The Tragic Tale of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s First Prime Minister


Closeup map of Congo main Lumumba

Belgium granted the Central African country of Congo its independence in 1960. Patrice Lumumba, who dreamed of a united Congo free from ethnic divisions, became its first prime minister. Lumumba’s reign was a short one. Civil war soon broke out. The U.S. and United Nations believed he was unsuitable to lead. Lumbumba lost power within months. Congolese and Belgian-backed forces killed Lumumba less than a year after independence with President Eisenhower’s consent. Lumumba became a Congolese martyr.  

Early Life of Patrice Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba was born July 2, 1925, in Onalua, Belgian Congo. 

He was a member of Batetela, a small ethnic group. Lumumba could not rely on the appeal to his ethnic group to obtain power. His political rivals, from more populous and influential ethnic groups, did so. Lumumba took a more pan-Congolese approach.

Lumumba went to a Protestant mission school. He became one of the Western-educated cultured ones (évolués). Lumumbra was fluent in French and wrote poetry. He received full Belgian citizenship and started to work for the post office. 

He was married three times. The first two marriages ended quickly. He married Pauline Opanga in 1951. They had four children together. He also had a son with Pauline Kie.

Enters Politics 

Lumumba closely studied Enlightenment ideas. He started to have anti-imperialistic views, supporting the end of colonial rule. He promoted education and racial equality.

In 1955, Lumumba became the regional president of a trade union of government employees. He also joined the Belgian Liberal Party. In 1956, Lumumba took part in a study tour to Belgium sponsored by the minister of the colonies. Barely thirty, he was going up in the world.

He was then found guilty of embezzlement from the post office and served a year in prison. One professor of African studies argues that the arrest was suspicious. The “borrowing” of money was technically illegal, but his arrest was suspiciously rare.  

Once released, Lumumba obtained a job as a beer salesman. “Ironically, for someone accused of embezzlement, he was assigned to the brewery’s accounts department.”

National Political Leadership 

Lumbumba had an increasing role in national politics. People found him energetic and were impressed with his passion and speaking skills. He had a pan-African vision, dreaming of an Africa undivided by ethnic or regional loyalties. Lumbumba dreamed of a united Congo.

In 1958, Lumbumba and other Congolese leaders started the first nationwide political party, the Congolese National Movement (Mouvement National Congolais; MNC). He took a strong (some officials would say dangerously “militant”) nationalist tone. 

British authorities arrested him in October 1959 for incitement of a riot, a result of protests against Belgian policies. The people still strongly supported him. 

Independence

Under pressure, the British released Lumumba so that he could be involved in the independence process. The MNC won a plurality in the first national elections. Patrice Lumumba became prime minister. His party formed a coalition government with Joseph Kasavubu.

June 30, 1960, was independence day. The Belgian king ill-advisedly gave condescending remarks such as “It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that we were right to trust you.” He also praised the infamous King Leopold II, a brutal colonizer, as a heroic civilizing figure. 

Lumumba replied in passionate, nationalistic terms that demanded justice that shocked Belgians who were used to ruling over the local people:

Tragedy of Patrice Lumumba 

It was the sort of tone that deeply concerned many foreign leaders. Many, including the UN-Secretary of the United Nations, distrusted him. They thought Lumumba was unprepared and reckless. Some of this was fair. It is also partially a result of stereotyping and racism.  

Brian Edward Urquhart, the U.N. representative in the Congo, described Lumumba as charismatic and honestly concerned about the well-being of his country. Nonetheless, his “lack of patience, experience or common sense was made more dangerous by his formidable powers as a demagogue.” Urquhart argues there was a good reason to be concerned about his rule.  

A recent book, The Lumumba Plot, written by Foreign Affairs editor Stuart A. Reid., provides a generally favorable account of Patrice Lumumba. Nonetheless, Reid also addresses more troubling examples of his short rule, including a brutal suppression of rebellion.  

Lumumba hoped a trip to the United States would help.  It did not go well. President Eisenhower would not even meet him. Many government officials considered him a bit of a rube who did not know Western ways, an unfair judgment given his education and travels. 

He sought U.S. military aid (rejected) and tried to find people to fill civil service jobs at home. Yvonne Reed, who later became the comedian Dave Chappelle’s mother, was tempted but chose not to go.  When he attempted to gain military support from the Soviet Union, Lumumba was labeled a communist stooge. This allegation was unfair; he was desperate for foreign aid. 

The United Nations refused to provide military assistance to stop a Katangese rebellion. In November, they recognized Kasavubu as the official leader of the country. By then, Lumumba was already under house arrest. He tried to escape. The rebels recaptured him.  

President Eisenhower earlier decided Lumumba had to go. There was a clear understanding that he gave the order to assassinate Lumumba. The CIA did not have to worry. Belgian, Congo, and Katanga rebels did the deed. A Belgian-led firing squad killed him in January 1961.

Martyr 

Patrice Lumumba has become a martyr. At the time of his death, the nation was much more divided. Death has a way of changing things. 

In a few years, some of the people involved in his murder started to call him a “national hero.”  He was a symbol of Congo and the evils of Western imperialism. 

Final Resting Place 

The people who killed Patrice Lumumba did not want his grave to become a shrine. His body was dissolved in acid. The treatment of his body matched the cruelty of his death. 

The Belgian police commissioner who oversaw the process kept a few body parts as trophies. A single tooth remained when his daughter gave a speech in 2016. 

Lumumba’s family obtained the tooth. In 2022, he finally had a burial. 
By this point, the country had a new name twice. Congo first became Zaire. Zaire is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Lumumba’s vision of a united country tragically has never come to fruition. The tragedy of his time in office remains a lesson to us all.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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