Monday, January 17, 2011

Commemorating Patrice Lumumba

Exactly 50 years ago, on January 17, 1961, Patrice Lumumba was shot dead after being under arrest for a few months He was the first Prime Minister of Congo (Kinshasa) from June 1960 and was overthrown in September 1960.

Congo was a former colony of Belgium. It was William II of Belgium, the king at the time, who established the Congo Free State effectively as his private property in 1885. The reports of atrocities committed there prompted the Belgians to abolish the Free State and administer as a Belgian colony from 1908. The plight of the Congolese people was no better under this new administration.

People of the Congo resisted the colonial regime. In 1950s, the young leader Lumumba came to the forefront in this struggle.

When the Congo was granted independence by the Belgians, it was a very bitter affair. The independence celebrations of June 30, 1960, became a acrimonious battle of words between the young Belgian king Baudouin I and the Prime Minister of the newly born Republic of Congo, Lumumba. It was the king who made the first wrong move by declaring about the 'genius' of his great grand-uncle, king William II, whom the anti-colonial Congolese utterly despised. He evaded the topic of Belgian atrocities carried out in the Congo at the times of his ancestor. Furthermore, he warned against 'hasty reforms', suggesting that in the perspective of the Belgians, the colonialism was not over.

Lumumba hit back strongly in a speech where he said,

"Our wounds are too fresh and too smarting for us to be able to have known ironies, insults, and blows which we had to undergo morning, noon and night because we were Negroes. We have seen our lands spoiled in the name of laws which only recognized the right of the strongest. We have known laws which differed according to whether it dealt with a black man or a white.

"We have known the atrocious sufferings of those who were imprisoned for their political opinions or religious beliefs and of those exiled in their own country. Their fate was worse than death itself. Who will forget the rifle-fire from which so many of our brothers perished, or the gaols in to which were brutally thrown those who did not want to submit to a regime of justice, oppression and exploitation which were the means the colonialists employed to dominate us?"

This was an unscheduled speech. But he must have spoken as a reply to the speech by the king. The speech by the President of the Republic was canceled. The ceremony ended in a very bad note.

There was no love lost between the Belgians and Lumumba. In three months, a coup backed almost certainly by both the Belgians and the CIA and led by Joseph Mobutu, toppled Lumumba. In early December he was captured by Mobutu-loyalist troops. Kept in various places in the Congo, he was sent to the separatist Katanga on January 17, 1961. That night, he was shot.

Several days later, his body was reportedly exhumed, cut to pieces and doused in concentrated sulphiuric acid.

Lumumba's name is always remembered as a hero of the anti-colonial struggles. It was his death that made him a hero. His political legacy continues in the present day Democratic Republic of Congo.

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