This is a guest blog written by Meike de Goede, lecturer at Leiden University.
On Victimhood and Redemption – Lumumba and historic imagery in the Congo
In her recent blogpost ‘Legendary Words’, Mirjam de Bruijn asks the important question what today’s critical voices in Africa do with the words of people like Lumumba, Sankara and Fanon, inspirational heroes and activists of a past generation. When I lived in Kinshasa, I learned from young people, ngo workers, political activists, but also members of the political elites, police and army, and business elites that Lumumba is indeed an important symbol that practically all Congolese people carry in their hearts and minds. But it is not his words that have made such a lasting impression. In a recent article I argued that, instead, it is his death and the meaning of his death in Congolese history that carries the symbolic value. His death that has become almost like an original sin of independent Congo and from which people seek redemption ever since.
The symbolism of the tragedy of Lumumba is deeply Christian. In Congolese visual art he is often portrayed with the three crosses of Golgotha on the background. He died to save the people of the Congo. The fact that there are no physical remains of his body thus adds to the symbolic value of Lumumba as messiah. In the eyes of many Congolese, former colonial power Belgium and its American allies killed Lumumba because they did not want Congo to be truly free. Lumumba was claiming that true freedom when he uttered that impromptu speech on Independence Day and thus had to die.
For the people of Congo today, what happened to Lumumba remains an important lesson about how the world works. And people are constantly reminded that this remains to be so. The fight for true freedom, for redemption from this original sin, remains the political struggle for the Congolese for a genuine independence. The perpetual misery that the country has known since its independence is framed in this meta narrative of perpetual victimhood of foreign domination. According to this view on history, Mobutu was a pawn of Western powers, Rwandese intervention in 1996 was instrumentalized by Western powers through its pawn Rwanda, and the perpetual conflict ever since is only the latest in a series of strategies to prevent Congo from being truly sovereign and for the people to profit from the country’s wealth. Lumumba thus represents the perpetual relations of domination and subordination between the powerful western world and Africa, and the almost impossible quest for redemption.
Identifying with Lumumba the saviour of the dignity and freedom of the Congo is therefore almost a necessary discourse for anybody that advocates real change in this troubled country. When Laurent-Désiré Kabila (a self-proclaimed Lumumbist freedom fighter) was shot dead, a popular comment was that he was ‘shot by his body guard, remote controlled by the West’. Laurent-Désiré Kabila was very unpopular with Western powers, and claimed that his toppling of Mobutu was the completion of the struggle for independence. A few years later he was dead, in the eyes of many Congolese, it was history repeating itself.
Besides the power of the words that Lumumba spoke, the imagery of Lumumba is a truly powerful narrative of perpetual victimhood that frames people’s understanding of their relations with the rest of the world and with the whole industry of development aid and peacebuilding that has swarmed the country in recent decades.
Paradoxically, the imagery of Lumumba simultaneously claims and denies agency. People find inspiration to claim true freedom and dignity, and to break the dark cloud of victimhood that hangs over Congo ever since the death of Lumumba, to fight for redemption. This is a truly effective populist political discourse that any aspiring political leader will draw on. On the other hand, it is a narrative that essentially emphasises the lack of agency to determine one’s own destiny and the inability to ever escape the perpetual misery of an all-powerful west that continues to dominate Congo using whatever means necessary. It is a narrative of victimhood, a promise of heroic victimhood that succeeds in redeeming Congolese people, and a warning of tragic victimhood that can essentially never escape victimhood. As such it has become a paradoxical narrative that enables current President Kabila to argue that he is fighting to reclaim Congolese dignity, while people simultaneously know that he can actually not achieve this, or he will pay for it with his life. Even opposition members told me that they understood that President Kabila has his hands tied – ‘look what happened to his father’.
The tragedy of Lumumba has thus become the tragedy of the country and its people as a whole – captured in a ruthless game of power and money in which they are only objects. They cannot control their destiny, claim and exercise their sovereignty. Herein lies the true tragedy of the history of Lumumba for Congo today – the narrative perpetuates a position of victimhood and make people believe they lack agency, to take control over their lives and make the changes they so desperately need and deserve. The events with Lumumba have left the Congolese with a fundamental distrust with the rest of the world. A meta narrative that is so strong, and that people see constantly repeated throughout the course of history, that people have lost the confidence that they can escape from it, trusting neither western donors nor Congolese political elites. But it is also a narrative that continues to call for redemption and that gives people hope when redemption seems possible. It is at such moments that Lumumba becomes an inspiration for political action. Congo is at a crossroads, again. Will people use the imagery of Lumumba to strive for redemption, to escape from perpetual subjection to bad-governance and to claim the agency to establish democracy, good governance and the true, genuine freedom that Lumumba represents?