The legacy of Lumumba

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 96 - August/September 1990

30 June 1990 was the thirtieth anniversary of the gaining of independence by Congo (now Zaire), an event that passed virtually unnoticed in the British media. Seen at the time as the most disastrous episode in the decolonisation of Africa, much of the history of the transition to independence, and of the role played by the country's first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, is now ignored. ALWYN TURNER pays tribute to his memory.

Congo was first brought under Belgian rule in 1885, when Leopold II, having failed to convince the Belgian government of the prestige of having an African colony, simply annexed the region under his own direct rule. During the next three decades, he instigated a ruthless policy of exploitation of natural resources that amounted virtually to genocide, with an estimated one third of the African population being wiped out in the drive to extract ivory and rubber from the country. Even by imperialist standards, the violence was clearly unacceptable and, under international pressure, the Belgian government took over the running of the country in 1908.

For the next half century, Congo was not seen in political but simply in economic terms as a source of massive mineral wealth, to be extracted through forced labour. The Belgian government favoured total suppression combined with a policy of silence that effectively cut off the country from the rest of the world; even within Belgium, Congo was ignored, while the government deliberately avoided the creation of a white colonial class with any ties to the country.

Despite the closed nature of Congo, however, the upheavals in colonial Africa that began with Nkrumah's campaigning in Ghana could not be kept out indefinitely. In 1955, a civil servant, Joseph Kasavubu, was elected President of ABAKO, an organisation founded in an attempt to unite the Bakongo people, by then scattered through three colonial nations. Previously a cultural movement, ABAKO became under Kasavubu's direction an increasingly political organisation, calling for independence and for democratic rights, including press freedom, elections and recognition of political parties. In 1958, an even more significant development saw the formation of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), an overtly political party advocating a unified independent Congo in response to ABAKO's tribal separatism. The central figure within the MNC was Patrice Lumumba, an outstanding orator and pamphleteer who had moved rapidly from a belief in the progressive nature of Belgian colonialism to an unequivocal anti-imperialism and who was to emerge as the most controversial post-colonial leader of the time.

The process whereby Congo became an independent state remains obscure. At the end of 1958, Belgium remained apparently in firm control; within a month, widespread though disorganised outbreaks of rioting, most notably in the capital Leopoldville at the end of a march by 30,000 unemployed workers, had forced the Belgian government to concede long-term reforms (though it still maintained its repressive policies, arresting the leaderships of ABAKO and MNC). It was becoming obvious that independence for Congo was ultimately inevitable; what no one was prepared for was the speed of Belgium's capitulation. In January 1960, at a round table conference in Brussels (for which Lumumba was released from jail), the Belgian government announced that Congo was to become independent in June, a total reversal of their previous policy.

In retrospect, it appears that the Belgians assumed that, having effectively run Congo as a purely economic investment, the issue of political control was irrelevant. At the ceremony of independence on 30 June 1960, Lumumba - by then the newly elected Prime Minister in a coalition that had Kasavubu as President - was not even scheduled to speak. When he insisted on doing so, he shocked both the Belgians and the Congolese bourgeoisie with a powerful denunciation of colonialism as a 'humiliating slavery which was imposed on us by force' and with a refusal to forget 'the insults and blows we were made to endure morning, noon and night because we were Blacks'.

Until that speech, it had been tacitly accepted that Congo would go the way of other 'independent' African states - ie that the post-colonial government would work in tandem with the remains of the colonial military and civil structures and would protect imperialist economic interests. Lumumba made it clear that he had no such intention; he proclaimed the need to establish a black African state, genuinely independent, that would begin the long process of reclaiming Africa for Africans and would facilitate the liberation struggle of all black people. In short, he sought to put into practice the rhetoric of Nkrumah and to revive the ambitions of Marcus Garvey. For Lumumba, Congo was to be a beacon of hope for the black world:

‘Together, my brothers, my sisters, we are going to begin a new struggle - a sublime struggle that will take our country to peace, prosperity and grandeur . . . Let us show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom.'

Inevitably, once it was clear that Lumumba was no neo-colonialist puppet, he was subjected to an immediate and ferocious onslaught from Belgian imperialism and from those who worked under its protection. Within days, the army was incited to mutiny and the thousands of Belgian troops who had never left the country stepped in 'to protect white civilians'. The result was a state of civil war in which Lumumba was isolated, still enjoying massive popular support but unable to mobilise any organised manifestation of it to defend his government. The situation deteriorated still further when the leader of Katanga, the richest region of Congo, declared the secession of his province (a move supported by the South African and Rhodesian governments and backed up with white mercenaries).

Lumumba, in desperation, called on the United Nations for help. On 12 July, less than a fortnight after independence, 25,000 UN troops flew into the country, ostensibly as a peace-keeping force, in reality to support the anti-Lumumba factions. They did nothing to assist the beleaguered government, nothing to challenge the Belgian troops, nothing to threaten the secession of Katanga or of Kasai (the second richest region which subsequently announced its secession). When Lumumba demanded the removal of all white UN officers and troops (who constituted the vast majority of the UN force), his appeal was rejected, the UN openly refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the democratically elected government. US imperialism was the major backer of the UN contingent. At the time the Congo supplied 50 per cent of the world's uranium and was the source of the material used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The US ruling class also recognised the Congo as strategically vital for control throughout Africa. CIA and British MI6 agents accompanied the UN contingent.

The chaos and bloodshed that followed independence broke the fragile coalition that existed between the MNC and ABAKO, and in early September, Kasavubu announced that as President he was (unconstitutionally) removing Lumumba from office. Ten days later, Joseph-Desire Mobutu, the Congolese Army Chief of Staff, staged a coup with the support of the UN, removing both Kasavubu and Lumumba from office and placing the latter under house arrest. Lumumba escaped but was recaptured, tortured and, on 17 January 1961, murdered.

The frenzied violence that greeted Lumumba's short-lived attempt at black power remains of immense significance in African politics. No other leader of a newly independent former colony had made such a clear break with imperialism; no other leader was faced with such a naked assault by imperialist power. The months that followed Congolese independence were presented by the West, both at home and in Africa, as a tragic example of what happens when black people attempt to reject the superior wisdom of European civilisation. The involvement of Belgium and the UN soldiers, the recruitment of Portuguese mercenaries, the destabilising efforts of South Africa and Rhodesia, were all laid to one side and, for many years, Lumumba was held up as evidence of the supposed instability of black government and as justification for the patronising liberal myth that we need to prepare and educate the population gradually if democracy is to be achieved.

It was a powerful myth and, as listening to liberal white South Africans or examining the British media will demonstrate, still is. The subsequent marginalisation of Lumumba, the shroud of silence that has descended over his politics and even his existence, has not dispelled the lies; rather, it is a recognition of his potential power to inspire and incite the struggle for liberation.

Today we see South Africa, the last remaining white-governed state in Africa, apparently moving towards a (mostly) peaceful transition to a black government and we hear again the rhetoric of reconciliation that was the dominant theme of the great era of decolonisation. And yet the majority of the continent remains economically enslaved to imperialism and in the grip of reactionary black bourgeois administrations that do nothing to challenge that status. It is clear that a new struggle needs to be waged, a struggle to take up the threads of the great wave of anti-imperialist campaigning that transformed the continent, to build an Africa truly governed by and for Africans. In that struggle, the legacy of Lumumba, the man who fought and died for his belief that decolonisation was not a time for 'reconciliation' on the terms of the oppressor but rather a time for reawakening, will surely be reclaimed and restored.


Kenya and Zambia: revolt is vital – Trevor Rayne

So far this year riot police have been out on the streets of Gabon, Benin, Ivory Coast, Zaire, Zambia and, in July, Kenya: all one party states where the ruling parties have held power for eighteen years or more. By the end of 1989, Africa's foreign debt stood at $250 billion, forcing the continent to pay 40 per cent of its export earnings in debt repayments. Falling commodity prices have cost Africa an estimated $5.5 billion over the past decade. Annual average income per head has fallen from £534 in 1978 to £353 today: Kenya's figure is £225, Zambia's £1,883. In ten years, the continent's employment rate has dropped 16 per cent, health and education spending cut 25 per cent. Illiteracy, hunger, disease and death are rampant: to revolt is vital.

As the economic and social crises have intensified so the political pressures on the imperialists' stooge elites have grown. Since February, when Kenya's Foreign Minister was killed, the tensions have multiplied. President Moi called in British police to investigate, but Moi himself is generally blamed. His KANU party has been in power since independence in 1963. Kenya's deteriorating condition over the past decade has produced demands within and without KANU for political reforms. Their proponents have been hounded and slandered: several have wound up in the notorious Hole camp, former site of British troop murders of Kenyan political prisoners. The beatings-up and arrests have reached as far as ex-cabinet colleagues of Moi who see a multi-party system as the beast way of fulfilling their thwarted political ambitions.

The government attack on the July rally for democracy triggered an explosion of anger that ignited in towns across Kenya. Ngugi wa Thiongo, spokesperson for the underground Mwakenya, an organisation that revives the traditions of the suppressed Mau Mau war against British colonialism, exclaimed, 'Suddenly, the culture of silence and fear, which I've been writing about for the decade since I came out of detention, is not there anymore ... Moi can never rule again in the old way'. The US government is threatening to suspend aid. No doubt Thatcher will reconsider her line that Kenya is an example to others of respect for human rights. They will understand that Moi must compromise with his bourgeois rivals if the revolutionary conclusions of the masses are not to be drawn.

Zambia, like Kenya, inherited a bourgeoisie and political system designed by the British ruling class to ensure that country's continued plunder. Since 1973 opposition political parties have been banned by President Kaunda. Under pressure from international banks, Kaunda doubled the price of maize in June. Within a week student demonstrations had escalated to fighting across Lusaka and into the copper-belt: copper accounts for over 90 per cent of Zambia's export earnings. At the end of June elements in the military staged a coup attempt.

Zambia's foreign debt is $7 billion with arrears on payments of $1.2 billion to the IMF and world bank. Kaunda is attempting to resist an increase in the limit on repayments set at 10 per cent of export earnings. Kenya has been undergoing an IMF 'enhanced structural adjustment facility'. Kenya's debt repayments already consume over a third of export earnings, which are largely controlled by Unilever, Lonrho and Del Monte anyway. International finance capital has no solutions to the problems killing Africa's masses, the people have begun the process of finding solutions for themselves. Imperialist greed has narrowed the space within which its parasitic African class allies can manoeuvre their own survival.