Patrice Lumumba: Don’t cry for me DR Congo

African Update – 13/06/12

In the year 2000 one Derek Ingram reckoned that “The tragic picture of Patrice Lumumba, hands tied behind his back, being driven in 1961 through the streets of Katanga province, Congo, on the back of a lorry is still today the most haunting symbol of the trials of the African liberation struggle.” Tragic and haunting as it is, it was soon surpassed by the pointless and gruesome murder that martyred him.

Lumumba was the fieriest critic of the murderous Belgian colonial regime. He cited killings of Congolese people at the hands of the Belgians and called for an end to the “humiliating slavery which had been imposed ... by force." Although exact figures are difficult to come by it is estimated some 10million people perished from forced labor, starvation, and outright extermination in the Congo Free State gifted to Belgian King Leopold II at the Berlin conference of 1844.

An international outcry over the vicious cruelties forced the transfer of the colony from the King to the state in 1908 after which the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo. It however failed to alter the fortunes of the Congolese people. On the contrary, Belgium furthered a murderous and plunderous rule over the Congo in no less brutality. This was when Lumumba intervened in about 1955. No sooner had he joined the independence movement than he was saddened by intrigues of the local middle class elite to entrench a neo-colonial state in the name of independence.

Lumumba recalibrated course, associated himself with the most oppressed in society and developed a clear strategic vision for total decolonisation. With like minded nationalists he jointly founded the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) in 1958, and under his leadership the MNC took the Belgians by storm, led and accelerated the fight against colonial bondage.

When freedom finally dawned on 30th June 1961 Lumumba emerged the first Prime Minister of the independent Republic of Congo. He did not hesitate to remind members of the new Parliament of "the ironies, the insults, the blows that we had to submit to morning, noon and night because we were blacks." The new Congo had to put an end to oppression and give all citizens the fundamental liberties enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Lumumba was not only a Congolese nationalist; he remains one of Africa’s finest brains and ardent advocates of continental integration. He declared Congo must be the "rallying point of all Africa" and called on Africans to rise up and unite. He implored African leaders to make the continent one of justice, law and peace. Lumumba even assured colonial Europe that Africans were not pirates and did “not intend to drive Europeans out of this continent or seize their possessions or persecute them.”

The goodwill notwithstanding Lumumba was soon both subject and object of schemes in the West to rid him from the helm of affairs in the Congo. Evidence suggests that US President Eisenhower instructed his national security advisers to eliminate him. The reason according to Allen Dulles, the CIA Director in 1960, cabled to the Station Officer in the Congo "if Lumumba continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will ... pave the way to Communist takeover.”

Within weeks of independence, the Katanga Province and South Kasai seceded and plunged the Congo into civil conflict. The United Nations flew in a peacekeeping force and the Belgians responded with paratroopers. Whatever their mandates Lumumba was executed in cold blood while they watched. His remains were hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave but never allowed to rest in peace. Within days, and for fear that the execution would leak, his body was exhumed, hacked to bits and dissolved in sulphuric acid.

The Belgian Police Commissioner Gerard Soete would later admit Belgian complicity in the assassination and proudly displayed a bullet and two teeth he had taken from Lumumba’s body as souvenirs. In another complicity, Joseph Mobutu seized power in a CIA sponsored coup d’état just as the malaise of the secessions unravelled. Ironically, Lumumba had earlier appointed him as Chief of Staff of the army to protect the law of the country. More paradoxically, Mobutu portrayed himself as the successor to Lumumba’s pan-African legacy.

He Africanised the name of the country from Congo to Zaire after the local name of the River which the native people always called Nzere long before the explorer Henry Morton Stanley ever stepped foot there. In an agenda of ‘authenticity’ Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Élisabethville became Lubumbashi and Stanleyville became Kisangani in a litany of many other changes.

Unlike Lumumba, however, Mobutu soon embarked on an ego trip, plunged the country into a kleptocracy and is reputed to have looted so much wealth by 1984 he was worth $5 billion, an amount almost equivalent to Zaire’s foreign debt then. No wonder he was described "a walking bank vault" by one former French Minister. Yet Mobutu enjoyed the full, tacit and open backing of the West and was a close ally of the US, France and Belgium until he fell with the Berlin wall.

If the fall of Mobutu was expected to bring immediate reprieve to the Congo it disappointed. After some 31 years of Mobutu’s dictatorship and aggrandizement, Laurent-Désiré Kabila took on the reigns of a country that was on its knees in almost every facet of the nation.  As if desperate times required desperate measures Kabila instantly threw out the baby with the bathwater by renaming Zaire the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), literally embracing the colonial name that colonial Belgium had given it.

Instead of peace, a protracted civil war ensued and shows no sign of abating long after Kabila himself was assassinated in a failed coup in January 2001. The killing sprees throw back to the Leopold and Belgian years of monstrous human abuses. Some estimates put the number of lives claimed in the past 10years to 3million with millions others internally displaced. In a country the size of Western Europe with highly valuable minerals, Africa’s second longest river, and abundant natural resources the economy lies in tatters with a humanitarian crisis in tow for its 71million people.

Meanwhile, the heart of Africa beats in the DRC. Centrally located, there are suggestions the arable fields alone could feed the whole African population and the Congo or Nzere River could hydro-generate sufficient electricity to power and light up the entire continent. Gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, tin and tungsten abound in huge reserves amidst rare species of fauna and flora in vast expanses of pristine rain forest.

For icing the cake, the country possesses 80 percent of the world’s coltan, which when refined becomes the heat resistant powder used to hold high electric charge in mobile phones, laptops, pagers and the like. As the War Child charity put it, “if you own a mobile phone, or an mp3 player then it’s likely you’ve got a little piece of the Congo in your pocket right now.”

Such is the potential of the DRC, so much as the challenges. In the Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild argues that “perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.” In the 75 years of colonial rule fewer than 30 Congolese graduates were produced with no Congolese engineers, agronomists or doctors to write home about. In over 50 years of independence the country has neither known peace nor seen real development either.

As the DRC celebrates 52 years of independence this June 2012 the call of Lumumba for justice and peace summons with greater urgency as his dream for a untied Africa. Unless and until this generation of Congolese and Africans finally uphold his “pursuit of the common good of our peoples” which as he prophesied can be attained “more easily and more rapidly through union than through division” meaningful development would remain a mirage and Africa will be the worse off for it.

For now the message of Patrice Lumumba is clear and simple; don’t cry for me DR Congo and Africa, cry for the children!

Long live the ideas, ideals and vision of Patrice Lumumba!

Long live the Democratic Republic of Congo!

Long live Africa!

Samwin Banienuba (UK)

International Spokesperson for Humanitas Afrika

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