In 1960, the Congolese people, after breaking free from the Belgian Empire, elected Patrice Lumumba as their first Prime Minister. But his administration – and life – were cut short by Western governments, angry that his economic plans favoured the people of the Congo over the big corporations of Europe and North America.
Patrice Lumumba is a name recognised across all of Africa.
It belonged to a man born 94 years ago today in the Congo, back when it was still held in the oppressive grip of Belgium’s colonial empire.
Belgium’s Blood-Soaked Rule
In the criminal story of Europe’s colonisation of Africa, Belgium’s chapter still manages to stand out for cruelty and barbarism.
In particular, King Leopold II’s (1835-1909) rapacious conquest and governance of the Congo bled the country dry (for those interested in reading further, Adam Hochschild's chilling masterpiece King Leopold's Ghost covers the rape and pillage of the Congo from its origins to the present day).
Between 1885 and 1908 alone, more than ten million Africans died under Belgium’s exploitative rule – in many ways the first modern genocide.
Forced labour, a brutal police, systemic theft of land and resources – these were the hallmarks of Belgium’s regime in the Congo, one of the worst in the history of empire.
But when Africa began to break free from European imperialism after the Second World War, the brutalised people of the Congo were offered a glimmer of hope for the future.
The late 1950s were a (much deserved) period of misery for the European empires in Africa.
Even the mighty British were caving before independence movements across the continent, beginning with Ghana and ending with, well, everywhere else.
Then, in the north, France’s losing war against the Algerian freedom fighters (1954-62) stood as a warning to Europeans trying to hold on for too long to their conquests in Africa.
In December 1958, Patrice Lumumba – a charismatic former-post office worker from the south of the Congo, now leader of the new, anti-colonial Congolese National Movement – said to a gathering in Ghana:
“The winds of freedom currently blowing across all of Africa have not left the Congolese people indifferent. Political awareness…is now becoming manifest and assuming outward expression.”
Above: Lumumba (centre) in Brussels, 1960
The Belgians, who had planned for at least another thirty years of colonial government (stretching well into the 1980s), were pushed onto the back foot by Lumumba’s dynamic, new independence movement.
So in the broader context of decolonisation, it’s perhaps of little surprise that little Belgium threw up its hands in surrender and gave to the Congolese their long-stolen independence.
As it turned out, this was only a half-freedom at best.
The Fall of Lumumba
In December 1960 – hardly six months into his premiership – Patrice Lumumba was captured by a US- and Belgium-backed military coup.
Elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of Congo on 24th June 1960, Lumumba had begun talking about using Congo’s immense mineral wealth for the benefit of the Congolese people rather than Western mining corporations.
This didn't sit well with the agents of economic imperialism, who in the age of decolonisation had simply reverted from open colonialism to a more shadowy form of control and oppression.
On 17th January 1961, after being brutally tortured by Congolese mutineers and the Belgian officers working with them, Lumumba was shot and killed.
His ambitious government and its dream of real, economic freedom and prosperity for the Congo died, to be replaced by a ruthless military dictatorship, obedient to the West.
Patrice Lumumba had fallen headfirst into the trench which marked the limits of freedom for former European colonies in Africa.
Amid all the fanfare of new flags, a national anthem, and seats at the United Nations, every new African state received the same, silent whisper from the West: “you are ‘free’ – just don’t do anything against our interests or we’ll take you out.”
Any move against the monopoly of Western corporations on African resources, or any attempt to simply be neutral in the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Bloc, could be (literally) fatal.
For Africa, decolonisation meant freedom without the ability to change horrifically unjust economic structures or have an independent foreign policy – if that can be called ‘freedom’ at all.
A 'Third World' Story
The modern, radical histories of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and East Asia alike, are strewn with the bodies of brave-but-doomed men and women like Patrice Lumumba.
In 1953, Mohammad Mossadegh – the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran – was overthrown by an MI6- and CIA-orchestrated coup for attempting to nationalise Iran's oil resources.
A year later, in Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz’s government (supported by a young Che Guevara) fell foul of a CIA-orchestrated coup because he advocated land reform in the interest of the Guatemalan peasantry at the expense of US corporations.
Chile’s elected socialist President, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet with vigorous CIA support in 1973 after moving a programme of nationalisation and wealth redistribution.
The bloodstained list goes on and on.
Back in Congo, Patrice Lumumba was not only a courageous African leader, on par with Mandela, but remains a monument to countless lost dreams of economic emancipation across the developing world, trampled by the greed of Western business interests.
His tragic story – Congo’s tragic story – is a reminder of the duty on us living in Europe and North America to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world against enduring economic colonialism; and to elect leaders who’ll put an end to it for good.