San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

Patrice Lumumba:
The Truth About His Life and Legacy

Much of the material available about Patrice Lumumba is distorted half-truths. He is alleged to have been a popularly elected leader of the Congo who was assassinated on the orders of the evil colonialists or perhaps even Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy. The truth is that his party received only 25 percent of the vote in the election. It was up to the Belgian authorities to arrange procedure for the selection of the first prime minister. The process was governed by a constitution that the Belgians provided. The legislature did not have to select Lumumba, but the whole process of native government was new and they unwisely gave impetus to the prime ministership to Patrice Lumumba perhaps counting on his recognizing that he did not have a mandate for his policies. The Belgian authorities gave impetus to Lumumba's prime ministership by trying to promote a coalition between Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu. This coalition did not work out. Lumumba's personality was not one of compromise and accommodation. Any review of his past would have revealed that he was not a man of moderation. Nevertheless, after the failure of a Lumumba-Kasavubu coalition, Lumumba went on to secure the support of 23 small parties. This was sufficient to give him enough votes to secure the primeministership.

The Belgian authorities did go on to work out a compromise between Lumumba and Kasavubu in which Kasavubu became president and Lumumba was accepted as prime minister. Later the legislature ratified Kasavubu's presidency. As in parliamentary systems elsewhere the president did not have power in the day-to-day operation of the government but he did have the power to dismiss the prime minister and call for new elections. Giving Kasavubu real power in the central government had the political advantage of ending his call for the secession of his province of Katanga.

Probably it would have been best to have partitioned the Congo into tribal areas and allow Congo leaders to gain experience in managing smaller political units. There would then have been the possibility of later creating a federation of the tribal groupings within the Congo River Basin. But instead the international powers expected people with no experience with democracy and no experience in the management of complex systems to suddenly take control of a nation with tens of millions of people of diverse cultural backgrounds. Even a well-developed nation such as the United States would be destroyed by putting into power someone who is merely glib and has no significant managerial experience.

Despite the tenuousness of his government Lumumba had gained power and he intended to use it. Lumumba was intent upon preserving the political state the Belgians had put together from incompatible tribal groups. He was one of the few candidates in the election who advocated maintaining national unity. The entity the Belgians had put together of disparate tribal groups and regions made no sense politically. Most major political leaders in the Congo favored either partition or at least a federationist state. International leaders however have generally been obsessed with maintaining the historical conglomerations on the foolish hope that disparate cultures will somehow learn to live together. The reality has been that in these conglomerate states independence from some global imperialist has only meant its replacement by a local imperialist. This has been seen in the domination of the non-Burman population in Myanmar by the Burmans, the domination of the Dravidians of South India by the North Indians, the domination of the non-Serbians in Yugoslavia by the Serbs, the domination of the Ibo in Nigeria by the Moslems of the north and other instances too numerous to list.

In the Congo, the province of Katanga had already separated shortly after independence and was seeking recognition as an independent state. Katanga had every moral right to secede, just as did all of the other provinces of the Belgian Congo. The case for the secession of Katanga was even stronger in as much as there was little or no regional commonality with the rest of the Congo. Katanga was in the highlands in contrast to the lowland provinces of the Congo Basin. It could have been treated as were Rwanda and Burundi. However because of it mineral wealth it was included with the rest as a source of tax revenue. Leopold II of Belgium acquired control of Katanga by having the tribal chief of the Bayeke, Msiri, accept his overlordship. However the Bayeke were not the only group Leopold had to contend with. John Cecil Rhodes was on the verge of acquiring Katanga. The two imperialist struck a deal. Leopold could have political claim to Katanga if Rhodes could have exclusive rights to mining in Katanga. Leopold would get 60 percent of the profit of the mining operations. The mining operations in Katanga built hydroelectric systems and railroads to take the mineral ores to the Atlantic.

The owners of the mining enterprises wanted Kantanga to secede. The European settlers wanted Katanga to secede. The native leaders wanted Katanga to secede. And the natives of Katanga wanted it to secede. They had a standard of living significantly higher than the rest of the Congo. Why would they want the riches of Katanga to be drained off for the benefit of the alien rest of the country?

Another state, South Kasai was also rebelling against central authority. There were diamond deposits in its region. The tribal group was the Baluba. Lumumba sent in Congolese troops to put down the rebellion in South Kasai and they ended up massacring great numbers of civilians. The people and politicians of South Kasai blamed Lumumba personally for the massacre.

Lumumba did not have the military force necessary to conquer Katanga. He demanded that the United Nations send forces to conquer Katanga for him. Lumumba threatened to bring Soviet troops into the Congo to achieve his goal. He had already requested and received material aid from the Soviet Union then under the control of Nikita Khrushchev. When the United Nations declined to do so, the threat of Soviet intervention in the Congo became real. The other politicians knew what the introduction of Soviet troops would mean for the Congo and its future. When Lumumba issued that dire threat to request Soviet troops he effectively signed his own death warrant. Throughout the Congo people knew that if Lumumba was not removed from power immediately he could give the Soviets the legal sanction to come into the Congo and take control. Lumumba therefore could not be removed by protracted legal process because upon the initiation of any process to remove him from the prime ministership he could issue a request for immediate Soviet aid.

The President of the Congo, Joseph Kasavubu, summarily dismissed Lumumba as prime minister. Lumumba tried to create a constitutional crisis by trying to dismiss Kasavubu. The Parliament backed Lumumba. When the Congo Court upheld President Kasavubu's right to dismiss a prime minister Lumumba, a constitutional crisis had been created. Lumumba was placed under house arrest but escaped and fled toward the city of Stanleyville (Kisangani) in the eastern Congo where Antoine Gizenda was trying to set up an alternative Congo government. Stanleyville was the center of support for Lumumba's party. Gizenga had been deputy prime minister and had been dismissed by President Kasavubu at the same time Lumumba had been dismissed.

This government of Gizenga had received recognition from the Soviet bloc and China so Lumumba might again have the power to call in Soviet troops. Whether Lumumba made it to Stanleyville and was arrested there or whether he was captured on his way is uncertain. What is certain is that he was turned over to his political enemies who feared he would bring in Soviet troops and who blamed him for the atrocities that had recently been committed by the army of the central government. He was kept imprisoned for months. During this time John Kennedy was elected President of the United States. Kennedy while waiting to be inaugurated developed the position that he did not want Lumumba to come back into power, but he wanted him protected and eventually released. Those in the Congo feared that once Lumumba was ever released he would find a way to come back into power either in Leopoldville or Stanleyville. Shortly before Kennedy was to be inaugurated Lumumba was put on a plane to be taken to South Kasai, where he was sure to be executed for his part in the massacre of people in South Kasai. Something however went wrong with the plan and Lumumba was instead taken to Katanga where he was soon executed because he threatened to bring in Soviet troops to put down the Katangan secession.

It was a tragedy that he was killed, but it was inevitable once he was given power and threatened to bring Soviet troops to the Congo. As to who killed him the question is still open, but to some extent the answer is irrelevant because if that group had not killed him another group in the Congo would have. No one could tolerate having the threat of Soviet intervention hanging over them if Lumumba ever returned to political power anywhere.


Patrice Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba came from a very small tribal group called the Tetela (Batetela). If a political figure belonged to one of the large tribal groupings it would be difficult for him to gain the support of his tribe's traditional enemies and rivals, but the members of the large tribal groups could support a candidate of a small tribal group without qualms. Thus the candidates who supported national unity generally had to come from small tribal groups, as Lumumba had.

Patrice Lumumba was born in 1925 and attended Protestant missionary schools. There was a special status for native Congolese who had assimilated European culture. They were called évolués. Lumumba sought and was granted the status of évolué and joined a club of évolués in the city of Kindu-Port Empain. He wrote essays and poems for Congolese journals. He applied for and was granted Belgian citizenship.

He moved to Leopoldville (Kinshasa) and began a career in the post office as a clerk. Later he was promoted to accountant for the post office in Stanleyville (Kisangani).

In 1955 he became the president of a regional union of Congolese government employees. He then became active in the Congo branch of the Belgian Liberal Party. That political activity secured him an invitation to visit Belgium for a study tour.

Lumumba went to Belgium in 1956 for that study tour at age 31 and there he met other politically active Congolese. One of those he met was Mobutu who was then about age 26.

When Lumumba returned to the Congo there was a personal disaster awaiting him. He was charged and convicted of embezzlement from the post office and sentenced to a year in prison.


When Belgium announced in 1959 that independence would come in 1960 people began organizing political parties. There was a party called the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) which had been formed in 1956 but had not had much success. When Patrice Lumumba moved to Leopoldville (Kinshasa) in 1958 he joined and galvanized it into action with his oratory. He had charisma. However his rhetoric was too radical for some in the party and they left to form new party. Nevertheless in the election in May 1960 Lumumba's MNC gained a stunning majority in Stanleyville (Kisangani) and a plurality in the national election. While the MNC did not by any means gain a national majority its showing was indicative of a substantial support for national identification and a rejection of ethnicity-based politics.

Thus in that May 1960 parliamentary election Lumumba's MNC party received about a quarter of the votes and gained 33 seats out of the total of 137. This was the largest proportion of any party. In a parliamentary system a prime minister and cabinet are named who run the government. Usually the government (prime minister plus cabinet) is selected by the formation of a coalition among the members of parliament which can command a majority. It governs until there is a vote of no confidence. Occasionally minority governments are formed and allowed to govern on the basis that no measure of confidence is introduced to challenge their rule. In constitutional monarchies the monarch has the right to dismiss a prime minister and ask another member to try to form a new government. In republics the office of president is given this power.

After the election of 1960 resulted in no party having received more than 25 percent of the popular vote, the Belgian authorities, as mentioned earlier, then tried to arrange a coalition between Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu to form a government. Lumumba's party, the MNC, had 33 seats in the parliament and Kasavubu's ABAKO had 17 out of a total of 137 seats.

Another party, the ABAKO party, was separatist. Up until Lumumba joined the MNC, ABAKO was considered the most radical party in the Congo and the MNC was considered moderate.

The proposed coalition between the parties of Lumumba and Kasavubu for a number of reasons did not work out. Probably the major impediment to such a coalition was the difficulty of Lumumba and Kasavubu in sharing power. Lumumba using his personal persuasion then went on to secure the support of 23 small parties to form a government. Lumumba was named the prime minister of the country with the leader of the Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA) Antoine Gizenga as deputy prime minister. The attempt to arrange a compromise between Lumumba and Kasavubu did not completely fail at that time. The MNC accepted the appointment of Joseph Kasavubu as president of the country. This was a brilliant move because by giving Kasavubu real power in the government it ended his effort to bring about a secession of his Bas-Congo province of Katanga.

However this selection of political leaders set in motion a political drama of epic proportions.

Patrice Lumumba

Lumumba as Prime Minister

Other politicians receiving the prime ministership as a result of obtaining a mere 25 percent plurality would perhaps have accepted that they did not have a mandate and would have worked to build consensus. But compromise and moderation were not part of Lumumba's nature. His was more of a Leninist personality. When Lumumba was not able to induce the U.N. force to invade and capture control of Katanga he called for Soviet aid. Other Congolese politicians recognized what the introduction of Soviet forces into the Congo imbroglio would mean. When Kasavubu dismissed him as prime minister it was the right thing to do, but given Lumumba's nature he provoked a constitutional crisis by attempting to fire Kasavubu and when that failed he attempted to set up an alternative government in Stanleyville (Kisangani). Lumumba, whose one fixed idea was the maintenance of a unitary centralist government, was supporting the split the nonsecessionist territory of the country into two parts.

Antoine Gizenga, after being dismissed by President Kasavubu as deputy prime minister, left Léopoldville (Kinshasa) in November 1960 to create an alternate government in the east in Stanleyville (Kisangani) and Lumumba soon journeyed to join him. The exact nature of what happened next is uncertain. Lumumba was arrested or kidnapped in Stanleyville or on his way there and kept imprisoned until he was transported to Katanga where he was killed sometime in January of 1961. Moïse Tshombe is usually blamed for Lumumba's execution but that was never established.

How long would the prime minister of any country survive, not just politically but physically, after threatening to call in Soviet troops to support him in a domestic dispute? Even in a country like Sweden with a long history of democratic tradition such a prime minister would eliminated within days if not hours.

Lumumba's death was not announced publically until about a month after it happened. At that time, in February of 1961, there was wide spread rioting in the eastern region. For the aftermath of Lumumba's death see The Congo After Lumumba's Death

(To be continued.)

For more on the history of the Congo see Congo/Zaire.

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