Who killed Patrice Lumumba? The Belgian government’s spokesmen were adamant when news of the murder of the Congo’s first elected prime minister was announced in February 1961: ‘In accordance with its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of the Congolese state, Belgium has absolutely nothing to do with the arrest, imprisonment, transfer and death of the former Prime Minister.’ ‘At no time were the Belgian authorities consulted.’ ‘Like you,’ Foreign Minister Wigny insisted, ‘I learned about Lumumba’s transfer in the press.’ It was ‘emotional Africans’, meeting ‘without any of their European advisers’, as one Belgian intelligence officer put it, who ‘decided to get rid of him. What were their motives? Revenge, tribal hatred . . .’ Ludo De Witte, author of Crisis in Kongo, has trawled the archives of the Belgian Foreign Office, the UN, the Institut Africain and other collections, subjecting these claims to careful scrutiny. His important new book casts considerable light on the ways in which the West has subjected Africa to a self-serving blend of indifference and intervention.

Brussels’ initial reaction to the winds of anti-colonial resistance blowing through Africa in the late 1950s had been complacent: an orderly transition to home rule in the vast Belgian Congo might certainly be contemplated, at some stage, when the Congolese were mature enough, perhaps in five years’ time . . . or in twenty. In the meantime, the colonial administration would continue to oversee the extraction of the country’s cobalt, copper, tin, uranium, diamonds, gold and zinc by the vast Société Générale de Belgique and its subsidiaries. The model was one of dirigisme from Brussels, combined with extreme structural underdevelopment. In a country that stretched over a thousand miles from the Atlantic coast to the eastern highlands, and nearly 1,500 miles from the northern savannah across equatorial forests to the copper-rich plateaus of the south, there had been no attempt to create a coherent national infrastructure. Distinct zones were organized around regional poles of exploitation—the mines and their work camps in the Katanga province; diamonds in Kasai; palm and rubber products in the Congo River basin. Transport was geared exclusively to foreign investors’ needs. Education was minimal: in 1959, 136 Congolese children, out of a population of 14 million, obtained graduation certificates from secondary schools. Press and radio were naturally in white hands. Local chauvinism, tribalism and linguistic differences were fostered. A fragile layer of some 150,000 black évolués, in the social-darwinist language of the colonialists, were employed in the lower ranks of the civil administration; the top ranks were all staffed by whites. Order was maintained by the Belgian-officered Force Publique.

It was the Congolese civil disobedience campaign of 1959, combining wage demands with calls for African representation—and only redoubling in the face of Belgian bullets and prison cells—that led to a change of tactics in Brussels, and the sudden offer of independence in January 1960. The example of France’s war in Algeria was too close at hand: Belgium could not stomach a call-up. A memo from the African Affairs Minister Harold d’Aspremont Lynden, touring the colony in February 1960, noted the urgent need to create ‘a moderate Congolese government, that is to say, one basically willing to collaborate with Belgium’. The latter should therefore ‘“win” the [May] elections, by legitimate indirect means’. Behind the new government, things would carry on much as before: whites would still run the Force Publique and the mining companies; a Belgian adviser—or ‘prompter’, as the colonial intelligence chief Vandewalle put it—would stand beside every black government minister; Belgian troops in the crucial mining province of Katanga would be reinforced.

Developments were anxiously monitored from the palace; the Belgian monarchy, in de Witte’s account, was at the centre of the close-knit web that linked the Belgian elite, the Société Générale and the Congo, ‘woven together in defence of the colonial purse’. ‘Events are moving at a speed nobody could have expected’, King Baudouin now reported. ‘Tumultuous forces have been set in motion, without sufficient numbers of wise and experienced elites to control and direct them.’ The King’s anxieties were justified: the elections, however indirectly legitimate, did not produce the right results. Lumumba’s Mouvement National Congolais—centralist, nationalist, and more or less imbued with a populist pan-African ideology—was the largest single party, and constitutionally entitled to lead the new coalition government in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa).

Tall, slim, sociable, a brilliant orator, Lumumba was born in 1925 in the Kasai province, the son of peasant farmers of the small Batetela tribe. His own life exemplifies the country’s underdevelopment: after a missionary school he had to supplement his education by his own efforts, taking a correspondence course to improve his French. He became an évolué, employed in the colonial postal service in Stanleyville, active in the local cultural clubs and chairman of the town’sAssociation des Evolués. Struggling to raise his young family on a salary quarter that of a white’s, Lumumba was arrested for pilfering minute sums and spent a year in prison, subjected to a regime of floggings and solitary confinement, foul food, board beds, bare feet. Here he wrote his Congo, terre d’avenir—a moving picture of how his own energetic, aspirational social layer found themselves ‘overwhelmed by the problems of living and of hunger’, forced to send their children to school ill-clad and with only chikwang to eat; banned from the cinemas and the white districts, chafing at the curfew—‘We are not chickens to be shut up in our houses when we have no desire to sleep’. Moving to Leopoldville, he got work as the sales manager of a local brewery and, when local political organizations were legalized, became a founder-member of the MNC. The 1958 All-African Conference in Accra was a radical inspiration: the goal of a unified, sovereign Congo extended itself naturally to the idea of pan-African sovereignty.

De Witte’s book opens with Lumumba’s famous Independence Day speech on 30 June 1960. The newly elected Congolese politicians, Belgian elite and foreign dignitaries were gathered in Leopoldville’s Palais de la Nation for the ceremonial handover of sovereignty by King Baudouin to President Kasavubu. Baudouin’s address that day was a model of paternalism and complacency, and a paean of praise to the colonizing ‘genius’ of his notorious forebear Leopold II, responsible for creating an unrivalled system of forced labour that had killed millions of Africans. While Baudouin spoke, Lumumba was seen scribbling a few hasty changes to his own speech. His reply came as a shock to the Belgian elite: independence was not a gift but ‘a struggle won, a struggle in which no effort, privation, suffering or drop of our blood was spared. Our wounds are too fresh and too smarting for us to chase them from our memory’. The moment established him as a thorn in the flesh of the Western powers: the threat of a radical and forward-looking nationalism upsetting what, it had been hoped, would be a smooth transition to a neo-colonial order.

Congolese hopes for a peaceful transfer of sovereignty lasted less than a week. Confronted with his troops’ demands for the Africanization of the officer corps, General Janssens, Commander-in-Chief of the Force Publique, picked up a piece of chalk and wrote on the blackboard: ‘Before Independence = After Independence’. Enraged, the soldiers took over the camp, disarming their superiors. Lumumba, after trying to broker a compromise, sided with the troops. Recolonization swiftly followed. Belgian ‘prompters’ supported the province of Katanga’s secession from the new state under its local strongman, Tshombe. Belgian troops flew in to Leopoldville and other major towns, occupying the airports. With rabid tales of African atrocities filling the Western press, white teachers and administrators fled to Belgium or Rhodesia and international firms (temporarily) shut their doors. In desperation Lumumba—democratically elected leader of a sovereign state threatened with disintegration through outside intervention—called for United Nations support to get the Belgian troops out of his capital and, especially, out of the Congolese province of Katanga.