The murder of Patrice Lumumba fifty-five years ago today has been called the most important and disturbing assassination of a democratically elected leader in modern times, and it remains a crime for which nobody was ever prosecuted. As last year’s Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba made more clear than ever before, Lumumba’s demise grew from the muddy entanglement of local and international interests in the Cold War–era decolonization of Africa. Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick’s account left no one unscathed, wrote one reviewer, “not the bumbling Congolese, not the Cold War-crazed Americans, not the petulant Europeans—and, worst of all, not even Lumumba himself.” An adapted excerpt from the epilogue to their short, sharp book is below.
Who caused this traveling carnival of death? Complex considerations arise in defining responsibility. In 1962 King Baudouin mulled over clemency for the killer of Prince Rwagasore, recently elected prime minister of Burundi, a Belgian trusteeship soon to be independent. The king wrote to Foreign Minister Spaak: “On a moral level, we may question, although the penalties differ, whether the author of an assassination is more culpable than those who conceived the idea and strove for its implementation by using him as an instrument.” In a celebrated Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot investigates the demise of the wicked Samuel Ratchett. He has been stabbed multiple times in his cabin on the train. Poirot has a dozen suspects, and discovers that all have participated. After drugging Ratchett, they have handed a dagger from one to another, even a little old lady who has barely broken his skin with a glancing and feeble blow. The accomplices themselves do not know which stroke was lethal. Each is implicated.
Another aspect of joint accountability turns on the strength of the common aims, preplanning, and coordination. Many who have examined the Lumumba case have perceived a conspiracy. Unambiguous orders were given at the top and efficiently carried out, and cooperation occurred internationally. We have found evidence for a conspiracy less compelling, and observe more contingency, confusion, duplication of labor, and bungling. Still, on the ground, Belgian and US security personnel traded information and cooperated. Lumumba drew together a number of committed opponents with more or less the same ideas, and that was enough. Some students focus on some overriding racial or economic or cultural force that governed Lumumba’s destiny. Nonetheless, the empirical details of this convoluted tale have a logic that escapes any fatalism.
From mid-July 1960, Belgium tried to emasculate the Lumumba government, and the United States and the UN quickly followed. In September Belgium and the United Nations helped President Kasa-Vubu terminate the Lumumba prime ministership. Extreme anticommunists in Belgium prodded those in the United States and, even more fearful of Lumumba out of power, both Brussels and Washington launched wild designs to do him in. UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and his special representative Rajeshwar Dayal ignored the probability of an assassination, and at least did little to protect the prime minister. Accused by many of being sympathetic to Lumumba, Dayal followed the lead of Hammarskjöld, who persuaded himself he could keep Lumumba down but somehow out of danger. The UN leaders resembled the old lady in Murder on the Orient Express. Along with their own attempts to deliver the coup de grâce, US and Belgian officials more and more turned to Lumumba’s political opponents in the Congo. The Europeans and Americans goaded the Africans to imprison Lumumba and to secure a capital sentence. The politicians in Leopoldville proved willing to jail him, but were afraid either to bring him to trial or to put him to death. Those in Katanga were not afraid, and the Belgians and Americans and the Leopoldville group knew that. With Western urging, Kasa-Vubu and his cohorts sent Lumumba to Elisabethville and his doom.
The UN collaborated because if Lumumba stayed on, Hammarskjöld believed, the UN would lose stature in the world community. Pressed by an aggrandizing monarchical circle, politicians in Brussels shouldered Lumumba to the abyss but also intended to defend Belgian constitutional democracy. In the long term, American policies shifted power in Africa away from the Europeans to the United States. At the time, Eisenhower wanted Lumumba eradicated to protect the Western alliance. A more vulgar anticommunism guided other US decision makers. All the westerners were motivated to foil the appearance on the world stage of an autonomous African land. Belgium and the United States might have patronized a weak Congo. With the UN, the Europeans and Americans might have contemplated a stronger Congo dependent on the West. But the West could not conceive a stand-alone African state akin to European countries in its economic and political capabilities. Lumumba aspired to a greatness the West would not abide. In part he was exterminated because he was an ambitious black man, but the panic over him was grossly inflated because the prime minister hardly had the resources to create a nation.
Why did the Africans assist the Belgians and Americans? Lumumba frightened many of the blacks; others ached for retribution against him; still others, employed by American and Belgian spies, worried what would happen if they did not do what the whites so evidently wanted.
No government accepted the secessionists in Katanga as legitimate. Even Brussels refused recognition, although it paid the salaries of Elisabethville’s European officials, and although they all ultimately swore allegiance to Belgium. It is a nice question whether a regime in Katanga conducted an execution that had on it the fingerprints of Belgium, the United States, and the UN. Or whether Western officialdom simply connived in gangsterism. Ambassador Dupret in Brazzaville relayed to Brussels a remarkable French analysis. For many months the crisis had developed in an atmosphere “half-vaudevillian.” By January 1961, however, events had acquired the nature of a merciless conflict. The African traditions of harangue, the drawing of weapons, and retreat had given way to “the most modern methods” of the destruction of a political adversary. With Lumumba’s death, the West had given its first postcolonial tutorial. Within a month, six other prominent Lumumba supporters were slaughtered in Kasai, after transfer from Leopoldville. Mobutu followers were killed in Stanleyville.
As these matters go, a clear chain of command exists among those responsible for Lumumba’s death, from those running the show to those in the trenches.
The UN chain was: Hammarskjöld, Cordier, and Dayal.
The American chain was: Eisenhower, Gray, Dulles, and Devlin.
From the Belgian metropole: Baudouin, Eyskens, d’Aspremont, and Wigny.
In Leopoldville: Lahaye and Marlière; Kasa-Vubu, Mobutu, Bomboko, and Nendaka.
In Elisabethville: Tshombe, Munongo, Gat and Verscheure.
Comparison to Murder on the Orient Express should not allow us to trivialize Lumumba’s slaying, but to attend in different ways to a shared process of murder. The detective story demonstrates that such an offense can occur without knowing who among a group of assassins delivers the mortal blow. The story also shows that people who perpetrate a murder need not be censured. The characters in the novel are deemed innocent of any crime. People are guilty for things they have done only if we think their doings bad. Thoughtful readers should reflect on two items in evaluating the liability of those tainted by Lumumba’s death. First, the men who cut him down did not have the same kind of fault as someone who has killed his neighbor and is declared guilty in a trial. As we have argued, the norms of private life and of a polity regulated by law are only with difficulty invoked in global politics. At the same time, for example in World War II, Eisenhower commanded troops that dispatched many Germans contrary to the rules of battle, yet his oversight of this slaughter does not evoke the sick feeling as does his role in the Congo. Despite the fact that all the schemers believed Lumumba worthy of his fortune, this performance has a stench to it; but how higher politicians are incriminated constitutes a delicate subject.
Second, we need to ask what position in time has to do with estimates. In the 1960s the statesmen and their servants embroiled in Lumumba’s death were convinced they had done the right thing, and some men boasted, truthfully or not, about what they had accomplished. By the mid-1970s complicity became less attractive. During the US Senate investigations, Robert Johnson, the record taker at the NSC meeting of August 18, testified that Eisenhower gave the order. The distress in the United States over the Nixon administration had induced Johnson to step forward:
My decision to offer testimony…has…[made] for me a profound personal, moral dilemma… I was privy to a great deal of information that involved…confidentiality with high officials… These responsibilities relate[d] to the very basis of human society…and…trust without which no free society can long survive and no government can operate. I have been forced by recent developments, however, to weigh against these considerable responsibilities, my broader responsibilities as a citizen on…a major question of public morality, as well as [of]…sound policy… I have concluded, not without a great deal of reluctance, to come…with information…relating to the assassination.
In 1991, after the Cold War was over, the Congo condemned the homicide. In 2001, Belgium apologized to the Congo in part because Truth Commissions and ethnic reconciliation made covering over Lumumba’s death ethically unappealing.
Lumumba’s murder did not solve many problems for all those who shared in its responsibility, yet this particular event illustrates some general truths. Even governments that pride themselves on their democratic transparency inevitably resort to secrecy and deception. Statesmen struggle to justify actions that in the nature of things have little to do with the moral; malice and self-interest are never far from public life. Politics, ambitious to tame the irrational, itself participates in the irrational.