Patrice Lumumba was the first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo to be democratically elected. He was a Congolese independence leader who founded the mainstream Congolese National Movement, (Mouvement National Congolais) (MNC) party and played a pivotal role in Congo’s struggle for independence from Belgium. Before becoming active in politics, he had been a writer and political organiser.

A committed nationalist, he called for Congo’s independence from Belgium and became a leading figure in the Congo’s independence movement. In June 1960, he became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Congo. Nevertheless, his premiership did not last long, and his political career came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated in 1961.

Lumumba was said to have been poorly buried in an unmarked grave, then exhumed and finally dismembered, with pieces of his body dissolved in sulphuric acid while the bones were crushed and dispersed.

You can watch the video of Patrice Lumumba’s assassination here.

Who was Patrice Lumumba?

Born on July 2, 1925, in Katakokombe, Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Patrice Émery Lumumba was a Congolese independence activist and politician.

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The Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, during a visit to UN Headquarters in New York, July 24, 1960/UN.

Lumumba served as the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as the Republic of the Congo) from June 24 to September 5, 1960.

In his thirties, Lumumba played a significant role in turning his country from a colony of Belgium into an independent country.

Popular as a pan-African and an African nationalist, he led his party, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), from 1958 to his gruesome murder in 1961.

What is Patrice Lumumba known for?

Soon after the independence of the Congo and the rise of Lumumba as Prime Minister in 1960, a revolt broke out in the army that marked the beginning of the Congo Crisis.

Lumumba appealed to the United Nations and the United States to help put an end to the Belgian-backed Katangan rebels led by Moise Tshombe.

They both declined, however, so the Prime Minister turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. This appeal led to increasing disagreements with Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the President, and Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, his Chief of Staff. It was also in dispute with the United States and Belgium, which were hostile to the Soviet Union as a result of the Cold War.

Lumumba’s contemporaries described him as an elegant dresser and versatile dancer – brilliant and articulate, and no one could compete with him for national leadership, as there was only one famous winner in the 1960 elections.

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Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (left) confers with a colleague from the Republic of the Congo shortly before a news conference during his visit to UN Headquarters in New York, July 25, 1960/UN.

Patrice Lumumba became Congo’s first prime minister just as Belgium, the colonial ruler of the region, was preparing to grant her independence on June 30, 1960.

When was Patrice Lumumba in power?

While being the country’s number one leader is one thing, exercising power and authority is another thing entirely.

Without the protection of the armed forces of the country, Lumumba’s power was on paper, his political authority as many crumpled ballot papers ready for incineration. 

The inability of the Prime Minister to deal with the military mutiny that began in July 1960, together with Belgium’s scheme of promoting the secession of Katanga because of its rich mineral, marked the beginning of its end.

Lumumba then went on to dance with the villains of that period, the Soviet Union, inviting Nikita Khrushchev to send military forces to put down another uprising in his country after the United Nations and the United States had rejected his appeal.

Still in pain over Fidel Castro’s invasion of Cuba, the West would never forgive him for his friendship with Moscow. They saw him as a Marxist instead of a pan-African nationalist. Therefore, the process of the political removal of Lumumba began, primarily involving the United States and Belgium, who were secretly appointed agents to get rid of the first and only elected prime minister of Congo.

How did Patrice Lumumba die?

With the outbreak of the cold war, it was inevitable that the United States and its western allies would not be prepared to let Africans have effective control over strategic raw materials, lest these fall in the hands of their enemies in the Soviet camp. It is in this regard that Patrice Lumumba’s determination to achieve genuine independence and to have full control over Congo’s resources in order to utilise them to improve the living conditions of Congolese was perceived as a threat to western interests.

To fight him, the US and Belgium used all the tools and resources at their disposal, including the United Nations secretariat, under Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche, to buy the support of Lumumba’s Congolese rivals, and hired killers.

In Congo, Patrice Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on June 30, 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence, and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.

The assassination took place at a time when the country had fallen under four separate governments: the central government in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville); a rival central government by Lumumba’s followers in Kisangani (then Stanleyville); and the secessionist regimes in the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and South Kasai.

Since Lumumba’s physical elimination had removed what the west saw as the major threat to their interests in the Congo, internationally-led efforts were undertaken to restore the authority of the moderate and pro-western regime in Kinshasa over the entire country. These resulted in ending the Lumumbist regime in Kisangani in August 1961, the secession of South Kasai in September 1962, and the Katanga secession in January 1963.

Declassified documents reveal that the CIA had plotted to assassinate Lumumba. These documents indicate that the Congolese leaders who killed Lumumba, including Mobutu Sese Seko and Joseph Kasa-Vubu, received money and weapons directly from the CIA.

This same disclosure showed that, at that time, the U.S. government believed that Lumumba was a communist and feared him because of the Cold War.

In the end, Lumumba’s Congolese rivals, assisted by Washington and Brussels, put him under house arrest and beat him almost to death before eventually flying across the country to the secessionist Katanga on January 17, 1961, where he was exiled to a secluded place and disfigured by gunshots from the local gendarmerie.

Patrice Lumumba was poorly buried in an unmarked grave, then exhumed and finally dismembered, with pieces of his body dissolved in sulphuric acid while the bones were crushed and scattered.

The Belgian man responsible for his death took out two of his teeth, covered with gold, as souvenirs (source).

In 2013, the U.S. State Department admitted that President David Eisenhower had authorized the murder of Lumumba as the inauguration of President-elect John F. Kennedy in January 1961 caused fear among Mobutu’s faction and within the CIA that the incoming administration would shift its favour to the imprisoned Lumumba.

While awaiting his presidential inauguration, Kennedy had come to believe that Lumumba should be released from custody, though not be allowed to return to power. However, Lumumba was killed on January 17, three days before Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961. Interestingly, Kennedy would not be aware of Lumumba’s gruesome death until February 13, 1961.

Legacy

At a time of rising hope for an African independence period, what happened to Patrice Lumumba during his tenure is still a matter of concern, particularly in pan-African relations. Unfortunately, even to date, those responsible for the death of Lumumba have yet to be charged.

Nevertheless, Lumumba was a man of a strong character who had the intention of pursuing his policies, irrespective of the enemies he had made in his country or abroad. Furthermore, the Congo was a key area in Africa’s geopolitics, and because of its wealth, scale, and proximity to white-dominated southern Africa, the opponents of Lumumba had reason to fear the effects of a democratic or moderate Congo government.

Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba meets with United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (right) during the former’s visit to the UN Headquarters, 24 July 1960; both men were to meet violent ends in the Republic of the Congo within 14 months of their meeting/UN.

The government’s justification of his death was immediately disputed, although it would take decades for the full circumstances surrounding his death to be made public.

Lumumba’s death caused a storm across Africa and beyond; retrospectively, even his critics called him a “national hero.”

Nevertheless, five years after his brutal assassination, in 1966, Patrice Lumumba’s image was rehabilitated by the Mobutu regime and he was proclaimed a national hero and martyr in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By a presidential decree, the Brouwez House, site of Lumumba’s brutal torture on the night of his murder, became a place of pilgrimage in the Congo.

In 2002, Belgium formally apologised for its role in the assassination of Patrice Émery Lumumba.

On June 30, 2018, a Lumumba square was inaugurated in Brussels, Belgium. The square is situated at the entrance of the Matonge neighborhood and was inaugurated 58 years after the declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 1964, Malcolm X, an American human rights activist, declared Patrice Lumumba “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent”.

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Further Reading

Patrice Lumumba: the most important assassination of the 20th century

The C.I.A. and Lumumba

How Patrice Lumumba was killed and dissolved in acid

Character Sketches: Patrice Lumumba By Brian Urquhart

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