Patrice Lumumba

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Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent state of the Congo, was effectively in power for only ten weeks, but he has become a figure of myth and legend — to some a martyr, to others a monster. Under Belgian colonial rule, Lumumba had been a postal clerk and then a beer salesman. He had written an intelligent and even humorous book, Congo, Mon Pays, about the tribulations of his country under Belgium, in which he seemed to see the Congo’s future as a cooperative effort with the Belgians to move from paternalism, tribalism and colonialism to independence and national unity. As a leader of the Mouvement Nationale Congolais (MNC) he was arrested by the Belgians for the first and only time after a noisy demonstration in Stanleyville in 1959, and was released to take part in the hastily summoned Brussels Roundtable that set the scene for the Congo’s independence. As independence approached, he was nominated as Prime Minister.

Lumumba’s first great opportunity came on 30 June 1960, at the Congo’s independence ceremonies. The young King Baudoin of Belgium was the great-grandson of the atrocious King Leopold II, whose rape of the Congo was the ugliest episode in European colonial history. At the independence ceremony, Baudoin made a bizarrely paternalistic speech during which he praised his frightful ancestor’s achievements. Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the Congo’s first President, responded deferentially to the King’s grotesque remarks, giving Lumumba time to turn his own speech into a harsh denunciation of Belgian colonialism. “We have known,” he said, “ironies, insults and blows, which we had to undergo morning, noon and night because we were blacks.” Lumumba’s speech fired the abject spirits of the Congolese with a sense of indignation at their colonial past and he became overnight the true national leader. The Belgians were horrified. They had made absolutely no effort to prepare the Congolese for independence in the belief that after it took place, things would go on very much as before. Their new Prime Minister clearly had no intention of letting that happen.

Five days after independence, the Force Publique, the Congolese army in which there was not a single African officer, mutinied and threw out its Belgian officers. The leaderless army began to harass and assault the Belgian civilian population, most of whom fled the country in panic, leaving the vast territory without administration or security. The result was anarchy. The Belgians sent in paratroopers, ostensibly to protect the remaining white population but, as the Congolese saw it, to reestablish Belgian rule. A confused series of battles in most of the major cities ensued and just ten days after independence the chaos was compounded by the secession, with Belgian connivance, of the Congo’s richest province, Katanga.