The crocodiles gathered

Neal Ascherson

When Patrice Lumumba was murdered, on 17 January 1961, white women all over Western Europe, North America and the ‘settler’ countries of Africa began to see him in their dreams. I have met women in London and Cape Town, Berlin and Los Angeles, who talked about this haunting. Sometimes he was a black priapic bogeyman; more often, he was a dark and reproachful presence who inspired unbearable guilt and terror. It seemed not to matter whether the dreamer was a ‘liberal’ who by day marched in the streets to protest against his death, or a right-winger who regarded him as a Communist agitator who had got much what he deserved. Something about Lumumba penetrated the skin of rationality and released chaotic, repressed emotions about ‘the other’. His spirit began to walk at night, climbing into the bedrooms of double-locked bungalows.

It was not that the violent death of an African nationalist was anything unfamiliar. The Sharpeville massacre had taken place the year before. There had been war in Kenya and above all in Algeria, and decades of bloodshed in Portuguese Africa were just beginning. There were already millions of victims; dozens of leaders had ‘fallen in the struggle’, shot in battle or hanged in colonial prison yards. Lumumba’s specialness was not his colour or the mission he chose to follow. It was something more threatening: his ingratitude.

There was nothing about Lumumba that was reassuring to the West. He did not laugh and jest as he demanded freedom, as Kwame Nkrumah had laughed. He did not look jovial and fatherly, as Kenyatta did, or twinkle with irony in the manner of Julius Nyerere, or betray an agreeable weakness for the high life in the manner of Tom Mboya. He did not even show ‘nobility’ in the European tradition, which Nelson Mandela would show in 1962 when he spoke to his apartheid judges as Danton or Wolfe Tone had spoken to their accusers. Lumumba, a lean, bespectacled, slightly insect-like figure, seldom smiled. He was bitter and unforgiving. Worse still, he was prescient.

‘Decolonisation’, the handing-over of power in Africa which began in the 1950s and reached its peak in the 1960s, required a sort of complicity. The African leaders talked big words about independence, but it was understood that behind the rhetoric an intimate relationship with the old colonial power would continue, a ‘business as usual’ which required much forgiving and forgetting on the African side.

The Congo handover in 1960 was quite different. Lumumba had a clear vision of what was then beginning to be called ‘neo-colonialism’. He saw that the way to guarantee independent politics was not to airbrush out the past, but exactly the opposite: to build the awareness of the Congolese people around the memory of their appalling suffering and humiliation at the hands of the Belgians during the previous eighty years.

The independence ceremony took place in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) on 30 June 1960. King Baudouin of the Belgians was there, with Gaston Eyskens, the Prime Minister, and Patrice Lumumba as the newly elected Prime Minister of the Congo. But what happened was nothing like those touching, bittersweet moments when the Union Jack was hauled down in some British dependency and the new state’s anthem rang out and the British officials and their wives joined in the applause. In Leopoldville, everything went immediately and hideously off the rails.

Ludo De Witte’s description makes clear that this derailment was far more than a spoiled ritual. Within minutes, it had torn the mask off Africa’s future relationship to the West and released all the ill-suppressed hatred and fear between Belgians and Congolese. As historians now understand, ceremonies help to create the history they are meant to mark. It is possible that the enormous tragedy of the Congo, the dismemberment and civil war and the slide into neocolonial tyranny, might have been avoided if that handover had been confined to a discreet exchange of signatures in a private room.

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[*] Reviewed in the LRB, 1 April 1999