In The Assassination of Lumumba, Ludo De Witte analyzes the events and motivations surrounding the death of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Congo after the country’s supposed decolonization by Belgium. De Witte was arguing against popular historiography and sentiment and attempted to provide readers with a more complete understanding of the circumstances that led to Lumumba’s assassination. De Witte analyzes documents he is given access to by the UN and the Belgian government, as well as a dissertation thesis written by Jacques Brassinne and Jean Kestergat in 1991, which he regards with suspicion since Brassinne collaborated with the Katangan government, which could have had a serious impact on the interviews Brassinne conducted. De Witte’s work opens up many questions about the decolonization process, including the influence of the Cold War, the usefulness of the United Nations as an institution, and the value of humanitarian ideals relative to strategic interests in the eyes of the international community.
De Witte’s argument for outside involvement in Lumumba’s assassination rests on three pillars: UN complicity, Belgian initiative, and the involvement of the CIA in an aborted assassination attempt. The influence attributed to the United States by De Witte in Lumumba’s eventual death is weak. De Witte clearly shows that the United States’ government’s obsession with the Cold War and the possibility of the Congo aligning itself with the USSR was seriously discussed and resulted in the CIA developing assassination plans. Had this plan been carried out, the United States would certainly bear responsibility. However, the assassination was called off when Belgium and the United Nations managed to arrange Lumumba’s death. Morally, the US incurred guilt through planning the action and intending to commit the action, but in the purest legal sense, intent without action is not a crime.
De Witte’s accusations against the United Nations are in some cases circumstantial. For example, he places blame on the institution as a result of the actions, or inactions, of individuals. It is very significant that Dag Hammerskjold willfully influenced events in a way that ensured the collapse of the legally elected and legitimate government that Lumumba was a part of, and validated the illegal government set up by Tshombe in Katanga. It makes one questions whether or not there was some unrealized link between Hammerskjold and the Belgian government that gave him an incentive to undermine Lumumba. Or, perhaps, Hammerskjold was merely representative of a neo-colonialist element within the United Nations that worked for goals contrary to those officially stated by the United Nations.
In his introduction, De Witte notes that many have understood his book to be primarily laying blame at the feet of the Belgian government. He attempts to deflect by saying that he thinks blame lies with more than one party and while that is certainly true, it is obvious that the primary motivation for removing Lumumba was to restore Belgium’s control of the Congo by using a weak parliament as a façade. The media was expertly manipulated to reiterate racist rhetoric that reduced Lumumba to a reactionary, animalistic figure without any clear plan other than to kill Europeans, reminiscent of anti-Mau Mau rhetoric in Kenya. The presence of Belgians at all stages of Lumumba’s detention, transfer and murder, as well as Belgian initiation and reinforcement of the secession of Katanga, and the intentional attempt to stamp out popular political sentiment clearly put the majority of the blame and responsibility at the feet of the Belgian government, regardless of later revelations by the 2002 Belgian parliamentary commission’s findings of active conspiracy by the royal court to assassinate Lumumba.
What is the actual purpose and value of the United Nations? How often has the organization actually effected positive change? Are humanitarian values and decolonial rhetoric smokescreens meant to place a positive veneer on continued Western control of other countries? Belgium’s actions in the Congo are reminiscent of the CIA and MI6 overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran after he nationalized the oil company formerly controlled by Britain. Lumumba was written off as being unique or unusual but he had the support of the people and his ideas, to truly decolonize his country, were part of a larger stream of thought in much of the world at that time. Unfortunately, the West still held a disproportionate amount of international power and, despite the public outcry and later support for the Stanleyville government primarily by Communist bloc countries, the Congo was allowed to remain under Belgian control.