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Patrice Lumumba: Hero & Martyr of the Congo

A hero of the Congolese people, Patrice Lumumba defined the African attitude against colonialism and paid a high price for his actions.

By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism

Patrice Lumumba was the prime minister of the Congo for only ten weeks, but his legacy is one of a beloved revolutionary and a martyr who gave dignity to the Congolese people emerging from the backdrop of Belgian colonial rule, perhaps the most brutal episode of European colonialism in history.

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He was betrayed and assassinated while in his prime. The involvement of Western powers in his downfall is a searing indictment of the countries that claim to be liberal democracies. But his story does not begin with his death. It begins in the village of Onalua in the Belgian Congo.

Early Life of Patrice Lumumba

patrice lumumba 1950s
Patrice Lumumba in the 1950s, via World Socialist Web Site

Patrice Émery Lumumba was born into a family of farmers on June 2nd, 1925 in the Katakokombe region of the Kasai province of the Belgian Congo. A member of the Tetela ethnic group, he was born into a Catholic household, but educated in both Protestant and Catholic institutions.

As a child, Lumumba was defined by his intelligence, often pointing out others’ errors, including his teachers, which earned him a reputation for arrogance. He was, by all accounts, an overachiever, and could speak five languages: Tetela, Lingala, French, Swahili, and Tshiluba.

After finishing school, Lumumba worked as a traveling beer salesman as well as a postal clerk. He was also a poet and a philosopher, reading many of the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. In his early twenties, he went through a string of relationships and marriages.

After World War II and during the 1950s, independence movements became popular throughout Africa, and Patrice Lumumba began focusing his attention on political matters.

In 1956, he was arrested on charges of embezzling $2500 from the post office. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison.

Entrance Into Politics

Belgian King Baudouin greeting visitors (including Lumumba) at the Round Table Conference in Brussels, via Medium

Upon his release from prison, Patrice Lumumba helped found the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), which was a left-wing movement that drew support from across the ethnic spectrum. His personal charisma led him to have a huge following in comparison to other leaders of the movement.

In 1958, he traveled to Ghana and met with Kwame Nkrumah, who was an ardent Pan-Africanist. This meeting solidified Lumumba’s Pan-African beliefs even further.

In October of the following year, Patrice Lumumba was arrested for inciting a riot in which 30 people lost their lives. His trial start date of January 18, 1960 was also the start date of the Brussels Round Table Conference, which was organized to decide the future of the Congo. Under pressure from the MDC, Lumumba was released and allowed to attend the conference. After nine days of discussion, the conference culminated in a decision to grant the Congo independence. National elections would be held from May 11 to May 25, while full independence would be granted on June 30. The MDC won a plurality, but no outright victory and Lumumba was selected by Belgian Minister of African Affairs, Walter Ganshof van der Meersch, to investigate the possibility of forming a national unity government that included politicians from other parties.

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Joseph Kasa-Vubu, via Politico

The mission with which Lumumba was tasked proved to be too difficult. Lumumba struggled to form coalitions, and contact with the opposition coalition was not forthcoming. When he eventually did meet them, they proved to be obstinate and rejected Lumumba’s attempts at diplomacy. Ganshof responded by terminating Lumumba’s appointment and subsequently appointed Joseph Kasa-Vubu of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) party to perform the same task. Kasa-Vubu ran into the same difficulties as Lumumba.

With tensions mounting, both men attempted to form governments. Lumumba called a meeting in Léopoldville (the capital, now Kinshasa) and announced the formation of his own government. Kasa-Vubu then announced that he had formed his own government. Initial attempts to form an alliance mediated by foreign diplomats also failed. Most of the Congolese parties refused to accept a coalition government that did not include Lumumba, and Lumumba refused to serve under Kasa-Vubu, who wanted the presidency for himself.

Kasa-Vubu was then replaced, and Lumumba was once again tasked with forming a coalition. After much deliberation, negotiating, and voting, a government was finally formed with Lumumba as prime minister and Kasa-Vubu as president.

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Patrice Lumumba on August 2, 1960 at New York airport, via New Frame

A ceremony was held to celebrate the independence of the Congo, in which Belgian King Baudouin gave a particularly patronizing speech urging the new country not to commit to “hasty reforms.” The king then went on to praise the genius of his great-grand uncle Léopold II, the king under which genocide had been committed. No exact figure is known, but it is believed that up to 10 million Congolese people were murdered due to Léopold’s policies.

The ignorance of this speech led Lumumba to stand up and give a speech of his own in response.

“For this independence of the Congo, although being proclaimed today by agreement with Belgium, an amicable country, with which we are on equal terms, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.”

The speech drew widespread criticism from western journalists who believed that it would stoke the fires of conflict and lead to violence against Belgians in the Congo. The sensationalism of the speech brought global fame to Patrice Lumumba, with many Western nations suddenly aware that Patrice Lumumba represented a threat to their capitalist interests in the Congo.

The Congo Crisis

A map of the Congo, showing the breakaway province of Katanga, via International School History

Work began in earnest to enact reforms across the country. Lumumba was insistent on equality reforms, and he lodged his disapproval when other ministers voted for pay increases.

Meanwhile, the army was increasingly dissatisfied with the pace of progress. They had hoped for an announcement of salary increases and better working conditions. When this failed to materialize, localized mutinies began springing up throughout the armed forces.

Lumumba increased the pay grade of all soldiers, and Africanized the armed forces, placing Sergeant Major Victor Lundula as general and commander-in-chief, with Joseph Mobuto as chief of staff. All European officers were replaced with Africans, and Europeans were only kept on in advisory roles. Despite these attentions, the mutinies continued.

Belgium responded by sending 6,000 troops to restore order, especially in the Katanga province, where much of the Congo’s resources were located. On July 11, the Belgian Navy bombarded the seaport of Matadi, killing several Congolese citizens. This action greatly angered the Congolese, who responded by attacking Europeans in the Congo. Belgian troops then began deploying throughout the country, occupying cities and clashing with Congolese troops.

One of Lumumba’s rivals, Moise Tshombe, announced the succession of the Katanga province. With no help coming from the West, and with the UN not having the mandate to operate effectively,  Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu asked the Soviets for help. For many western leaders, this act confirmed suspicions that Lumumba was a danger to Western interests.

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The arrest of Patrice Lumumba, from Bettmann / Bettmann, via the Telegraph

Nevertheless, he traveled to the United States to look for financial and technical assistance. He met with the US Secretary of State, who told him the United States would only send aid through the UN. Lumumba then met with UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, but Lumumba left the meeting feeling unsatisfied, believing the UN did not have the commitment to help resolve the crisis. Lumumba then traveled to Ottawa to seek help from the Canadians, but they denied his request for help.

Lumumba found help easier to attain from other African states, with Guinea and Ghana pledging independent military support.

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First prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, via The Times UK

With reluctance, Lumumba authorized the military to suppress the rebellion in the Kasai province. The action was successful, but it led to ethnic violence, and many blamed Lumumba.

A growing rift between Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasa-Vubu over the way forward through the crisis finally led to Lumumba’s dismissal. He favored a unitary approach, while Kasa-Vubu saw the federalization of the Congo as the only option.

The dismissal was technically illegal, and Lumumba announced that he was the head of the government, and Kasa-Vubu was deposed. The parliament voted to annul both dismissals, but now an impasse existed between the two leaders.

Colonel Mobutu used this opportunity to act, and he launched a coup d’état. Despite this development, he promoted the reconciliation of Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu so that a new government could be formed. Eventually siding with Kasa-Vubu, Mobutu had Lumumba arrested. Meanwhile, the UN sided with Mobutu and voted to accept his new delegates.

The Soviet bloc opposed these decisions and demanded that Lumumba be reinstated, that Belgians must evacuate the Congo, and that Dag Hammarskjöld should resign his post.

Imprisonment & Death

patrice lumumba tooth
A gold tooth – all that remains of Patrice Lumumba was recently found to still be in the possession of Gerard Soete, who was tasked with disposing of the former leader’s body. In 2022, the tooth was repatriated to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; from Jelle Vermeersch, via BBC

On December 3, 1960, Patrice Lumumba was held, along with other ministers who supported him, in Thysville military barracks. He was treated extremely poorly. Camp discipline broke down, and conditions were abysmal. Troops at the barracks were factionalized, with some supporting Lumumba’s release.

On January 17, 1961, Patrice Lumumba along with two others were executed by firing squad. Katangan ministers and Belgian officers were present. The victims’ bodies were thrown into a shallow grave and later dug up, dismembered, ground up, and dissolved on the orders of Katangan interior minister Godefroid Munongo and carried out by Belgian Gendarmerie Officer Gerard Soete.

Investigations decades later proved that the CIA was also involved, and plotted with the Belgian government to assassinate Lumumba.

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A Soviet stamp featuring Partrice Lumumba, via the World History Archive and Compendium

As an African leader, the tenure of Patrice Lumumba was cut extremely short. He was 35 when he died. His legacy is that of a martyr, and since his death, he has been remembered as an icon of anti-imperialism, not just in the Congo (or the DRC), but in anti-imperialist movements all over the world. His face has appeared alongside other anti-imperialists such as Che GuevaraFidel Castro, Thomas Sankara, and Mao Tse Tung. He was hailed as a hero by the Soviet Union, and in the US he had a great influence on the Civil Rights Movement, becoming a much revered figure in the fight for the recognition of Black rights.

Malcolm X said of Patrice Lumumba that he was “the greatest Black man who ever walked the African continent.”

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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus and has written over 100 articles for TheCollector. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.

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