While the assassination of the US President J.F. Kennedy in 1963 shook the American public to its core, his sudden disappearance from the political stage didn’t change the outcome all that much. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, continued with many of his programs and policies after his death, and the United States followed, more or less, the same path as if nothing had happened.The most important assassination of the 20th century however, is without a doubt the one of Patrice Lumumba in 1961; the first prime minister of Congo.
Born on July 2, 1925, in Onalua, Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Patrice Lumumba was a writer and civic organizer before co-founding the Congolese National Movement in 1958. He called for countrywide unity, bringing together different ethnic backgrounds, and freedom from colonial atrocities, with major links to Pan-Africanist movements as well.
On June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo officially took its independence from Belgium, and, at 35 years old, Lumumba became the country’s first prime minister. The story of Congo is a rather grim one. In 1884 Congo fell in the hands of then Belgian King, Leopold II as personal property. Under his rule Congo had seen tremendous atrocities and millions of fatalities. That is when many countries, including the US, joined together and forced Belgium to take the Congo as a regular colony. Even if the situation improved, life for the average Congolese was brutal under the European occupation force.
With the end of WWII, so came the wave of global decolonization. Congo was among the last to be freed, taking its independence in 1960. The Belgians more or less up and left almost overnight, leaving the heavily affected Congo to fend for itself. With no infrastructure to speak of, with the exception of just a couple of rail lines going from a port to a mine, Congo only had 20 something people with a university degree. That’s not enough to run even a small town, let alone a whole country.
Nevertheless, Patrice Lumumba was one of them and had great plans for his country. Having a background in organizing unions, he was determined to bring Congo among the more developed countries of the world, despite its many disadvantages mentioned above. However, nationwide disarray was to follow with various leaders vying for power, including a Belgian-fortified secession of the region of Katanga, headed by Moise Tshombe.
Looking for aid, he addressed the UN for help. Being common to disregard countries which were not that long ago seen as mere assets and its citizens as lesser people, his pleads went unanswered. That’s when he turned to the Soviets for aid. Seeing this, both the Belgian and US governments decided, not to help Lumumba and his democratic government, but to assassinate him, less lose Congo’s resources to the USSR. Among these was also Uranium which was used by the Americans for the nuclear bombs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
To eliminate him the US and Belgium used all the tools and resources at their disposal, including the United Nations secretariat, under Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche, to buy the support of Lumumba’s Congolese rivals , and hired killers. With the country falling under the control of military leader Joseph Mobutu, Lumumba was captured and, though at one point escaping, was eventually taken to Katanga, where he was beaten and killed on January 17, 1961.
In Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on 30 June, 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity. All because some democratic countries don’t believe in a free market. Congo soon endured the decades-long, highly-damaging reign of Joseph Mobutu, who would become known as Mobutu Sésé Seko.
Lumumba, his story and vision have been chronicled in a number of literary works and films, including the 2001 book The Assassination of Lumumba, by Ludo De Whitte, and the Raoul Peck movie released the same year, Lumumba. Peck had also directed a documentary on the leader.