nthposition online magazine

The assassination of Lumumba


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To review a book such as this is a rare pleasure indeed, perhaps unique. When a Congolese volcano erupted on January 17 this year, swamping a city in lava and displacing thousands, no doubt many in the Congo, and in Belgium, shivered. For it was the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first post-imperial prime minister, whose nationalist vision ended in a hail of bullets, and whose death allowed the decades of plunder by the ruling clique of Joseph Mobutu which left one of Africa's richest countries practically bankrupt.

De Witte begins his study with the Congolese declaration of independence in 1960: Belgium had finally decided that it should be seen to shed its empire, and organized elections for a post-occupation government. In fact, the elections were a set-up, and Belgium intended to drive from the back seat so that their surreptitious looting of the Congo's vast mineral wealth could continue. They had reckoned without nationalist hero Patrice Lumumba, who stormed to power despite the Belgian attempts to elect a puppet ruler. Lumumba humiliated the Belgian king in his victory speech, denounced the years of Belgian occupation and gave notice that he would not be anyone's tool. The republic of Congo would be the very model of an African powerhouse: progressive, fair and democratic, ruled by the Congolese.

From there, things turned nasty very quickly. The Belgians immediately provoked a secession by the Congolese province of Katanga and installed their puppet regime there instead. Lumumba appealed to the UN to intervene, but Belgium had already whispered to secretary-general Hammarskjöld, who promptly recognized the illegal breakaway of Katanga and sent in 'peacekeeping' forces to patrol the Congo - but not Katanga - in effect preventing action by Lumumba's legitimately-elected government.

The situation was worsened by a (wrongheaded) US perception that Lumumba was a crypto-Communist. President Eisenhower called for Lumumba's murder, and a CIA effort was initiated, involving the infamous hit man known as QJ/WIN (identified in De Witte's text for what I believe is the first time). That this attempt came to nothing (and not for want of trying) does not alter the fact that the USA conspired to murder the democratically-elected head of another country - but then, we all knew that they did that sort of thing anyway, didn't we? It's shocking how boring some shocking facts are.

Amid this climate, Lumumba's situation went from bad to worse: placed under house-arrest, ostensibly for his own protection by the UN, his government was taken over by Belgium-friendly parliamentary opponents. Lumumba escaped and headed north to Stanleyville, where he would be able to regroup his followers and begin the expulsion of the Belgians and the UN. En route - despite his supposed international immunity as head of government - he was arrested by UN forces and fell into the hands of the Belgians.

Belgium now had a dilemma. A flurry of diplomatic cables flew between Brazzaville and Brussels, concerning the troublesome prime minister whom they dared not kill, dared not release. Eventually, it was arranged that Lumumba should be transferred to his mortal enemies in breakaway Katanga, who had previously threatened to eat him (and they eventually did eat six other nationalist leaders, shortly after the death of Lumumba: it is a measure of De Witte's integrity that he does not flinch from discussing this incident). After a horrifying plane journey (bound, with tape across his eyes, ears and mouth, and receiving regular beatings), Lumumba was kicked and punched into the hands of the Katanga regime. Here the Belgian involvement supposedly ended: in fact, Belgian officers were constantly present throughout what followed, guiding events in a hands-off diplomatic style. After a further night of torture at the hands of the Katangan cabinet, Lumumba was taken out to a clearing and shot by Katangan soldiers, the Belgians looking on impassively.

Now the assassination - achieved by proxy, under cover of an artificial civil war and in the name of stilling deliberately-provoked unrest - moved into its 'cover-up' phase. The Belgians let it be announced that Lumumba (who, as far as anyone knew at this stage, had simply disappeared) had escaped from custody and was on the run. They then dug up Lumumba's body and had it dissolved in acid. After this, they announced that Lumumba had been killed by hostile villagers. And that, until De Witte's research was published, was that.

Remember, the above is not supposition or vulgar 'conspiracy theorising'. This is how it happened. De Witte's research deserved a 9 out of 10 until early this year: he had managed to initiate a Belgian parliamentary investigation into the death of Lumumba, true, but after all, no boo can be really perfect. But in January 2002, a trap set by De Witte finally closed. He had established in his work that Belgium was the guiding force in Lumumba's death, but - and this is a matter conspiracy researchers seldom consider - unless you can prove beyond doubt that a crime has been committed by strict definition of the law, your case need never be tested. De Witte knew he would never obtain a confession from any of the principals, despite a mountain of incriminating evidence he's unearthed (and for the same reason he'd never be sued for libel and have a chance to establish his case that way). So De Witte had constructed a parallel case to the murder charge: Belgian soldiers were in position around Lumumba at every stage of the assassination, right up to his death. Under its own 'Good Samaritan' laws, Belgium was clearly legally culpable for failing to prevent the assassination from taking place. And, in January 2002, the Belgian government officially recognized that it was guilty of this crime, and issued a formal apology.

They won't admit they actively killed Lumumba. And their limited apology won't bring Lumumba back or rewrite Congolese history. The corrupt, cruel and indifferent world spins madly onwards, unaffected. But such is, apparently, the way conspiracy research ends: with a whimper. Unlike Lumumba's life, which ended with a bang that must have been a welcome release from inhuman torment, and that reverberated for three decades. De Witte's work is, then, a scholarly masterpiece, an exemplary piece of historical research, a legal triumph, and a piece of history in its own right. (And the translators deserve a medal for rendering it so clearly into English.) It fully rates the best score a reviewer can give. My only regret is that I literally cannot praise it enough.