In January 1961, Patrice Lumumba, the post-colonial African leader who believed in a “Congo united in a united Africa,” was assassinated.
Belgium, the former colonial power, had “inherited” this huge country of more than 2.5 million square kilometers from the bloody hands of King Leopold II, who had claimed Congo as his own private property during the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 in which Europeans divided Africa.
By the mid-20th century, the Belgian Kingdom began to provide a kind of independence to an elite few it deemed “civilized,” granting this status to a couple thousand Congolese. But the long wave of decolonization and liberation movements swept across Africa, and by June 1960, King Baudouin was forced to declare independence for Congo.
The young Lumumba, then secretary general of the Congolese National Movement, won the first free and democratic elections and became head of government. His first political policy was to adhere the Republic of the Congo to the “non-aligned” movement, thus establishing the nation’s unwillingness to be part of the Cold War bipolarization imposed on every new state.
His speech on the “symbolic decolonization,” mediated by the theories of philosopher Frantz Fanon, remains one of the cornerstones of Pan-Africanism of the last century. Lumumba’s positions were already sufficient motivation for the West to trigger the terrible civil war after a few months of the prime minister’s term. First was the secession of Katanga, the mining region in the south of the country, followed by rebellion in Kivu, on the border with Rwanda and Burundi.
The Katangese rebels, supported by the secret services of the United States and Belgium, after months of ferocious attacks across the country and in the capital Kinshasa, kidnapped Lumumba, whisked him to the south and killed him. Later, his body was exhumed, dismembered and dissolved in acid.
But his political story, before its tragic epilogue, assumed an international dimension. As head of a legitimate government, in fact, Lumumba was the first leader in African history to call the United Nations to his aid to try to resolve the conflict according to the new post-war international rules.
U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold decided to intervene personally in the Congolese civil war because he understood the stakes. The Congo Crisis was the first real test for a U.N. system seeking to exercise its role as “world government.” In September 1961, he boarded a plane to the Congo to direct the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission, but the plane crashed, killing everyone on board. Theories abound that the crash was not an accident, including that the CIA sabotaged the aircraft. After Hammarskjold’s death, the U.N. withdrew and the power of the multilateral body was weakened.
After a few months of civil war (which included the participation of Che Guevara), Lumumba was killed and therefore also the danger of an un-aligned Congo or, worse, a Congo in the hands of the Soviets.
A Lumumba lieutenant named Joseph Desiré Mobutu, who had aided Belgian-American spies against his boss, was appointed head of state, inaugurating a kleptocratic dictatorship. When the single-party government of “Zaire” died with Mobutu 30 years later, the country was impoverished and fragile in every way.
The “garden” of Leopold II
Since the days of Lumumba and even before Congo was Leopold II’s personal garden, this land was earmarked as a “geographical expanse” at the disposal of Western interests, without regard to the views of its rightful inhabitants.
At the time of Leopold II, the “civilizing mission” included trade in ivory, gold and precious wood, as Joseph Conrad recounts in his novel Heart of Darkness. In World War II, however, the West identified something even more important — the mines of Katanga supplied the uranium inside the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Later, during Mobutu’s long dictatorship, it was essential for Western companies to maintain access to Congo’s huge amounts of copper, diamonds and, more recently, coltan.
Even Mobutu’s successor, former Lumumba supporter Laurent-Desiré Kabila, clear of American influence after the death of the old dictator and supported by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, could not overcome industrial forces. When he tried to review mining contracts, inspired by his socialist vision, he was murdered by a child soldier in his security detail and his more malleable son rose to power.
The open veins of Africa
Lately, the confused geopolitical management of ongoing civil war in the east of the country is a legacy of that first war waged against Lumumba by Western interests. It completes the picture of the enslavement of this land to the interests of Western, Chinese and Indian “vacuum pumps” that continue to suck blood from Congo’s veins while the country and the Congolese die, from hunger, war and AIDS. Humanitarian organizations estimate that there are about 4 million internal refugees and 1 million victims of the civil war.
If Foucault were alive he would certainly find an example of his definition of biopolitics and the sovereign power, exercising its right “to make live and let die.”
From this perspective, Lumumba’s assassination is only a symbol, a paradigmatic image that embodies all the other murders, past and ongoing, perpetrated on the living body of this beautiful, terrible land. And yet, the power of life still flows in the battered body of Congo. Even though Africa seems overwhelmed by death and exploitation, the proud gaze of Lumumba in his final photograph still peers far beyond the heart the darkness.