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.