Sixty years since historic Lumumba speech launched Congo independence

Tuesday June 30 2020

This Picture taken in the 1950s shows Patrice

This Picture taken in the 1950s shows Patrice Lumumba. AFP PHOTO   

AFP
By AFP
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When the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrates 60 years of independence from Belgium on Tuesday, it will also remember Patrice Lumumba, one of its enduring national heroes and icon of those who demand that former colonial powers face up to their history.

Lumumba, a leading member of the independence movement, entered the history books on June 30, 1960, the day that the Republic of Congo, as it then was, formally broke away from Belgian colonial rule.

In the presence of Belgium's King Baudouin, Lumumba -- the 34-year-old prime minister of then president Joseph Kasavubu -- launched into a coruscating speech, accusing the former colonial masters of racist maltreatment and forcing "humiliating slavery" on the Congolese people.

"We experienced the slurs, the insults, the beatings that we had to undergo morning, noon and evening, because we were negroes," he proclaimed.

It was a withering response to King Baudouin whose speech shortly before had saluted the work of his royal ancestor Leopold II, insisting that he was not a "conqueror" but had come on a "civilising mission".

Modern Belgians are taking a different line.

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On Tuesday, the city of Ghent will mark the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence by removing a statue of Leopold II, who ruled from 1865 to his death in 1909.

Statues of Leopold and, indeed, Baudouin have been vandalised. A Belgian collective "Let's fix history" accuses Leopold of having killed "more than 10 million Congolese".

Conversely, a small Patrice Lumumba square was inaugurated in the centre of Brussels in 2018, near the district of Matonge, which has a large Congolese population.

"This is extremely important for the reconciliation of memories in Belgium, for Belgium to assume its colonial past and for the pride of Afro-descendants", explains Kalvin Soiresse, 38, a member of the Brussels parliament of Togolese origin.

Rise and fall

The speech in June 1960 marked the brief high point of Lumumba's meteoric journey, which ended just six months later on January 17, 1961.

Toppled from power, humiliated and tortured, Lumumba was executed by firing squad in a savannah 50 kilometres from Elisabethville (the current Lubumbashi) by Katangan separatists and Belgian mercenaries. He was just 35.

Six months after independence day, the Congo was in crisis. Mutinies and uprisings, the military return of the Belgians and UN interference had stoked a furnace of chaos.

Overthrown by army colonel Joseph Mobutu's "peaceful revolution" in September 1960, but still working to put a government together, Lumumba had become a walking target.

His nationalism and his appeals to the Soviet Union in the middle of the cold war had turned the Belgians and the United States, who feared losing control of the Congolese cobalt, against him.

"In no time Lumumba became a martyr of decolonisation, a hero for all the oppressed of the Earth, a saint of godless communism", says David Van Reybrouck in his book "Congo, a history".

"He owed this status more to the horrible end of his life than to his political successes. He was in power for barely two and a half months."

Belgium recognised its "moral responsibility" in the assassination of Lumumba, following a parliamentary commission of inquiry in 2001.

The Belgian Parliament is planning a new commission on all aspects of the colonisation of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.