Monday, January 17, 2011

Patrice Lumumba: the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Democratic Republic of Congo's first democratically elected leader

While reading Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible," I was continually impressed with her research - not only into the lifestyle and flora & fauna of the Congo, but also into its history - specifically the fall of the Belgian Congo and democratic election of Patrice Lumumba. In her novel, one character went to see the inauguration ceremony, and describes it as such:

After the King and the other white men spoke, they inagurated Patrice Lumumba as the new Prime Minister. I could tell exactly which one he was. He was a thin, distinguished man who wore real eyeglasses and a small, pointed beard. When he stood up to speak, everyone's mouth shut. In the sudden quiet we could hear the great Congo River lapping up its banks. Even the birds seemed taken aback. Patrice Lumumba raised his left hand up and seemed to grow ten feet tall, right there and then.
The character witnessing the event could understand only parts of the speech as it was in French, a language in which she was not a fluent speaker, however she goes on to say:

Much of the rest of it began to come to me in bursts of understanding, as if Patrice Lumumba were speaking in tongues and my ears had been blessed by the same stroke of grace. "My brothers," he said, "Mes freres, we have suffered the colonial oppression in body and heart, and we say to you, all of that is finished. We are going to make the Congo, for all of Africa, the heart of light." I thought I would go deaf from the roaring.
I spent a little time trying to figure out online if the quotes were directly from Lumumba's inauguration speech, but I couldn't find the full text, however in reading some other quotes of his from that speech and others around the same time, the passages in Kingsolver's book certainly seem to echo his sentiments and passion.

The newly formed Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a country both blessed and cursed by its wealth of natural resources. The Belgians had hoped to continue collecting profits from mining and the output of plantations, however Lumumbu was determined that the people of the DRC reap the rewards of such work, which had been diverted out of Congo for decades. The US had benefitted during the colonialist rule in the Congo, as they had used uranium from Congolese mines in creating early atomic weapons, such as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition, many influential US corporations had major interest in retaining control over their investments in the mining and export of copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, tin, manganese, and zinc.

Lumumbu's determination to achieve genuine independence, and to see that Congolese resources benefit the people of the DRC was something that the US and Belgium found worrisome. Keep in mind that we are talking about 1960 - a time when the Red Scare and McCarthy's inquisitions were still fresh on American minds, and when the threat of Communism profoundly affected people's judgement. Lumumbu was seen as someone to be watched very closely as many were concerned that some of the DRC's resources might fall into Communist hands. Shortly after he took office as prime minister, the C.I.A., with White House approval, ordered his assassination and dispatched an undercover agent with poison.

Patrice Lumumbu was assassinated on January 17th, 1961, not by C.I.A. agents - they couldn't get close enough - but by rival politicians to whom the U.S. and Belgium covertly channeled money. He was beaten, tortured, and shot by his own countrymen. Although Lumumbu dedicated himself to providing better opportunities and democracy for his fellow countrymen, he was unable to fully shake off the talons of the foreign lords who continued to reign over the Congo, despite its brief interlude of democratic freedom.

There is much, much more to this historical comments here are brief and share only some of what occurred. I had a history teacher once who was the type who felt it his duty to share with us all of those bits of U.S. history that many would like to sweep under the rug, and I know this is one of many instances that can be used to attack the U.S. and our foreign policy. I don't want to turn this post into a diatribe though...I'm not sure what would come of that. What I do hope, however, is that we become more aware and recognize that this is one of many events that have led to some of the continual problems facing the people of the DRC, and throughout the continent. I take today to honor Patrice Lumumba and his democratic ideals. My thoughts and prayers are with the many in the DRC who are mourning the loss of what "could have been," and my hope is that out of this time of consideration and remembrance a new generation of strong Congolese leaders will emerge and work to better the lives of those living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


  1. Thanks for including this important historical milestone in your blog. The tragedy is especially relevant when you remember that 1. It happened while a perceived enlightened and progressive administration was in Washington & 2. His successor was nothing more than a continued figurehead for (big) "business as usual". The modern coin of the realm is oil, but the senselessness continues world wide and is often excused (no better stated, mandated) by a false & illegitimate sense of patriotism.

  2. hear hear! Crazy to think this happened in such an "enlightened" time....disappointing. I don't know what would have happened had Patrice had more time....I'm sure there would have been problems, and that other groups would have found ways to take advantage of the DRC in some way, but it's sad to think that Patrice didn't really have a chance to make any headway in working towards a better Congo. It's one thing for a democratic country to make their own's completely different when they don't get to make any decisions and instead have to take whatever circumstances are handed to them.