Africa Betrayed

Ronan Bennett is the author of "The Catastrophist: A Novel."

When the Belgians at last granted their blood-soaked colony of the Congo independence in 1960, politicians spoke fondly of their hopes that the relationship between the old metropolitan power and the new republic would be harmonious and "complementary." Taking up this theme in his speech at the Palais de la Nation in Leopoldville on independence day, June 30, King Baudouin made a crass attempt to recast one of the most ruthless colonial adventures of modern times as an act of selfless generosity. His ancestor, the murderous Leopold II, had come to the Congo, he claimed, "not as a conqueror, but as a civiliser," and Belgium had sent "her finest sons" to bring to this vast benighted territory the benefits of European civilization. Independence was nothing less than the consummation of the "great work" Leopold had undertaken, and the king extended a promise of continuing support. "Don't be afraid to turn to us," he said. "We are ready to remain at hand and help you."

Patrice Lumumba, the newly elected prime minister, was among those assembled in the Palais de la Nation that day. The most radical of the independence leaders, Lumumba harbored no doubts about what the Belgians intended by "help." For those more generously inclined to the colonizers, the subtleties were soon clarified by the reactionary Gen. Emile Janssens, commander-in-chief of the former colonial army, the Force Publique (renamed after independence the Armee National Congolaise). When, a few days later, his men protested the continuation of the entirely white officer corps, blocked promotion opportunities and poor pay, Janssens had them fall in and wrote on a blackboard for their better instruction: "Before Independence = After Independence." Sometimes it takes the particular bluntness of a soldier of the old school to cut through the pious cant of statesmen and diplomats.

The Belgians did not find it easy to come to terms with independence. As the "winds of change" swept through Africa, they continued to insist, as late as 1959, that the Congo would remain a Belgian possession for the foreseeable future. But, faced with growing unrest among the population, a large and rising bill for the colony's maintenance, and fast becoming an international pariah, Brussels suddenly threw its policy into reverse and, on Jan. 27, 1960, capitulated to the independence movement. Lumumba was in jail at the time on charges of inciting pro-independence disturbances, but five months later he was elected prime minister. Little more than six months after that, he was dead, murdered with gruesome relish by the Belgians and their Congolese allies, and the Congo was again being run in the interests of the rich and white.

In "The Assassination of Lumumba," Ludo De Witte places Lumumba's assassination squarely in the context of the West's efforts to frustrate independence. From the start, it was intended that the Congolese were to be only nominally in charge of their country, that the key institutions of government, security and business would continue to be controlled either directly by Belgium or by sympathetic Congolese. Western attention (this was never simply a Belgian affair; the Americans, British and French were involved to greater or lesser degrees) was focused on the southern mineral-rich province of Katanga. Not so much a company town as a company country, Katanga was run by and for big business. Giant corporations such as Union Miniere and the Societe Generale could look forward to profits of billions of dollars from the copper mines, and they were not about to give these up or share them just because "the monkeys" (the colonial insult of choice) were now in power.

Neo-colonialism, however, is not without risks. It depends to a high degree on finding a reliable stooge. In early 1960 the Belgians' best hope lay in Joseph Kasavubu, an indolent, prickly, introverted tribal leader. His vision for the Congo restricted to the reestablishment of the ancient Bakongo kingdom in the southwest corner of the new republic, he was never a serious rival to the charismatic and popular Lumumba.

Lumumba was Kasavubu's antithesis, personally and politically, and it wasn't only the Belgians who hated him. David Doyle, a CIA operative in Katanga, writes in his just-published memoir, "True Men and Traitors: From the OSS to the CIA, My Life in the Shadows," (John Wiley) that Lumumba "was the West's enemy number one" and that President Eisenhower and President-elect Kennedy wanted him removed from power. Pan-Africanist in outlook, an admirer of the nationalists Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, the youthful prime minister--he was 35 at the time of his murder in January 1961--stood for a definitive break with colonialism, the establishment of a strong unitary state and an end to tribal politics. Tall, lithe and infinitely restless, this former post office worker and beer salesman had sublime gifts of persuasion; he could move crowds with his oratory and win over smaller groups at more informal gatherings.

The Belgians did everything they could to thwart Lumumba's rise. But in the elections of May 1960, his Mouvement National Congolais emerged as the largest single party and, through a series of skillfully negotiated alliances, Lumumba forged a majority bloc in the new parliament. He became prime minister while Kasavubu took the largely ceremonial presidency. On independence day the two men listened together to Baudouin's insulting self-deluding speech. Kasavubu replied first, formally and without controversy. Then Lumumba got up to speak. "We have experienced contempt, insults and blows," he said in a blistering denunciation of 80 years of "humiliation and slavery." The foreign dignitaries had never heard anything like it on a ceremonial occasion, but by the time he had finished the Congolese were on their feet applauding and Baudouin and the Belgians were looking around nervously.

Most commentators have attributed the events that followed--the army mutiny, the hysterical flight of the Belgian settlers, the secession of Katanga, the intervention of the United Nations and Joseph Mobutu's military coup--to Lumumba's "inflammatory" independence day speech. But here De Witte suggests it was not the words Lumumba spoke but his willingness to act on them that so alarmed the West. Within days, in a clear violation of Congolese sovereignty, the Belgians sent in paratroops to "protect" their citizens and property. They also found a more reliable stooge in the sleek shape of Moise Tshombe, a corrupt and biddable Katangan politician whom they encouraged to declare Katanga independent. At the same time, across the Congo River in Brazzaville, Belgian agents set up Operation Barracuda, whose aim was Lumumba's murder.

Lumumba, faced with armed Belgian intervention and the prospect of civil war, appealed to the United Nations in the belief that the organization would support the democratically elected government and the integrity of the republic. It was a tragic miscalculation. Over the years, the role of the United Nations in the Congo has been the subject of much scrutiny, with many of the major players having written accounts favorable to the mission and to the secretary-general at the time, Dag Hammarskjold. De Witte will have none of this and shows convincingly that the U.N. supported Kasavubu against Lumumba in September when the president, urged on by the Belgians and the Americans, finally exerted himself to announce the dismissal of his prime minister in a radio broadcast, a move of dubious constitutional legality. Lumumba immediately retaliated by dismissing the president. The country, already breaking up with secession in the south, now had two men who claimed to be the legitimate head of state in the capital and a third--Mobutu--poised to displace both of them.

By this time, the Americans were taking an active part in events. It was the height of the Cold War and the new American ambassador, Clare Timberlake, had decided that Lumumba, who had accepted a shipment of trucks from the Soviet Union, was either (in the ambassador's words) a "commie" or "playing the commie game" and had to go. As early as July or August, a CIA scientist named Sidney Gottleib was instructed to concoct a poison from native plants with a view to assassinating an unidentified African leader. Kasavubu's coup put this operation on hold but, when Timberlake and the local CIA station chief, Lawrence Devlin, realized that the prime minister's removal from office had not dented his popular support, they looked again at their options. At a meeting of the National Security Council with Eisenhower, CIA chief Allen Dulles stressed that Lumumba "remained a grave danger as long as he was not disposed of." At the beginning of November, by which time Lumumba was under house arrest, the CIA told Devlin that a foreigner with a criminal past, recruited in Europe, would shortly be arriving. The hired assassin's code name was QJ/WIN and he was "capable 'of doing anything."' Although CIA agent Doyle claims that Devlin blocked the assassination attempts out of ethical considerations, Lumumba by this stage could have been in little doubt as to what lay in store for him. In December, he escaped and attempted to make his way to Stanleyville, a nationalist stronghold in the east. He was captured by troops loyal to Mobutu, now firmly established as the West's man in Leopoldville and, with two associates, Okito and Mpolo, was imprisoned, hideously tortured, before finally being sent to Katanga to be killed (it is clear from the testimony of U.N. soldiers themselves that they had several opportunities to intervene and save the men but did not do so).

For his account of American involvement, De Witte relies mainly on the 1975 Senate Select Committee on alleged assassination plots and if there is little here that hasn't been heard before it is nevertheless shocking to be reminded of how democratically elected politicians could plot the murder of a foreign head of state as if they were Mafiosi discussing a hit on a rival crime boss. What is new is material De Witte has uncovered in the archives of the Belgian Foreign Ministry on the details of Lumumba's torture and murder. Painstakingly reconstructed, De Witte gives dates, times and places, and names names. And what a lot of names. On the day of his death, Lumumba, already beaten so badly he was described by one witness as "a human wreck," died in an orgy of frenzied brutality with as many of his tormentors as possible--including Tshombe, the Belgian-sponsored "president" of Katanga--wanting personally to get in on the act and splattering themselves with blood in the process. So compelling is De Witte's indictment that the book's first publication, in 1999, prompted the Belgian parliament to establish a commission of inquiry into Lumumba's murder.

De Witte writes without stylish frills or narrative tricks, but this is a vivid and utterly compelling account of a nation strangled at birth by the West. It would be satisfying to report, 40 years after Lumumba's murder, that the Congolese are now at last being allowed to develop their country in a way that suited their needs. But the truth is that "after" still equals "before": Big business, foreign armies and an array of stooges are still trampling over the unfortunate population to be first in line to plunder and enrich themselves. If you want to know who to thank for this, look no further than De Witte's "The Assassination of Lumumba."

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