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.

Baudouin began with a fatal speech. ‘The independence of the Congo is the result of the undertaking conceived by the genius of King Leopold II,’ he said. Baudouin was referring to the monster who had run the Congo basin as his private estate, used forced labour, mutilation and massacre to extort its ivory and rubber, and reduced its population by many millions until the world’s outrage obliged Belgium to take the colony away from him. Baudouin warned the new Government not to ‘compromise the future with hasty reforms’ or to ‘replace the structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better . . . We will remain by your side, give you advice.’

Lumumba was not supposed to make a speech at all. It was the timid new President, Joseph Kasavubu, who replied to the King. But then Patrice Lumumba rose. The King turned pale. Lumumba started by explaining that independence was not a generous gift from Brussels, but had been won by the people’s struggle for freedom against the colonialists. Leopold’s ‘Congo Free State’ had been no more than ‘humiliating slavery imposed on us by force’. ‘We have known sarcasm and insults,’ he went on – and his words would spread over the continent –

endured blows morning, noon and night, because we were ‘niggers’ . . . We have seen our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but which only recognised the right of the strongest. We have seen that this law was quite different for a white than for a black: accommodating for the former, cruel and inhuman for the latter.

The end of colonisation was not at all the end of the struggle. ‘We will make sure that our country’s land truly benefits its children. We will review all previous laws and make new ones which will be just and noble.’

The Congolese in the hall or listening outside went wild. The Belgians were appalled. They had not meant Lumumba and his radical nationalist Mouvement National Congolais to win the elections a few months before. But their political intelligence work had been so hopeless that they only contrived to fix the result in one, admittedly crucial province, Katanga, where Moise Tshombe was levered into power on behalf of the Belgian settlers and the multinational corporations who owned the minerals.

For a few days, the Belgians prayed that Lumumba would confine himself to words. Then he announced that the officer corps of the Army, the Force Publique, would be Africanised and raised wages by 30 per cent. General Janssens, the Army commander, refused to comply and at a briefing wrote on a blackboard the memorable words: ‘Before Independence = After Independence.’ In response, the African soldiery mutinied.

The fat was in the fire. Belgian civilians began to flee, and Belgian paratroops occupied the Congo’s main cities. On 11 July, Katanga proclaimed its ‘independence’, to the delight of the Brussels press. The following day, a plane carrying Lumumba and Kasavubu was refused permission to land at Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), the Katangese capital. United Nations intervention soon followed, and blue-beret troops established themselves throughout the country – except in Katanga. But the UN’s intentions, muddled and contradictory as they were, had little to do with Lumumba’s request for ‘military aid . . . against the present external aggression’. Instead, as De Witte puts it, ‘by reducing the crisis to a question of maintaining law and order, the UN adopted the Belgian argument – protection of life and liberty in a context of chaos – thereby giving it some legitimacy.’

Initially, Lumumba was shocked. A protest by his Deputy, Antoine Gizenga, asked why

we, the victims of aggression . . . are systematically and methodically disarmed while the aggressors, the Belgians, who are in our conquered country, still have their arms . . . the UN forces allow Katanga to consolidate secession and let the Belgians behave as if they were in an occupied country under the smokescreen of a phoney Katanga provincial government that we, the legitimate government of the Congo, have declared illegal.

But after a few more weeks’ experience with the UN, Lumumba felt that he knew the answer to Gizenga’s ‘why’.

‘How can a beret coloured blue erase, just like that, the prejudices of conservative officers from Sweden, Canada or Britain?’ he asked. ‘How does a blue armband vaccinate against the racism and paternalism of people whose only vision of Africa is lion hunting, slave markets and colonial conquest; people for whom the history of civilisation is built on the possession of colonies? Naturally they would understand the Belgians. They have the same past, the same history, the same lust for our wealth.’ It was the most brutal and painful statement made by any leader during the crisis, and perhaps the most penetrating.

Lumumba never stood a chance. It was not just that the UN metaphorically tied his hands before his Congo enemies did it literally, or that the UN did not consider that its ‘law and order’ mandate extended to looking after the personal safety of the man who had invited them into the country in the first place. It was the sheer number and power of those who were determined to destroy him. The Americans – Eisenhower and then Kennedy – regarded Lumumba as a dangerous Communist who would take the Congo into the Soviet camp; even after his overthrow and imprisonment, Allen Dulles said that he ‘remained a grave danger as long as he was not disposed of’; there was some talk of a CIA assassination. The British saw Lumumba’s radical nationalism as an immediate threat to the political development of their possessions in Central Africa. It was also the case that the gigantic Union Minière consortium which dominated Katanga was partly the creation of ‘Tanks’ (Tanganyika Concessions), a powerful old mining outfit in which the City of London and numerous Tory grandees had a stake.

One should never underestimate the ruthlessness of British gentlemen cradling endangered shares. On 19 September, Lord Home, as Foreign Secretary, met Eisenhower and discussed the Congo crisis. ‘The President expressed his wish that Lumumba would fall into a river full of crocodiles; Lord Home said regretfully that we have lost many of the techniques of old-fashioned diplomacy.’ A week later, Home – this time with Harold Macmillan – met the President again. ‘Lord Home raised the question why we are not getting rid of Lumumba at the present time. If he were to come back to power’ – Lumumba had been deposed by Kasavubu in a putsch on 5 September – ‘there would be immediate stress on the Katanga issue, which would get us into all sorts of legalistic difficulties. He stressed that now is the time to get rid of Lumumba.’

‘Get rid of’? Given that Lumumba was out of power already, it is hard to put an innocent interpretation on Lord Home’s words. Politely deporting him to St Helena or the Seychelles, perhaps? I suppose we will never know what the laird of The Hirsel had in mind. In any case, the crocodiles were already gathering for a feast of ‘old-fashioned diplomacy’. And most of them were Belgian.

De Witte’s book, ably translated by Ann Wright and Renée Fenby, is preoccupied with the Belgian role in Lumumba’s fall and death. This narrowness of focus is very necessary and welcome. As Adam Hochschild found when he came to write King Leopold’s Ghost,[*] the obduracy and arrogance of the Belgian establishment about their country’s behaviour in Africa are unique in post-colonial Europe. They apologise for nothing. To them, and they hope to the Belgian people, Leopold II remains a great Christian hero who brought civilisation to the Congo and put down the Arab slave trade. The conservative Belgian press continues to dismiss as anti-Belgian hate-mail any criticism of the Congo Free State, of the Belgian colonial administration which followed, and of its utter failure to develop the territory politically in preparation for self-government. Only now are there signs of a Belgian Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a movement towards a more candid confrontation with the past. The curious ExitCongoMuseum exhibition, at Leopold’s old Africa museum at Tervuren, has been retracing the ‘biography’ of the African art objects there and trying – in a highly critical way – to give an account of the colonial system which wrenched them out of their social and cultural context. More directly, this book – first published in Dutch in 1999 – has led to the setting up of a Parliamentary commission to investigate Belgian complicity in Lumumba’s death, which is due to present its report before the end of this year.

De Witte demonstrates that this complicity was overwhelming. He has used the Foreign Ministry archives, and the memories of men who were involved. As early as September 1960, Belgian intelligence officers were at Brazzaville, in the ‘French’ Congo, preparing Operation Barracuda, whose purpose was to dispose of Lumumba. On 6 October, d’Aspremont Lynden, the minister for Africa, sent a secret telegram from Brussels calling for Lumumba’s ‘élimination définitive’. Whether this meant murder or merely kidnapping is hotly debated in Belgium. But a few days later Lumumba was under house arrest. The King meanwhile was putting all his influence behind the Katanga secession. In a letter to Tshombe in late October, he referred to ‘my great-uncle King Leopold II’ who ‘brought civilisation to the lands of the former Belgian Congo’ and stated that ‘Katanga constitutes an oasis of peace, a bridgehead from which it will be possible to stop the expansion of Communism in Africa’.

On 27 November, Lumumba contrived to evade his guards and set off on a desperate car journey towards his main core of political support at Stanleyville. Heavy rains and road-blocks slowed his flight down, but he was welcomed by crowds everywhere along the route. The celebration bonfires made it easier for his pursuers, who caught up with him on the bank of the flooded Sankuru River five days later. Ghanaian UN troops camped nearby refused flatly to intervene and rescue him. Lumumba, savagely beaten with rifle butts by troops under the command of the future dictator Mobutu, was taken back to Leopoldville. There he was again beaten up for the benefit of photographers, and made to swallow the text of one of his own speeches. He was transferred to a prison in Thysville, with nine supporters.

Now began his final, revolting martyrdom. While the soldiers took turns to batter and torture him by day and night, his final ‘elimination’ was the subject of complex negotiations. The Bureau Conseil, the secret Belgian advisory group which in practice was running Katanga, was at first reluctant to accept the proposal that Lumumba be transferred to Katanga, where he would obviously be put to death sooner or later. A telegram from d’Aspremont Lynden, unearthed by De Witte, urged Tshombe ‘to allow Lumumba to be transferred to Katanga with the least possible delay’.

The telegram arrived on 16 January 1961. The next day, Lumumba, accompanied by Maurice Mpolo, who had been a junior minister, and Joseph Okito, who had been Vice-President of the Senate, was flown to Elisabethville. Blindfolded, the three men were clubbed, slashed and kicked all through the flight, arriving covered in blood and scarcely recognisable: ‘a human mass . . . their shirts torn, blood coming out of their mouths, their faces swollen’. The Belgian crew did nothing to protect them, and at Elisabethville Belgian soldiers who were supposed to escort the prisoners from the airport took part in more beatings. According to eyewitnesses, Lumumba suffered it all in silence.

The three were taken to a European bungalow, where Belgian officers allowed Tshombe and his cronies to attack the bound prisoners until their own suits were wet with blood. Then the Belgians (all named by De Witte) took their own turn until Lumumba was ‘a human wreck’. Finally, late at night, the three were driven some twenty-five miles into the bush, tied to a tree and executed by a firing squad commanded by Commandant Verscheure and Captain Gat: 27 years later, the big tree was still full of bullets.

Nobody has ever answered for this crime, compounded of illegalities and atrocities. As De Witte bitterly remarks, ‘the United Nations and the Western powers under its umbrella were all implicated in the overthrow, imprisonment and assassination of the former Congolese prime minister.’ The Belgians did the dirty work, but almost the entire Western world encouraged them to think that they would earn gratitude for it. Today, with the Congo a battlefield after Africa’s first continental war – a war which some UN sources think may have cost three million lives, almost all civilian – it is time to ask what might have happened if Lumumba had lived and if the West had not intervened against him in the way that it did. Much might have been better; nothing could have been worse. As he once said, with his usual bleak lucidity: ‘If I die tomorrow, it will be because a white has armed a black.’

[*] Reviewed in the LRB, 1 April 1999