New revelations on the assassination of Patrice Lumumba: A belated trial of Belgian colonialism

The night of January 17th 1961 Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, was shot dead in Katanga. Forty years later a new book by Belgian sociologist Ludo De Witte uncovers proof of what everyone already knew: the complicity of the Belgian government and the United Nations in this crime. Pierre Dorremans looks at the political background of this case and explains the politics of Lumumba.

The night was chilly, that 17th of January 1961 in Katanga, the rich copper province of the former Belgian Congo. The recent breakaway from the independent state of the Congo had been financed by Belgian capital. An open patch in the dark savannah is illuminated by the head-lamps of police cars. A Belgian police officer takes Patrice Lumumba, formerly the elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, by the arm and leads him to a big tree. The Prime Minister walks wearily, he has been tortured for hours, even days now. A four man execution squad armed with Belgian FAL and Vigneron guns stands by, while about 20 soldiers, policemen, Belgian officers and Katangese ministers watch silently. A Belgian captain gives the order to fire and a rain of bullets mows down Lumumba and two or his former ministers.

Forty years later a Belgian parliamentary commission has started an investigation into this very dark chapter of Belgian colonial history. The commission has one year to elucidate on the matter. This investigation serves a double purpose: on the one hand it serves to restore the reputation of Belgium abroad, a reputation which has suffered severely due the huge amount of scandals that have shaken the country over the past five years (from the corruption scandals in arms contracts where Socialist Party leaders played a prominent role, to the sexual abuse and murder of young children, to the dioxin contamination of foodstuffs,... to mention only the most important). This is a bad situation for a tiny country that exports more than three quarters of its production in goods and services abroad.

In an attempt to clean up its image, the new Belgian Socialist-Liberal-Green government has been taking the lead in juridical procedures against Pinochet and former Iranian president Rafsanjani, in the boycott of Haider, and it is also searching its own conscience in investigating its own troublesome colonial history.

A second reason is that Belgium's Foreign Department now has understood that the Congo's new ruler Kabila is here to stay for a while. And as Kabila leans heavily on the heritage of the leftist nationalism of Lumumba, Belgium has to clean up its nasty reputation as the murderer of the Congo's most prominent nationalist leader in order to get back in business in Kinshasa.

The fact that the Belgian Christian Democrats - who had been in power since the Dark Ages - are now in the opposition makes things easier. The main protagonists in the attempt to restore Belgian colonial power 40 years ago were indeed all Christian Democrats, with Gaston Eyskens as prime minister at the time who also caused a strike of pre-revolutionary dimensions (winter 1960-1961) with his aggressive austerity policies, and count d'Aspremont Lynden, representative of an age-old Belgian and pre-Belgian bourgeoisie at the helm of the 'Department of African Affairs'.

Jacques Brassine's doctoral thesis 'Investigation into the murder of Patrice Lumumba' (Universit? Libre de Bruxelles, 1990) had been regarded for the past 10 years as the cornerstone of the official version of events in the Congo in 1960-1961. In this survey Brassine tried to prove that Lumumba's murder was a purely internal affair in which Belgium played no role at all. His work in right wing Belgian political circles is well known.

But with his book, 'Crisis in the Congo' (1996), Belgian sociologist Ludo De Witte shed an entirely different light on the struggle for independence. He came to the conclusion that the Eyskens government, at the very least, encouraged the climate in which Lumumba eventually was murdered and that the United Nations troops in the Congo were "accomplices by neglect". In his more recent book, 'The murder of Lumumba' (1999), De Witte elaborates this thesis in detail. In the first chapters he doesn't leave one element of Brassine's methodology unquestioned (amongst other things Brassine was even actively involved in the events of 1960-61 and thus can hardly be regarded as an independent investigator!).

Then De Witte embarks on a detailed analysis of the more than 8000 telegrams that were exchanged between the UN diplomats in the Congo and the UN headquarters in New York. De Witte comes very close to clearly proving the intense Belgian complicity in the murder. Rather than being the flunkeys of Katangese president Tsjombe, it was the Belgians who invented, created, steered and financed the puppet state of Katanga as a bulwark of Belgian colonialism in Africa. It was in Brussels and not in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) or Elisabetville (now Lubumbashi, capital of Katanga or Shaba as it has been known in more recent years) where the transfer of Lumumba from a Congolese army prison to the lawless state of Katanga was engineered and ordered. While he was behind bars Lumumba even managed to bring the Congolese army very close to an anticolonial uprising against the regime installed by the famous colonel Mobutu.

The meticulous way in which De Witte describes and analyses the months, days and hours before the murder, the lugubrious details of torture and murder, and the removal of the body, doesn't make 'The murder' a very amusing book. Nevertheless it is a clear description of the way in which the bourgeoisie of a so-called "democratic" country like Belgium acts when its fundamental interests are at stake. A painstaking reading of this book will put the investigations of the parliamentary commission - supposing that it really does want to discover the truth - on the right track. De Witte indicates several black spots (meetings, individuals, etc.) that must be clarified if the whole picture is to be seen. The commission should concentrate on these. For example the role that was played by the Belgian shadow cabinet housed in the Immokat building in Elisabethville.

The murder of Lumumba and two of his ministers, Mpolo and Okito, cleared the road for the crushing of the anti-imperialist uprisings in the Congo and thus laid the foundations for the compradore regime of Mobutu. The mineral-rich Congo (a geologist once described the former Belgian colony as a "geological scandal") was plundered for 30 years in the most brutal way by Belgian, French and American imperialism and by the cleptocracy around Mobutu. Meanwhile the country served as a military bulwark against the emerging African Revolution in the sixties and seventies.

Just like the UN, the leadership of the Belgian labour movement is also "accomplice by neglect" because of its indifference towards the colonial revolution. Even the Belgian Communist Party was a supporter of the Belgian presence in the Congo because "socialism in one country" would not be possible in Belgium alone because of the lack of raw materials! And the Stalinists in Moscow only supported the nationalist regime under Lumumba to the extent that it could be used and sacrificed on the international chessboard of "peaceful coexistence" with the imperialist West!

In essence Lumumba was a bourgeois democrat who, nevertheless, became quickly radicalised through his opposition to bare-faced Belgian colonial ambitions. If he had lived longer he probably would have moved in the same direction as Fidel Castro in Cuba. Lumumba became the symbol of a very young and rapidly radicalising independence movement which unfortunately was too unorganised to survive the murder and/or imprisonment of its most prominent leaders. Today Lumumba still lives on as a genuine and honest revolutionary for many thousands of African workers and youth who try to find a way out of the deadly impasse of imperialism on the black continent.

Therefore, while pointing out the shortcomings of a nationalist programme and the need for socialist internationalism throughout Africa and the rest of the world, Lumumba's heritage has to be taken on cautiously and with respect.

Today the Kabila regime in Kinshasa flirts with the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Lumumbism and therefore it can count on a certain level of support among the progressive forces in the Congo itself and in the diaspora. The West is taking this threat seriously again and is trying to keep Kabila under pressure by financing some artificial uprisings in the east of the Congo.

But times have changed since 1960, when western imperialism was more or less united in its struggle against "communism" in Africa. Nowadays the situation on the continent is more similar to that at the time of the Berlin Conference of 1885, when Africa became an arena of struggle between the European imperialist powers. So far, Kabila has managed, as a skilful bonapartist, to balance between those different interests. This keeps him in power but it is not leading towards the further liberation and emancipation of the African people. On the contrary, Central Africa is caught in endless and devastating civil wars.

In order to reach a genuine liberation and development of the African nations, the lessons of Lumumbism will have to be digested and enriched with Marxist analysis and understanding. Furthermore, the Belgian and European working class will have to put an end to all forms of neocolonialism.