Lumumba, Patrice (1925–1961)

views updated

LUMUMBA, PATRICE (1925–1961)


Congolese leader.

The Congolese political leader Patrice Lumumba was born on 2 July 1925 in Onalua, Kasai province, a little village flanked by two large Christian missions, one Catholic, the other Protestant, both allied with the Belgian colonial authorities. At first called Isaïe Tasumbu, he was deeply affected by the rigidity of a system that made life so hard for the colonized. Taking advantage of wartime conditions, he migrated to Stanleyville (now Kisangani) in 1944 and there found employment first in the territorial administration and then in the post office. But it was membership in corporatist organizations that provided him with the loudspeaker he needed to get his voice heard. No one in the Congolese elite was to achieve a political ascent comparable to his. By establishing himself in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) at the end of 1957 and becoming the prime mover of his party, the Mouvement National Congolais, from its foundation in October 1958, Lumumba catapulted himself to the very center of the country's public life, and much of the Congolese political class was obliged to position itself relative to him.

From 1948 to 1956 Lumumba remained within the Catholic world, but in 1955 he aligned himself with the liberal minister Auguste Buisseret (1888–1965) and supported secular education in the Congo. He championed the values of western civilization, the principle of equality, and the rights and freedoms of all—this despite the fact that he had himself suffered the injustice and violence of a colonial system that flouted those very values while paying them lip service. He observed that the main Belgian opposition parties dissented from their country's colonialist agenda only on minor issues such as wages and schools and that they fell quiet as soon as such essential questions as the future status of the Congo arose. As he became aware both of the deepening crisis of the colonial order during the 1950s and of the unrelenting mistreatment of the colonized, he gradually abandoned the "corporatist" attitudes of most of the Congolese elite and instead called for the rights to progress, well-being, and dignity for all his "race brothers." This exigent and rebellious attitude, which became more radical in late 1958, naturally put Lumumba at odds with the colonial authorities; his belief in progress and modernity, coupled with his ambition to lead a mass movement, made him a threat to a variety of powerful figures. It was in this context that legal proceedings were brought against him and that he ended by spending more than a year incarcerated (from July 1956 to September 1957 and from November 1959 to January 1960) at a time when the independence of the Belgian Congo was clearly on the horizon and a change of leadership seemed inevitable.

After a meeting known as the "Political Round Table," held in Brussels in January and February, Belgium granted independence to the Congo but immediately decided to separate Lumumba from the process, even to eliminate him if need be. But as delays, hesitations, and contradictions continued to beset Belgian policy, Lumumba did not hesitate to display his self-confidence with respect to the authorities by openly defying them. He won the elections of May 1960, becoming prime minister upon the country's achievement of independence on 30 June 1960, but was obliged to share power with his rival Joseph Kasavubu (1917–1969), who was named head of state. The new regime inherited a precarious situation from the "colonial model," and things deteriorated rapidly when the army mutinied and the province of Katanga and part of Kasai seceded. Despite these realities, Lumumba held fast to attitudes he had maintained steadfastly since 1959: physical courage when confronted by violence and the threat of death and an unshakable commitment to his chosen cause—the total independence of a united Congo as a sovereign state ready to fight both outside pressures and internal corruption. He had no illusions about his destiny or the risks he was running, but he categorically rejected all compromise.

Some combination of western and Congolese forces (Belgium, the United States, the United Nations, and powerful groups in Léopoldville and É lisabethville) brought about Lumumba's assassination in Katanga on 17 January 1961. Lumumba had never espoused any revolutionary socialist or Marxist ideology. His personal development and his sad end are uniquely bound up with the history of the Congo, originally colonized as the personal enterprise of King Leopold II (r. 1865–1909) of Belgium. Lumumba's murky death was part and parcel of the Congo's bungled decolonization, the most rapid in history.

See alsoBelgium; Colonialism; Decolonization .


Chambre des Représentants de Belgique. Rapport de l'enquête parlementaire visant àdéterminer les circonstances exactes de l'assassinat de Patrice Lumumba et l'implication éventuelle des responsables politiques belges dans celui-ci. Vols. 1 and 2. 16 November 2001.

Omasombo, Jean, and Benoît Verhaegen. Patrice Lumumba, jeunesse et apprentissage politique: 1925–1956. Brussels and Paris, 1999.

——. Patrice Lumumba, acteur politique: de la prison aux portes du pouvoir (juillet 1956–février 1960). Tervuren and Paris, 2005.

Jean Omasombo