Does Lumumba’s shadow continue to hang over Congo’s relationship with the International Community?

This is a guest blog written by Alanna O’Malley, Assistant Professor of International Studies in Leiden. It is the 4th blog post about the lasting impact of the murder on Patrice Lumumba in 1961. The earlier posts were written by Catharina Wilson, Meike de Goede and Mirjam de Bruijn.

Patrice Lumumba (Collection IISG, CC BY 2.5 Wikimedia Commons)

Patrice Lumumba (Collection IISG, CC BY 2.5 Wikimedia Commons)

Nationalist icon, fervent anti-colonialist and populist demagogue – these are just some of the phrases and titles that have been used to describe the former Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961. The murder of Congo’s first democratically elected leader has recently been styled by Meike De Goede, as ‘an original sin of independent Congo from which people seek redemption ever since.’[1] Quite apart from the impact on the Congolese people and their efforts to martyrize him, Lumumba’s bloody killing has also left a permanent stain on the relationship between the Congo and the United Nations.

Lumumba was dramatically assassinated by Belgian and Katangan authorities in 1961, with the connivance, if not the assistance, of the American, British and French intelligence services. The Western powers had become increasingly alarmed at Lumumba’s perceived radicalism since Congo gained independence on 30 June 1960 and the United States in particular feared the creation of a communist regime under the influence of the Soviet Union, in the heart of Africa.[2] Lumumba’s increasingly belligerent attitude towards the United Nations, whose assistance he had originally sought to protect the sovereignty of the Congo following the breakdown of law and order shortly after independence, served as a justification for a variety of attempts to oust him between September and December 1960. To the Western powers, Lumumba’s public criticism of the UN damaged the prestige of the organization and impacted upon its status as a neutral arbiter. While they negotiated behind the scenes to arrange his demise, they also denounced Lumumba’s perceived leanings towards Moscow and painted him as a volatile and unpredictable leader. What is curious about his death and its impact however, is the ways in which it impacted upon international public opinion, helping to construct the image of Lumumba as a martyr to the Congo.

Dag Hammarskjöld (By Dag_Hammarskjold.jpg: UN/DPIderivative work: Bff - Dag_Hammarskjold.jpg, Wikimedia Commons)

Dag Hammarskjöld (By Dag_Hammarskjold.jpg: UN/DPIderivative work: Bff- Dag_Hammarskjold.jpg, Wikimedia Commons)

The former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld had grown frustrated with Lumumba very quickly since the UN intervention in Congo began in June, branding him “stupid”.[3] However, even before his murder, it became clear that Lumumba already represented in the eyes of the Congolese and other Africans, a standard-bearer for decolonization in Africa. The Afro-Asian bloc, who held a majority in the General Assembly and supplied most of the troops for the UN mission in the Congo (ONUC) were adamant that no solution to the Congo crisis could be found without Lumumba. They continually pressed Hammarskjöld to adopt a more favorable attitude towards him in order to safeguard the future of the Congo and peaceful decolonization across Africa as a whole.[4] News of his death was received in New York with riots and protests, even within the UN where a group of demonstrators, stormed the building. For his part, Hammarskjöld reacted with guilt and remorse, recognizing that the assassination would serve to inflame tensions with the Afro-Asians even further. Other African leaders, most prominent among them the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, denounced the murder and called for a new, all-African UN force to be introduced into the Congo.

The reaction amongst the Western powers was far less jubilant than might have been expected. As depicted on the front cover of Richard Mahoney’s book, JFK, Ordeal in Africa, the newly elected President John F. Kennedy buried his head in his hands upon hearing the news. Indeed, the outpouring of anger and public demonstrations that Lumumba’s assassination inspired from New York to Moscow, indicated that while Lumumba’s removal from office had been long desired by Belgium, Britain and the US, his status as an anti-colonial voice of the people meant that his death would have longer and larger implications than first realized. Despite efforts to demonize him, Lumumba’s populist rhetoric struck a chord with oppressed and subjugated peoples around the world and his assassination served only to elevate that status. Crucially, Kennedy subsequently embarked on a policy of engagement with Third World nationalist leaders throughout his presidency, which was part of the Cold War policies of the State Department to prevent newly-independent countries falling under the spell of socialism. There was also an effort to recognize the legitimacy of African and Asian leaders, and thereby prevent a recurrence of the situation with Lumumba, in which a resort to violence appeared to be the best solution to deal with a seemingly intractable demagogue.

Lumumba-hammarskjold-LA times

25 July 1960: Patrice Lumumba and Dag Hammarskjöld at the UN after they talked for 2,5 hours in preparation of a meeting with Security Council members (AP Wirephoto).

For the Western powers, the assassination of Lumumba and his memory represented the worst-case-scenario of decolonization. His image as a dangerous and volatile nationalist icon even in the aftermath of the murder contrasts very sharply with that of Hammarskjöld who was killed in a plane crash in the Congo eight months later in September 1961[5]. Whereas Lumumba’s behavior was portrayed as exacerbating Congo’s problems and damaging the prestige of the UN, Hammarskjöld was immediately deified as an international saint who had given his life in the pursuit of peace in the Congo. To this day, he is described as a philosophical peacemaker who was the embodiment of the core principles of the UN and the moral compass of the international community. In contrast, among the Western powers, Lumumba’s murder highlighted the perils of an accelerated timetable towards self-determination among colonies, and revealed their willingness to violate sovereignty and international norms in the pursuit of neo-colonial ambitions.

For African and Asian nations, the assassination also represented the stakes of the decolonization project as a whole. Lumumba’s murder represented the extent to which former colonial powers were willing and able to interfere in sovereign countries, when their interests demanded. It reflected two important realities; that sovereignty was not necessarily sacrosanct and that membership in the international community did not mean that they were on equal footing with the Western powers. These were realizations that served to underpin the relationship between the Global North and South to this day and led to a variety of attempts to redress the socio-economic imbalance such as the campaign for the New International Economic Order which began in the 1960s.

Moreover, the assassination, and crucially the responses to it by the UN, the US and the former colonial powers served to burnish their image as neo-colonialists. In many cases this tends to undercut the legitimacy of their efforts in Congo and elsewhere in Africa to create and sustain productive peacebuilding and statebuilding initiatives. Even the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a friend of the West, has denounced the UN role in the Congo, going so far as to argue that the peacekeeping mission MONUSCO currently deployed in the country has “in some cases” made the situation worse.[6] The crisis and the assassination and Western responses to both have fractured the relationship between the Congo and the international community by reinforcing the oppositional nature of their historic relationship.

[1] Meike De Goede, Voice4Thought blog post: Memories of Lumumba: Victimhood and Redemption

[2] Although the direct role of the British and French has not been convincingly proven, it has been argued that they were certainly aware if not involved in plans to remove Lumumba from power. For further, see Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick, Death in the Congo, Murdering Patrice Lumumba (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[3] Kevin C. Dunne, Imagining the Congo (London: Palgrave Macmillan: 2003).

[4] Alanna O’Malley, ‘Ghana, India and the Transnational Dynamics of the Congo crisis at the United Nations, 1960-1,’ The International History Review, 35, 5 (2015).

[5] On 17 March, the African Studies Centre Leiden will organize the seminar ‘The death of a UN Secretary-General: Dag Hammarskjöld and the Congo’. Main speaker Henning Melber (director emeritus and senior advisor of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala) will talk about Hammarskjöld’s approach to the conflict in the Congo and offer an overview of the efforts to establish the circumstances of the plane crash in which Hammarskjöld died.

[6] ‘Rwanda’s Paul Kagame denounces UN force in DR Congo’, BBC News, 20 May 2013,

2 thoughts on “Does Lumumba’s shadow continue to hang over Congo’s relationship with the International Community?

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History – Imperial & Global Forum

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