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Why the Assassination of Patrice Lumumba Still Matters

Why the Assassination of Patrice Lumumba Still Matters
Why the Assassination of Patrice Lumumba Still Matters

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Living in Kinshasa in the mid-1990s, I often drove past a futuristic tower looking out over the slow-moving, hyacinth-spotted river separating what was then Zaire from its neighbor, Congo-Brazzaville. The tower was a medley of gleaming metal tubes and concrete pillars, and its raison d’être was a bit of a mystery: It wasn’t particularly beautiful, had been left unfinished for decades, and couldn’t be visited.

That ambiguity was fitting. The Limete Tower, as it was called, was an exercise in presidential hypocrisy, and a half-hearted one at that. Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire’s long-ruling dictator, had commissioned it to commemorate his former boss and onetime friend Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo. Lumumba was assassinated in January 1961 with the collusion of Western powers worried about his suspected Communist sympathies and determined to keep him from power. In theory, the monument was meant to glorify a national hero, a martyr to imperialism. But the gesture’s sincerity was open to question, because Mobutu himself helped ensure Lumumba’s death, ordering him to be flown handcuffed to a secessionist province where he was shot by firing squad, his body then dismembered and dissolved in acid.

Returning to Kinshasa this summer after a 20-year absence, I found a capital bursting with energy. The population has quadrupled; main avenues are regularly jammed with traffic. The city, interestingly, is now spattered with commemorative public art, including an impressionistic portrait of Mobutu, a.k.a. “the Leopard,” in the lobby of a famous hotel, and a portly statue and a mausoleum dedicated to Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader who toppled Mobutu in 1997. Most significant, a proper statue to Lumumba now stands, one arm raised, beneath the Limete Tower, and his only surviving body part—a gold-crowned tooth pried from his mouth by a Belgian colonial officer—is preserved in a coffin stowed below.

The statue is not a good likeness, as Stuart A. Reid, the author of the new book The Lumumba Plot, acknowledges. But crucially, after a surreal ceremony attended by African presidents and a few Lumumba impersonators, it is there. Like a patient with PTSD, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as it is now known, is slowly coming to terms with its history, a tumble of events so violent and shocking that many Congolese emerged convinced of their utter powerlessness in the face of cynical Western manipulation.

Reid’s book will contribute helpfully to that process. Although the broad outlines of Lumumba’s story are widely known, many of the published accounts about his rise and fall have long been out of print. Two important books—the CIA agent Larry Devlin’s memoir, Chief of Station, Congo, and the scholar Ludo De Witte’s investigation, The Assassination of Lumumba, a book whose revelations were so sensational they prompted a Belgian parliamentary inquiry—are more than 15 and 20 years old, respectively.

A new work pulling together the material was overdue. Having trawled through United States and United Nations archives; accessed declassified memos and cables, private letters, and unpublished documents; and interviewed Lumumba’s surviving family members, Reid has brought welcome narrative coherence to a globe-spanning, multilayered story. He manages a difficult balancing act, serving up the detail that will satisfy experts while providing the dramatic tension and character analysis craved by the general reader. Despite the story’s complexity, one’s attention never wanders.

But then, when it comes to drama, Reid had quality ingredients to work with: a botched independence swiftly followed by army mutinies and attempted secession by two renegade provinces, egged on by Belgium, the colonial power unwilling to let go; a charismatic Black leader who comes to a terrible end, aged just 35; a first-of-its-kind UN military operation to keep a fragmenting African state in one piece, climaxing in a mysterious plane crash and the death of the UN secretary-general; Cold War skullduggery of the most nefarious kind, including a poison vial stowed in a safe; not one but two coup d’états. The “Congo crisis,” as it was called at the time, kept the world on the edge of its seat. It would be difficult to make such material boring.

According to Reid’s account, Lumumba fell victim to an accident of birth. He was a member of the Batetela, a small ethnic community in Congo’s southern Kasai province, and that meant he could not count on the automatic support of any sizable ethnic constituency once he moved to the capital and launched his political career. If proud national unity became his rallying cry, it was also a position he was obliged to embrace in order to claim the top job as Congo prepared to break away from Belgium, its colonial master, in June 1960.

Yet uniting a territory that had been defined entirely by King Leopold II’s greed was always going to be a massive challenge. Routinely described as “the size of Western Europe,” the DRC is famously home to about 250 different ethnic groups and some 700 dialects and languages. Lumumba won the admiration of his Congolese subjects for defying Belgium’s colonial powers, and was then doomed to attempt the impossible: keep an unfeasibly large, haphazardly delineated nation together.

In retrospect, his fiery insistence on rushing independence through in four months, rather than the multiple years Brussels envisaged, was one of his worst mistakes. Congo did not have a political class or civil service with any experience in policy making or administration, and moving so quickly gave the country no time to develop them. Mutinies by soldiers furious at racial discrimination in the ranks were swiftly followed by the attempted secession—supported by Belgium—of Katanga and South Kasai, two mineral-rich provinces whose leaders believed they would do better on their own. These multi-pronged problems called for governing expertise that simply wasn’t there.

Lumumba was a populist leader, and forward planning was not his strength. Reading Reid’s biography with today’s eyes, one constantly catches glimpses of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orbán, and Silvio Berlusconi—figures who also rose to power based on their ability to read a crowd, not develop policies and see them through. Like many a modern-day demagogue, Lumumba’s curriculum vitae was a florid, chaotic affair, littered with malpractice and fiddled accounts (he did prison time for fraud committed while working at the post office), neglected spouses, and embittered friends (one of them, fatefully, his former private secretary Joseph Mobutu). As a politician he made grandiose promises he never intended to keep, proved incapable of delegating, and was allergic to compromise.

Yet put him on a podium, thrust a microphone before him, and a magical transformation took place. “Cerebral yet passionate, he interspersed chapter-and-verse legal arguments with raw emotion,” Reid writes. He would have the audience—whether ordinary workers or restive soldiers—eating out of his hand, swept away by his charisma and oratory. And, what’s more, he could work this miracle in three local languages, as well as French.

Several men compete with Lumumba for attention in these pages. One is Mobutu, who removed Lumumba from the political scene by ordering him and two colleagues aboard a flight to Katanga, where he knew the secessionist leader Moise Tshombe, who loathed Lumumba, would do the necessary. Mobutu, who would go on to run Zaire for 32 long years, his leopard-skin toque virtually synonymous with the country, comes across as a far more hesitant, tortured, and haunted individual than he is usually thought to have been. At the height of  the “Congo crisis,” the State Department feared that the future president, threatening to resign and downing tranquilizers, might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The other key player is, of course, one of the most famous station chiefs in CIA history: Larry Devlin, posted in Leopoldville, as Kinshasa was known, during those years. When I was researching my 2000 book on Mobutu, Devlin was one of my first interviewees, and years later, I would occasionally pick up the phone and hear his instantly recognizable, wheezing voice on the other end. Once a heavy smoker, he eventually died of emphysema.

Devlin did not believe that Lumumba himself was a Communist—“He was just a poor jerk who thought, I can use these people,” he told me—but was convinced that his readiness to flirt with the Soviet Union placed Congo in acute danger of falling into Moscow’s control. And if Congo went Communist, its nine neighboring countries might well do the same—or so the argument went.

That scenario was used to justify an extraordinarily energetic campaign of political subversion and manipulation, in which Devlin handed out one bribe after another. During those years, barely a cabinet decision was reached, an election held, or a “spontaneous” demonstration staged in Congo that didn’t bear his fingerprints. And if he decided against slipping the poison he’d been given by the CIA’s master chemist, a man known simply as “Sid from Paris,” into Lumumba’s food, Devlin was nonetheless instrumental in ensuring that the former prime minister got on the fateful flight.

We can all think of several other occasions in which well-informed and supremely capable Western officials somehow managed to convince themselves that a country of only tangential relevance threatened their own society’s very existence, justifying muscular intervention. If Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with its never-found “weapons of mass destruction,” was the most recent example of hyperventilating wishful thinking, the Vietnam War represented another case of disastrous groupthink. Devlin, tellingly, also played a part in that quagmire.

Reid rejects the entire Cold War premise. The beleaguered Lumumba certainly turned to Russia for military help, but the eventual opening of Soviet archives revealed that Moscow was never as interested in Congo as Washington assumed. “I think we overrated the Soviet danger, let’s say, in the Congo,” he quotes Allen Dulles, the former CIA chief and Cold Warrior, later admitting.

That miscalculation, Reid argues, was based on a misunderstanding of Lumumba: “The idea that he would simply ditch his ardent anticolonialism and let his country fall under Soviet dominion struck him as preposterous, and so it should have struck everyone else.”

Knee-jerk racism certainly played a role in the West’s tendency to dismiss Congo’s various players as clueless pawns in a superpower chess game. What is striking about reading the cables written by U.S. and UN officials is not just how profoundly many of them disliked Lumumba but the crudeness with which they expressed their hostility.

The U.S. ambassador to Congo joked about Lumumba’s supposed cannibalism, while the UN’s man in the Congo, Ralph Bunche, likened him to Hitler. “It would be unkind to the animal kingdom to describe him as having the morals and conduct of an ape,” Bunche wrote to his wife. American and UN cable traffic was peppered with paternalistic references to “the children” running Congo and “little boy” Lumumba. Another Congolese politician was dismissed as “an illiterate moron.”

The consequences of those lazy assessments changed central Africa forever. “By discarding Lumumba and embracing Mobutu, the United States tilted the Congo off its political axis, creating an artificial gap between what the country’s politics should have been and what they actually were,” Reid writes. If Reid is clear that the DRC was “never destined to become a Jeffersonian democracy,” he nevertheless thinks that without American meddling, “it could well have followed the trajectory of many postcolonial states in the region: poor and politically chaotic, but at least functional and free of mass violence.”

A counterfactual is hard to prove, of course, and I’m not sure I agree with Reid. But Lumumba’s ghost has certainly haunted the DRC, and Africa, ever since. Had he been allowed to govern, his impulsiveness and gift for making political enemies might well have gradually lost him the support of an adoring Congolese public. As with Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara—in some ways Lumumba’s West African counterpart—dying young turned him into an icon of What Might Have Been, and an abiding reproach to Western powers. Lumumba himself seems to have had some inkling of that symbolic, sacrificial destiny. “If I die, too bad,” he told a colleague a few months before he was shot. “The Congo needs martyrs.”

The legacy is romantic, but it comes at a profound psychological price. I am occasionally asked to debate contemporary African events on Congolese television and radio channels, and each time, I’m struck by the extent to which my fellow panelists are convinced, whether discussing a military coup in Niger or civil war in Sudan, that they can discern the Machiavellian hand of U.S., French, or British intelligence once again at work. That’s a counterintuitive assumption, given what seems to me, instead, to be a pattern of creeping indifference toward the continent in many formerly engaged Western states. Instead of relationships with the U.S. and former European colonial masters, African countries are now making deals with China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

You cannot blame the Congolese for their suspicion—after all, the CIA really did help plot their first prime minister’s assassination; Belgium really did try and divide the country—but it risks stripping citizens of one of Africa’s largest nations of agency, encouraging them to see themselves as eternal, hapless victims of some great power play. And that’s not helpful to anyone.


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