Since January 17, 1961, no one has been held accountable for the brutal murder of Congo’s independence leader and first prime minister Patrice Lumumba who was shot dead with two of his ministers, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo.
However, all fingers point to multinational perpetrators who sanctioned the elimination of one of Africa’s bravest politicians and independence heroes who stood his ground against colonizers.
He led the Democratic Republic of Congo to independence on June 30, 1960, after the country was passed on from King Leopold II, who took control of it as his private property in the 1880s, to Belgium in 1908 as a colony.
Lumumba was inspired by the independence movement of Africa after attending the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Ghana in 1958. This spurred him on to organise nationalist rallies in his country resulting in deadly protests that got him arrested and later released to negotiate Congo’s independence.
Independence came with lots of problems including a political divide and an unapologetic Belgium led by King Baudouin who minced no words during the independence declaration while praising his predecessor, the brutish King Leopold II.
“Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms, and don’t replace the structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better. Don’t be afraid to come to us. We will remain by your side and give you advice,” he said.
An outraged Lumumba rather gave a damning speech highlighting “humiliating slavery, which was imposed upon us by force.” This heightened Belgium’s disinterest in Lumumba whose government was already being opposed by his political rival and president Joseph Kasavubu.
Only three months into the new and independent Congo, soldiers mutinied against Belgian commanders who refused to leave and some regions, including the mineral-rich Katanga and South Kasai, rebelled against the central government and seceded with the backing of Belgian troops who were sent to protect their interests.
The Congolese government called for the United Nation’s help and a resolution was passed by the Security Council calling on Belgium to withdraw its troops. UN peacekeepers were sent into the Congo to restore order and “use force in the last resort” to secure the country’s territories.
However, Belgium did not leave and the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld failed to provide the Congolese government with military assistance as demanded by Lumumba and sanctioned by the Security Council. He also ignored the prime minister’s appeal to send troops to Katanga but rather chose to negotiate with secession leader Moise Tshombe.
Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on his way to meet Tshombe in September 1961, winning him a posthumously Nobel peace prize. Meanwhile, the country was in turmoil and Lumumba got no help from the West and the United Nations. He called on Russia and the Soviet Union sent weapons and “technical advisors” which incensed the United States.
The U.S. was a strong ally of Belgium and had a stake in Congo’s uranium. It is suspected to have planned an assassination as disclosed by a source in the book, Death in the Congo, written by Emmanuel Gerard and published in 2015.
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was reported to have given the order without any discussion. Lawrence Devlin, CIA station chief in Congo at the time, told the BBC in 2000 that a CIA plan to lace Lumumba’s toothpaste with poison was never carried out.
By September, the Congolese President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as Prime Minister after receiving a telegram from Belgian Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens. Lumumba also declared Kasavubu deposed. This ushered in the takeover by army chief Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko who placed Lumumba under house arrest and guarded by his troops and the United Nations troops.
Lumumba escaped in late November with his wife and baby son hidden in the back of a car leaving his residence. They headed towards the east where he had loyal followers in Kisangani (then Stanleyville). He engaged villagers on his way and on the evening of December 2 as they waited for a ferry to cross the Sankuru River, Mobutu’s forces appeared.
He was captured and another plea to the United Nations to save him fell on deaf ears. He was flown to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), where he was humiliated in public in the presence of journalists, UN officials and his wife, Pauline.
Mobutu ordered his detention at a military prison at Thysville, a hundred miles from Léopoldville. For six weeks, Lumumba was kept in cells and that’s where he wrote letters to the United Nations for help and to his wife to calm her nerves.
While Lumumba’s speeches from prison were creating confusion, Belgian Minister of African Affairs Harold d’Aspremont Lynden was putting pressure on the government to move him from Thysville where he could be freed by his supporters.
Lynden later insisted on Lumumba being transferred to Katanga despite a discussion by the Belgian parliament against the decision that will result in his death, cites Belgian sociologist and historian, Ludo De Witte, who made public the gory details of Lumumba’s death in a book published in Dutch in 1999.
Lumumba and his two former ministers were flown to Katanga on January 17 while being beaten so badly that the pilot warned the violence was threatening the flight, says De Witte.
They arrived at the Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) airport and taken into custody by Katangese police and military under the supervision of Belgian forces. They were driven to a colonial villa owned by a wealthy Belgian, Villa Brouwe, and the beatings continued by both the Congolese and Belgian forces.
By that evening, they were semi-conscious and had been visited by Katangese cabinet ministers and President Tshombe himself. Later around 10, a decision was taken on their fate and they were dragged from Villa Brouwe into a nearby bush where a firing squad awaited them.
The execution was commanded by Belgian Captain Julien Gat and Belgian Police Commissioner Frans Verschurre, who had overall command, discloses De Witte in his book based on documents he discovered in the Belgian archives. They were shot separately by a big tree as President Tshombe and two of his cabinet ministers looked on. The bodies were quickly thrown into shallow graves.
To conceal their crimes the next morning of January 18, the Interior Minister Godfried Munongo called a senior Belgian policeman, Gerard Soete, to his office and ordered that the bodies disappeared.
“You destroy them, you make them disappear. How you do it, it doesn’t interest me. All I want is that it happens that they disappear. Once it is done nobody will talk about it. Finished,” Soete recalled Munongo’s orders.
Soete said he and another helper exhumed the corpses and “hacked them in pieces and put them into the acid. As far as our acid because we had two bottles like that of acid, big bottles, but we hadn’t got enough so we burned what we could in those bottles. For the rest, I know that my helper made a fire and put them in and we destroyed everything.
“We were there two days. We did things an animal wouldn’t do. And that’s why we were drunk, stone drunk. We couldn’t do things like that. Cut your own, your own – no, no, no. Nobody could say now, today, it’s there, it happened. That’s impossible, you couldn’t,” Soete was quoted in a BBC documentary, Who Killed Lumumba?, which aired in 2000 based on accounts from De Witte’s book published in English in June 2001.
Just as planned, Lumumba’s death was announced a month later on February 13, 1961. Interior Minister Munongo announced that the three prisoners killed their guards and escaped in a getaway car before they were recognized by villagers, who beat them to death.
The truth was hidden despite international protests at Belgian embassies nationwide until 1999 when Ludo De Witte’s book titled, The Assassination of Lumumba, presented new evidence taken from documents long hidden in official archives and interviews of surviving witnesses.
The Belgian Parliament established a commission of enquiry three months after the book was published to determine the circumstances of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and if the Belgian government was involved.
The report was presented after 18 months of investigation in 2002 and then published as a book in 2004 for the public. It concluded that Belgium had a moral responsibility in the assassination of Lumumba and that it “acted under pressure from the Belgian public, which had heard for days about violence against Belgian citizens in Congo.”
It said there were plans to kill Lumumba and the Belgian government showed little respect for the sovereign status of the Congolese government. The commission confirmed that secret funds (about $8 million today) were used to finance the policy against the Lumumba government by the Ministry of African Affairs, reports the Brussels Times.
It, however, stated that execution was carried out by Kantangese authorities in the presence of the Belgian officials and there was no evidence to prove that Belgium was part of the decision-making to kill Lumumba.
The Belgian government admitted to having had “undeniable responsibility in the events that led to Lumumba’s death” but did not take full responsibility and issued a public pardon of the Belgians involved in the assassination of Lumumba.
The foreign minister at the time, Louis Michel, said: “The government feels it should extend to the family of Patrice Lumumba … and to the Congolese people, its profound and sincere regrets and its apologies for the pain inflicted upon them.”
This was accepted by Lumumba’s son, Francois Lumumba, who later filed court cases against Belgium for hiding its role in the assassination of his father.
In January 2016, it was reported that a tooth of Lumumba was confiscated in the former home of police officer Gerard Soete who died in June 2000 during the parliamentary enquiry.
In his 1978 novel, the Belgian who helped dissolve Lumumba’s body in acid described the taking of two teeth, two fingers and bullets from the body, reports Brussels Times. He later declared that he had thrown them into the sea.