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Africa Betrayed

THE ASSASSINATION OF LUMUMBA By Ludo De Witte; Translated from the Dutch by Ann Wright and Renee Fenby; Verso: 224 pp., $27

July 15, 2001|RONAN BENNETT | Ronan Bennett is the author of "The Catastrophist: A Novel."

When the Belgians at last granted their blood-soaked colony of the Congo independence in 1960, politicians spoke fondly of their hopes that the relationship between the old metropolitan power and the new republic would be harmonious and "complementary." Taking up this theme in his speech at the Palais de la Nation in Leopoldville on independence day, June 30, King Baudouin made a crass attempt to recast one of the most ruthless colonial adventures of modern times as an act of selfless generosity. His ancestor, the murderous Leopold II, had come to the Congo, he claimed, "not as a conqueror, but as a civiliser," and Belgium had sent "her finest sons" to bring to this vast benighted territory the benefits of European civilization. Independence was nothing less than the consummation of the "great work" Leopold had undertaken, and the king extended a promise of continuing support. "Don't be afraid to turn to us," he said. "We are ready to remain at hand and help you."

Patrice Lumumba, the newly elected prime minister, was among those assembled in the Palais de la Nation that day. The most radical of the independence leaders, Lumumba harbored no doubts about what the Belgians intended by "help." For those more generously inclined to the colonizers, the subtleties were soon clarified by the reactionary Gen. Emile Janssens, commander-in-chief of the former colonial army, the Force Publique (renamed after independence the Armee National Congolaise). When, a few days later, his men protested the continuation of the entirely white officer corps, blocked promotion opportunities and poor pay, Janssens had them fall in and wrote on a blackboard for their better instruction: "Before Independence = After Independence." Sometimes it takes the particular bluntness of a soldier of the old school to cut through the pious cant of statesmen and diplomats.

The Belgians did not find it easy to come to terms with independence. As the "winds of change" swept through Africa, they continued to insist, as late as 1959, that the Congo would remain a Belgian possession for the foreseeable future. But, faced with growing unrest among the population, a large and rising bill for the colony's maintenance, and fast becoming an international pariah, Brussels suddenly threw its policy into reverse and, on Jan. 27, 1960, capitulated to the independence movement. Lumumba was in jail at the time on charges of inciting pro-independence disturbances, but five months later he was elected prime minister. Little more than six months after that, he was dead, murdered with gruesome relish by the Belgians and their Congolese allies, and the Congo was again being run in the interests of the rich and white.

In "The Assassination of Lumumba," Ludo De Witte places Lumumba's assassination squarely in the context of the West's efforts to frustrate independence. From the start, it was intended that the Congolese were to be only nominally in charge of their country, that the key institutions of government, security and business would continue to be controlled either directly by Belgium or by sympathetic Congolese. Western attention (this was never simply a Belgian affair; the Americans, British and French were involved to greater or lesser degrees) was focused on the southern mineral-rich province of Katanga. Not so much a company town as a company country, Katanga was run by and for big business. Giant corporations such as Union Miniere and the Societe Generale could look forward to profits of billions of dollars from the copper mines, and they were not about to give these up or share them just because "the monkeys" (the colonial insult of choice) were now in power.

Neo-colonialism, however, is not without risks. It depends to a high degree on finding a reliable stooge. In early 1960 the Belgians' best hope lay in Joseph Kasavubu, an indolent, prickly, introverted tribal leader. His vision for the Congo restricted to the reestablishment of the ancient Bakongo kingdom in the southwest corner of the new republic, he was never a serious rival to the charismatic and popular Lumumba.

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