Patrice Hémery Lumumba
July 2, 1925 – January 17, 1961
Notable: First Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Évolué (The Evolved): July 2, 1925 – October 5, 1958
Patrice Hémery Lumumba was born into a poor farming family in Onalua, a village in the Congo’s Kasai province. During the period of Lumumba’s childhood, the local missionary schools primarily focused on teaching students about farming and other types of manual labor. The schools were intended to prepare the Congolese for a limited range of physically demanding jobs so only one hour per day was dedicated to learning from books. When Lumumba began attending school at eleven-years-old, the teachers recognized and encouraged his passion for learning. They loaned him books so he could study on his own, reading before it got too dark as his parents could not afford for him to read by candlelight.
After four years of primary school, Lumumba moved on to Tshumbe Sainte Marie Secondary School. He studied at Tshumbe for three years but left without a diploma, most likely due to financial reasons. With his education cut short, Lumumba moved around for work first to Kindu, next Kalima, then Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), and finally Stanleyville (now Kisangani) where he worked as an accountant in the post office. The city was the second-largest in the region and boasted features and amenities found in European cities. But, Congo had a system of segregation in place that restricted where Africans could live and their use of public facilities and transportation.
While Lumumba was unable to take advantage of many of the city’s amenities, he was able to use the township library in Mangobo where he lived. He also became part of a social group that referred to themselves as “évolués.” The social club consisted of African young men who had attended Western mission schools. In addition to exchanging ideas and books with other group members, Lumumba also developed and expanded his knowledge of French and different Congolese languages spoken throughout the country.
Lumumba made a decent life for himself in Stanleyville, establishing social, political, and romantic relationships. His father arranged his marriage to Pauline Opangu who was 11 years his junior and he found her charming. It was around this time that Lumumba also began writing for évolué publications making a name for himself in the process. With the Congo still under colonial rule, Lumumba and the other évolués successfully petitioned the government for citizenship. After a few years and multiple attempts, Lumumba was finally able to receive a registration card.
In 1955, the Belgian King Baudouin visited Congo and Lumumba was part of a Congolese delegation that was invited to meet with him. Lumumba stood out at the meeting after speaking one-on-one with the king about Congo’s future. This gained him respect from his fellow countrymen but also brought negative attention from the White dignitaries and officials who had been ignored at the meeting. He was again selected for a delegation but this time the group traveled to Belgium.
When Lumumba returned to Congo, he was arrested for allegedly embezzling 2,500 francs from the post office though there was a promissory note which seemed to classify the event more along the lines of a loan that was to be repaid. Lumumba pled not guilty but was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison of which he served 11 months. Other members of évolué repaid the amount in dispute and provided support for Lumumba’s family.
The prison sentence did not deter him from politics. Instead, Lumumba found a new job, moved to Leopoldville, and continued his fight for Congolese independence. His relocation to Leopoldville in 1957 coincided with Belgium holding elections in the city and Africans being allowed some limited civic rights. Ignoring ethnic and regional loyalties, Lumumba helped to co-found the first national Congolese political party, Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), which lobbied the colonial government for Congolese self-determination.
Political Allies & Enemies: October 5, 1958 – September 1960
Other Congolese political parties formed as rumors of possible independence spread and from those parties emerged two of Lumumba’s greatest opponents. Joseph Kasavubu, mayor of Leopoldville’s Dendale region and a member of ABAKO. And Moise Tshombe of the Confederation des Associations du Ratanga (CONAKAT).
In 1958, Lumumba attended and spoke before 600 delegates at the Pan-African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana where he called for an end to colonialism, racism, and tribalism. Lumumba pushed for a Congo of unified Africans independent from colonial rule and saw a future of the same for other African nations. This period marked a time of change with a growing sense of nationalism and many African nations seeking independence. The colonial government responded with a plan that would begin with local elections and eventually lead to Congo’s independence.
But, nationalists feared this was a ploy where the Belgian government would only appear to grant Congo its independence while continuing to control the country through a puppet regime. The nationalists called for a boycott of what they saw as a sham election and the colonial government resorted to suppression. When Lumumba later spoke at an MNC conference it turned into a riot and several people lost their lives. Lumumba was arrested and charged with inciting a riot for which he received a six month sentence.
Winning 90% of the votes in a Stanleyville election, the MNC held out on attending a political conference in Brussels until Lumumba was released. He attended the conference at which it was agreed that elections would be held in May of 1960 with Congo to be granted its independence on June 30.
When the election results were tallied, the MNC had won far more seats than any other party but overall no one party won the majority of votes. A few days before independence, Lumumba and Kasavubu formed an uneasy alliance where Lumumba would become the first prime minister and Kasavubu the first president. On Congo’s Independence Day, Lumumba spoke of a future where Congo and Belgium would no longer have a colony and colonial power relationship but rather work together as two independent and equal nations. In speaking out in strong opposition to colonialism, Lumumba made enemies in not only Belgium but also the United States and Great Britain.
A few days after Independence Day, the Congolese army mutinied in response to the all-White Belgian military leadership. The Belgian military intervened and Lumumba retaliated by ending the diplomatic relationship with Belgium. Tshombe, the leader of the resource-rich Katanga region took advantage of the chaos to secede from Congo. Belgium landed troops in Katanga under the guise of protecting Belgian citizens but actually worked to ensure its continued access to resources by supporting Tshombe’s regime. Congo sought help from the United Nations’ peacekeeping troops but they were patronizing to the Congolese government and refused to help restore Katanga.
Lumumba’s newly independent nation was in disarray with the military in open rebellion, regions seceding, and an undeveloped administration. With few options, Lumumba sought help from Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union as well as other African nations. There were internal and external enemies at every turn and few dependable allies. Lumumba’s willingness to work with the Soviet Union during the Cold War deepened western hostility. And his determination to reunite Katanga with Congo was deemed too aggressive by Kasavubu’s supporters who preferred to allow some aspect of regional self-governance.
In September, Kasavubu relieved Lumumba of his duties, the authority for which Lumumba contested. The uneasy truce ruptured with each faction now claiming to be the true government. The rift allowed Col. Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko), leader of the Congolese army, to arrest and oust both Kasavubu and Lumumba. Mobutu and Kasavubu later came to an agreement where Kasavubu returned to power and his government was recognized by the United Nations (UN).
The Assassination & Theories: September 1960 – January 17, 1961
Following his capture, Lumumba was placed under house arrest where he was guarded by UN peacekeepers who kept Mobutu’s forces at bay. Lumumba attempted to escape to Stanleyville where he still had a stronghold of support but was recaptured by Mobutu’s forces. He was first re-imprisoned at Thysville but his enemies feared the soldiers there might be supportive of his cause.
To get around this problem Lumumba was transferred again. This time he was moved to the Katanga region which had seceded from Congo under Moise Tshombe’s rule. The transfer was a death sentence.
Initially, the government tried to hide Lumumba’s murder and waited almost a month to officially announce his death. They then attempted to distance government involvement in the murder by blaming Lumumba’s death on local villagers who they claimed killed him after he tried to escape. The official explanation of Lumumba’s death was dismissed by the public and rumors began to spread.
In the decades that followed details of the assassination came to light. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba along with two of his allies, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo were escorted to Elisabethville by soldiers. The three men were severely beaten during the flight, beaten again after landing, and were then executed by firing squad. Their unjust treatment did not end with their deaths. Instead, they were buried in shallow graves only to be dug up, cut into pieces with a hacksaw, and dissolved in sulfuric acid in an attempt to hide the crime.
The torture and dismemberment of Lumumba and his colleagues were carried out by the Belgians and Congolese, most likely from Tshombe’s Katangan fighting force. What direct role, if any, Mobutu or Kasavubu played in the murder is unclear. Though both benefited from the death of Lumumba as he was a strong adversary who was popular in some areas of the country and very likely could have returned to power.
It seems that the United States and Great Britain were not directly involved in the ploy that ended Lumumba’s life. But some sources claim that the CIA and MI6 played a role in orchestrating the killing. By most accounts, neither the Americans nor the British delivered the coup de grâce though at previous points in time the idea had been floated on both sides of the pond. They were more likely complicit in the sense that neither country intervened when the decision was made to deliver Lumumba to the hostile Katanga region.
Lumumba was assassinated in the early 1960s during a period when other colonies in Africa and the Caribbean were pushing for their independence. Why Lumumba in particular generated so much attention from Western nations can’t be easily attributed to one specific reason.
He promoted an ideology of an independent Congo with unified people rather than divisions based on tribes, ethnicities, or regions. Beyond the borders of Congo, he believed in the concept of pan-Africanism and that African nations should not just be free of their colonial rulers but reclaim their traditional values. Much of Africa had been carved up and distributed amongst European nations who generated wealth from the continent’s natural resources and compelled its people to work at extortionary rates if they were paid at all.
Another line of reasoning suggests that Lumumba became a concern after turning to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There was fear that he might bring communism to Congo, a strategically important nation in Central Africa. Lumumba might have been viewed as another Fidel Castro in the making.
Regardless of the reasons Lumumba was assassinated and in death, he became a martyr much like several other Black leaders who pushed for self-determination. Some refer to his death as Congo’s original sin as it marked the first in a series of unfortunate events that began soon after independence and saw the country slide into poverty despite its bountiful natural resources.
- Adeleke, Tunde. 2008. “Patrice Emery Lumumba (1925-1961).” Blackpast. April 15, 2008. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/lumumba-patrice-emery-1925-1961/.
- Corera, Gordon. 2013. “MI6 And the Death of Patrice Lumumba.” BBC News. BBC. April 2, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-22006446.
- Kalb, Madeleine G. 1981. “The C.I.A. and Lumumba.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. August 2, 1981. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/02/magazine/the-cia-and-lumumba.html.
- Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. 2011. “Patrice Lumumba: the Most Important Assassination of the 20th Century | Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. January 17, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/17/patrice-lumumba-50th-anniversary-assassination.
- “Patrice Lumumba.” 2020. Encyclopedia.com. August 31, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/political-science-biographies/patrice-lumumba.
- Wallerstein, Immanuel, and Dennis D. Cordell. 2020. “Patrice Lumumba.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. June 28, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Patrice-Lumumba.
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