Patrice Lumumba was a Congolese politician and independence leader who served as the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Republic of the Congo) from June until September 1960.
He played a significant role in the transformation of the Congo from a colony of Belgium into an independent republic. Ideologically an African nationalist and pan-Africanist, he led the Congolese National Movement (MNC) party from 1958 until his assassination.
Shortly after Congolese independence in 1960, a mutiny broke out in the army, marking the beginning of the Congo Crisis. Lumumba appealed to the United States and the United Nations for help to suppress the Belgian-supported Katangan secessionists led by Moïse Tshombe. Both refused, so Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for support.
This led to growing differences with President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and chief-of-staff Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, as well as with the United States and Belgium, who opposed the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Patrice Lumumba was subsequently imprisoned by state authorities under Mobutu and executed by a firing squad under the command of Katangan authorities. Following his assassination, he was widely seen as a martyr for the wider Pan-African movement. In 2002, Belgium formally apologized for its role in the assassination.
PATRICE LUMUMBA BACKGROUND
Patrice Lumumba was born on 2 July 1925 to a farmer, François Tolenga Otetshima, and his wife Julienne Wamato Lomendja, in Onalua in the Katakokombe region of the Kasai province of the Belgian Congo. He was a member of the Tetela ethnic group and was born with the name Élias Okit’Asombo.
His original surname means “heir of the cursed” and is derived from the Tetela words okitá and asombó (‘cursed or bewitched people who will die quickly’).
Patrice Lumumba was raised in a Catholic family, and was educated at a Protestant primary school, a Catholic missionary school, and finally the government post office training school, where he passed the one-year course with distinction.
Outside of his regular studies, Lumumba took an interest in the Enlightenment ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. He was also fond of Molière and Victor Hugo. He wrote poetry, and many of his works had an anti-imperialist theme.
He worked as a traveling beer salesman in Léopoldville and as a postal clerk in a Stanleyville Post Office for eleven years. In 1951, he married Pauline Opangu.
In the period following World War II, young leaders across Africa increasingly worked for national goals and independence from the colonial powers. In 1955, Lumumba became regional head of the Cercles of Stanleyville and joined the Liberal Party of Belgium. He edited and distributed party literature.
After a study tour in Belgium in 1956, he was arrested on charges of embezzlement of $2500 from the post office. He was convicted and sentenced one year later to twelve months imprisonment and a fine.
After his release, Patrice Lumumba helped found the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) party on 5 October 1958, and quickly became the organization’s leader.
The MNC, unlike other Congolese parties developing at the time, did not draw on a particular ethnic base. It promoted a platform that included independence, gradual Africanization of the government, state-led economic development, and neutrality in foreign affairs.
Lumumba had a large popular following, due to his personal charisma, excellent oratory, and ideological sophistication. As a result, he had more political autonomy than contemporaries who were more dependent on Belgian connections.
Patrice Lumumba was one of the delegates who represented the MNC at the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra, Ghana, in December 1958. At this international conference, hosted by Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, Lumumba further solidified his Pan-Africanist beliefs. Nkrumah was personally impressed by Lumumba’s intelligence and ability.
In late October 1959, Lumumba, as leader of the MNC, was arrested for inciting an anti-colonial riot in Stanleyville; 30 people were killed. He was sentenced to 69 months in prison. The trial’s start date of 18 January 1960 was the first day of the Congolese Round Table Conference in Brussels, intended to make a plan for the future of the Congo.
Despite Lumumba’s imprisonment, the MNC won a convincing majority in the December local elections in the Congo. As a result of strong pressure from delegates upset by Lumumba’s trial, he was released and allowed to attend the Brussels conference.
Lumumba was sent first on 3 December 1960 to Thysville military barracks Camp Hardy, 150 km (about 100 miles) from Léopoldville. He was accompanied by Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, two political associates who had planned to assist him in setting up a new government. They were fed poorly by the prison guards, as per Mobutu’s orders.
In Lumumba’s last documented letter, he wrote to Rajeshwar Dayal:
“in a word, we are living amid absolutely impossible conditions; moreover, they are against the law”.
PATRICE LUMUMBA: ARREST AND ASSASSINATION
Patrice Lumumba was forcibly restrained on the flight to Elisabethville on 17 January 1961. On arrival, he and his associates were conducted under arrest to the Brouwez House, where they were brutally beaten and tortured by Katangan and Belgian officers,while President Tshombe and his cabinet decided what to do with him.
Later that night, he was driven to an isolated spot where, according to reports, three firing squads had been assembled and commanded by Belgian contract officer Julien Gat. A Belgian commission of inquiry found that the execution was carried out by Katanga’s authorities. It reported that Katanga president Tshombe and two other ministers were present, with four Belgian officers under alleged command of Katangan authorities.
According to Ludo De Witte however, the last stage of the operation was personally controlled and led by Belgians. Police Commissioner Frans Verscheure, who had operational command, led Lumumba and the other two to their place of execution, where Gat ordered the firing.
Patrice Lumumba’s execution along with a couple of others, is thought to have taken place on 17 January 1961, shortly before 10pm, with the bodies been thrown into a shallow grave.
Allegedly, the following morning, on orders of Katangese Interior Minister Godefroid Munongo who wanted to make the bodies disappear and thereby prevent a burial site from being created, Belgian Gendarmerie officer Gerard Soete and his team dug up and dismembered the corpses, and dissolved them in sulfuric acid while the bones were ground and scattered.
By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi