The Fall of Patrice Lumumba

Bruce Kuklick, co-author of “Death in the Congo,” on the infamous 1961 assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.

The Fall of Patrice Lumumba

On January 17, 1961, Congo’s charismatic Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was murdered by firing squad, his body rolled into a shallow trench along with fellow victims Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito. The assassination of the leading politician from the newly-independent nation set off protests around the world, and even today, the circumstances surrounding Lumumba’s rapid rise and fall continue to intrigue scholars and history buffs alike.

The standard narrative is that the United States was largely responsible for Lumumba’s assassination, yet many different parties (including rival Congolese politicians), plotted Lumumba’s downfall.  In “Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba” (Harvard University Press), co-authors Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick present a new interpretation of events. “It’s the United Nations that my co-author and I think was the contributing force to putting Lumumba on the road to assassination,” says Kuklick in the following Failure Interview, which also examines the United States’ role in how events unfolded, and considers how Lumumba might have fared had he lived.

What was the situation in the Congo circa June 1960, when the country was at the center stage of world politics?
In the early part of that year the Belgians had very hastily given up control over the governance of the country. They were unprepared for the surge toward independence and afraid to try to stop it. Yet they didn’t have the good sense to try to guide it productively. And there was a group of very young men who took center stage as Congo’s leading politicians. None of these politicians had much experience, and more importantly, they did not have a grasp of [the concept of] a nation-state in the way that the West has the idea of a nation-state. The Congo had been carved out of central Africa without any concern for ancient political responsibilities and older ways of governing. So the men who took over were from a host of ethnic groupings, spoke a multitude of different languages, and barely knew one another. And they were totally unprepared to govern the country. From an administrative point of view, they needed assistance from people who knew how to run a national entity. And they didn’t get it from the Belgians.

How did Lumumba come to power and become prime minister?
Among this group of ill-fit politicians he was easily the smartest, hardest-working, and most charismatic. He was a kind of phenomenon and stood out right from the start. In addition, he was the one politician who basically told the white man to go to hell. In fact, he did more than tell them to go to hell. He told them they were wicked and treacherous and not to be trusted. However well that message played in Europe—and it didn’t—the people in the Congo, so far as there was a democratic public, loved him. He was the one guy who didn’t seem to be afraid of the colonialists and was willing to tell them off. And that—more than anything else—gave him a leg up. He was the leader of the largest political party in the country [Mouvement National Congolais], but one that never controlled more than twenty-five percent of the electorate on its own. The fact that he had popular backing made him the choice for prime minister and he took over at the end of June 1960.

What was Lumumba like as a man?
We have very little writing or descriptions that are not colored by the fears and hopes of the people who were talking about him. But he was a guy who worked all the time—frantic almost in his ability to politic and to speechify. He was also volatile and changed course rapidly. You could never trust him not to take a different political path than you presumed he would take. He was also an extraordinarily fluent and able speaker in French and could make mesmerizing speeches that Europeans would appreciate. He got off the ground when he made this extraordinary speech at the end of June 1960, which you can listen to today and get a sense of an extraordinary political personality.

He was also a ladies’ man. He made one trip to the United States and they put him up in Blair House, across the street from the White House, and the CIA said to him: “What would you like?” And he said: A blonde. The story goes that the CIA provided him with a woman for the overnight in Washington. The reason that’s relevant is that westerners were furious that he was so easily able to flaunt their conventions, despite the fact that the white politicians had every bit as problematic connections to women as Lumumba did. He was quite a character.

Are there any other reasons he found so many enemies?
To answer that question you have to look at the people he came in contact with and why they became his enemies. The Belgians—various administrators in the new Congo—hated him because he wouldn’t take orders from them. He was not subservient. And the United Nations (UN)—under very famous Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld—wanted the Lumumba government to sit at the feet of the UN. At this period in its history, the UN was determined to make itself a major player on the international stage. To have that happen in the Congo, it had to have Lumumba’s consent. But right from the start, Lumumba said no. Just as he was unwilling to be subservient to the Belgians, he would not be subservient to the UN.

There were also a number of African leaders in the Congo who rightly felt that they would not have a bright political future because Lumumba was such a dominant star, so they were opposed to him.

And then the Americans disliked him because he was so erratic. They felt that their plans for a stable Africa were going to be jeopardized if Lumumba was in power. To justify their dislike of Lumumba the Americans painted him as a communist, which he was not. But you had a lot of people in the United States claiming that he was a communist, and of course that got him into trouble.

How did he get on the road to being assassinated?
The standard line is that the Belgians and the Americans really disliked him—and they did.  But they were not the ones that put the events in motion that led to his murder. What happened is that the UN became very, very frustrated with Lumumba, and in early September 1960, when the Lumumba government was weakened anyway, it put in plans for what we would almost describe as a coup d’état. The UN made a series of arrangements that put Lumumba under a lot of pressure. They didn’t exactly get him out of power but they weakened the government so much that the Congo sank into a chaos where Lumumba was one of many people trying to remain in power.

Once weakened, Lumumba’s African opponents arranged to cut him off from his political influence by surrounding his residence with troops. Local Africans then had him arrested and sent him to a part of the country, [the province of] Katanga, where the local politicians killed him. That’s not to say that the Belgians and the Americans weren’t in there trying, but they were much less successful than the UN and his local African adversaries.

What role did the United States play?
In a lot of treatments of Lumumba’s murder, the United States gets blamed. This is accurate [insofar as] we have very good evidence that President Eisenhower gave a direct order to have Lumumba assassinated. So everyone assumes that the United States was heavily involved. But the truth is that the CIA, which was told to do the killing, was not the kind of James Bond outfit that everyone talks about, but was more or less incompetent, filled with alcoholics, womanizers, and peculiar men of various kinds. They went into the Congo and it was a Keystone Cops operation. They were much less successful than you might expect they would be. That’s an interesting aspect to the story that is new in this book.

What was the response around the world to Lumumba’s death?
There were two responses. In the developing countries and recently-independent countries there was fury and outrage and demonstrations. The most interesting [demonstration] occurred at the UN, where a group of protestors broke into the UN and tried to attack Secretary-General Hammarskjöld for his role in bringing about Lumumba’s death. But among politicians in the western capitals there was relief—and even more than that, satisfaction—that he was assassinated. That includes Britain, France, the United States, Belgium, and South Africa.

Would Lumumba be held in the same regard—as a hero of Africa—if he had lived?
From a point of view of history the best thing that happened to Lumumba is that he was assassinated. His life was cut off when the promise of the Congo was bright and where he was positioned to be its dominant leader. Had he lived the Congo would not have been much better off than it turned out to be.  He didn’t have the administrative resources; he didn’t have the bureaucracy; he didn’t have a reliable army; he didn’t have a reliable national police force. There was no way, despite his popularity, that he could have kept the country under control. If he had lived the Congo would have taken a different route, but it wouldn’t have been any more pleasant.

Why do you think Lumumba’s story remains so compelling?
It was the first dramatic transition from the colonial period to the post-colonial period. Other places went independent in the late 1950s, but this was the first one where the Belgians seemingly bowed out in a gracious way and you got this extraordinarily talented and charismatic leader. That’s the second reason—that Lumumba himself was such a personage that somehow he just grips your attention. The fact that that political personality had a life that ended so tragically has attracted interest for a long, long time.