Malcolm X called Patrice Lumumba “The greatest black man ever to walk the continent of Africa.” Lumumba was a very principled man – and one who’s still revered 61 years after his murder.
Lumumba was the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He brought people together because he embraced the highest of ideals, but this also made him a tremendous threat to men with nefarious intentions.
Lumumba was a part of the global independence movement after the Second World War. He had a pan-African vision, he saw all people as equal, he believed in international co-operation and recognized that by this means, prosperity of all could be achieved.
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At the Congolese independence ceremony on June 30, 1960, the Belgian king gave a condescending speech that praised the work of his genocidal ancestor Leopold II in the Congo Free State and celebrated the oppressive years of Belgian colonization.
In response, Lumumba gave a controlled yet powerful discourse. He recognized the struggle his people endured for their hard-won independence and called on all citizens to work together to build their new nation. He spoke of how, despite the years of humiliation and exploitation, the Congolese were ready to welcome as equals all who would join them in this effort.
For numerous reasons, chaos erupted in the Congo shortly after independence. Rather than support Lumumba, authorities from Western nations did all they could to undermine his authority. Though the Belgians had succumbed to grant his country political independence, they had no intention of reducing the flow of wealth from the Congo into their coffers.
Lumumba responded to the chaos by calling on powerful countries to live out the ideals they espoused. He asked for the intervention of the United Nations, and a significant international force from several nations, including Canada, came to help restore order.
Intent on building a strong and independent Congo, Lumumba asked for support from several Western nations and even visited Ottawa. All of his requests were rebuffed.
True to his ideal of international collaboration, Lumumba finally asked the Soviet Union for help.
This was too much for the Americans and their allies. They couldn’t lose control of a resource-rich country in the heart of Africa at the height of the Cold War. One of Dwight Eisenhower’s last orders as U.S. president was the death of Lumumba. In January 1961, the Americans, Belgians and their Congolese collaborators captured Lumumba, shot him and then dissolved his body parts in acid.
One of the key conspirators was Joseph Mobutu, who later became Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of the country he renamed Zaire.
What’s not commonly known is Canada’s role in the murder of Lumumba. In his book Canada, The Congo Crisis, and UN Peacekeeping, 1960-64, Kevin A. Spooner states that the commander of Canadian UN forces in the Congo, Jean Berthiaume, “gravely crossed the line of impartiality and neutrality expected of peacekeepers. … Berthiaume admitted to playing a role in Mobutu’s capture of Patrice Lumumba.”
Despite his tragic death, the spirit of Lumumba lives on. I’m still moved when I remember how kind the Congolese were to me when I lived there from 1991 to 1993. Regardless of my struggles with the indigenous language and my unfamiliarity with the culture, they recognized that in my work at a centre for street children, I was trying to work with them to build a better country.
There was never any animosity, despite the horrendous crimes committed in their country by people who looked a lot like me. Like many foreign aid workers, my only regret is I didn’t stay longer.
It is tragic that Lumumba was never given the opportunity to build the Congo he dreamed of. His ideals, however, are timeless and can be embraced by anyone anywhere who believes in human equality and a better world.
Long live Patrice Lumumba.
Roslyn Kunin specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust. For interview requests, click here.
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