Patrice Lumumba: First Prime Minister of the Congo

Photo of Patrice Émery Lumumba
(July 2, 1925– January 17, 1961)

Patrice Émery Lumumba (aka Patrice Hemery Lumumba) was born July 2, 1925 in Onalua, Katakokombe, Kasai Province in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of four sons, Lumumba was a member of the Tetela tribal group. His education included missionary school training. After completing his education, he passed the postal clerk exam and began to work in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville). In 1951, Lumumba married Pauline Opangu and they would go on to have five children: François, Patrice Junior, Julienne, Roland and Guy-Patrice Lumumba.

Photo of a youthful Patrice Lumumba in the Belgian-Congo

By 1955, Lumumba began to enter political life. He became a regional leader for the Cercles of Stanleyville and joined the Liberal Party of Belgium where he served as editor and distributor of information. While traveling in Belgium that same year, Lumumba was arrested by the colonial government police and charged with embezzling post office funds. In July 1956, Lumumba was released after serving 12 months of a two-year sentence.

By 1958, Lumumba had re-entered political life and began to organize for Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). In December 1958, he represented the MNC as president at the All-African Peoples' Conference held in Accra, Ghana, hosted by Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah.

Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the Republic of the Congo

By October 1959, Lumumba was again arrested by the Belgian colonial government on charges of inciting anti-colonial riots in Stanleyville. He was sentenced to six months in prison for his anti-colonial activism. While in Lumumba was in prison, the MNC participated as a political party in the Belgian-Congo elections held in December of 1959. Lumumba was released before the MNC won the May 1960 election.

Lumumba, age 34 years old, was announced as the Belgian Congo's first prime minister. Joseph Kasa-Vubu was named president. On June 30, 1960, the country’s new leadership declared independence from the Belgian colonial rule. In an Independence Day ceremony for the newly named Republic of the Congo, King Baudouin spoke first, urging the Congolese to remain under the leadership of Belgium. Lumumba responded, in part, in his speech as follows:
"For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force." 
Unrest in the New Republic

Photo of Patrice Lumumba

Lumumba's speech became a media sensation in the West. Dissent within the army arose soon after Reports arose about military unrest, looting and European flight. By July 11, 1960, Moïse Tshombe declared himself the regional premier of the Katanga province. Tshombe was supported by the Belgian government and European mining firms with interest in rubber, copper and other minerals.

UN troops arrived, but did not move to suppress the Katanga rebellion. Lumumba soon sought Soviet military aid. President Kasa-Vubu, however, wanted a more moderate political approach and sought to remove Lumumba as prime minister. Lumumba declared the Presidential act illegal and sought Senate and Parliament action to declare President Kasa-Vubu‘s removal. The country was torn over the warring Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba political faction.
Joseph Mobutu’s Rise to Power and the Murder of Lumumba

Photo: A young Joseph Désiré Mobutu rolls up his sleeves
during a speech in December 1965 in Leopoldville, Congo

On September 14, 1960, Lieutenant General Joseph Désiré Mobutu (later known as Mobutu Sese Seko) organized a coup that deposed the divided nation. Lumumba was placed under house arrest, but he soon stole away to Stanleyville, organizing among his Haut-Congo supporters. On December 1, 1960, Lumumba was captured in Port Francqui by Mobutu’s troops and flown to Kinshasa (then Leopoldville).

The Soviet Union demanded his release and called upon the U.N. Security Council to act. U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld called for due process of law; on December 14, 1960, however, in a 8-2 vote, the Soviet Union's resolution was defeated. Lumumba was transferred to the Katanga Province under Mobutu‘s leadership.

On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was restrained and flown to Lubumbashi (then Elizabethville). That same day, Patrice Lumumba, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito were reportedly lined before a firing squad, according to Belgian reports. No due process was afforded those executed. While various accounts are reported, the true nature and facilitators of his murder, however, have never been definitively explained.

Photo of Congo leader Mobutu Sese Seko conversing with U.S. President Richard Nixon

In February 2002, the Belgian government released an official apology to the Congolese people. In a thousand page report, the government admitted to failure of a "moral responsibility" and "an irrefutable portion of responsibility in the events that led to the death of Lumumba." 

Lumumba’s Murder Leads to International Protests in Europe 

After Patrice Lumumba's assassination, protestors clashed with Belgian embassies and local police in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and at Trafalgar Square in London, UK. Prior to Lumumba's imprisonment, he had arranged for his wife, Pauline, and their children to move to Egypt.

“ We must move forward, striking out tirelessly against imperialism," said Che Guevara in 1964, reflecting on the life of Lumumba. "From all over the world we have to learn lessons which events afford. Lumumba’s murder should be a lesson for all of us.”

That same year, Malcolm X declared Patrice Lumumba "the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent."

African Freedom Fighter and Pan Africanist 

The heroism of Patrice Lumumba is embraced as a symbol of African independence efforts. In the 2006 election, a number of the running parties affiliated themselves with Lumumba's political philosophy. This includes the Unified Lumumbist Party (Parti Lumumbiste Unifié (PALU)), Mouvement Lumumbiste (MLP) and Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba (MNC-L). The MNC-L is lead by Lumumba's eldest son, François Lumumba, who obtained a doctorate in political economics in Hungary before returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1992 to oppose Mobutu Sese Seko‘s rule of the country then known as Zaire.

In Kampala, Uganda, "Lumumba Hall" of Residence at Makerere University continues to carry the name of Patrice Lumumba.

Did You Know? The various formal official country names
for the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Congo Free State (État indépendant du Congo): 1885 to 1908. Belgian King Leopold II claimed personal ownership over the land
  • Belgian Congo (Congo Belge): 1908 - 1960. King Leopold II's formal transfer of property ownership to the state of Belgium
  • Republic of the Congo or Congo-Léopoldville: 1960 - 1964. Distinguish from its western neighbor in the Republic of the Congo, formerly French Congo
  • Republic of the Congo or Congo-Kinshasa (1964-1971)
  • Zaire (Zaïre): 1971-1997
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: 1997 to Present
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