The Socialist 26 January 2011
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50 years ago: Congo's independence leader assassinated
ON 17 January 1961, Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected prime minister of the newly independent republic of Congo, was assassinated at the hands of Belgian officers and troops of president Moise Tshombe of the secessionist area of Katanga. News of his assassination sparked mass protests around the world.
In recent years it has been revealed that US president Eisenhower had instructed his aides to liquidate Lumumba and a top secret CIA unit was given the task of eliminating him.
Why was Patrice Lumumba so feared by western imperialism that they felt that they had no other option than to murder him?
For nearly 80 years Congo had been brutally ruled, first by the Belgian King Leopold II as his own personal fiefdom and then as a Belgian colony. Congo is an area rich in natural resources, particularly in Katanga, and these have been used to accrue massive profits for big business.
By the 1950s mass struggles were developing against imperialism. This led to the election of radical nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1957 and in 1959 the Cuban revolution. These events no doubt had an effect on Lumumba. In 1958 he jointly founded the main party of national liberation the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC).
On 4 January 1959, at a mass demonstration in Léopoldville (the capital of Belgian Congo), troops opened fire on demonstrators killing hundreds. This gave further impetus to the growing nationalist movement. Belgium's rulers were desperate to maintain control of their economic and political interests in Congo and moved to talks for an independent Congo in the hope that a compliant government would head off the rising tide of protest.
In the elections in May 1960 the MNC won an overwhelming victory with Lumumba being elected as prime minister. It was clear from his statements during the elections and at the swearing in of the new government (quoted below) that Lumumba was not going to be the puppet of the Belgian government:
"No Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle... Together we shall establish social justice and ensure for every man a fair remuneration for his labour... We shall see to it that the lands of our native country truly benefit its children."
Lumumba was voicing the hopes and aspirations of the masses that after decades of repression and terrible living conditions, they would at last begin to see real improvements and have a real say in how their lives would be run.
Although not a socialist at this stage, Lumumba was moving leftward. There was a fear by imperialism that a Lumumba government, with the support of the masses, could move in the same direction as the Cuban revolution and break with capitalism.
Moreover, a government carrying out measures in the interests of the masses would give a massive boost to the struggle against imperialism.
Unfortunately, despite his personal courage and his popularity, Lumumba had not built a revolutionary socialist party that could have led a mass movement to repulse the interventions of imperialism.
Recognising this threat to their power, imperialism, particularly Belgium, took measures to undermine the Lumumba government with military and financial support given to Tshombe when he declared independence. They also heavily backed the compliant president of Congo, Kasa-Vubu, who dissolved parliament and had Lumumba kept under house arrest.
Lumumba escaped but was eventually captured and then assassinated through fear that even under arrest he would be a beacon to the masses. The CIA was also heavily involved alongside Belgian imperialism in backing Mobutu the military commander-in-chief and eventual dictator responsible for the massacre of thousands.
What these events also underline is the role that the United Nations plays as a cover for imperialism. They refused to intervene against Belgian troops propping up the Katanga regime and backed Kasa-Vubu against Lumumba.
Today, Congo is portrayed in the media as a 'failed' state ravaged by civil war, ignoring the destabilising role of imperialism in the country's history.
However, what the independence struggle around Lumumba shows is the potential in Congo to build a movement capable of challenging imperialism and capitalism but it also underlines the importance of building a strong revolutionary socialist leadership of that movement capable of carrying through the struggle.
In this issue
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
National Shop Stewards Network
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party schools features
Socialist Party review