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Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Lumumba in A Season in the Congo

It’s still Open Season in the Congo

55 years ago Patrice Lumumba was killed for trying to economically liberate his Congolese people from decades of economic and political subjugation.

This article from July 2013 reviews the tragedy of Lumumba and his country.


Last Friday I went to see A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic theatre in south London, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role as Patrice Lumumba. The play centred around post-independence Congo after 80 years of Belgian colonial rule, with Lumumba as its first elected prime minister on 30 June 1960, taking in the tragic circumstances of his arrest, humiliation and assassination in January 1961, a tragedy that the country has not recovered from over 50 years later.

When many think about Congo, they are likely to think of a failed state, grinding poverty, the 32 year kleptocratic tyranny of Mobutu Sese Seko, the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman for the world heavyweight title, a civil war that has killed over 5 million people since 1998, and some of the best dance music of the soukous genre from the likes of Fally Ipupa, Awilo Longomba and Koffi Olomide.

What is not widely known is that Congo is the richest country in the world in terms of natural resources. It is sitting on an estimated $24 trillion worth of minerals. It has 30% of the world’s diamond reserves and 70% of the world’s coltan. Coltan is critical in the manufacture of computers and mobile phones. Congo also has gold in huge quantities, and the world’s biggest deposits of copper, cobalt and cadmium. These strategic minerals are critical in the manufacture of jet engines, missiles, cars, electronic components, in fact, the very foundations of industry and wealth in the West.

Access to the riches of Congo is so critical to Western wealth that from the Lumumba’s time till today, it has become absolutely essential that those Africans concerned about using this wealth for the benefit of their people, as opposed to the benefit of transnational corporations, had to be removed from the equation by any means necessary. One Belgian diplomat called Lumumba “dangerous”. The then Belgian African Affairs minister, Harold d’Aspremont Lynden called for his “definitive elimination”. Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in Congo at independence called Lumumba “a danger for the rest of the world and the Congo”.

Patrice Lumumba
Patrice Lumumba

Lumumba was said to have “signed his death warrant” in a speech to parliament on independence day, in front of Belgium’s King Baudouin: “… no Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle, a persevering and inspired struggle carried on from day to day, a struggle, in which we were undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood. It was filled with tears, fire and blood. We are deeply proud of our struggle, because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to the humiliating bondage forced upon us. That was our lot for the eighty years of colonial rule and our wounds are too fresh and much too painful to be forgotten. We have experienced forced labour in exchange for pay that did not allow us to satisfy our hunger, to clothe ourselves, to have decent lodgings or to bring up our children as dearly loved ones.”

Watch the speech:

Despite the pain of the past, he was optimistic about the future: “The Republic of the Congo has been proclaimed and our beloved country’s future is now in the hands of its own people. Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness. Together we shall establish social justice and ensure for every man a fair remuneration for his labour. We shall show the world what the black man can do when working in liberty, and we shall make the Congo the pride of Africa. We shall see to it that the lands of our native country truly benefit its children.”

He also spoke about “ensuring our economic independence”. This sort of talk had him quickly labelled a “communist”, something he vigorously denied, saying he was “simply a nationalist leader fighting for an ideal” and he “never was a communist and never will be”. But his “ideal” was a threat to the profits of a company like Union Miniere, a US, British and Belgian giant that owned most of the mineral resources in the Katanga region of Congo. The company engineered Katanga’s secession from Congo with the aid of their puppet Moise Tshombe, whose soldiers later captured and murdered Lumumba.

A Belgian parliamentary inquiry in 2001 stated that “from the start the Belgian government showed little respect for Congo’s sovereignty”. Lumumba, branded a threat, and undermined by foreign intervention, never stood a chance of delivering for the people who elected him. He said the “masses want more than the vote – they want progress”. While in captivity in Thysville Prison, he wrote this to his wife: “the only thing which we wanted for our country is the right to a worthy life, to dignity without pretence, to independence without restrictions. This was never the desire of the Belgian colonialists and their Western allies..”

He continued: “The day will come when history will speak. But it will not be the history which will be taught in Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations. It will be the history which will be taught in the countries which have won freedom from colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history and in both north and south it will be a history of glory and dignity.”

That day that he wrote about is yet to come because Mobutu came to power in September 1960, with CIA and Belgian support, to “restore order”, and the country has not recovered from his dictatorship. Historian Walter Rodney wrote in “How Europe underdeveloped Africa” that: “Any diagnosis of underdevelopment in Africa will reveal not just low per capita income and protein deficiencies, but also the gentlemen who dance in Abidjan, Accra and Kinshasa when music is played in Paris, London and New York.”

This “music” is played through the overthrow of nationalist leaders like Lumumba who wanted to truly represent their people, the provision of support for dictators like Mobutu, funding and fuelling the sort of wars that have ravaged Congo since 1998 in order to secure access to the riches of that country for Western firms and keep their prices down. As British journalist and activist George Monbiot said, the components for our smartphones are “soaked in the blood of people from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo”.

By Ken Chigbo and originally published in the Weekly World online magazine

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