Sunday, February 13, 2011
A CONGO ORIGINAL: PATRICE LUMUMBA
Patrice Emery Lumumba
Historical Biography *
Patrice Emery Lumumba
July 2, 1925, Onalua, Belgian Congo [now Congo (Kinshasa)]
January 1961, Katanga province
African nationalist leader, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (June-September 1960). Forced out of office during a political crisis, he was assassinated a short time later.
Lumumba was born in the village of Onalua in Kasai province, Belgian Congo. He was a member of the small Batetela tribe, a fact that was to become significant in his later political life. His two principal rivals, Moise Tshombe, who led the breakaway of the Katanga province, and Joseph Kasavubu, who later became the nation's president, both came from large, powerful tribes from which they derived their major support, giving their political movements a regional character. In contrast, Lumumba's movement emphasized its all-Congolese nature.
After attending a Protestant mission school, Lumumba went to work in Kindu-Port-Empain, where he became active in the club of the évolués (educated Africans). He began to write essays and poems for Congolese journals. Lumumba next moved to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) to become a postal clerk and went on to become an accountant in the post office in Stanleyville (now Kisangani). There he continued to contribute to the Congolese press.
In 1955 Lumumba became regional president of a purely Congolese trade union of government employees that was not affiliated, as were other unions, to either of the two Belgian trade-union federations (socialist and Roman Catholic). He also became active in the Belgian Liberal Party in the Congo. Although conservative in many ways, the party was not linked to either of the trade-union federations, which were hostile to it. In 1956 Lumumba was invited with others to make a study tour of Belgium under the auspices of the Minister of Colonies. On his return he was arrested on a charge of embezzlement from the post office. He was convicted and condemned one year later, after various reductions of sentence, to 12 months' imprisonment and a fine.
When Lumumba got out of prison, he grew even more active in politics. In October 1958 he founded the Congolese National Movement (Mouvement National Congolais; MNC), the first nationwide Congolese political party. In December he attended the first All-African People's Conference in Accra, Ghana, where he met nationalists from across the African continent and was made a member of the permanent organization set up by the conference. His outlook and terminology, inspired by pan-African goals, now took on the tenor of militant nationalism.
In 1959 the Belgian government announced a program intended to lead in five years to independence, starting with local elections in December 1959. The nationalists regarded this program as a scheme to install puppets before independence and announced a boycott of the elections. The Belgian authorities responded with repression. On October 30 there was a clash in Stanleyville that resulted in 30 deaths. Lumumba was imprisoned on a charge of inciting to riot.
The MNC decided to shift tactics, entered the elections, and won a sweeping victory in Stanleyville (90 percent of the votes). In January 1960 the Belgian government convened a Round Table Conference in Brussels of all Congolese parties to discuss political change, but the MNC refused to participate without Lumumba. Lumumba was thereupon released from prison and flown to Brussels. The conference agreed on a date for independence, June 30, with national elections in May. Although there was a multiplicity of parties, the MNC came out far ahead in the elections, and Lumumba emerged as the leading nationalist politician of the Congo. Maneuvers to prevent his assumption of authority failed, and he was asked to form the first government, which he succeeded in doing on June 23, 1960.
A few days after independence, some units of the army rebelled, largely because of objections to their Belgian commander. In the confusion, the mineral-rich province of Katanga proclaimed secession. Belgium sent in troops, ostensibly to protect Belgian nationals in the disorder. But the Belgian troops landed principally in Katanga, where they sustained the secessionist regime of Moise Tshombe.
The Congo appealed to the United Nations to expel the Belgians and help them restore internal order. As prime minister, Lumumba did what little he could to redress the situation. His army was an uncertain instrument of power, his civilian administration untrained and untried; the United Nations forces (whose presence he had requested) were condescending and assertive, and the political alliances underlying his regime very shaky. The Belgian troops did not evacuate, and the Katanga secession continued.
Since the United Nations forces refused to help suppress the Katangese revolt, Lumumba appealed to the Soviet Union for planes to assist in transporting his troops to Katanga. He asked the independent African states to meet in Léopoldville in August to unite their efforts behind him. His moves alarmed many, particularly the Western powers and the supporters of President Kasavubu, who pursued a moderate course in the coalition government and favoured some local autonomy in the provinces.
On September 5 President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba. The legalities of the move were immediately contested by Lumumba. There were thus two groups now claiming to be the legal central government. On September 14 power was seized by the Congolese army leader Colonel Joseph Mobutu (president of Zaire as Mobutu Sese Seko), who later reached a working agreement with Kasavubu. In October the General Assembly of the United Nations recognized the credentials of Kasavubu's government. The independent African states split sharply over the issue.
In November Lumumba sought to travel from Leopoldville, where the United Nations had provided him with provisory protection, to Stanleyville, where his supporters had control. With the active complicity of foreign intelligence sources, Joseph Mobutu sent his soldiers after Lumumba. He was caught after several days of pursuit and spent three months in prison, while his adversaries were trying in vain to consolidate their power. Finally, aware that an imprisoned Lumumba was more dangerous than a dead Prime Minister, he was delivered on January 17, 1961, to the Katanga secessionist regime, where he was executed the same night of his arrival, along with his comrades Mpolo and Okito. His death caused a national scandal throughout the world, and, retrospectively, Mobutu proclaimed him a "national hero."
The reasons that Lumumba provoked such intense emotion are not immediately evident. His viewpoint was not exceptional. He was for a unitary Congo and against division of the country along tribal or regional lines. Like many other African leaders, he supported pan-Africanism and the liberation of colonial territories. He proclaimed his regime one of "positive neutralism," which he defined as a return to African values and rejection of any imported ideology, including that of the Soviet Union.
Lumumba was, however, a man of strong character who intended to pursue his policies, regardless of the enemies he made within his country or abroad. The Congo, furthermore, was a key area in terms of the geopolitics of Africa, and because of its wealth, its size, and its contiguity to white-dominated southern Africa, Lumumba's opponents had reason to fear the consequences of a radical or radicalized Congo regime. Moreover, in the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union's support for Lumumba appeared at the time as a threat to many in the West.
These popular depictions of Patrice Lumumba exemplify the Congolese tradition of venerating mythic or cultural heroes.
Just as classical African sculptures portrayed cultural innovators, urban art helped transform Lumumba into a powerful symbol. Made to be within the buying power of the urban middle classes, these paintings could be reproduced, hung in homes, and have major political effect in a country where many people did not read or have access to mass media.
Through these paintings, the viewer gains insight into the popular issues of the era and understands how visual arts can shape national consciousness.
Congolese urban art, or popular painting, is a primary medium of urban cultural memory in the Congo. The popular paintings in A Congo Chronicle trace Lumumba’s story from his winning the national elections during the period preceding the Congo’s accession to independence, his daring independence tirade, and his subsequent removal from power and execution.
A Congo Chronicle: Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art is organized by the Museum for African Art, New York.
A 110-page full-color catalogue by guest curator Bogumil Jewsiewicki of Laval University, Quebec, with essays by contributing scholars Jean Omasombo Tshonda, Nyunda ya Rubango, Dibwe dia Mwembu, and Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts accompanies the exhibition.