Patrice Lumumba was the Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC) for less than four months, but he is one of the most well-known nationalist leaders of post-independence Africa, due to the causes and legacies of his assassination.
The Political Scene
In late 1959, as the Winds of Change swept across Africa, Belgium abruptly announced that it was granting freedom to its colony in the Congo.
A conference was held in January, and independence declared 30 June 1960. In that time, the first elections were held to determine the leaders of the new country. While anti-colonialism was strong in the Congo, nationalism was not. Regionalism and tribalism were rampant, and while Patrice Lumumba’s Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) won almost three times as many seats as the next most successful party, the MNC garnered less than a third of the vote. It was enough to form a government, and Lumumba became the Prime Minister; but from the start, the political picture was heavily fractured. In fact, Lumumba had to agree to the election of a President, Joseph Kasa-Vubu.
Mutiny and Secession
Within a few weeks, the national army had mutinied over its wages and the continued presence of white officers. The army’s rebellion left the government unable to maintain law and order in a country riven by factionalism and reeling from the many possibilities created by liberation. Belgium sent its own troops in without permission, and in response, the Congolese government called for a United Nations peacekeeping force to intervene.
Just as the U.N. was getting involved, the mineral rich province of Katanga seceded under the leadership of Moïse Tshombé, and after that, the province of Kasai seceded. Katanga had some of the richest copper mines in the Congo, and the mining companies were owned by Belgian and South African investors, who encouraged the regionalist party to seceded under Tshombé. The United Nations also supported the secession, but Lumumba was determined to keep the Congo as a unified country. In need of financial and military support, he turned to the Soviet Union.
The Congo and the Cold War
The United States of America had already been worried that the nationalist movement in the Congo would morph into a Communist one, and Lumumba’s request for Soviet aid seemed to confirm their fears.
In addition to its other minerals, the Congo was a source of uranium, which is used in atomic bombs, making the prospect of a communist Congo doubly threatening to the United States. By the end of August 1960, the director of the United States’ CIA ordered Lumumba’s assassination.
The President of the Congo, Kasa-Vubu, also disagreed with Lumumba’s actions and politics, however, and on 6 September 1960, before the CIA agent tasked with Lumumba’s assassination had even arrived in the Congo, Kasa-Vubu dismissed Lumumba as Prime Minister. Lumumba challenged the legality of the move, and continued to act as Prime Minister. The political stalemate ended one week later when Colonel Joseph Mobutu, later Mobutu Sese Seku, led a coup and took over the government. In October, Lumumba was placed under house arrest.
Lumumba escaped from house arrest, but was soon captured. On 1 December that Lumumba would be tried for treason. On 17 January, however, Lumumba, and two of his ministers arrested with him, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, were put on a plane and transported to the secessionist state, Katanga. There they were tortured and murdered. How many countries were involved in his death is debated to this day, but most accept that Belgium was involved and the United Nations knew but did nothing to stop the assassination.
Lumumba’s assassination came about through that confluence of tribalism, neo-colonial economic forces, and Cold War politics that beset many newly created African countries in the 1960s. Lumumba’s arrest and murder also changed the course of Congolese history and made him an international icon of anti-colonial nationalism and idealistic leadership lost.