In Search of Lumumba

Article excerpt

Congo's landscape of forgetting

KINSHASA LIES ON THE flat banks of the River Congo like a dissolute mistress in repose-slow and haggard, but with a dignity and washedout beauty. Most of the city is made up of "le Cite," the huge slum metropolis that makes up almost two-thirds of this city of 7 million. The landscape is an alternately dusty and muddy sprawl of dense shanties that seem to stretch forever. Here, grubby white egrets and lizards-rather than pigeons and rats-dominate the smoldering trash heaps.

However, on the tree-lined boulevards of the crumbling downtown, one feels the essence of modern Congolese history. It's a story of brutally uneven development that, after the optimistic moment of African de-colonization that began with Ghana's independence in 1957 and swept across the continent, leading to Congo's independence three years later, was then arrested and eroded by kleptocracy and war.

Kinshasa's architecture is frozen in the historical amber of that period, when the Central African country won independence from Belgium in i960. It was the time when its first-elected, left-wing Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba governed and provided hope, if nothing else.

Who knows what Lumumba would have become? He leaned toward socialism and, when spurned by the West, turned to the Soviets for military support Some accounts from Western journalists and diplomats portray him as impulsive and erratic. Maybe he would have devolved into corruption and megalomania like so many other leaders who began their public careers close to the people, but then drift away.

As it was, the brave Lumumba, only 36 when he was killed, became a symbol of Pan-Africanism and Third World political hope. He was one of the few Congolese to have studied abroad-a measure of how the Belgians had enforced illiteracy and confusion upon their colonial subjects.

Today, life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is hard: too often marked by starvation, disease, refugees, banditry, war and other unspeakable violence. The last decade of foreign invasions and civil war has killed 4 million people in the Congo, mostly from attendant disease, according to the International Rescue Committee. Congo's crisis finds its ultimate causes in colonialisms deep wounds-the violence of the slave trade and Belgian humiliation and brutality. But it also relates to the overthrow of Lumumba.

A messy start

Post-colonial relations got off to a bad start On June 30, 1960, at Congo's Independence Day celebrations, the Belgian King Baudouin I adopted a condescending and self-congratulatory tone. Enraged, the young, black prime minister, Lumumba, countered with an impromptu speech that disabused the king and other Belgians of any notion that colonial rule had been a beneficent affair.

"We have witnessed," he said, "atrocious sufferings of those condemned for their political opinions or religious beliefs, exiled in their own country, their fate truly worse than death itself?' Lumumba continued: "We have seen that... a black traveled in the holds, at the feet of the whites in their luxury cabins. Who will ever forget the massacres where so many of our brothers perished, the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were thrown?"

The Belgian delegation was horrified. And Belgian business interests were worried they would lose their mines and plantations. A few days later, the Congolese military mutinied, then a Belgian-fomented secession broke out in the mineral-rich southern province of Katanga. Lumumba struggled to regain control, but was deposed and arrested only three months later.

It began messily, as these things always do. President Joseph Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba. But this was not necessarily a legal maneuver, and Lumumba refused to recognize the edict. Then on Sept. 14, Defense Minister Joseph Desire Mobutu Sese Seko, staged a coup d'etat that was backed by the CIA and several European powers. …