The Congo 1960-1964
The assassination of Patrice Lumumba
excerpted from the book
by William Blum
Within days of its independence from Belgium
on 30 June 1960, the land long known as the Belgian Congo, and later as Zaire,
was engulfed in strife and chaos as multiple individuals, tribes, and political
groups struggled for dominance or independence. For the next several years the
world press chronicled the train of Congolese governments, the endless confusion
of personalities and conspiracies, exotic place names like Stanleyville and
Leopoldville, shocking stories of European hostages and white mercenaries, the
brutality and the violence from all quarters with its racist overtones.
Into this disorder the Western powers were
"naturally" drawn, principally Belgium to protect Its vast mineral investments,
and the United States, mindful of the fabulous wealth as well, and obsessed, as
usual, with fighting "communism".
Successive American administrations of
Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, looking through cold-war binoculars perceived
an East-West battleground. The CIA station in the Congo cabled Washington in
August that "Embassy and station believe Congo experiencing classic communist
effort [to] takeover government." CIA Director Allen Dulles warned of a
"communist takeover of the Congo with disastrous consequences ... for the
interests of the free world". At the same time, Dulles authorized a
crash-program fund of up to $100,000 to replace the existing government of
Patrice Lumumba with a "pro-western group''.
Years later, Under Secretary of State C.
Douglas Dillon told a Senate investigating committee (the Church committee) that
the National Security Council and President Eisenhower had believed in 1960 that
Lumumba was a "very difficult if not impossible person to deal with, and was
dangerous to the peace and safety of the world." This statement moved author
Jonathan Kwitny to observe:
"How far beyond the dreams of a barefoot
jungle postal clerk in 1956, that in a few short years he would be dangerous to
the peace and safety of the world! The perception seems insane, particularly
coming from the National Security Council, which really does have the power to
end all human life within hours.
Patrice Lumumba became the Congo's first
prime minister after his party received a plurality of the votes in national
elections. He called for the nation's economic as well as political liberation
and did not shy away from contact with socialist countries. At the Independence
Day ceremonies he probably managed to alienate all the attending foreign
dignitaries with his speech, which read in part:
"Our lot was eighty years of colonial rule
... We have known tiring labor exacted in exchange for salary which did not
allow us to satisfy our hunger ... We have known ironies, insults, blows which
we had to endure morning, noon, and night because we were "Negroes" ... We have
known that the law was never the same depending on whether it concerned a white
or a Negro ... We have known the atrocious sufferings of those banished for
political opinions or religious beliefs ... We have known that there were
magnificent houses for the whites in the cities and tumble-down straw huts for
In 1960, it must be borne in mind, this was
indeed radical and inflammatory language in such a setting.
On 11 July, the province of Katanga-home to
the bulk of the Congo's copper, cobalt, uranium, gold, and other mineral
wealth-announced that it was seceding. Belgium, the principal owner of this
fabulous wealth, never had any intention of giving up real control of the
country, and it now supported the move for Katanga's independence, perceiving
the advantage of having its investments housed in their own little country, not
accountable to nor paying taxes to the central government in Leopoldville.
Katanga, moreover, was led by Moise Tshombe, a man eminently accommodating to,
and respectful of, whites and their investments.
The Eisenhower administration supported the
Belgian military intervention on behalf of Katanga; indeed, the American embassy
had previously requested such intervention. Influencing this policy, in addition
to Washington's ideological aversion to Lumumba, was the fact that a number of
prominent administration officials had financial ties to the Katanga wealth.
The Belgian intervention, which was a very
violent one, was denounced harshly by the Soviet Union, as well as many
countries from the Afro-Asian bloc, leading the UN Security Council on the 14th
to authorize the withdrawal of Belgian troops and their replacement by a United
Nations military force. This was fine with the United States, for the UN under
Dag Hammarskjold was very closely allied to Washington. The UN officials who led
the Congo operation were Americans, in secret collaboration with the State
Department, and in exclusion of the Soviet bloc; the latter's citizens who
worked at the UN Secretariat were kept from seeing the Congo cables.
Hammarskjold himself was quite hostile toward Lumumba.
The UN force entered Katanga province and
replaced the Belgian troops, but made no effort to end the secession. Unable to
put down this uprising on his own, as well as one in another province, Lumumba
had appealed to the United Nations as well as the United States to supply him
with transport for his troops. When they both refused, he turned to the Soviet
Union for aid, and received it, though military success still eluded him.
The Congo was in turmoil in many places. In
the midst of it, on 5 September, president Joseph Kasavubu suddenly dismissed
Lumumba as prime minister-a step of very debatable legality, taken with much
American encouragement and assistance, as Kasavubu "sat at the feet of the CIA
men". The action was taken, said the Church committee later, "despite the strong
support for Lumumba in the Congolese Parliament.
During the early 1960s, according to a highly-placed CIA executive, the Agency
"regularly bought and sold Congolese politicians''. US diplomatic sources
subsequently confirmed that Kasavubu was amongst the recipients.
Hammarskjold publicly endorsed the dismissal
before the Security Council, and when Lumumba tried to broadcast his case to the
Congolese people, UN forces closed the radio station. Instead, he appeared
before the legislature, and by dint of his formidable powers of speech, both
houses of Parliament voted to reaffirm him as prime minister. But he could taste
the fruits of his victory for only a few days, for on the 14th, army strongman
Joseph Mobutu took power in a military coup.
Even during this period, with Lumumba not
really in power, "CIA and high Administration officials continued to view him as
a threat" ... his "talents and dynamism appear [to be the] overriding factor in
reestablishing his position each time it seems half lost" ... "Lumumba was a
spellbinding orator with the ability to stir masses of people to action" ... "if
he ... started to talk to a battalion of the Congolese Army he probably would
have had them in the palm of his hand in five minutes".
In late September, the CIA sent one of its
scientists, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, to the Congo carrying "lethal biological
material" (a virus) specifically intended for use in Lumumba's assassination.
The virus, which was supposed to produce a fatal disease indigenous to the Congo
area of Africa, was transported via diplomatic pouch.
In 1975, the Church committee went on record
with the conclusion that Allen Dulles had ordered Lumumba's assassination as "an
urgent and prime objective" (Dulles's words). After hearing the testimony of
several officials who believed that the order to kill the African leader had
emanated originally from President Eisenhower, the committee decided that there
was a "reasonable inference" that this was indeed the case.
As matters evolved in the Congo, the virus
was never used, for the ClA's Congo station was unable to come up with "a secure
enough agent with the right access" to Lumumba before the potency of the
biological material was no longer reliable.
The Church committee observed, however, that
the CIA station in Leopoldville continued to maintain close contact with
Congolese who expressed a desire to assassinate Lumumba. CIA officers encouraged
and offered to aid these Congolese in their efforts against Lumumba, although
there is no evidence that aid was ever provided for the specific purpose of
Fearing for his life, Lumumba was on the run.
For a while he was protected from Mobutu by the United Nations, which, under
considerable international pressure, had been forced to put some distance
between itself and Washington. But on 1 December, Lumumba was taken into custody
by Mobutu's troops. A 28 November CIA cable indicates that the Agency was
involved in tracking down the charismatic Congo leader. The cable spoke of the
CIA station working with the Congolese government to get the roads blocked and
troops alerted to close a possible escape route of Lumumba's.
The United States had also been involved in
the takeover of government by Mobutu-
whom author and CIA-confidant Andrew Tully described as having been "discovered
by the CIA." Mobutu detained Lumumba until 17 January 1961 when he transferred
his prisoner into the hands of Moise Tshombe of Katanga province, Lumumba's
bitter enemy. Lumumba was assassinated the same day.
The government was now headed by none other
than Moise Tshombe, a man called "Africa's most unpopular African" for his
widely-recognized role in the murder of the popular Lumumba and for his use of
white mercenaries, many of them South Africans and Rhodesians, during his
secession attempt in Katanga. Tshombe defended the latter action by explaining
that his troops would not fight without white officers.
Tshombe once again called upon his white
mercenary army, numbering 400 to 500 men, and the CIA called upon its own
mercenaries as well, a band which included Americans, Cuban-exile veterans of
the Bay of Pigs, Rhodesians, and South Africans, the latter having been
recruited with the help of the South African government. "Bringing in our own
animals" was the way one CIA operative described the operation.
The concluding tune for the musical chairs
was played in November, when Joseph Mobutu overthrew Tshombe and Kasavubu.
Mobutu, later to adopt the name Mobutu Sese Seko, has ruled with a heavy
dictatorial hand ever since.
In the final analysis, it mattered precious
little to the interests of the US government whether the forces it had helped
defeat were really "communist" or not, by whatever definition. The working
premise was that there was now fixed in power, over a more-or-less unified
Congo, a man who would be more co-operative with the CIA in its African
adventures and with Western capital, and less accessible to the socialist bloc,
than the likes of Lumumba, ... et al. would have been. The CIA has chalked this
one up as a victory.
What the people of the Congo (now Zaire) won
is not clear. Under Mobutu, terror and repression became facts of daily life,
civil liberties and other human rights were markedly absent. The country remains
one of the poorest to be found anywhere despite its vast natural riches. Mobutu,
however, is reputed to be one of the richest heads of state in the world.
William Atwood, US Ambassador to Kenya in
1964-65, who played a part in the hostage negotiations, also saw the US role in
the Congo in a positive light. Bemoaning African suspicions toward American
motives there, he wrote: "It was hard to convince people that we had provided
the Congo with $420 million in aid since independence just to prevent chaos;
they couldn't believe any country could be that altruistic."
Atwood's comment is easier to understand when
one realizes that the word 'chaos" has long been used by American officials to
refer to a situation over which the United States has insufficient control to
assure that someone distinctly pro-Western will remain in, or come to, power.