France’s ambassador in Léopoldville maintained a certain bemused distance when Belgian King Baudouin handed over power to Lumumba at a solemn ceremony on 30 June 1960.
Baudouin’s speech was “the polar opposite of self-criticism”, ambassador Pierre-Albert Charpentier commented in a cable to the French foreign affairs ministry.
The king lauded the “genius of King Léopold II”, whose rule of the colony had achieved such international notoriety that it had been satirised in a pamphlet by American author Mark Twain, he reported.
Lumumba, on the other hand, delivered a “violent diatribe against the regime of exploiters, executioners and colonialists” and the “humiliating slavery that was forced upon us”, addressing the Congolese people and not the king, who, visibly embarrassed, “talked to his neighbours”.
Admiration for Lumumba
In other cables Charpentier expressed his admiration for the 35-year-old former leader of the independence struggle, whom he described as “skilful, agressive and courageous”, very different from the “bland politicians around him”.
Lumumba personified the Congolese nation, he commented, unlike the “uncouth clan chiefs” bogged down in their “self-interest [and] their traditional hatreds”.
But the ambassador also warned that Lumumba could become “the strong man of Congo within a few months”, which he judged to be both good and bad news – on the one hand he had the qualities of a statesman but on the other it was “worrying when one thinks of his admiration for [Kwame] Nkrumah and [Gamal Abdel] Nasser”.
The Ghanaian and Egyptian leaders had aroused the hostility of the Western powers, the former due to his panafricanism, which led him to support Marxist Guinean leader Sékou Touré, the latter by his leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and the 1956 nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which sparked an armed attack by France, Britain and Israel.
Fear of Soviet influence
Against a background of Cold War and anti-colonial struggles, other Western diplomats were far more hostile than Charpentier, notably his American counterpart, Clare Timberlake, who, he reported, considered Lumumba a “madman” and feared he would ally his country to the Soviet bloc.
Belgium, above all, had difficulty letting go of its former colony, while Lumumba had every intention of forcing it to do so.
He did not like the flag it proposed for the newborn nation, objecting to a star that was supposed to represent Western enlightenment, appealed to the Vatican to replace Belgian missionaries with French ones and called for a directly elected head of state, which Brussels suspected was an attempt to take over the presidency as well as the premiership.
France’s ambassador to Belgium, Raymond Bousquet, shared his hosts’ concern, accusing Lumumba of “authoritarian tendencies” and a “preference for totalitarian methods”.
If Lumumba were to take control of the military, at the time headed by a Belgian general and staffed by Belgian officers, he could proceed to the “liquidation of the opposition”, Bousquet claimed.
Although France was fighting its own colonial war in Algeria at the time, Charpentier, for his part, found the Belgian policy “disappointing”.
“They are not liked and the Flemish are hated,” he reported. “But they act as if they still have control.”
A foreign affairs ministry document criticised the “incredibly narrow-minded” attitude of the military command, as well as the “ultra-strict paternalist regime” that had preceded independence and failed to develop “native elites”.
A “generalised mutiny” was leading to “anarchy”, the ministry warned, without pointing to the Belgian officers’ role in fomenting it.
As Europeans fled to Congo Brazzavile and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Timberlake advised Lumumba and president Joseph Kasa-Vubu to appeal to the United Nations for help, which would have the advantage of replacing the Belgian soldiers with blue helmets.
Timberlake also asked France to send troops, a request that Paris chose not to comply with.
French mercenaries were, however, involved in Moise Tshombe’s secessionist rebellion in the mineral-rich province of Katanga, as were Belgian officers.
The French feared that the conflict could push the “unitarists” into the camp of the Soviets and the “Afro-Asiatic bloc”, in other words the Non-Aligned Movement.
The latter feared that the racist governments of Rhodesia and South Africa “rob black Africa of one of is territories”, which would be “catastrophic for the future of Africa and must avoided at all cost”, a ministry document said.
When the US refused to help him, Lumumba did indeed turn to the Soviet Union, which responded by sending military aid and technical advisers.
Belgium, which had invoked the Soviet threat even before independence, used it again to justify sending reinforcements as the crisis deepened, supposedly to protect Europeans although most went to Katanga, where the Belgian mining consortium still had interests.
It also placed advisers in Congolese ministries, notably at foreign affairs, to “counter the manoeuvres coming from the east”, according to Bousquet.
Timberlake was convinced of the red peril, too.
“The US ambassador has only one idea in his head, to find the insidious influence of Cuba and the Soviets everywhere,” France’s Charpentier commented.
Mobutu’s coup, Lumumba’s murder
After a military reorganisation in August 1960, Timberlake was afraid that it was controlled less by Lumumba than his “communist entourage” and, when army chief of staff Joseph Mobutu joined Kasa-Vubu to stage a coup against the prime minister, visited the president to make sure he would never be reconciled with the prime minister.
The coup led to Lumumba fleeing to his province of origin, where he set up his own government but was eventually captured by Mobutu’s troops and taken back to Léopoldville.
There he was beaten up by soldiers several times before being transferred to Katanga, where, on 17 January 1961, he and two of his ministers, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, were taken to an isolated spot and shot by firing squads commanded by a Belgian officer.
How complicit were the Western powers in the murder of Congo’s independence leader and first democratically elected prime minister?
Before his death many Western diplomats considered his presence in Léopoldville was an obstacle to the solution of the Congolese crisis.
Jean Sauvagnagues, who was France’s ambassador in Ethiopia in 1956-60 and would become foreign affairs minister under president Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, declared that Lumumba’s “elimination” was “in itself desirable” on 3 October 1960, without specifying whether the elimination would be physical or just political.
He added, however, that the West should exercise “extreme reserve”.
Two days later Belgian African affairs minister Count Harold d’Aspremont Lynden called for his “definitive elimination” and, once he was arrested, insisted that he be transferred to Katanga.
On 3 October, unaware that he was already dead, Charpentier told the ministry, “We could very quickly be faced with the return of M Lumumba.”
After the news finally broke, France’s consul in Katanga, Marcel Thibault, struck a laconic note.
“Among foreigners, Belgians and others, few regrets about the death of this character but concern as to the consequences of the publicity around this event,” he reported on 16 February. “Among the Katangans, it ranges from total indifference to vocal joy via relief.”
Although we know today that Tshombe visited the prisoner and witnessed him being beaten, Thibault declared it “in no way established that the government or Tshombe, who is not at all bloodthirsty, triggered the operation”.
As for the Belgians, “There can be no doubt for anyone with the least honesty or common sense that they have nothing to do with either Lumumba’s transfer [to Katanga] or his death.”
In 2002 Belgium presented its apologies to the Congolese people for its role in Lumumba’s assassination and expressed its “deep and sincere regret”.
In 2013 the US State Department admitted that President Dwight Eisenhower had authorised Lumumba’s murder but said the plan was not carried out.
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