“Dead, living, free, or in prison on the orders of the colonialists, it is not I who counts. It is the Congo, it is our people for whom independence has been transformed into a cage where we are regarded from the outside… History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets… a history of glory and dignity.”
Patrice Lumumba 1960
At the end of 2013, Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa died. He was 95 years old. All around the world, he is hailed as an icon of democracy, peace and reconciliation. His wisdom is an inspiration to many.
But what of those other heroes of black African liberation who did not make it to old age through the struggles of their respective countries for freedom, democracy and independence? Between 1961 and 1973, six African leaders were assassinated by their former colonial masters; Felix Moumie (Cameroon). Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Mehdi Ben Barka (Morocco), Edouardo Mondlane(Mozambique) and Amilcar Cabral (Guinea and cape Verde).
The second of these, Patrice Lumumba, was the first elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was only thirty five years old when he was murdered. He was also ten years younger than Nelson Mandela.
I first learnt of Patrice Lumumba when I read Barbara Kingsolver`s powerful novel `The Poisonwood Bible` which has as one of its central themes the Democratic Republic of Congo`s painful beginnings as an independent country and the tragic fate of its popular young prime minister just over fifty two years ago.
I next became aware of Patrice Lumumba when I was teaching a group of young unaccompanied asylum seekers. Two Congolese students produced drawings of a statue of a man in front of a very modern building.
“ `E eez our national `ero` they explained in their French accented English. A third Congolese student muttered something I couldn`t hear but a fierce discussion erupted in French. None of these young people or even their parents is old enough to actually remember Patrice Lumumba but he is quite clearly an important and controversial historical figure for them.
But why should we, here in Europe, be interested in Patrice Lumumba?
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a country fabulously rich in mineral resources including gold, copper and coltan. These minerals are integral to the `developed` lifestyle of industrialised Europe and the USA. Coltan in particular is an important ingredient in the manufacture of mobile phones and copper keeps the electricity circulating round our homes and cities. Controlling the supply of these minerals and the wealth generated by them is of vital importance to the Western neo-colonial countries, Britain, France, Belgium and the USA, that continue to dominate the economies of many African countries and they will find ways of moving against anyone who threatens their control over these minerals.
In 1994, war broke out in the Congo. It has left more than five million people dead, over half of the dead are children and it has driven thousands of Congolese people into exile. Seven neighbouring countries were directly involved in the fighting at various times and it is said to be the deadliest conflict on the planet since World War Two. Yet, according to War Child International, it “has rarely caught the attention of the international media despite (or maybe because of) the fact that most of the phones and gadgets we rely on are made from the valuable minerals that fuel the conflict”
Although the war is officially over, the country is desperately poor, conflict still erupts from time to time and sexual violence is endemic.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Lumumba`s death, author and journalist Adam Hochschild reflected in a New York times article that
“Many factors cause a war, of course, especially one as bewilderingly complex as this one. But when visiting eastern Congo some months ago, I could not help but think that one thread leading to the human suffering I saw begins with the assassination of Lumumba.”
Britain along with France, Belgium and the United States was implicated in the assassination of this democratically elected and popular leader in 1961. Four years after this assassination, Mobutu, an army general and one of Lumumba`s captors took power in a military coup. He was supported by the Western democracies implicated in Lumumba`s murder. What followed was a corrupt and brutal thirty two year dictatorship, and war which according to author Adam Hochshild left the country in a `state of wreckage from which it has not yet recovered.`
The reason Patrice Lumuba was murdered in the first place was because the Western powers involved in his murder could not stomach the idea that they would lose control of the Congo`s vast mineral wealth to a leader who they feared would nationalise the mines, particularly the copper mines in order that the wealth they generate might benefit the Congolese people.
Last summer a marvellous opportunity presented itself to learn more about Patrice Lumumba. The Young Vic in London revived the play `A Season in the Congo` with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead as Patrice Lumumba himself. The play, a classic text, originally in French by Aime Cesaire, poet and politician from Martinique was written just a few years after Lumumba`s death and is a straightforward account of what happened and could easily be read with teenagers in school. It is slightly out of date in just one point of information. At the time of writing it was thought that the Katangan soldiers (Congolese opposition) executed Lumumba but more recent evidence suggests that Belgian soldiers organised and carried out his execution by firing squad.
So what happened? Who was Patrice Lumumba? It is impossible to justice to this story in a blog. As well as reading Aime Cesaire`s play, I recommend Leo Zeilig`s ` Lumumba Africa`s Lost Leader` (Haus Publishing, London 2008) and Ludo de Witte`s `The Assasination of Lumumba (Verso London DATE). Here also are links to a couple of really good shorter articles as well as to the War Child International website which is useful for understanding the impact of the ongoing conflict in the DRC.
I recently attended a creative writing course with a group of students aged 11-14. One workshop was on performance poetry with well known poet Francesca Beard. We learnt how to create some simple list poems – easy to remember, easy to perform. One of these was a “yes and…” poem which two or more people can perform together. It is an informal chatty form in which the two conversationalists seem to be trying to please each other by trying to agree with and add to everything the other one says. We discovered that it lends itself well to building up a dramatic, political narrative. It works a bit like a chorus in a traditional Greek play. I thought this might be a good way to recount the events leading to Patrice Lumumba`s murder in a simple way suitable for younger teenagers. It is best read aloud by more than one person and I make no claims for it being in any way a good poem but here it is.
Do you know what happened to Patrice Lumumba?
I saw a brilliant play last summer.
It was called `A Season in the Congo`
Yes and it was about a man called Patrice Lumumba.
Yes and he was the first leader of the newly independent Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yes and he was very popular.
Yes and before he was elected, the Congo was ruled by Belgium.
Yes and the Belgian rulers were extremely brutal.
Yes and they chopped the Congolese people`s hands off if they did not collect enough rubber for them.
Yes and the Congo has lots of precious minerals as well as rubber.
Yes and Patrice Lumumba believed these riches should be used to help the people of Congo.
Yes and the banks and the mining companies in Belgium, France and Britain disagreed with him.
Yes and they stirred up trouble in the Congo to stop him.
Yes and they encouraged some corrupt politicians to say that Katanga wanted to be independent from the rest of Congo.
Yes and Katanga is the place where all the precious minerals are.
Yes and the Belgians sent their army to protect Katanga`s independence.
Yes and there was lots of fighting.
Yes and the United Nations arrived to sort things out.
Yes and it turned out that they were no help at all because they just took the side of the Belgians.
Yes and Patrice Lumumba had to ask the USSR for support.
Yes and this upset the United States of America.
Yes and so the USA, Belgium, Britain and France decided Patrice Lumumba must to go.
Yes and it is likely they had planned to get rid of him many months before this.
Yes and the Belgian soldiers arrested him when he was on his way to Katanga.
Yes and they tortured him.
Yes and then they shot him in the back of his head.
Yes and they dissolved his body in acid.
Yes and he was only thirty five years old.
Yes and he was the democratically elected prime minister of Congo
Yes and thousands of people in cities across the world came out onto the streets to demonstrate their anger and grief when they heard the news.
Yes and all this happened more than fifty years ago.
Yes and we will not forget.