Last updated on January 2, 2020
On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier. The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock. The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.
To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960. Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination. Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed. And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star. In less than one year, he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair. There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder. To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.
The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others. He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber. Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation. It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe. From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.
Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”. Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.
The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence. Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity. Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969). Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock. Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus. Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal. It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers. But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.
Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him. One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow. His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response. We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting. The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.
The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches. I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination. The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker. However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville. Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.
I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book. Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story. They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography. This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.