n 17 January 1961, Patrice Émery Lumumba, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was assassinated with the blessing of the Belgian government, the CIA, British intelligence, and the secessionist state of Katanga. Seven months earlier, Lumumba gave a speech in the commemoration ceremony of the Congo’s independence from Belgium, and many believe that it was this speech that set the wheels in motion for his deposition and eventual assassination.
On the day of the ceremony, excitement was in the air as an audience consisting of hopeful Congolese nationals, Belgian dignitaries, and an international press gathered to mark the event. Also, given the fact that I am writing this piece at a time when the statues of dead white men are dividing opinions all around the world, it only feels right to point out that as Baudouin I, King of the Belgians, made his grand entry into the Palais de la Nation in Léopoldville – a city in the Congo that was named after his great-grandfather King Léopold II, he was greeted by a bronze statue of the Belgian monarch, who for over two decades, was the sole proprietor of the Congo Free State.
‘Congo’s independence marks the outcome of the work conceived by the genius of King Léopold II, which he undertook with tenacious courage and which Belgium has continued with perseverance.’ King Baudouin I
Among the dignitaries in attendance, were newly elected Congolese officials such as President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and the Belgian prime minister Gaston Eyskens. It was against this backdrop that the stage for this event was set. King Baudouin I gave the first speech of the event and started off by paying tribute to his great-grandfather King Léopold II, because he believed that the Congo’s independence was the ‘crowning glory’ of a mission that was ‘conceived by the genius of King Léopold II’, who came to the Congolese not ‘as a conqueror, but as a civiliser’.
If the genocidal history of the Congo Free State was a wound that needed healing from, Baudouin’s opening remarks had all but reopened the wounds, and the rest of his speech would add salt to them. Mwana Kitoko, as the Congolese called him, was not beautiful with his words on the day – at least not in relation to the Congo and its people. After singing the praises of King Léopold II, he listed a litany of benefits that Belgium had brought to the Congo by way of colonisation – from medical services to industrial infrastructure. Baudouin affirmed that ‘despite the greatest difficulties’, Belgium had provided the Congo with ‘the essential elements for the reinforcement of a country on the road to development’.
‘When Léopold II undertook the great work which today finds its crowning glory, he did not present himself to you as a conqueror but as a civiliser.’ King Baudouin I
Perhaps, the most unsavoury of Baudouin’s comments came when he paid tribute to the Force Publique for accomplishing ‘its heavy mission with courage and dedication without failure’. At this point, it must have become clear that Baudouin’s romantic portrayal of the colonial period was at odds with the memory that the colonised had of the same period. While Léopold II was a visionary to Baudouin, the Congolese were literally the victims of Léopold’s vision. While the Force Publique was a hallowed institution to Baudouin, it was a symbol of colonial oppression to the Congolese. The westerners in the audience may have been enjoying the event so far, but for the Congolese in attendance, and those listening in, the king’s speech must have felt like an insult that bordered on provocation.
As the king spoke, the Congolese prime minister was visibly taking notes. His speech, which was written before the ceremony was now being altered, and with the new president of the Congo scheduled to speak after the Belgian king, Lumumba had even more time to alter his text. As for President Kasa-Vubu, his speech is remembered for being so plain that his words are almost not worth remembering. At best, they ruffled no feathers, and at worst, they echoed Baudouin’s earlier remarks. After Kasa-Vubu’s speech, Joseph Kasongo, the President of the National Assembly, invited Lumumba to speak, and the contents of his speech would make Baudouin’s blood run cold.
‘No Congolese worthy of the name can ever forget that it is by the struggle that we have won [our independence] in which no effort, privation, suffering, or drop of our blood was spared.’ Patrice Lumumba
In his opening remarks, the prime minister addressed the men and women of the Congo – not the country’s former colonisers. ‘In the name of the Congolese government’, he saluted his fellow ‘combatants who are now victorious in their fight for independence’. If Baudouin’s speech was a reminder of the long night of colonialism, Lumumba’s opening remark was a quick reminder that the long awaited dawn of freedom had arrived. By choosing to address his speech to the ‘men and women of the Congo’, Lumumba succeeded in bringing his people from the margins of proceedings to the centre of the stage. Suddenly, the previously distinguished Belgians were reduced to mere spectators of a Congolese national celebration that defied colonial norms.
Contradicting the king’s earlier speech, Lumumba asserted that the independence of the Congo was, in fact, not a gift from the Belgians, but the result of a struggle ‘in which no effort, privation, suffering, or drop of [Congolese] blood was spared’. By now, the room was deathly silent, and Baudouin had turned pale, but Lumumba was only just getting started. The prime minister went on to describe, in the frankest of terms, the realities of Belgian colonisation from a Congolese perspective. His narrative stood in sharp contrast to the picture that Baudouin had tried to paint earlier. According to Lumumba, his people’s wounds were ‘too fresh and much too painful to be forgotten’ at the time.
‘Who will ever forget that the Black was addressed as “tu”, not because he was a friend, but because the polite “vous” was reserved for the white man?’Patrice Lumumba
Lumumba recalled a not so distant past when his people were subjected to physical and psychological persecution ‘morning, noon, and night, because [they] were Negroes’. He recalled the fact that ‘the Black was addressed as “tu”, not because he was a friend, but because the polite “vous” was reserved for the white man’. He recalled the fact that under colonialism, ‘the law was never the same for the white and the Black, that it was lenient to the former, [but] cruel and inhuman to the latter’. He recalled these painful intergenerational memories, not in a dark alley or in a secret meeting, but in the presence of his colonisers and their king. To make matters worse, he spoke of his oppressors, but not once did he speak to them.
On the contrary, he spoke to his people, reminding them of the history and struggle that brought them through slavery to freedom. He spoke on the need to ‘sink [..] tribal quarrels’ and ‘make the Congo the pride of Africa’, to ‘commence together a new struggle […] that will lead [the] country to peace, prosperity and greatness’, and to ‘revise all the old laws [..] into new ones that will be just and noble’. He called for unity, asking the Congolese people to come together and ‘see to it that the lands of [their] native country truly benefit its children’, but perhaps more importantly, he called on every Congolese to look at their independence as ‘a decisive step towards the liberation of the whole African continent’.
‘Let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.’Patrice Lumumba
In a world, where talk is cheap, very few speeches have shaped the course of history, and when it comes to the history of the African struggle, there is not a lot that can compare to the one that Patrice Lumumba gave on the day that the Congo gained its independence from Belgium. Lumumba’s speech was interrupted eight times by sustained applause from the Congolese members of the audience. In no time, news about the speech had spread throughout the country as thousands of people were following the festivities over the radio. Disbelief spread among the Congolese people as they heard their new Prime Minister speak in a language that was thought impossible in front of Europeans.
By this one act of defiance, Patrice Lumumba had managed to reinstate the Congolese people’s dignity and confidence. He had set the scene for the future and made it clear that he would not stand by and watch Belgium and its allies continue to exploit the Congo after independence. But with his speech came many enemies in the western world. The Belgian king returned to Belgium, personally offended by Lumumba, and the western media criticised him for the tone and content of his speech. Time called it a ‘venomous attack’ while The Guardian referred to it as ‘offensive’. In the end, Patrice Lumumba’s speech set in motion a series of events geared exclusively towards his downfall and eventual assassination.
Much like Malcolm X was to Black America, Patrice Lumumba was our very own Black shining prince – who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so. In life and in death, he represented an idea that millions around the world have come to aspire to. He may have died young, but his life continues to inspire the actions of many – in the Congo and beyond. Speaking in 1964, three years after the death of Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X said that Lumumba’s speech was ‘the greatest’ and that he was ‘the greatest […] man who ever walked the African continent’. Here’s to all the people like Lumumba, who lived and died for the freedom of the African continent. May we know them, may we honour them, may we never forget them.
Here’s to all the people like Lumumba, who lived and died for the freedom of the African continent. May we know them, may we honour them, may we never forget them.