Patrice Lumumba, uncompromising independence fighter | African Roots | DW | 15.06.2018
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African Roots

Patrice Lumumba, uncompromising independence fighter

He's inspired generations: Patrice Lumumba became prime minister when the Congo was still under Belgian colonial rule. But he was forced out of office shortly after the country's independence and later assassinated.

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Patrice Lumumba, uncompromising independence fighter

When and where did Patrice Lumumba live?

Patrice Emery Lumumba was born as Elias Okitasombo on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, a village in the Kasai Oriental. After receiving basic education in local missionary schools, he settled in Stanleyville (now Kisangani), a city in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the early 1940s, he moved to the capital which was then called Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). He held various jobs, working at the post office, as press correspondent and sales director for a brewery, while establishing himself as an anti-colonialist political leader. He became the first prime minister of the independent Congo in 1960, but was rapidly removed from office in the turmoil that followed independence.

Lumumba was put under house arrest. He attempted to flee, but was captured and brought to Lubumbashi (formerly Elisabethville) in Katanga province where he was assassinated on January 17, 1961.

What was Lumumba renowned for?

The idealistic and charismatic autodidact Lumumba knew how to rally people for the cause of an independent state. His uncompromising fight against colonialism earned him recognition far beyond the borders of his country, creating a true Lumumba myth.

On June 30, 1960, images of his speech at the ceremony of independence went around the world.

"No Congolese will be able to forget that [independence] was won in struggle, a struggle in blood, fire and tears," he declared. He went on to describe the injustices suffered by Congolese during the colonial era, while the King of the Belgians, Baudouin I., was present in the room.

Throughout his life Lumumba wrote articles, essays and speeches, addressing social issues as well as Congo's or Africa's fate. His writings and his personality inspired generations of intellectuals and anti-imperialist activists from Africa and elsewhere, including his contemporary Aime Cesaire (A season in the Congo, 1966).

Here are some of Lumumba's most famous quotes:

"We are against no one, but rather are simply against domination, injustices and abuses. (…) These injustices and the stupid superiority complex displayed by the colonialists are the causes of the drama of the West in Africa.”

"We will begin a new struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness (…) and we will put Congo at the center of the prestige that will shine forth from Africa as a whole.”

"Neither brutal assaults, nor cruel mistreatment, nor torture have ever led me to beg for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head held high."

Why was Lumumba ousted?

In a transition that was hastily and half-heartedly organized, the Belgian colonial administration had handed over power without providing the new rulers with the necessary structures.

Immediately after independence was declared, Patrice Lumumba made further moves for the country to gain control on all levels. One of his first steps was to dismiss the Belgian commander of the army. At that time, the country was on the brink of a crisis which saw the secession of the southeast provinces of Katanga and South Kasai.

In a bid to secure the situation, Lumumba solicited help from various international players, including the Soviet Union. In a Cold War context, this turned out handy for his political opponents in the country and accelerated his downfall, as it brought various Western powers up against him.

How did Lumumba die?

Intelligence sources show that both the US and Belgium had implications in the complot against Lumumba. The Belgian government officially apologized to his family in 2002, but a number of unanswered questions remain. Congo's chaotic transition to independence, marked by episodes of great violence, cast a shadow on Lumumba's image.

Tamara Wackernagel, Saleh Mwanamilongo and Gwendolin Hilse contributed to this package. It is part of DW's special series "African Roots", dedicated to African history, a cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

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