Patrice Emery Lumumba (1925-1961) was the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo. His fame rests on the manner of his death and on the symbolic character of his short public life.
Patrice Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925, at Onalua near the town of Katako-Kombe in the Sankuru district of northeastern Kasai. His tribe, the Batetela, is a peripheral but dynamic branch of the Mongo-Nkutshu family of central Congo. He attended Protestant and then Catholic missionary schools and, after completing his secondary education, found a job as a postal clerk in the provincial capital of Statesville (now Kisangani) in 1954.
Lumumba rapidly emerged as a leader of the évoluécommunity and organized a postal workers' union. He also became a protégéof local sympathizers of the Belgian Liberal party at a time when the policy of the Liberal minister of colonies Auguste Buisseret toward mission schools was raising violent conflicts between Catholic and non-Catholic members of the colonial establishment. This patronage led to an extensive interview with King Baudouin when he visited the Congo in 1955 and helped minimize the legal aftereffects of an embezzlement charge raised against Lumumba in 1956.
In 1957, having been appointed to the much better paid position of sales director for an important brewery, Lumumba left Stanleyville for Léopoldville just in time to witness the first manifestation of organized political activity in the form of a bitterly fought municipal election that was won by Joseph Kasavubu's ABAKO. Lumumba's debut on the Léopoldville political scene was in the relatively modest role of leader of a tribal association which took part in an alliance of non-Bakongo elements in the capital.
Lumumba soon became involved, however, in a less parochial endeavor—namely, the foundation of a supraethnic movement called Movement National Congolais (MNC), a group initially dominated by educated Congolese linked to Catholic circles who wanted to broaden their appeal. Lumumba's dynamism and oratorical talents soon won him prominence in the party. He led an MNC delegation to the December 1958 All-African Peoples' Conference in Accra, where he met Kwame Nkrumah, with whom he remained in touch during the rest of his own short political career.
The year 1959 saw the emergence of Patrice Lumumba as the sole truly national figure on the Congo political scene. His persuasive, magnetic personality dominated the Luluabourg congress of April 1959, where all those political formations favoring a unitary form of government for the Congo attempted to establish a common front. Lumumba's growing prestige as well as his comparative radicalism, however, antagonized other MNC leaders, and the outcome was a split in the ranks of the party (July 1959), as a result of which most of the original founders of the party rallied behind Albert Kalonji while Lumumba retained the bulk of the rank and file.
Lumumba was briefly imprisoned in November 1959 on charges of inciting riots in Stanleyville, but he was set free in time to attend the Round Table Conference in Brussels, where his dramatic appearance stole the show from other Congolese leaders. Lumumba's efforts throughout this period were directed more steadfastly than those of any other Congolese politician toward the organization of a nationwide movement. To this effect, he took full advantage of local political situations, of his earlier connections in Stanleyville, and of his own ethnic background, which provided him with an initial foothold in many districts of the Congo. His linguistic abilities—unlike Kasavubu or Moïse Tshombe, Lumumba was an effective speaker in each of the Congo's major vehicular languages as well as in French—also helped his campaigning.
In the May 1960 general elections, Lumumba and his allies won 41 of 137 seats in the National Assembly and held significant positions in four of six provincial governments. As leader of the largest single party (the MNC's nearest competitor had only 15 seats), Lumumba was somewhat reluctantly selected by the Belgians to form a coalition cabinet and became the Congo's first prime minister (and minister of defense) a week before independence, and Kasavubu, leader of the Bakongo, became president of the republic with Lumumba's tacit support.
During his brief incumbency, Lumumba had to face a conjunction of emergencies such as has seldom been met by a newly independent country: the mutiny of the army and the secession of Katanga and then of Southern kasai, aided and abetted by Belgian interests and the unilateral intervention of Belgian forces. Lumumba turned to the United Nations for support, only to discover that they had no intention of accepting his definition of the Congo's national interest and insisted on opposing the use of force whether by legal or illegal authorities. In desperation, Lumumba asked for Soviet logistical support to mount an offensive against the break away regimes of Southern Kasai and Katanga but was stopped in his tracks when President Kasavubu dismissed him from office on Sept. 5, 1960.
The National Assembly reconfirmed Lumumba in power, but a fraction of the army, led by Col. Mobutu, took power, and Lumumba was confined to de facto house arrest under the protection of Ghanaian troops of the UN force. His political associates had meanwhile withdrawn to Stanleyville to organize a rival government. Lumumba slipped out of the capital and tried to make his way toward Stanleyville, but he was arrested by an army patrol and incarcerated in a military camp at Thysville.
Even then, Lumumba's prestige and the strength of his followers remained a threat to the unstable new rulers of the Congo. This was demonstrated when Lumumba nearly managed the incredible feat of persuading his military jailers to help him recapture power. This incident only confirmed the Léopoldville authorities' determination to get rid of the deposed premier. The decision to transfer him to either one of the secessionist states of Southern Kasai or Katanga (where he was sure to be put to death) had been debated for some time as a possible prelude to reconciliation with these two breakaway regions. On Jan. 18, 1961, Lumumba was flown to Elisabethville, capital of Katanga, where, despite the presence of UN troops, he was picked up by a small Katanga task force led by Interior Minister Godefroid Munongo and including white mercenaries, taken to a nearby house, and murdered.
The Katanga government made clumsy attempts to conceal and then to disguise the murder, but the shock waves caused by the assassination reverberated around the world and generated enough international pressure to ensure passage of a Security Council resolution permitting the use of force as a last resort by UN forces in the Congo (Feb. 21, 1961). This resolution itself unleashed a train of events which led to the restoration of a civilian regime in Léopoldville and to the eventual liquidation of all secessionist movements.
Lumumba had not been a Communist, had little interest in ideologies, and was more opportunistic than truly radical, but this has not prevented his name from being invoked after his death from a number of different quarters. The most legitimate use of Lumumba's memory is probably that which associates it with an attitude of intransigent nationalism and opposition to neocolonialism.
Studies of Lumumba are R. Lermachand's "Patrice Lumumba" in W. A. E. Skurnik, ed., African Political Thought: Lumumba, Nkrumah, and Touré (1968), and G. Heinz and H. Donnay, Lumumba: The Last Fifty Days (1970). Profiles of Lumumba are in Catherine Hoskyns, The Congo since Independence, January 1960—December 1961 (1965), and Crawford Young, Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence (1965).