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Zeilig, Leo & Witte, Ludo de  (2007) Anti-imperialism and resistance in the Congo. Centre for Civil Society : -.

Congo’s elections at the end of last year have thrust the country back onto our television screens. Kinshasa, the capital, was a strangely familiar place during the election. Streets vibrated to the sound of UN tanks patrolling the city and for many there was more than a slight whiff of 1960, the year of the country’s independence. Within weeks of independence in 1960 the country’s young Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba requested the UN’s help against the mineral rich region of Katanga that had broken away with the support of the country’s ex-colonial power, Belgium. Instead of assisting the Congo the UN placed Lumumba under house arrest and closed the radio station, his one means of communicating with his supporters. The ‘Congo Crisis’ - as it was known at the time – was described in racist terms as the logical outcome of independence in the ‘heart of darkness’. Today the same language is used to describe the Congo, which we are told has been delivered to freedom by the benevolence of the west. But the pillage of the country’s resources continues unabated. Still there is another story of radical resistance symbolised by Congo’s first leader.

Patrice Emery Lumumba (1925-1961) is perhaps the most famous leader of African independence. After his murder in 1961 he became an icon of anti-imperialist struggle. His picture was brandished on demonstrations across the world in the 1960s along with Che Guevara. In many ways Lumumba’s life marked out some of the key fault lines in the second half of the 20th century; how the cold war would be fought in Africa and the nature of the independence granted to huge swaths of the globe after 1945. For those fighting in liberations struggles, Lumumba became a figure of resistance to the imperial division of the world. His refusal to compromise with imperialism means he is still an important figure today.
Patrice Lumumba was a member of the évolué (literally ‘evolved’), those Congolese hand-chosen by the colonial state to help run local administration. He was, however, an unruly subject and underwent a fascinating transformation in the 1950s. From praising the Belgium’s ‘civilising mission’ in the Congo to advocating for a radical nationalism, which would give the Congolese real independence. But Lumumba’s life symbolised many of the paradoxes of independence, while he sought meaningful independence it was never considered an option by the West. Within days of gaining independence on the 30 June 1960 it was snatched away, unravelling in the extraordinarily short period of his premiership. Days after independence the mineral rich region of Katanga seceded, with the help of Belgian forces and a short time after this the province of Kasai also broke away. Lumumba turned to the United Nations, who undertook one of their first ‘peace keeping missions’ explicitly instructed to rid the Congo of Belgian troops and resist Katangan secession. Instead the UN kept Lumumba confined to his house, faithfully carrying out the orders of the west. In September Congolese President Joseph Kasavubu attempted to remove him, and in mid-September under instructions from the Americans Joseph Mobutu took power in a military coup. Within seven months of coming to power Lumumba had been killed, and with him Congolese independence snuffed out.

For years the circumstances of Lumumba’s assassination were surrounded by intrigue. When Ludo de Witte’s The Assassination of Lumumba was published in 1999, it led to an enquiry into the involvement of the Belgian state in the murder. De Witte’s book detailed how the Belgian ruling class refused to let the vast supplies of gold, copper, diamonds and uranium fall into African hands. The book described how Lumumba’s premiership in 1960 was the first attempt to rest independence from external powers. Instead a civil war was fermented and Lumumba assassinated. This ensured the continuity of external rule. Lumumba was an obstacle to the continued control of the Congo. But as Ludo de Witte explains in the following interview Lumumba’s life is not only the principled stand of an individual (as it is frequently told) but of the radicalisation of Congolese society and a mass movement that attempted to raise itself in defence of independence and it’s leader.

LZ: You describe the life of Patrice Lumumba as a story of the transition from nationalist to revolutionary. Can you elaborate a little bit on this evolution? When did it take place?

Ludo de Witte: I think Lumumba was a revolutionary, in the sense that he had a nationalist, anti-colonialist programme. Which in itself wasn’t revolutionary, but he wanted to put it in practice, completely, one hundred per cent. And in that he provoked a kind of a revolutionary dynamic in society, in which he answered positively. At each stage of the Congo Crisis - which in essence was a kind of a rebellion of the Congolese masses against attempts by the Belgians and their allies to impose neo-colonialist domination - the masses rebelled and he took the side of them. By doing that he pushed them to go forward, for example, when you got the decision by the reactionary officer corps of the Congolese army a few days after independence not to Africanise the army and so keep intact the colonialist grip …. Lumumba said, the rebellion of the Congolese soldiers, is not really a mutiny, it’s a kind of strike. It’s a social movement. He said: ‘We have to answer to the just claims of the soldiers’ and at that point he acted in a revolutionary way, in the sense that he gave room to the movement itself.

I think the real value of Lumumba was in giving political space to those Congolese masses who had no opportunity whatsoever to organise themselves during the colonial period. Very significantly, during the mutiny of the army immediately after independence [the mutiny started on the 5th of July, less than a week after the official Independence Day ceremony] there was a debate inside the government …on the one side those who said ‘lets appoint the officers from the top’ …that was the position of Mobutu, for example. But Lumumba said: ‘no, no the soldiers themselves have to elect their own officers’.

Once it became clear that the UN took sides with the Belgians, the Americans, and Moise Tshombe [who led the secession of Katanga], and protected the succession of Katanga, which provoked the demise of the Congolese government as all the resources came from the province, Lumumba tried to mobilise his forces. He held mass rallies of tens of thousands of people, in which he tried to explain to them that they had to mobilise themselves, against that neo-colonial control of Katanga. I think that is the essence … [he] opened space for the Congolese population, and at the same time stuck to the fundamental elements of independence: real political and economic independence. That makes him someone who put into motion a revolutionary process.

LZ: How important would you say were the political riots in January 1959 in Leopoldville [the name of the capital of colonial Congo] in creating both a momentum for the Belgians to withdraw and also a radicalisation of the nationalist movement more generally?

Ludo de Witte: The rebellion of 1959 is important in a three-fold way. First you got repression, which provoked a radicalisation inside the Congolese population of the capital and afterwards people started to organise the resistance against the colonial occupation.

Secondly this movement was the first since the Second World War, when a few hundred workers from the Union Minière were shot by the police and a mutiny inside the army was brutally repressed and more than one hundred Congolese soldiers executed by the colonial administration. After this repression there was no real mass movement for the next 15 years. At the beginning of 1959 the rebellion showed the Congolese elite, which was very small, that you have two options. You don’t only have the option of trying to work together with the colonial master, and change the colonial structures from within. But, that you can orient yourself towards the Congolese population, mobilise them and try to fight for independence through changing the relationship of forces. This happened with someone like Lumumba, who from that time on radicalised and oriented towards the population and not towards the elite and certainly not towards the colonial masters.

And the third important consequence is that the Belgian royal family - which had a very strong ideological grip on all the colonialist structures, on the colonialist officer corps - became scared. They realised that if Belgium wanted to hold onto the Congo, they had to respond to that radicalisation. A few days after the rebellion of Leopoldville the Belgian King was the first to mention in a speech the necessity of bringing a kind of independence to the Congo. And this declaration broke the back of the resistance of all the hard-line colonialists.

LZ: One of the often cited influences on Lumumba is his attendance at the Pan-African Conference in Ghana in December 1958. Did this have a big impact on his pan-Africanism?

Ludo de Witte: Well, I’m not sure if it made a big impact on his thinking. It surely helped him to develop a pan-African view, which influenced his internationalist view of the world and the necessity of helping other liberation movements on the continent. This was a position which he made very clear during the election campaign in the spring of 1960.

But this pan-Africanism played out negatively in the Congo Crisis itself. The small Congolese elite was quite backwards and had two tendencies. One said: ‘let’s call in the Americans to help us against the Belgians’, and another said: ‘let’s call in the United Nations’. Lumumba chose what he thought was the lesser evil of calling in the United Nations, thinking, hoping that African States would put enough pressure on the UN, rid of the Congo of Belgian intervention and stabilise the situation. That was a terrible strategic mistake, which in the end would bring about his assassination.

There is, of course, a further negative side to Lumumba’s pan-Africanism. He was under the influence of people like Kwame Nkrumah, for example, who until October 1960 - even after his demise as a Prime Minister - told him not to become politically active and not try to reverse the situation by mobilising the population, but rather to try to get a resolution through the United Nations. But the UN took a position against Lumumba and eventually he saw all hope of a solution for the Congo Crisis through the organisation fade. It was then that he decided to escape from the UN enforced ‘residence surveillé’ [house arrest] to join his supporters in the east. The problem was that he did this at the end of November 1960, when he had already lost enormous time.

All this has to do with the pressure of so-called ‘pan-Africanism’ and from people like Nkrumah, who was very conservative. It was a Pan-Africanism which was limited to trying to get advantages through diplomatic channels by working together with African States through the Afro-Asian block in the UN; this wasn’t in any sense revolutionary and certainly didn’t help the situation.

LZ: To me the Congo seems in many ways to be symbolic of African independence. So in 1960 you have, almost without any notice, the country being granted independence. Then almost simultaneously that independence is snatched away. So in all those ways, you see the Congo as an early symbol to the rest of the continent of the realities of independence. Do you think that this is a fair characterisation of how we can understand the Congo?

Ludo de Witte: I think what is significant is that at the beginning of 1959, there was not one leader in the Belgian establishment who was prepared to think about independence for the Congo, not one. And one year afterwards, twelve months afterwards, they all decided to grant that independence completely within six months. So why this enormous reversal of strategy? Because they saw that there was a process of radicalisation in 1959, and they wanted to move quicker than that radicalisation hoping that at the time of the election - and this was the opinion of the Belgian elite - that eighty percent of the Congolese parliament would be filled with docile pro-Belgian MPs while only twenty percent would be radicals. But they miscalculated the extent of the radicalisation.

This strategy of granting independence, with the objective of keeping short the processes of radicalisation, was applied to a lot of countries in that period. In most countries this succeeded, but it went wrong in the Congo, largely thanks to Lumumba and the process of this ‘failure’ it opened up the eyes of world to the role of the UN, of African leaders, American and the Soviet Union etc. The Congo Crisis was a great expos é of post-war realpolitiks.

LZ: My first contact with Lumumba was reading the text of his speech in which he brilliantly condemns colonisation in front of the Belgian ruling elite at the Independence Day ceremony the 30 June in 1960.Was it the extraordinary power and spontaneity of that speech, which sealed Lumumba’s fate?

Ludo de Witte: I think Lumumba’s basic motivation for making the speech was the one delivered by President Kasavubu, which was completely pro-Belgian, completely neo-colonialist and also the speech by the King which was extremely imperialistic. Lumumba couldn’t let Independence Day, which was bought by from the resistance of the mass movement, to be snatched away politically and ideologically by the Belgians and by their Congolese collaborators. That was his main objective; to instil some kind of pride into what had been achieved by the Congolese independence movement. That was his main motivation I think.

But I don’t think that Lumumba’s speech sealed his fate. For example, if you go into the archives you see the comments of the Americans and the Belgians, they said: ‘this has been a way of Lumumba letting out steam’. The imperialist elites have a lot of experience of leaders talking radical but acting right. So, they were still hoping that the same would happen with Lumumba. It was principally the Africanisation of the army which broke the back of the colonialist officer corps which was transferred to independent Congo, which took away the last card, the last instrument in the hands of the Belgians to control the Congo. And at the same time this Africanisation put into gear a revolutionary process and stimulated workers in the private sector and in the government, to demand wage increases and things like that. It was these events that provoked the Congo Crisis.

LZ: Can you talk about the sense of panic among the Belgian ruling class that they were losing control of their most prized colonial possession?

Ludo de Witte: Well, the Congo was quite important for the Belgian economy. When you look to the profit figures of colonial enterprises, or enterprises who were active on the stock exchange, their profit figures were two to three times higher than those of companies who had no activities in the Congo. And the biggest holding of Belgium, the Société Générale, was hugely dependent on its activities in the Congo. This has to do with the structure of the Belgian bourgeoisie, which at the time the Congo was created by King Leopold II (1885): it was a very young, weak, fragmented class, with little confidence in itself and its projects. It was certainly imperialistic and was trying to organised itself with investments abroad, in Russia, Japan, Egypt and Latin America. But the idea of conquering a colony for itself was something that seemed too ambitious for the small bourgeoisie of Belgium. It was only the actions of the Belgian King that ensured the Congo would come into existence and the only way the King could get the Belgian bourgeoisie involved in the ‘colonial adventure’, as it was known, was to give huge concessions to Belgian companies. So what you had was a very small group of very powerful Belgian businesses, who got huge concessions in the Congo, and made super-profits. The Congo Crisis was deeply threatening to them. For the first time since the existence of Belgium they saw it as a danger to their most essential interests.

Another element that the Belgian ruling class completely misjudged was the Congolese. That was because they did not know the Congolese. You got the most famous professor, the most famous Africanist of Belgium, touring the Congo in 1955. He came back and gave conferences about the situation in the Congo. And there was one conference he made at the university in Brussels, and someone asked him: ‘why are you saying what people were thinking in the Congo, when they’re all Belgians. What about the Congolese?’ And he replied: ‘I haven’t spoken with any Congolese’.

But Belgian businesses lost their bet on the 1960 elections. They thought that they could keep control of the army; well they lost the army with the mutiny. They then thought that once Lumumba lost his post as a Prime Minister and was put under house arrest by the UN that the problem was finished. But it was the popularity of Lumumba which they didn’t count on. Towards the end of 1960 - with the outbreak of support for Lumumba - his supporters controlled more than half of the Congo. So these are all factors which explain the real panic inside the Belgian government and also inside Washington… there were four or five different operations underway to get Lumumba killed.

LZ: You talked about the anger and panic of the Belgian ruling class but can we now discuss the extent of the general strike in the winter of 1960-1961 in Belgium and the failure of the socialist movement to make any connections with what was happening in the Congo?

Ludo de Witte: The strike was a reaction to what was called the Loi Unique, a general law that introduced big cuts in the public sector and raised taxes. Now, the strike wasn’t organised from the top leadership of the union, it was provoked by massive, spontaneous and wildcat strikes, from members of the socialist union federation. There were two union federations, a socialist and a Christian one. The leadership of the Christian trade union federation was completely under the control of the Christian Democratic Party, which was at the time the main party in government, the main bourgeois party. It was also Christian Democratic ministers, who were controlling the policy in the Congo. So the strike only succeeded in the southern part of Belgium and didn’t take off in the northern part of Belgium which was less industrialised and where the Christian trade union federation was strong.

After a few weeks - partly through heavy handed repression - the government succeeded in getting an agreement with social democratic leaders to end the strike who were promised some minor reforms to the Loi Unique. You see, basically, this de facto collaboration of social democratic leaders during the strike with the government, is something which was also going on during the Congo Crisis. The government was made up of Christian democrats and liberals parties but on the Congo, as in the general strike, you got a de facto collaboration of the three main parties, including the Social Democrats. So for example, the secretary-generalof NATO - which behind the scenes played a very big role in the Congo Crisis in helping to coordinate the American intervention with the Portuguese and Rhodesians - was a top leader of the Social Democratic Party. So you have complete unity of vision between all those parties including the reformist Social Democrats of saving Katanga and the Congo for western capital and saving Belgium from radical elements in the trade union movement. The big tragedy was that the strikers were unable to link themselves to Lumumba, that other opponent of the Belgian government: their economistic; trade-unionist view made that impossible.

LZ: Can you describe something about the way that Lumumba tried to mobilise his forces in the East? There’s a very interesting quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, who talks about how Lumumba addressed mass meetings, as you say, and that he describes Lumumba’s ‘dictatorship of the spoken word’. What seems to have been missing throughout the period however was any organisational capacity.

Ludo de Witte: At the beginning of 1959, no body wanted to grant independence; but by the beginning of 19 60 they wanted a rapid transition to independence in six months. The Belgian elite wanted to make it impossible that the Congolese would organise themselves, and that they would radicalise and form stronger organisations. That was the objective and in that sense they succeeded. There was no real organisation. On Lumumba’s side what you had were mass meetings, radio speeches.

This was before and after independence. You had during the electoral campaign [April-May 1960], mass meetings of tens of thousands of people, in which Lumumba tried to explain in a pedagogical way, how to behave. After independence for example, in August 1960 when he was mobilising the people in the east for an attack on the Katangese succession, in his public speeches, he always invited a mixed couple on the scene, and would say: ‘You see these people we consider them as friends, we don’t want to send them away. We want the Belgians to stay, at least the Belgians who are not racist.’ He wanted the soldiers to decide which officers were too racist to stay while the officers who were deemed constructive could stay - but not as officers only as advisors. So during the meetings, through these examples, he tried to educate people not to become anti-white, but to see things from a political perspective. But the tragedy is that he had no time in the storm of the crisis to organise a real mass movement.

LZ: But despite Lumumba’s huge popularity, he was a political force who was toppled in less than a year. Does this point to an essential weakness in his politics, in his ability to mobilise wider support and related to that also a weakness in the MNC [the Mouvement National Congolais was Lumumba’s party founded in 1958] and the structure which he’d been trying to build?

Ludo de Witte: You must ask yourself did Lumumba ever have the possibility of winning the Congo Crisis? I think he had the possibility to win the crisis. If you see, for example, at the end of August, when the seccession of the Kasai had been broken, when the forces of the Congolese army were invading the north of Katanga, and in central Katanga pro-Lumumbist force were rebelling against the secession. You see at that time there was a possibility of wining in military terms. So, his action was not so stupid, not so foolhardy, and not the actions of an isolated person who went ‘mad’, as he is still described. Now, having said that it’s true that he was toppled very quickly and this has to do with a combination of several factors.

The first one is the generalised betrayal from United Nations and the other African States, but it was only through the crisis that the nature of these allies became clear. And this combined with the errors he made - because he made a lot of strategic errors - the first strategic error was calling in the United Nations, but the relationship of forces within the government was such that it was a lesser evil in his point of view. The second error is that at the beginning he was overly confident in parliamentary methods. In that sense after the first coup d’état by president Joseph Kasavubu on 5 September, he really didn’t prepare for a clash with pro-imperialist forces, because he was sure of his majority and support in parliament. But in reality the situation was decided outside parliament. The third error was that he waited until the end of November to try to get to the East and mobilise his supporters. This gave a lot of time, especially in Katanga for his enemies to organise and defend themselves and to strengthen the secession.

So I think these strategic errors combined with the generalised betrayal by his so-called international supporters explain why he was deposed so quickly as prime minister. But I think his basic attitude of no compromise was the only correct one he could adopt.

LZ: It seems Lumumba’s greatest influence has been outside the Congo. In early demonstrations after he was assassinated, you see photographs of people wearing his emblem, his face. In the same way that Che Guevara became a symbol of intransigent resistance to imperialism. But for most of his life he was remarkably moderate. How would you characterise Lumumba’s political development?

Ludo de Witte: Lumumba became politically aware at the end of his life. He only started in my opinion, to really radicalise after the rebellion at the beginning of 1959. And before that he was completely in line with what’s called the Congolese ‘evolués’, that small Congolese elite, who were created to achieve a kind of secondary role in the colonial system, to be a sub-contractor imposing on the Congolese people all those relations of domination, which the coloniser had introduced.

If I can give you one example of the attitude in Belgium after Lumumba was assassinated. In 1961, the official Belgian press bureau published his book Le Congo, terre d’avenir est-il menacé? [in English the book came out under the title Congo, my Congo in 1962 with a very hostile introduction by the Observer journalist and Congo ‘expert’ Colin Legum]. This they did in 1961. So, how can you explain that an official Belgium institution, who had vilified a man as worse than Hitler, and who has helped to kill him, publish one of his books after his murder. It was only to destroy this image of intransigence and anti-imperialism, by publishing a book he wrote in 1956 and in which he defends the position of the Congolese évolué. But the Lumumba of 1956, even the Lumumba of 1958 has nothing whatsoever in commonwith the Lumumba of 1960. He was another person.

In politics time is something very fluid and relative. Two weeks can mean more than two generations in another period and this is exactly what happened in the Congo in 1960 and to Lumumba in particular.

LZ: Can you talk personally about what it was like to be under so much media attention when your book came out in 1999? You also became for a time the hate figure of the Belgium political class and the academic and political elite.

Ludo de Witte: I think it was relatively easy. You have heard about the Marc Dutroux affair in 1996? This was when a paedophile was arrested after killing and violating a number of young girls, it was a big crisis in Belgium, with rumors that some high ranking politicians and businessmen were involved in certain paedophile networks. There was a huge popular demonstration and this led to an unprecedented period of disillusionment in the official system, the judiciary, political parties etc. So this mood played a role in 1999 when my book came out, after all I was exposing the Belgian states role in the murder of Congo’s first prime minister and Belgian society was ready for such a shock. It wasn’t even surprised. In addition some of the press took my side, so I was in a sense protected by the press, radio, television against all those figures who were still around and complicit in Lumumba’s murder. But this was the result of the fall out from the Dutroux affair.

LZ: Even considering that you did received death threats?

Ludo de Witte: I received threats to my physical safety. It was not a threat that they would kill me but that physically I was in danger if I went on with my research. But this was before publishing the book. Once the book was published the book I had the support of the media and I was in a way untouchable.

LZ: How do you explain the undimmed anger of the Belgian political and business class towards Lumumba?

Ludo de Witte: It has to do with the fact that his example is still politically valid. Lumumba is still a model for not giving into the pressures of imperialism. When Mobutu was overthrown and Laurent Kabila came to power in the Congo in 1996 in Belgium there were articles in the papers which said that Kabila was a dangerous demagogue, and that he will organise a dictatorship. Even today you see the Belgian establishment reacting negatively to the example of Lumumba.

LZ: Can you tell me what you made of the elections and the role of the so-called international community and the prospect for democratic change in the Congo?

Ludo de Witte: The political class in the Congo reflects the degeneration and the exhaustion of decades of Mobutu dictatorship. What we have today are some neo-colonialist politicians who are living on the handouts from the West with no real perspective of political change. There is a small clique of warlords who have been brought to the capital, funded by the international community and who spend their time discussing whether to buy another SUV. I see no perspective for real change from any of the existing parties or politicians.

LZ: What do we gain from remembering Lumumba today?

Ludo de Witte: What’s left of Lumumba today? Certainly there are some of his speeches but most of all it is his refusal to compromise with imperialism which makes him such an irresistible figure … the legacy is there, his example is there and the power of this example will surely become a force again when there are people who are standing up and fighting.

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