Memories of Lumumba: Victimhood and Redemption

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

fig67_webTshibumba Kanda Matulu, Democratic Republic of the CongoThe Historic Death of Lumumba, Mpolo and Okito, on January 1961, not dated

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?

Legendary words


Institut Français Tchad, hip-hop art, home for Voices. 2015. Photo: Mirjam de Bruijn

This winter holiday I watched movies about Congolese freedom fighter and first prime minister at Independence, Patrice Lumumba. He is one of the heroes of my friends in N’Djamena, Chad. In these documentaries, Lumumba is presented as educated, integer, socially minded, a little authoritarian, intelligent, and moving toward change, but foremost as a leader in qualm, as if he did not want to become that leader. The time of Lumumba is a time full of controversies, oppositions, and hope. It is a period in which Africa’s new leaders fight for liberation, to gain real independence, to leave the yoke of colonialism. Lumumba’s words of his unplanned speech at Independence Day formed prose that was listened to by all the people of Congo and beyond:

Excerpt from the speech held on 30 June, 1960, Independence Day of Congo

(…) For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood.

We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.

This was our fate for eighty years of a colonial regime; our wounds are too fresh and too painful still for us to drive them from our memory.

Who will ever forget the shootings which killed so many of our brothers, or the cells into which were mercilessly thrown those who no longer wished to submit to the regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation used by the colonialists as a tool of their domination?

All that, my brothers, brought us untold suffering. (…) Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.

 We shall stop the persecution of free thought. We shall see to it that all citizens enjoy to the fullest extent the basic freedoms provided for by the Declaration of Human Rights.

 We shall institute in the country a peace resting not on guns and bayonets but on concord and goodwill.

Lumumba was killed a few months after he gave this speech, by those internationals who depicted him as communist, and by those nationals who did not want him in power. Justice was not their main wish.

Words of a hero live in the present
The words of Lumumba never left and they do still inspire young people in Africa: young men and women who are fighting for a similar cause, because the optimistic words ending the speech of Lumumba have not become reality up till now. And many of the sufferings Lumumba enumerated in his speech are lived today.


Films keep Lumumba’s words alive

His words are captured in mobile telephones as a ringtone, as I discovered during a voyage in Northern Congo in June 2014, when a young man’s phone spoke Lumumba’s 1960 words (he transferred the mp3 file into my phone). Later I came to understand that these words are listened and referred to by young men and women throughout West and Central Africa, who are fighting for recognition of today’s injustices. For them Lumumba is a hero who at least tried to bring real liberty. But they all feel that that time has not come.

Today’s powerful words
Would it be exaggerating to say that we live again in a period of intense oppositions and injustice? That we enter a new epoch in which development aid comes to an end, in which protest is taking over, be it in severe violent actions, or in popular movements in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Congo, Chad? That this will be a period of insecurity, of new élan, in which new leadership is called for!

Words have power. They make us remember and they encourage actions. Words are very present in the ‘revolutions’ or ‘social movements’ that are spreading through Africa today. Is it not a coincidence that words of songs are central in recent uprisings: ‘Y’en a Marre’ in Senegal, a coalition of rappers and journalists, or rapper Smockey who led with other rappers the movement ‘Balai Citoyen’ in Burkina Faso and all the other hip-hop artists who revive the origins of this protest art (rap and hip-hop), sing about injustice and want to raise awareness? Urban protest art has gained importance in Africa over the past decades. This is not only a consequence of increasing possibilities offered by new technology, but certainly also because there is a serious need for such voices! Slam and spoken word meet increasingly in African festivals. The words carry a message and explain the reasons to protest. Words are non-violent protest.

Words are the future history
Can words carry a revolution? Words are no longer only broadcast by the radio, as was the case in the time of Lumumba, but they are, accompanied by pictures, videos, etc. disseminated by Facebook, social media, text-messages, Bluetooth, whatsapp, etc. They are picked up by international organizations who spread the words into the ether. Words are reaching out to so many people today. Also ‘old’ words appear to be new and forceful in today’s struggles.

The new word-jugglers will never say they follow in the footsteps of their heroes. For them heroes are sacred, untouchable and hence should not be mimicked. But who knows what their words will bring? Who knows what heroes they will be? We will see which of the words of these new leaders will finally end up in the history books and will be labelled memorable by the historians of today’s Africa.