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Patrice Lumumba `will live forever’ -- exclusive book excerpt

Leo Zeilig, author of Lumumba, a new political biography of Congo independence leader Patrice Lumumba, has kindly given permission for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal to offer its readers an exclusive excerpt to download.


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Click HERE to download an exclusive excerpt from Lumumba

Links readers are encouraged to purchase this enlightening and inspiring book. Go to Haus Publishers to place your order. Australian readers can also order the book from Tower Books, Unit 2/17 Rodborough Road, Frenchs Forest, NSW 2086. Phone (02) 9975 5566 or email

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Introductory essay by Lumumba author Leo Zeilig

In a small forest clearing about an hour’s drive from Congo’s southern-most city of Lubumbashi the first prime minster of an independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba, along with two of his comrades, was shot on January 17, 1961. A Belgian officer organised the firing squad; the three bodies were quickly buried, metres from where they had fallen. The following day, another Belgian officer dug up the bodies; cut them into pieces and dissolved them in acid. The assassins were determined to ensure that there would be no trace left of Lumumba or of their crime.

When the news finally reached the world on February 13, 1961, that Lumumba had been killed there was uproar. Protests swept cities and towns across the globe. In Rome, the Italian Chamber of Deputies descended into chaos as demonstrators broke up the proceedings. In Belgrade, protesters shouted, ``Lumumba will live for ever’’. In Shanghai, a demonstration estimated at half a million was held.

Why was there such uproar? Who was Lumumba?

Lumumba was a self-educated nationalist leader. Born in 1925 in Congo’s Kasai province, he was expelled from school and ran away, like many young Congolese, to the regional capital of Stanleyville – named after the colonial adventurer who ploughed his way through central Africa in the 19th century, it is now Kisangani.

The Belgian Congo, as it was known, was an inhospitable place. By the 1940s it was emerging from a period of brutal colonialisation. The combination of famine, forced labour and systematic violence had killed more than 10 million Congolese people between 1891 and 1911.

But by the time of Lumumba’s arrival in Stanleyville a new colony was being promised.

Industry was being developed and new mining communities were established across the country. Copper was at the centre of the boom. Produced in huge quantities in the south and mined by the public-private giant Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (UMHK).

The Belgian Congo was the source of huge profits for the colonial state and private businesses.

Arriving in Stanleyville in 1944, Lumumba quickly became a leading member of the évolués in the city. The évolués – meaning literally ``the evolved’’ -- were a group of educated Congolese men who were trained to take part in the civilising mission of the Belgian state. They were given low-ranking jobs in the administration and groomed to regard themselves at champions of the ‘Belgian Congo’ community. Lumumba became a clerk in the Stanleyville post office.

Apartheid state

The Congo was an apartheid state – strict segregation determined every aspect of life. Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana, explained: ``When you reached 18 years old you had to carry a permit, which would indicate what you did. If you were stopped, you had to justify why you were in town... And if a black man looked at a white woman, he could find himself in prison.’’

For much of the 1950s Lumumba’s ideas did not stray from those held by the majority of the évolués. He was an advocate for the colonial project.

In June 1956 this began to change. Arrested and imprisoned for embezzlement, Lumumba started to see through the lies of the Belgian rulers, the cherished ``motherland’’.

Released in September 1957 Lumumba decided to make his new life in the capital Leopoldville (today’s Kinshasa). The city was a modern metropolis – but still deeply segregated. Leopoldville became infected by the ideas of independence and political liberation.

By November 1958 Lumumba was elected to lead what became the principal party of national liberation –- the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). But Belgium was desperate to control the pace of radicalisation and sought to manipulate and divide the country’s emerging political parties.

Other Western states were also desperate to ensure that Congo’s independence did not mean real political and economic autonomy. The United States had been heavily involved in the region since the start of the 20th century. Ryan and Guggenheim, the US mining groups, had interests in the region. The US also had investments in the UMHK.

The US State Department would not tolerate any political movement that refused to privilege the old relationships.

End of conciliation

Two events signaled the end of Lumumba’s conciliatory politics. He was inspired by the independence of Ghana in 1957. The first black leader on the continent was the Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah took a personal interest in the struggle of the MNC and became a comrade and confidant to Lumumba.

The second was more important. On January 4, 1959, Leopoldville erupted in violence. A demonstration was crushed by the notoriously brutal Force Publique, the colonial army. Hundreds were killed. The belief that a long transition and common understanding could pave the way to Congolese independence was over.

Congolese society was transformed. Mass meetings took place, strikes spread and the movement for independence finally broke away from the ranks of the évolués. Lumumba threw himself into the frenzy. By March 1959, the MNC had 58,000 members.

Lumumba’s militancy rose with the gathering radicalisation. Now he demanded independence without delay. But other members of the évolués saw their future in an alliance with the colonial power, and later with the US.

Arrested, beaten and imprisoned at the end of 1959, Lumumba was only released when negotiations were launched in Brussels in January 1960.

In the negotiations he refused all compromises. The Congo state would not be divided up – with the country’s wealth controlled by the provinces -- as the Belgian rulers had hoped. Nor would the MNC accept the Belgian king as the head of state in an independent Congo.

By the end of negotiations a date had been set for independence: June 30, 1960. But Lumumba’s radicalism had meant that he was hated by the Belgian elite. They decided to undermine efforts of the MNC to win the May 1960 general election.


However the MNC emerged victorious. Lumumba was now the undoubted leader of Congo’s future. Still he refused to accept deals with the departing power. Congo’s independence would be just that: an independent nation state free to decide on its own path.

On the day of independence Lumumba reminded his audience of the struggle for freedom: ``For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that is was by fighting that it has been won.’’

Celebrations were quickly extinguished. In July, Belgium promoted the secession of the mineral-rich provinces Katanga and Kasai. These new ``states’’ were immediately recognised, armed and supported by the old colonial power. Some évolués – using the language of ethnic divide and rule – helped provide an African veneer to these artificial breakaway provinces.

Lumumba attempted to mobilise his supporters. As the power he had just acquired began to slip away, he turned the ranks of the MNC and those who had propelled the Congo to independence.

But the forces against him and his comrades were too great. Leading militants of the nationalist movement fell to bribes and cooption. Joseph Mobutu -- the future dictator of the country, until then an ally and friend of Lumumba – was openly bribed by the US and persuaded to organise a coup in September.

By October 1960 there were four operations underway to assassinate Lumumba. Western states openly called for his government to be removed.

Lumumba fled the capital in November and attempted to reach his supporters in Stanleyville. Arrested days later he knew that this probably meant death. Writing in prison to his wife he said, ``History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets.’’

Less than two months later he had been killed, six months after his election.

Symbol of the fight against imperialism

Lumumba’s intransigent resistance to Western attempts to break Congo’s independence still needs to be celebrated today. He has rightly become a symbol, in Africa and elsewhere, of the fight against imperialism.

Lumumba, in his last months, began to edge away from the politics of national liberation and to see other forces at work. Francois, his son and now a political activist in the Kinshasa, explained: ``He discovered in the course of 1960 that not all Congolese had the same interpretation of independence, that our ‘brothers’ were fighting for something completely different. So in his actions and in his speeches he became more precise and spoke of workers, justice and equality.’’

[Leo Zeilig is a research fellow at the Centre for Sociological Research and teaches sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.]

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Click HERE to download an exclusive excerpt from Lumumba

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