Lumumba, Patrice 1925–1961

views updated May 29 2018

Patrice Lumumba 19251961

Former Prime minister of Congo

Showed a Passion for Learning

Became Part of the Évolué Community

Independence Sparked in Africa, Inspired Lumumba

Divided Elections, Unstable Nation

Tried to Quell a Chaotic Congo

Question of American Involvement Never Answered


If the United States has the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to remember as heroes of the battles in the civil rights movement and symbols of liberation for people of African descent around the world, wrote Alan Riding in the New York Times, Congo (for many years known as Zaire) and Africa itself have Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba, a passionate nationalist, became Congos first elected prime minister after leading the movement to wrestle control of the countrys independence from Belgium in June of 1960. Two months later, vilified as a Communist by the West in the throes of the Cold War, Lumumba was overthrown and only months after that was murdered with the suspected collusion of the United States and Belgium. Though the United States was cleared of any involvement in Lumumbas death at the time, suspicions remained and independent investigations continued forty years later. According to sociologist Ludo de Witte in his book The Assassination of Lumumba, Belgian operatives directed and carried out the murder, and even helped dispose of the body. Lumumbas demise, wrote Bill Berkeley in the New York Times, was a turning point in history that helps explain how that African nation wound up on the road to its present ruin.

Showed a Passion for Learning

Patrice Hémery Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925, in the village of Onalua in the province of Kasai, Congo, in the Batetela tribe. One of four sons of poor farmers, he began attending missionary schools at age eleven. Most missionary schools prime directive was to prepare blacks for manual labor, and only one hour per day was given to book study, the rest to farming and other physical work. Lumumbas missionary teachers responded to the boys ravenous hunger for knowledge and talent for learning by lending him books to read before dark, as his family was too poor to afford a candle for him to read by. Growing up, gathered with other villagers, Lumumba was told the horrific tales of atrocities at the hands of Belgian soldiers under King Leopold II. The soldiers practice was to sever the hands of slave natives who did not gather enough rubber or ivory. Lumumba completed his primary studies in four years and went on to Tshumbe Sainte Marie Secondary School for his secondary education. For reasons unknownsome suggest his father could no longer afford school feesLumumba left school at age 18, after three years and with no diploma.

Lumumba went in search of work, first 150 miles away from home to Kindu, a mining town, then to Kalima, where he worked as a nursing assistant. In 1944 Lumumba set out for Kasais second-largest city, Stanleyville (now Kisangani). Lumumba was dazzled by the cosmopolitan and European areas of the big cityits wide boulevards, lush parks, swimming pools, skyscrapers, and luxurious villas. But the citys restaurants, theaters, and hotels were off limits to Africans who were relegated to the back seats of buses and boats, and were not permitted to live within city limits.

Lumumba lived in the nearby township of Mangobo which, fortunately for Lumumba, boasted a library.

At a Glance

Bom Patrice Hennery Lumumba on July 2, 1925 in the village of Onalua in the province of Kasai, Congo, in the Batetela tribe; died on January 17, 1961; son of Francois Tolenga; married: Pauline Opangu, c. 1951; children: Patrice.

Career: Postal worker, c. 1947; writer for Voce of the Congo, c. 1951; arrested for misappropriating postal funds, 1956; organized Congolese Movement (MNC), 1958; elected prime minister of Congo with President Kasavubu and subsequently overthrown, 1960; arrested, escaped, captured, and delivered to Katanga secessionists, December 1960-January 1961; executed and his body destroyed, January 1961.

Lumumba spent his time reading and with Congolese youth of his age who had also come from rural villages and had been educated in westernized mission schools. They called themselves évolués. Together, the group debated issues, listened to news on the radio, and exchanged books. Lumumba took a course to improve his French and learned several Congolese languages, including Swahili, spoken in eastern Congo and throughout East Africa, and Lingala, a trade language spoken along the Congo River.

Became Part of the Évolué Community

In 1947 Lumumbabecause he was fluent in Congolese languagesgot a job as a postal worker in the capital city of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), nearly 1,000 miles down the Congo River, but was transferred back to Stanleyville in 1950. Back in Stanleyville, Lumumba surrounded himself with Congolese intellectuals and liberal politics. He volunteered at the local library and helped organize the first postal-workers union. He was a founder of Comité de IUnion Belgo-Congolaise a group of African intellectuals and liberal Europeans with an aim to improve race relations. Lumumbas days began at two in the morning, when he would read for a few hours before taking a bath at five and breakfasting on coffee with no sugar. In 1951 Lumumba, no fan of arranged marriages, married 15-year-old Pauline Opangu, an arrangement set up by his father. Pauline could not read, write, or speak French, but Lumumba became completely captivated by her elfin charm, according to Historic World Leaders. The two had one son, Patrice.

In the early 1950s, Lumumba began expressing himself in editorials and poems he wrote for La Voix du Congolese (Voice of the Congo) and La Croix du Congo, two évolué publications. Through these writings, he became known as one of only a dozen Congolese in a country of thirteen million who dared to express himself, according to Historic World Leaders. In 1952 after mounting pressure from the évolués, the colonial government announced that qualified natives would be granted a registration card which would entitle them the same privileges as Europeans, theoretically. Lumumba applied and passed the required tests, but was denied on the grounds of immaturity. He appealed in 1954 and was among the first to receive the card. The next year, Lumumba was among a group of Congolese granted an audience with reformist Belgian King Baudouin, who was touring Congo. Lumumba was the only one in the group to answer the kings questions, and the king drew Lumumba aside to discuss the future of Congo as Baudouins white dignitaries looked on, ignored.

The royal attention earned Lumumba regard among his fellow Congolese and the contempt of Belgian officials. He was chosen to represent the Congolese in Belgium to discuss political reform. When he returned home to Stanleyville, Lumumba was arrested for stealing about 2,500 francs from his employer, the post office. He had openly borrowed the money, he said, and had left a signed receipt declaring his intention to repay. Lumumba maintained his innocence throughout, but was found guilty and sentenced to two years in jail, and served 11 months. The local évolué community raised enough money to reimburse the entire sum and provide for Lumumbas family during his jail term, but colonial officials likely felt they had silenced a young reformer, if only temporarily.

Independence Sparked in Africa, Inspired Lumumba

Bent on independence for Congo, but discouraged by what had happened in Stanleyville, Lumumba went to work as a salesman for the Belgian Polar Beer company in the capital city of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in 1957. During that time, significant political changes were taking place across Africa, with Ghana being the first black African colony to gain independence as a nation. The Mau Mau revolt had been averted in neighboring Kenya and the prospect of independence was looking like it could become reality for several French and British colonies. Belgium finally granted limited African involvement in civic activities and held elections in Leopoldville in 1957.

Lumumba emerged as a founder of the National Congolese Movement (MNC). The group was formed in anticipation of the 1958 visit of a Belgian delegation sent to Congo to examine the political situation there and suggest plans for the countrys future. The MNC petitioned the Belgian government for more native involvement in the planning of their future, and talk began to circulate of Congos independence from Belgium, previously unheard of. From this, over a dozen political groups arose in addition to the MNC, demanding independence for Congo. The most significant of these, ABAKO, had been elected to power in Leopoldville, with Joseph Kasavubu as mayor. Another party later appeared, called Confederation des Associations du Ratanga (CONAKAT), and led by Moise Tshombe.

Lumumba and Kasavubu planned to attend the Pan-African Peoples Conference that year to strategize all Africa to independence. Kasavubu was unable to make the trip, but Lumumba gave an impassioned speech before the 600 delegates, citing injustices of the past and the Universal Declaration of Rights of Man and the United Nations Charter, and arguing for an immediate end to colonialism. He declared colonialism near its end, and made it clear that Europes future with African nations depended on support in Africas independence, not continued imperialism. Lumumba ended his speech powerfully with: Down with imperialism. Down with colonialism. Down with racism and tribalism. Long live the Congolese nation. Long live independent Africa. Meanwhile, freely elected ABAKO and Kasavubu were removed from Leopoldville by Belgian authorities. Lumumba campaigned for Kasavubus release and drummed up support for the MNC throughout the colony.

Divided Elections, Unstable Nation

In April of 1959 the MNC led a meeting of Congolese political parties to organize and strengthen and to plan a provisional government, with a deadline set for January 1, 1961. Lumumba was arrested in Stanleyville for inciting disorder in October of 1959, when a riot broke out and twenty Congolese were killed after he gave a speech at an MNC conference there. He was sentenced to six months in jail, but local Belgian officials were forced to release him so he could participate in a roundtable conference between the Congolese and Belgians in Brussels. At the meeting, provincial and national elections were set for May of 1960, with Congo winning independence in June.

The elections themselves attested to how divided Congo truly was. The 137 seats in the National Assembly were split between the PSA with 13 seats, ABAKO with 12, CONAKAT with 8, and MNC with 33, and the rest went to over a dozen smaller parties. Lumumba tried in vain to unify with Tshombes CONAKAT, as did Kasavubu. Finally, on June 23rd, Lumumba and Kasavubu allied to form a unified government of Congo, with Kasavubu as president and Lumumba as prime minister.

What set Lumumba apart from his main rivalsveteran politician and Joseph Kasavubu and Moise Tshombe, a power in the Katanga provincewere his convictions and vision for a unified and independent Congo. Lumumba, at age 35, became the countrys first prime minister under President Kasavubu on Independence Day, June 30, 1960. In an impromptu Independence Day speech attended by King Baudouin, Lumumba declared that the eighty years of tyrannical colonial rule and Congolese exploitation would be put in the past, and looked forward to cooperating with Belgium as an equal and independent nation.

Tried to Quell a Chaotic Congo

Within days of the victory, the country was in chaos. Congolese army mutinies led to Belgian military intervention. Lumumba reacted by cutting diplomatic ties with Belgium. On July 11, the mineral-rich province of Katanga seceded from Congo, led by Tshombe, who barred Lumumba and Kasavubu from entering the province. Under the advice of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, Lumumba invited United Nations peacekeeping troops to land in the country. When the UN refused to restore Katanga, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent planes, weapons, and advisors to aid Lumumba, which drew the attention and confirmed the worst fears of the American government under Eisenhower, according to journalist Bill Berkeley of the New York Times. As Lumumba tried to prevent inner turmoil from tearing his country apart at the seams, his enemies seemed to multiply. In September of 1960 army commander Joseph Mobutu arrested and ousted both Kasavubu and Lumumba and took power of Congo.

For accepting Soviet aid during the height of the Cold War, Belgians and Americans accused Lumumba of being communist, to which he replied,We are not communist, Catholics or socialist. We are African Nationalist. We retain the right to be friends with whoever we like in accordance with the principal of political neutrality. Still, even out of office, Lumumba remained under the scrutiny of Western spies for his ties to the Soviet Union. In August of 1960, CIA Director Allen Dulles cabled the CIA chief in Congo: In high quarters here, it is the clear-cut conclusion that if [Lumumba] continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will at best be chaos and at worst pave the way to Communist takeover. His removal must be an urgent and prime objective. A few days later, a CIA scientist, Sidney Gottlieb, arrived Congo carrying a vial of poison intended to kill Lumumba. Gottlieb never got his chance, and the poison was dumped in the Congo River.

Lumumba managed to escape Mobutu and tried to join his followers, but was recaptured. In December of 1960, Lumumba was arrested by Congolese authorities and Belgian officials engineered his transfer to his enemies in Katanga, the breakaway province still under Belgian control. Anyone who knew the place knew that was a death sentence, according to journalist Kevin Whitelaw of U.S. News & World Report. I prefer to die with my head unbowed, my faith unshakable, and with profound trust in the destiny of my country, Lumumba wrote to his wife from prison. He had already been badly beaten and was bleeding when he arrived in Katanga on January 17, 1961, escorted by Belgian soldiers.

Question of American Involvement Never Answered

After Lumumba and two of his aides were murdered, the bodies were cut up with a hacksaw by Belgian Police Commissioner Gerard Soete and his brother and dissolved in sulfuric acid, to destroy the evidence, according to Whitelaws article in U.S. News & World Report. In a 1999 television interview, Soete displayed a bullet and two teeth he claimed to have saved from Lumumbas body. Lumumbas assassination cleared the way for the insidious regime of dictator Mobutu who, for three decades, ran Congo into poverty. The region never recovered and remains unstable and is a war ground for at least five neighboring countries.

A 1975 U.S. Senate investigation led by the late Frank Church (D-Idaho) found there was a reasonable inference that Eisenhower authorized Lumumbas assassination, but the committee stopped short of a conclusive finding. According to journalist George Lardner Jr. in the Washington Post, an August of 1960 meeting of Eisenhower with the National Security Council lends to suspicions regarding U.S. involvement. Though the meeting notes themselves are inconclusiveattesting to the wisdom of Eisenhowers no-direct-quotations for meeting reports. The meetings notetaker, Robert H. Johnson, told the Post that he distinctly recalled Eisenhower turning to CIA Director Dulles and perfectly audible to everyone at the meeting, saying something to the effect that Lumumba should be eliminated. Eisenhower said somethingI can no longer recall the wordsthat came across to me as an order for the assassination of Lumumba.

In his research for The Assassination of Lumumba, Ludo de Witte found a Belgian official who help organize Lumumbas transfer to Katanga who said that he kept CIA station chief Lawrence Devlin fully informed of the plan. The Americans were informed of the transfer because they actively discussed this thing for weeks, de Witte told U.S. News & World Report. Devlin, now retired, denied the claim.

Lumumbas legend has inspired scores of books, articles, art, and film. One major motion biographical picture on the subject, Lumumba, directed by Raoul Peck, stirred up new interest in the slain leader upon its release in 2001. Though the political thriller was produced in cooperation with Lumumbas family, and paints an admirable and respecting portrait, it is notable for its adherence to the tragic facts. Lumumba is potent stuff, wrote critic Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. Complex, powerful, intensely dramatic. Critic Elvis Mitchell wrote in the New York Times that the film contains a breathtaking amount of information, rolling through history swiftly and boldly yet conveying an epic investment in characterization as Lumumbas power and comrades inexorably fade, victims of the conflict in the Congo. Peck also made a well-received documentary film on Lumumba, titled Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, released in 1991. Lumumba was an idealist, director Peck told the New York Times, because he had the option of being an opportunist like so many around him and he chose not to be.



Meredith, Martin, The First Dance of Freedom, Harper, 1954.

Reshetnyak, Nikolai, Patrice Lumumba, Novosti Press, 1990.

Sarte, Jean Paul, Lumumba Speaks, Little, Brown, 1972.


Economist, August 11, 2001.

Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2001, p. F6.

New York Times, June 6, 1999, p. 29; June 24, 2001, p. 2.13; August 2, 2001, p. A20.

U.S. News and World Report, July 24, 2000, p. 63.

Washington Pos t, August 8, 2000, p. A23.


Historic World Leaders, Gale Research, 1994. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, The Gale Group. 2001,

Brenna Sanchez

Lumumba, Patrice

views updated Jun 27 2018

Patrice Lumumba

Born: July 2, 1925
Kasai, Congo
Died: January 18, 1961
Katanga, Congo

Congolese prime minister

Patrice Lumumba was the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo. He was a leading figure in the Congo as that country established its independence from Belgium, which had controlled the Congo since the late nineteenth century. Lumumba's murder in 1961 has made him a symbol of struggle for champions of African nations' attempts to unite and to break free of the influence of the European powers that once colonized (held territory in) the continent.

Child of a village

Patrice Emery Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925, in the tiny village of Onalua in northeastern Kasai, a Congolese province (political unit or region). At the time of his birth, the Congo was still a colony (a territory governed by a foreign power) of Belgium. As a child, Lumumba attended Protestant and then Catholic schools run by white mission-ariesthat is, by people sent to do religious or charitable work on behalf of their church. At the mission schools, Lumumba proved to be a fine student, even though the mud-brick house he lived in had no electricity and he could not study after dark. In addition, the mission schools were poorly equipped, with few textbooks or basic school supplies.

Nevertheless, Lumumba's teachers spotted his quick intelligence and loaned him their own books, encouraging him to advance. Some teachers also found that his intelligence caused them problems, feeling he asked too many troublesome questions.

Political leader

As a young man, Lumumba found a job as a postal clerk in the city of Stanleyville (now called Kisangani) in 1954. There he rapidly became a community leader and organized a postal workers' labor union. His activities were encouraged by local members of the Belgian Liberal political party.

In 1957, having been appointed to the position of sales director for a brewery, Lumumba left Stanleyville for the Congo's capital, Léopoldville (now called Kinshasa). There he soon became involved in an important political project. He helped to found the Movement National Congolais (MNC) political party, which aimed to represent all Congolese, rather than representing only the interests of a particular tribe or region. Lumumba's exciting personality and public speaking talents soon won him prominence in this party.

National figure

In 1959 the Belgian authorities announced a new plan for the Congo. They proposed to hold local elections that would lead within five years to full Congolese independence. During that year, Lumumba gained recognition as the only truly national figure on the Congo political scene. His persuasive, attractive personality dominated the political meeting called the Luluabourg Congress in April 1959, in which all the political groups who favored a unitary form of government for the Congoone that would unite tribes and regions into one nationattempted to establish a common front. However, Lumumba's growing reputation and seemingly radical views caused hostility among other MNC leaders. The result of this disagreement was a split in the party in July 1959. Most of the party's original founders supported Albert Kalonji as their representative, while Lumumba held onto the loyalty of most other party members.

Lumumba was briefly imprisoned in November 1959 on charges of encouraging the outbreak of riots in Stanleyville, but he was set free in time to attend the Round Table Conference in Brussels, Belgium. The Belgian government had called for this conference as a forum in which all Congolese political parties could discuss plans for their country's future. At the conference, Lumumba's dramatic presence stole the show from other Congolese leaders. His efforts throughout this period were directed more firmly than those of any other Congolese politician toward the organization of a nationwide movement for an independent Congo.

Head of government

In the May 1960 general elections, Lumumba and his allies won 41 of 137 seats in the National Assembly (the Congo's legislature). They also gained important positions in four of six provincial governments. As leader of the largest single party, Lumumba was somewhat reluctantly selected by the Belgians to become the Congo's first prime minister (and minister of defense) a week before independence. Lumumba's longtime political rival Joseph Kasavubu became president of the republic with Lumumba's apparent support.

During his brief time in office, Lumumba had to face an unusually high number of sudden emergencies. These included the revolt of the army and the secession (formal withdrawal from the Congo) of the provinces of Katanga and Southern Kasai, which had been encouraged by Belgian interests and military forces. Lumumba turned to the United Nations (UN) for support, only to discover that it had no intention of accepting his definition of what was best for the Congo. It insisted on opposing the use of any force to alter the situation. Desperate for help, Lumumba asked for support from the Soviet Union to begin military action against the secessionist governments of Southern Kasai and Katanga. He was stopped in this attempt when President Kasavubu dismissed him from office in September 1960.

The National Assembly put Lumumba back in power as prime minister, but a small group from the army, led by Colonel Mobutu, took over the government instead. Lumumba was put under unofficial house arrest (confinement in one's home). Meanwhile, his political associates had gone to Stanleyville to organize a rival government. Lumumba slipped out of the capital and tried to make his way toward Stanleyville, but he was arrested by an army patrol and held prisoner in a military camp at Thysville.

Lumumba's death and legacy

Even after his imprisonment, Lumumba's reputation and the strength of his followers remained a threat to the unstable new rulers of the Congo. This was demonstrated when Lumumba nearly managed the incredible feat of persuading his military jailers to help him retake power. This incident only strengthened the conviction of authorities in the capital to get rid of Lumumba. They formed a plan to transfer him to either one of the secessionist states of Southern Kasai or Katanga (where he was sure to be executed) as a possible way of reconciling with these two breakaway regions. On January 18, 1961, Lumumba was flown to Elisabethville, the capital of Katanga. There, despite the presence of UN troops, he was picked up by a small group led by Katanga's interior minister and included white mercenaries (professional soldiers hired by a foreign army). He was taken to a nearby house and murdered.

The Katanga government made clumsy attempts to cover up the murder, but the shock waves caused by the killing traveled around the world. They created enough international pressure to cause the UN Security Council to permit the use of force as a last resort by UN forces in the Congo. This decision caused events that led to the restoration of a civilian government in Léopoldville and to the eventual end of all movements by regions to secede from the Congo. In addition, Lumumba's tragic murder caused him to be hailed as a hero and symbol for various causes after his death. However, he is best remembered as a passionate believer in the power of African nations to shape their own destinies and free themselves from colonial influence.

For More Information

Heinz, G., and H. Donnay. Lumumba: The Last Fifty Days. New York: Grove Press, 1970.

Hoskyns, Catherine. The Congo Since Independence, January 1960December 1961. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Kanza, Thomas R. The Rise and Fall of Patrice Lumumba. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Witte, Ludo de. The Assassination of Lumumba. Edited by Ann Wright and Renee Fenby. New York: Verso, 2001.

Lumumba, Patrice

views updated May 17 2018

Lumumba, Patrice 1925-1961


Patrice Lumumba was an outspoken African nationalist politician and first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He played a central role in the chaotic and hastily executed decolonization in the Belgian Congo in 1960. His assassination in 1961 by Belgian and American security services, who conspired with his Congolese political enemies, earned him a lasting place as an eloquent and courageous African champion against the excesses of Western governments and corporations.

Lumumba was born in 1925 in Kasai Province, in what was then the Belgian Congo. He completed primary school at a Catholic mission in 1943. He then worked as a clerk for a mining company before joining the Belgian Congo junior civil service as a postal clerk in Stanleyville. His life was typical of the evolue underclass of Western-educated and urbanized Africans, who kept the colonial system functioning. Despite his limited education, he was a good writer and brilliant orator.

The recession of the mid-1950s, which occurred as postwar Belgium sought to extract the maximum return from its investments in the Congo, led to high African urban unemployment and mounting discontent. In 1956 an evolue group in Léopoldville issued a manifesto calling for independence within thirty years. But both Lumumba, who led the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), and Joseph Kasavuba, the leader of the rival Alliance des Ba-Kongo (ABAKO), called for immediate independence.

In response to urban riots in 1959, the Belgian government convened a conference in Brussels to determine the future of the Congo. Lumumba was placed under arrest and charged with inciting anticolonial riots, but when the MNC won a convincing majority at local elections, Lumumba was freed to attend the conference. Under pressure from the MNC, the Belgian government announced that general elections would be held in May 1960 for the newly created national and provincial assemblies, and for a national senate nominated by the provincial assemblies, with independence for the Congo on June 30, 1960. This would be the first experiment with democracy in the colonys history.

Lumumba and the MNC advocated a unitary state with a strong central government. However, parochial interests, with the support of Belgian colonial interests, led to a profusion of ethnic and regional parties. The MNC emerged as the largest party in the national assembly, but it was unable to govern without a coalition. Parochial tribal-based parties dominated the provincial assemblies.

Following the election, Lumumba became the independent nations prime minister, with Kasavubu serving as president. At the independence ceremony, Baudouin I, the king of the Belgians, praised Belgian colonialism, provoking Lumumba to a stinging impromptu critique of Belgian colonial rule and the exploitation of Western mining companies. In 1960, many in the West were shocked at an African publicly criticizing a European head of state. Coming in the midst of the cold war, it led the Eisenhower administration in America to view him as pro-Communist.

Within days, the Congolese army, drawn from the poorest and most marginalized segment of the population, mutinied. With the support of Belgian mining companies, Katanga Province declared its independence under Governor Moise Tshombe. Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for support, but the Security Council divided along cold war lines.

In September 1960, President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumbas government, and Joseph Mobutu, the army chief-of-staff, arrested Lumumba. With the connivance of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Belgian Security Lumumba was handed over to his enemies in Katanga, who murdered him on January 17, 1961.

The Lumumba legacy, like that of John F. Kennedy, has been shrouded by his untimely assassination in a mantle of unrealized promise. On one level, as the hapless victim of Belgian pride and American cold war paranoia, he was to be buried in the past and forgotten. Yet to many non-Europeans in America, the Caribbean, and Africa, the outspoken and charismatic African nationalist became a hero in the struggle against white racism and oppression, one of the martyrs of African liberation. His assassination and the widespread accusations (later confirmed) of American CIA involvement may have served as a warning to others in the anticolonial struggle, but to many ordinary black people, his murder was a confirmation of Western excess, duplicity, and racism. While Lumumba is a forgotten figure in the mainstream Western consciousness, to many black intellectuals his fate remains an indelible stain, a lasting reminder of Western neocolonialism.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.; Colonialism; Liberation Movements; Nationalism and Nationality; Neocolonialism


De Witte, Ludo. 2001. The Assassination of Lumumba. Trans. Ann Wright and Renée Fenby. New York: Verso.

Gibbs, David N. 1991. The Political Economy of Third World Intervention: Mines, Money, and U.S. Policy in the Congo Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kanza, Thomas. 1979. The Rise and Fall of Patrice Lumumba: Conflict in the Congo. Boston: G. K. Hall.

David Dorward

Lumumba, Patrice

views updated Jun 11 2018

Lumumba, Patrice

Lumumba, the son of a poor peasant, was born in Onalua (near Katako-Kombe, in East Kasaï, Congo) on July 2, 1925, when Congo was under Belgian colonial rule. During his primary school years, Lumumba ran away or was expelled from several missionary institutions. But at the same time, he was ambitious and driven by real intellectual hunger. On arriving in Stanleyville (now Kisangani) in July 1944, he attended evening classes and became a voracious reader. He was employed in the postal service, but also had an active public life outside of work.

Lumumba became the founder and president of several Congolese cultural, social, and political organizations, including the local Amicale Libérale. In this capacity, he met the Belgian Minister of Colonies, Auguste Buisseret, when the latter was visiting Congo in 1954. Thanks to the minister's help, he participated in a delegation of Congolese visiting Belgium in 1956—a rare privilege for a black person at the time. Upon his return, Lumumba was arrested on the charge of theft while performing his duties as a postmaster. He was sent to jail and lost his job. However, these events did not break his spirit, nor impact his growing popularity among the Congolese.

After his release, in June 1957, he went to the capital, Léopoldville (Kinshasa), where he found a job as a salesman for a local brewery. More than ever before, Lumumba engaged in public and even outright political activities. In October 1958 he was co-founder and provisional president of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), which immediately became one of the most influential formations of nascent Congolese nationalism. In December 1958, he participated in the Pan-African Conference at Accra (Ghana's capital). In July 1959 internal disagreements led to the split-up of the MNC into two rival organizations, Lumumba's wing being more radical.

The so-called MNC-Lumumba was one of the few Congolese parties being organized on a non-ethnical basis; it stressed the necessity of Congolese unity, as opposed to confederalist or separatist tendencies. In a climate of growing hostility toward Belgian colonial rule, Lumumba was arrested once again after riots in Stanleyville in October 1959. On January 21, 1960, he was condemned to six months' imprisonment, but was released a few days later so he could attend the Round Table Conference, held in Brussels, where the Belgian government discussed the political future of the Congo with all Congolese parties. This conference decided to grant the country a quick and unconditional independence on June 30, 1960.

In the meantime, parliamentary elections were being held in May; they established MNC-Lumumba as the single most important party of Congo, but without gaining an absolute majority. Consequently, Lumumba became prime minister of the first Congolese government, while Joseph Kasavubu (1910–1969), the leader of another important party, the Abako, was designated as president. During the official ceremonies, held in Léopoldville on independence day in the presence of Belgian King Baudouin (1930–1993) and several prominent Belgian politicians, Lumumba caused serious turmoil by delivering an unannounced speech in which he stressed the many sufferings the Congolese had undergone during Belgian domination. This incident confirmed to the Belgian authorities and other Western powers, such as the United States, that Lumumba was a dangerous and extremist leader.

He was seen as a real threat to Western influence and as a promoter of communist rule throughout the entire African continent. Only five days after independence was declared, a rebellion in some units of the Congolese army led to unilateral Belgian military intervention and wide-spread chaos in the country. Moreover, the rich mining province of Katanga broke away from central authorities and declared its own independence. This secession was (in practice) supported by the Belgians. Lumumba's central government broke off diplomatic relations with Belgium and called for international help. This led to a United Nations (UN) intervention in Congo. By now the political and, in some circles even physical, elimination of the Congolese prime minister had become a priority for the Belgian and U.S. authorities.

Inspired by them, President Kasavubu dismissed the prime minister on September 5, 1960; Lumumba, in turn, immediately deposed the president. This political stalemate led Colonel Mobutu (1930–1997), then head of the Congolese National Army and protégé of Washington, DC, and Brussels, to take over power. Lumumba, arrested and placed under home surveillance by Mobutu's troops (but protected by UN soldiers), made an unsuccessful attempt to escape to Stanleyville, where he could count on many followers. After his capture, Lumumba was finally handed over to his fiercest enemies, the secessionist authorities of Katanga. Only a few hours after his transfer to Katanga's capital, Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), during which he was severely beaten and tortured, he was executed nearby on January 17, 1961.

The news of his death caused great indignation in many third world countries and in the Soviet bloc. The elimination of Congo's legal chief of government was seen as a plot of Western imperialist powers to curtail growing African and third world self-determination. Although the Belgian and U.S. authorities denied any participation in Lumumba's assassination, presented as an intra-Congolese affair, it is clear by now that both Western powers contributed to create the context leading to his elimination, without directly carrying it out. Immediately after his death, Lumumba became an icon of the third world's struggle against imperialism—even if he had been prime minister for only two months and not given much opportunity to exercise power.

see also Belgium's African Colonies; Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa; Nationalism, Africa.


De Vos, Luc, Phillipe Raxhon, Emmanuel Gerard, and Jules Gérard-Libois. Les secrets de l'affaire Lumumba. Brussels: Racine, 2004.

Omasombo, Jean, and Benoit Verhaegen. Patrice Lumumba, jeunesse et apprentissage politique: 1925–1956. Paris: Institut Africain-L'Harmattan, 1998.

Willame, Jean-Claude. Patrice Lumumba. La crise congolaise revisitée. Paris: Karthala, 1990.

Witte, Ludo de. The Assassination of Lumumba. London: Verso, 2001.

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Patrice Lumumba

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