By J L Samboma
A documentary film on the death of Patrice Lumumba was screened at London’s Human Rights Action Centre Saturday 21 January to mark the 51st anniversary of the slaying of the Congo’s first post-colonial leader. The event was organised by the Save the Congo group and was well-attended.
Arguably the most important political assassination of the twentieth century, the Pan-Africanist leader was killed on January 1961 in a plot involving the USA, Belgium – the former colonial overlord in the Congo, the United Nations and local, African pawns such as Colonel Joseph Mobutu. According to Vava Tampa of the Save the Congo group, the consequences of that plot haunt the country to this day.
Death has the face of a Giant
Addressing the audience before lights-out, Tampa said: “In January 1961 the first democratically elected leader in Africa was assassinated, murdered. Congo was re-appropriated by the colonial power after just six months of independence. Those events continue to haunt us more than half a century later.”
“Lumumba: Death of a Prophet” was originally released in 1992 by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck and is a retelling of the events leading up to Lumumba’s brutal murder. It is interspersed with biographical sketches of Peck, whose parents were civil servants in the country at the time. The film is in French with English subtitles. (Peck followed this up in 2000 with his acclaimed big-screen biopic “Lumumba.”)
The filmmaker’s passion for his subject shines through the project, such as when the poet in him tells us that “in Katanga death has the face of a giant,” or when he complains about how expensive it was to acquire newsreel footage for the film – at US $3,000 per minute for a country where, he tells us, people earn a meagre $150 per year. Memories of a murder are very expensive, we are told.
The UN left him to his fate
During the film, which is about an hour long, we learn of the hope which Lumumba and the former Belgian Congo represented in a continent where only sixteen countries had gained their independence. The Belgians, especially King Baudouin, were beside themselves when Lumumba’s party won the elections which paved the way to his becoming the new nation’s first legally elected leader in June 1960.
The general outline of the succeeding events is well known: The Belgians and the Americans were implacably opposed to Lumumba’s fiercely nationalist positions and wanted him removed at any cost. They delivered the coup de grace in January the following year when Colonel Mobutu ordered Lumumba’s arrest. He was then handed over to Belgian-backed secessionist leader Moise Tshombe in Katanga province. This was the endgame, the culmination of months of political unrest and destabilisation by Belgian and French mercenaries and CIA operatives.
Peck highlights the double irony of Lumumba’s situation. The man he had trusted to be his protector – Joseph Desire Mobutu, later Sese Seko – became the scoundrel who ordered his arrest and delivery to his executioners. The United Nations, upon whom he had called to send “peacekeepers,” stood by and left him to his fate. He was murdered (along with two of his comrades - Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito) on 17 January. He was then dismembered. The body parts were dissolved in acid.
Several contemporary Belgian officials are interviewed in the film, as is Julianna Lumumba, who said that her father knew he would eventually be killed and discussed it on occasion with those close to him. Of Belgium’s and the Americans’ sleight of hand in the matter of Congolese self–determination, she rightly says, “They gave us independence with their right hand and took it away with the left."
Gaddafi also murdered by the West
This is a serious and sombre film. I found myself smiling and shaking my head at one point. It was when a man called Serge Michel, who is introduced as a “retired anarchist,” talks about the time Mobutu mounted his first (failed) coup: Lumumba and his aides were working late. Mobutu, one of their number, was drunk and had retired to an adjacent room. Moments later he reappeared and shouted for his soldiers, who he then ordered to arrest the prime minister.
Lumumba smiled, Michel said, and calmly told his drunken army commander to go back to bed. The man who would be president and Western puppet then went back to bed.
The film has aged well and is worth watching. If anything, it reminds us that not much has changed in the half-century since the political earthquake that was Patrice Lumumba’s assassination. He was killed because he dared to chart an independent course for his mineral-rich nation – a course which went contrary to the designs of the Western powers. Yesterday Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi was murdered by the West for similar reasons. When will it end?