a nuisance to the former colonist. The chaos that characterised the independent Congo’s first days made him more and more enemies.
The repercussions of his speech were quickly felt, as a part of the Congolese population grew increasingly hostile towards the Belgians, and unrest broke out in some barracks. Anxious to maintain order and arguing that their compatriots were in danger, the Belgians eventually intervened. In July, the province of Katanga, once controlled by Brussels, seceded.
Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu then turned to the UN, but the resolution adopted by the Security Council did not satisfy the Prime Minister, who, in a clumsy move, requested the support of the USSR. The break with the Belgians was finally consummated.
The main objective to be pursued in the interests of Congo, Katanga and Belgium is obviously the definitive elimination of Lumumba.
Meanwhile, the UN was irritated by many of Lumumba’s demands, which also led to a struggle for influence with Kasa-Vubu. To make matters even worse, the request for Soviet aid exposed him to the wrath of the US.
Sixty days after independence, Lumumba was increasingly isolated internationally. In Washington, President Eisenhower discussed his case at a meeting on 18 August 1960 with CIA boss Allen Dulles. The idea of incapacitating him became increasingly appealing.
A scenario involving poisoning him with a special toothpaste was even planned. A few weeks later, the Belgians seem to have warmed up to the idea. Harold d’Aspremont Lynden, the Belgian Minister of African Affairs, wrote this in a telex on 6 October: “The main objective to be pursued in the interests of Congo, Katanga and Belgium is obviously the definitive elimination of Lumumba.” He then approved a transfer to Katanga for 16 January 1961.
On site, the CIA’s referral agent, Larry Devlin, exerted a certain degree of influence. Therefore, on 14 September, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the Chief of Staff and the Prime Minister’s former Secretary, announced – with the tacit approval of the Americans – the “neutralisation” of the two heads of state. President Kasa-Vubu would remain in office. However Lumumba, who the president had dismissed on 5 September, was placed under house arrest in October.
He escaped by slipping into the back of a Chevrolet on 28 November. Mobutu sent henchmen after him, but Lumumba managed to drive for several days towards Stanleyville where Antoine Gizenga, one of his main supporters, waited for him. Nevertheless, he was caught on 1 December.
Lumumba’s position made eliminating him difficult. Everything finally got underway at the start of January 1961. While a mutiny had erupted in Thysville, where he was imprisoned, the idea to finish him off in Leopoldville was rejected as it was sure to create a great scandal. Therefore the decision was made to send him to Katanga. A final journey from which Lumumba would not return.