Patrice Lumumba: Black Revolutionary and Pan-African Visionary

Patrice Lumumba portrait on Guinean 10 syli (1971) banknote (Shutterstock). The Black revolutionary Patrice Lumumba was born on this day in 1925 in the Congo. A permanent fixture in the pantheon of Black Revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century, Lumumba provides a visionary blueprint for African liberation and Pan-African solidarity.

The post-World War II period witnessed the rising tide of decolonization and self-determination. The rising wind of change swept across the African continent. Sudan achieved independence in 1956 and in 1957, Ghana--led by Pan Africanist Kwame Nkrumah became the first Sub-Saharan African state to achieve independence. The Congo followed a similar path to decolonization. Beginning in the 1950s, significant agitation for change materialized in the nation. Lumumba was part of this vibrant movement, agitating for African liberation under the auspices of the nationalist group Mouvement National Conglais (MNC).

In 1960, due to the fallout from the Leopoldville Massacre, the Belgians convened a Round Table Conference in Brussels, Belgium. The conference featured representatives from the major political groups in the Congo. Although the Belgians were reluctant to concede independence--even going so far as to state that the process should be delayed for thirty years--the parties agreed on June 30, 1960. From the outset, the Congo’s independence was a topic of debate.

A number of important questions were left unresolved at the conference, including federalism, ethnicity, and the role of Belgium in Congolese affairs. The differing visions of independence came into full view during the independence celebrations. King Baudouin, the Belgian king, presented the end of colonialism as the conclusion of the Belgian civilizing mission. In stark contrast, Lumumba delivered a passionate speech to inspire Congolese men and women: "Independence was won in struggle, a preserving and inspired struggle carried on from day to day, a struggle in which we undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood.” “It was filled with tears, fire and blood,” Lumumba added. “We are deeply proud of our struggle because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to the humiliating bondage forced upon us.”

Patrice Lumumba went on to call for social justice, land benefits, free expression of thought, and eradication all discrimination. The benefits of the Congo’s independence were not local or national; they pertained to the entire continent.

"The Congo’s independence,” Lumumba said, “is a decisive step towards the liberation of the whole African continent.”

Operating under a semi-presidential or dual executive system constitution (Loi Fondiamentale), executive power was shared between the President and Prime Minister. Joseph Kasavubu was named President and Lumumba was named Prime Minister of the Congo. Despite these developments, the Belgians continued to maintain a grip on the political and military affairs of the Congo. Colonial institutions such as the Force Publique continued to reflect the deep divisions in Congolese society. The leadership remained largely white with no change despite the presence of noncommissioned black soldiers.

Its leader Lieutenant General Émile Janssens refused to concede that independence meant any change in the status quo. Black soldiers responded to this state of affairs by rebelling against white officers beginning on July 5, 1960. Janessens appealed to Lumumba to quell the rebellion by calling for Belgian assistance. Instead, Lumumba fired Janessens. He renamed the Force Publique, the Armee Nationale Conglaise. He placed Victor Lundula in charge of the armed force. Joseph Desire Mobutu was named Deputy and Army Chief of Staff. The mutiny intensified and civil unrest was widespread in the Congo.This sparked a series of uprisings in the Congo and developments that resulted in deep divisions between Kasavubu and Lumumba. Kasavubu favored Belgian intervention but Lumumba opposed it on the pretext that it was staging for reasserting control in the country.

The deteriorating situation in the country, regional succession, and Belgian occupation drew the attention of the international community. Convinced the Congo crisis could serve as an example of the importance of the UN as a peacekeeping and stabilizing force, the UN sprang into action. The UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld advocated sending a multinational peacekeeping force to the region under UN control. On July 14th, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 143, which called for the complete withdrawal of Belgian troops and its replacement by a UN force.

Lumumba initially welcomed the United Nations Operations in the Congo. He hoped the force could be utilized to put down the rebellion in the successionist states. Hammarskjöld, however, objected to the use of UN forces to quell an internal rebellion. He felt such action would represent a loss of impartiality and breach of Congolese sovereignty. Lumumba turned to the United States but received no support. He then turned to the Soviet Union. The Soviets sent 1,000 military advisors.Responding to international pressure and Cold War machinations, Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as Prime Minister on Sept 5, 1960. Steps were taken by the American representative to the UN to block communication between Lumumba and the MNC. Kasavubu’s actions were denounced by both Houses of Parliament. Lumumba attempted to dismiss him, but could not obtain adequate support. Under the pretext of settling the situation, Joseph Mobutu staged a bloodless coup and replace Kasavubu and Lumumba with a College of Commissionaires-General led by Justin Bamboko. Mobutu sided with Kasavubu and later reinstated him. Lumumba was placed under house arrest guarded by Ghanaian UN Troops and an outer ring of ANC troops.

Lumumba escaped house arrest and fled to Stanleyville to gather support. He was pursued by Mobutu’s troops. He was captured at Lodi on December 1st and flown to Léopoldville. Meanwhile the UN appealed to Kasavubu for due process. The UN Security Council met to consider a Soviet resolution to secure his immediate release. The preliminary resolution was defeated by 8-2 on December 14, 1960.Lumumba was tortured and transported to Thysville and then Katanga where he was handed over to forces loyal to Tshombe. The assassination was overseen by Belgian Captain Julian Gat and Belgian Police Commissioner Frans Verschurre. Lumumba was shot and throw into a shallow grave. His body was subsequently exhumed and doused in acid to destroy the evidence.

Lumumba’s assassination was decried the world over. Protestors in Belgrade stormed the Belgian embassy. In London, a large group of protestors marched from Trafalgar Square to the Belgian Embassy and presented a letter of protest. One of the most passionate demonstrations occurred at the UN in February 1961. The protest took place before the UN Security Council, during a speech by American Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. It turned violent and spilled into the streets.In death, Patrice Lumumba became a larger than life figure.

A representative of the never-ending struggle for Black self-determination and dignity the world over, Lumumba joined the pantheon of iconic leaders of his age.

As the Civil Rights Movement intensified in the United States and the decolonization continued to transform African and Asian societies, Lumumba’s ideas captivated Black people across the glove. His Pan-Africanism vision, belief in a federal system, control of natural resources and continental unity and liberation found voice in the cries for liberation reverberating across the world. As early as 1966, Lumumba was declared a national hero in the Congo.

In 2002, Belgium officially admitted participating in Lumumba’s assassination and apologized for it. Today, a statue honors him in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is aptly located on Lumumba Boulevard, which serves as a major thoroughfare leading in and out of the city from the airport. In Bamako, Mali, a central square named after him and a statute attest to his influence. Streets are named for him in Gaborone, Botswana; Luska, Zambia; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Accra, Ghana and Algier, Algeria. Similar trends exist in Warsaw, Poland; Donetsk, Ukraine; Leipzig, Germany and in many other cities.In literature and film, Lumumba also looms large. The critically acclaimed film, Lumumba was released in 2000 starring actor Eriq Ebouaney. Aime Cesaire’s “A Season in the Congo”(1968) recently featured on the stage in London at the Young Vic in 2013. Critically acclaimed actor Chiwetel Ejiofor starred as Lumumba. Countless musicians have mentioned Lumumba is their work ranging from Miriam Makemba to Neil Diamond to Nas.

Iconic Black revolutionaries permeate the landscapes of history. Yet none has proven more enduring and powerful than Patrice Lumumba. Throughout his life, Lumumba waged a titanic struggle in his life against the imperialist and Cold War machinations of the Belgian and US governments. His legacy, integrity, and vision has outlived and transcended the limits of his mortal body. His vision continues to inform and inspire the quest for self-determination, freedom, and dignity the world over.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.