Lumumba the Political-Actor

Although the political career of Patrice Lumumba was very short, his ideas and ideals are still relevant today. The Congo as an independent nation state was where he fought for, and ultimately, he paid for this ideal with his life. Before we look at the images of Lumumba that arose after his death, we first want to research the images that were built during his political career. The narrative that is created, in this case the narrative of Lumumba during his political career, is continually subject to change. Identities are constructed by the availability of information and the various interpretation(s) of this information. This is highly influenced by the distribution of power.[i] Because identities are often constructed by the most powerful narrative, which are set by their own framework, it is important to note that actors like Lumumba can only construct their own image by a certain extent.

Patrice Lumumba was born in 1925 in the Kasai region of the Belgian Congo. He went to a missionary school where he grew an interest in literature and poetry. When he finished his school, he traveled the country and had several jobs. Lumumba learned to speak French fluently and ended up in Stanleyville where he worked as a clerk in a post office. In this period, he became a well-known figure in Stanleyville due to his participation in various (political) organisations. Lumumba achieved the status of évolué, a stature that was given to the black middle class that had passed an exam where they had proven that they were ‘civilized’. For this privileged status, the Congolese were educated by the European standards. The case of the évolués is a typical example of the paternalistic narrative the Western colonizers had in this period. In the paternalistic narrative, Belgium tutored and developed its ‘child’ until it was deemed ready for its independence. Lumumba was tutored by Belgium and therefore owed his skills and education to them.[ii] In 1954 Lumumba became the president of the Association des Évolués de Stanleyville (AES) one of the most important organisations in Stanleyville. In 1955 he even visited Belgium on a government sponsored tour with a group of évolués. On this tour he even met King Baudouin, with whom he spoke some words about the problematic position of the évolués.[iii] Because of his participation in many organisations, his knack for languages and his rhetoric talent, Lumumba was regarded as a exceptional intellectual by Congolese and Belgians alike.[iv] However, when Lumumba returned to the Congo, things would turn downhill for him.

In 1956 the clerk got imprisoned for 12 months by accusations of embezzlement. He pledged guilty but he justified his actions by arguing that his salary as a simple clerk was not adequate in comparison to the expenditures he had to make as a important figure in the many Stanleyville political organisations he was acting in, while still having to provide for his family. The public prosecutor, de Warseghere, described Lumumba as a typical example of a Congolese who held the illusion of being equal to the white man. This racist image of a pretentious and phony intellectual, would persist and expand in the years to come. The racist accusations that were made during his trial, did not -initially- influence the worldview of Lumumba. In his imprisonment, Lumumba wrote a book called Congo, My Country, where he puts his ideas and viewpoints of his country down. The moderate tone of the book is striking. This is seen in the following text:

‘Belgium, moved by a very sincere and humanitarian idealism, came to our help and, with the assistance of doughty native fighters, was able to rout the [bloodthirsty Arabs and their allies], to eradicate disease, to teach us and to eliminate certain barbarous practices from our customs, thus restoring our human dignity and turning us into free, happy vigorous, civilized men’[v]

Not only does Lumumba praise the Belgian colonization of his country, he also criticizes the traditions and customs that the Congolese practiced before and is thankful that they’ve been replaced by civilization. Although Lumumba also writes about the division between black and white, this quote from the book is an example how deep the colonial narrative was embedded in the Congo prior to its independence. However, in his period as évolué in Stanleyville and during his time in prison the various racist experiences would push Lumumba away from the Belgian colonial mindset. The inequality for colored people and the racial division would trouble him more and more. Not only the évolués should get equal treatment, the rest of the Congolese people should also have the same rights in the country.[vi] Just four years later, Patrice Lumumba would give his famous speech where he expressed his frustration of Belgian colonialism in the presence of the Belgian Monarch, King Baudouin. This complete reversal of the convictions of Lumumba is exemplary of the rapid change that the people of Congo went through in these years. 

The road to independence.

The image of Lumumba as a model évolué, would soon change. After his release from prison he got a job as a beer seller in Leopoldville (today’s Kinshasa). By speaking for large crowds and praising the Polak beer he sold, Lumumba refined his eloquence. He also became a popular figure in the bars and saloons where he expanded his network while discussing politics. Lumumba joined the political party, Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), and on 10 October 1958 he was elected president of the organisation. Two months later Lumumba visited the All-African Peoples’ Conference (AAPC) in Ghana as a Congolese representative. In the wake of the independence of a lot of African nations, topics like anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-racialism, the unity of Africa and the non-alignment of the Western colonizers were discussed at this convention.[vii] It is said that Lumumba was highly influenced by this meeting. He returned home determined to liberate his country of the Belgian colonial control. To realize this, his Congo had to be unified as a nation. And thus overcoming the tribal and personal differences that would threaten the country from within. The MNC unlike most political parties in the Congo, upheld a strong national identity instead of being based on regional and ethnic lines. His biggest political opponent, Joseph Kasavubu from the Alliance des Bakongos (ABAKO), mainly represented the region Bas-Congo. Another opponent was Moise Tshombe, the leader of Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT), his base of power was in the mineral-rich Katanga region in the south of Congo. Because of international developments, the increasing unrests in the Congo and the call for independence became louder and louder in 1959. Although Lumumba and his MNC were supporting a full independence, in a statement he condemned the revolts that took place on the 4th of January and opted for a ‘period of transition’.[viii] He argued that Europeans in the Congo had a vital role to play in the independence of the country. In the coming year Lumumba would change this moderate view on the independence. Change had come to the Congo at last, more and more riots took place and the Congolese were politically more engaged than ever. The outcry for independence was deafening. The MNC rose in popularity, in a few months the party gained almost sixty thousand new members. Lumumba as its forerunner became well known throughout the country. Not only did Lumumba as a spokesman appealed to the masses, but also his direct appearance had a part in his increasing popularity:

‘’Tall, slim, and handsome, Lumumba had a dazzling smile, and piercing eyes that glittered through a signature pair of spectacles’’[ix]

In the coming year, the independence of the Congo accelerated. Throughout the campaign, Lumumba and his increasing nationalistic and anti-colonial rhetoric would trouble the Belgians more and more. Negotiations with this radical were considered futile and the Belgians hoped that the more moderate and ‘pro-western’ Tshombe would be able to form a government. They began to support Tshombe and his party CONAKAT in Katanga.[x] By sending arms, manpower and financial support the Belgian government hoped to secure their economic interests that lay predominantly in this mineral-rich region. On April 1959 Lumumba organised a meeting at Luluabourg in the region Kasai. 

All important political parties were invited and the main theme was the date on which Congo would gain independence. As the organizer Lumumba would gain the initiative.

Patrice Lumumba in Brussels, January 1960 (Source: WikimediaCommons)

In this tumultuous time, the consent of the young and idealistic, but inexperienced, politicians was that self-rule should be gained as fast as possible.[xi] In October 1959 riots broke out in Stanleyville, the population of the city directed their anger about their inferior social and economic situation to the colonial regime. Lumumba who was present in the city got arrested on accusations of having incited this revolt. On the 10th of January 1960, a delegation of 150 Congolese dignitaries would visit Belgium to discuss the independence. Lumumba (who was released and flown to Brussels) and Kasavubu, would ascend as its most important advocates of this front commun, a united alliance formed of the different political parties. In this conference, the date of the independence was settled: on the 30th of June Congo would be an independent nation!

In the elections of May, Lumumba and his MUNC was the big winner, while Kasavubu and Tshombe were also quite successful in their respective regions. The following negotiations in forming a government were challenging. Despite having the most votes, Lumumba was not appointed as formateur by King Baudouin, as instead Kasavubu was given the position. Only when negotiations were stuck did the initiative of forming the government go to the leader of the MNC. On the 23 the new government was formed. The negotiations that took place were though. Through intrigues, bargaining and compromises almost all of the participating parties were not satisfied with the result. Kasavubu was appointed as president and Lumumba had to settle for prime minister. Out of fear of a secessionist threat, the regionalistic parties of Kasavubu and Tshombe had to be integrated in the government. This government which had to lead the new nation in just a few days was not only very distrustful of each other, but also very young and inexperienced for the enormous task ahead.

The newfound government of the Republic of Congo (Source: WikiMediacommons)


Indépendance Cha Cha?


On the 30th of June 1960 the Belgian Congo would acquire its independence and would be renamed the Republic of the Congo. This fateful day would have far-reaching consequences for the different narratives and images that people had of Patrice Lumumba. The certain speeches that were given, contributed to the narrative in which the independence was regarded. At this ceremonial day King Baudouin and Kasavubu would give a speech for the Congolese parliament. The first of these speeches at the ceremonial transition of power was that of King Baudouin, Kasavubu as the president would go after him. Lumumba was not planned to speak. When King Baudouin started to speak, the paternalistic tone in his speech was unmistakable:

‘’The independence of the Congo is the conclusion of a work conceived by the genius of King Leopold II’’


‘’… we have not hesitated to grant you that independence at once, it is for you, gentlemen, to prove that we were right thus to place our confidence in you.’’


‘’Do not be afraid to turn to us. We are ready to remain at hand and help you with advice…’’[xii]


By praising the genius of his relative, Leopold II, Baudouin angered Lumumba and a lot of Congolese who remembered the Congo Free State as a particularly oppressive and exploitative period of the Congo’s history. Although it was not his intention, the King of Belgium offended a lot of Congolese with his paternalistic speech. In his Western narrative, Leopold and the Belgian state had done everything in their power to improve the Congo and were now suddenly put aside. He had a pessimistic view about the future of the new nation and regarded the decolonization as premature. Nonetheless, the newfound parliament clapped politely. Kasavubu was next to speak. In his speech he did not only thanked all who helped to achieve the independence, he also thanked the bringers of civilization. After this moderate speech, Lumumba unexpectedly took the stage and gave a speech that stunned the world. These parts are exemplary of the speech of Lumumba:

‘’I ask you, friends who have fought unrelentingly side by side to make this 30th of June 1960 an illustrious date… a date whose significance you will be proud to teach to your children, who will in turn pass on to their children and grandchildren the glorious story of our struggle for liberty.’’


‘’This struggle, involving tears, fire and blood, is something of which we are proud in our deepest hearts, for it was a noble and just struggle, which was needed to bring to an end the humiliating slavery imposed on us by force.’’


‘’Such was our lot for eighty years under the colonialist regime; our wounds are still too fresh and painful for us to be able to forget them at will, for we have experienced painful labour demanded of us in return for wages that were not enough to enable us to eat properly, to be decently dressed or sheltered, nor to bring up our children as we longed to.’’


‘’We have known that the law was never the same for a white man as it was for a black: for the former it made allowances, for the latter it was cruel and inhuman.’’[xiii]

In his speech he did not only attack the former colonizer on live radio, he did this in the presence of the monarch. With concrete examples he illustrated the unjust practices of eighty years of colonialism, racism and slavery.[xiv] He also argued against the notion of Baudouin that the Congo was granted its independence magnanimously by Belgium, but that the process had been a struggle.The speech was interrupted 8 times for applause and was generally felt as a just answer to the paternalistic speech of Baudouin. The speech would have far-reaching consequences for Lumumba. The King was furious and wanted to return to Belgium at once. Lumumba was persuaded to do another speech, later that day, with a more friendly tenor to temper the mood of the ceremony:

‘’ At the moment when the Congo reaches independence, the whole Government wishes to pay solemn homage to the King of the Belgians and to the noble people he represents for the work done here over three quarters of a century. For I would not wish my feelings to be wrongly interpreted.”[xv]

The Congolese parliament in Leopoldville, Kasavubu is speaking, Baudouin is sitting behind him. Lumumba is at the back, working on his speech. (Source: WikimediaCommons)

Baudouin finished the programme and returned in the evening. However, the damage was already done. In the West Lumumba’s speech was widely regarded as offensive, inappropriate and rude.[xvi] The uncivilized and unthankful Lumumba had taken the stage to give his unwanted and extreme opinion. He was portrayed as a radical, craving for attention. Lumumba was now called a dangerous demagogue, and his rhetoric eloquence, which had previously been praised, was now a bad trait. Western newspapers pointed at Baudouin as the moral winner of this confrontation. He held his dignity while Lumumba enhanced his image in the Western media as impertinent, immature and savage. Because he was threatening Belgian interests, he was also regarded as a threat to the interests of the Congo itself, in Belgium’s viewpoint they were one and the same.[xvii] Lumumba was increasingly demonized in the Western media.[xviii] In the Dutch newspapers for example the reactions of the Congolese parliament were different than that of the contemporary consensus. The parliament cheered and clapped for the King while Lumumba’s speech was supposedly met with overwhelming silence and only some occasional applause from a small group of his supporters.

The uproar caused by the speech of Lumumba can be explained by looking at the different narratives and their respective contexts. The paternalistic tone of Baudouin was a narrative that was common in Belgium and the West in that period of time. King Baudouin’s speech was an example of a master narrative. Master narratives are told by those who hold power and maintain the status quo. A master narrative creates a frame in which the truth and reality are determined.[xix] Lumumba and his speech are exemplary of a counter narrative. The counter narrative questions the status quo and is often marginalized because of this. It can however, change the status quo and even replace the master narrative and its dominant position. Lumumba and his position on colonialism was during his life part of the counter narrative. This narrative changed throughout time, not only are his ideas immensely popular in Africa, but it changed the Western (master) narrative as well. However, during his lifetime the master narrative would change and the depiction of Lumumba would change with it. ←- Youtube link to a clip about the speeches of Baudouin and Lumumba on Independence Day.

 Lumumba’s image during the Congo-Crisis.

Soon after Independence Day the newfound nation would have its first challenges. The Force Publique, the Congolese army, would revolt. Its black soldiers demanded better salary, better conditions and positions within the higher ranks of the army. The mutiny spread through the country and chaos ensued. For many Belgians living in the Congo the unrests were the confirmation of their pessimistic view of the future of the Congo and many tried fleeing the country. In this period of disarray violence against the former colonizer occurred. The Belgian government reacted to this and send troops to retain order and to protect its citizens.[xx] In the disarray Belgian troops clashed with the Force Publique when they tried to rescue some civilians in Kabalo, a move that interfered with Congo’s sovereignty. A few days later the problems for Lumumba grew. On 11th of July 1960, Tshombe and his region of Katanga broke away and declared independence from the Republic of the Congo. The Katangese secessionists were immediately backed by the Belgian government who held far more confidence in Tshombe than in Lumumba. This was partly because they had feared that Lumumba would nationalize the mining companies situated in Katanga and thus take the most economic assets in the country.

To combat the secessionists and regain order, Lumumba and Kasavubu did an appeal to the United Nations (UN) on the 12th of July. The UN, under the leadership of Dag Hammarskjöld, responded by sending its biggest force in history. However, this mission called Operation des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC), was not meant to put down the secession and drive out the Belgian forces as Lumumba had hoped, but merely to keep the peace. What happened next was crucial for the image of Lumumba in the West. He (and Kasavubu) sent a telegram to the Soviet Union with a request for aid. Although the communist superpowers’ actual aid was minimal, the consequences were enormous. The Congo got pulled into the Cold War conflict. Even though Lumumba’s (and Kasavubu’s) appeal for aid was only out of desperation, Lumumba was now labeled a communist by the Western nations. Because of the resources and the presence of uranium that were needed to build nuclear weapons, Congo was very important to the USA and could not fall into the hands of its communist arch-rival. The new independent nation was perceived as the first battlefield in Africa in which the capitalist and communist worlds would clash. The Americans interpreted his approachments in terms of competition between them and the Soviet Union.[xxi] The ‘savage jungle’ could not fall prey to the ‘red danger that was communism’. Lumumba was the personification of the problems that Congo had. He was regarded as irrational, incompetent, non negotiable and being swayed to the communist ideology. The prime minister was in a large part responsible for all the problems the country faced.[xxii] For the USA it was logical that this man had to be removed from power.

In the following months things would go from bad to worse for Lumumba. Not only did the Katanga region remain independent, the region of south-Kasai also declared its independence. This standstill increased the pressure on Lumumba. The Western nations and Tshombe wanted a change of leadership in the Congo because they considered negotiations with Lumumba as fruitless. In their point of view the communist and radical Lumumba was out of control. The time for talk was over. They appealed to Kasavubu to put his prime minister out of office. Kasavubu obliged and on the 5th of September 1960 he dismissed Lumumba. Lumumba in turn dismissed Kasavubu and this resulted in an impasse. In this impasse the young Army Chief of Staff Mobutu, who also had close connections with the Western powers, arrested Lumumba while he tried to flee Leopoldville. Mobutu handed Lumumba to the Katanga secessionists who executed the former prime minister on 17 January 1961. His body went missing and his death was shrouded in mystery. It was thought that Belgium and the United States were partly responsible for his death, but evidence was lacking. In the last picture that was taken from him, he and two of his ministers were handcuffed and humiliated by the Katangese soldiers. These images circulated over the world and in many countries Lumumba became a martyr. His tragic death caused people from all over the world to protest. Patrice Lumumba was only six months in office but created a lasting impression that would outlive his rivals.

Protest in Slovenia after the death of Lumumba. (Source: WikimediaCommons)

Want to read further?
Active memory and Lumumba

Also read:

Presenting Patrice Lumumba: an Introduction

Lumumba as a symbol for Pan-Africanism

Lumumba and art

Lumumba: Reflection

Lumumba: Bibliography

[i] Dunn, K.(2003), Imagining the Congo: The International Relations of Identity. New York: Parlgrave: Macmillan. 64-65.

[ii] Blommaert, J., & Verschueren, J. (Eds.). (1991). The Pragmatics of International and Intercultural Communication: Selected papers from the International Pragmatics Conference. Antwerp, August 1987. Volume 3: The. John Benjamins Publishing.

[iii] Zeilig, L. (2008). From ‘whiteman in rags’ to revolutionary nationalist: Patrice Lumumba 1925–1960 1. Social Dynamics, 34(2).  242-244.

[iv] Gerard, E., & Kuklick, B. (2015). Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba. Harvard University Press. 15.

[v] Lumumba, P. (1962). Congo, My Country. New York, NY: Frederick A Praeger.. (In Hickner J. (2011). ‘’History will one day have its say’’: Patrice Lumumba and the Black  Freedom Movement. )

[vi] Zeilig, L. (2008). From ‘whiteman in rags. 243.

[vii] All African People Conference is held in Accra, Ghana at:

[viii] Zeilig, L. (2008). From ‘whiteman in rags. 251.

[ix] Gerard, E., & Kuklick, B. (2015). Death in the Congo. 14.

[x] Nkrumah, K. Panaf Great Lifes: Patrice Lumumba. (1973). London: Panaf Books. 99-100.

[xi] Van Reybrouck, D. (2010). Congo, een geschiedenis. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij. 270.

[xii] In: (Kanza, T. (1979). The rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba : Conflict in the Congo. Boston: Schenkman Publishing Company. 155-157.)

[xiii] Smulewicz-Zucker, G., & Schields, C. (2017). The political thought of African independence : An anthology of sources. Indianapolis [etc.]: Hackett Publishing Company.83-85.

[xiv] Van Reybrouck, D. (2010). Congo. 290.

[xv] Marred: Lumumba’s offensive speech in King’s presence. (1 July 1960). The Guardian.

[xvi] Marred: Lumumba’s offensive speech in King’s presence. (1 July 1960). The Guardian.

[xvii] Dunn, K. (2003), Imagining the Congo. 84.

[xviii] Ibidem. 83.

[xix] Zamudio, M., Russell, C., Rios, F., & Bridgeman, J. L. (2011). Critical race theory matters: Education and ideology. Routledge. 125.

[xx] Van Reybrouck, D. (2010). Congo. 307-309.

[xxi] Dunn, K. (2003), Imagining the Congo. 86.

[xxii] Ibidem. 87.