The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

“Lumumba,” a new film about the Congolese leader

Jul 30, 2001

“Lumumba” is a new movie that depicts what happened to Patrice Lumumba, a nationalist leader who was the first prime minister of the Congo after the country gained independence from Belgium in 1960. The film opens with Lumumba, along with two of his assistants, being driven to their execution, after having been forced from office by a coalition of imperial powers and Congolese leaders willing to do imperialism’s bidding.

The rest of the film is a flashback, tracing Lumumba’s very fast rise and fall.

The late 1950s was a time of rising independence movements throughout Africa that held out the hope that Africa would be finally free to develop its own resources and economy. But the film shows most strikingly the absolute ruthlessness and brutality of the different imperial powers, not just Belgium, that clung to their hold over Africa. The film shows that the U.S. played an increasingly important role on that continent.

Belgium had ruled over the Congo, a territory four times the size of France, which had immense natural resources, including huge uranium and copper mines and vast rubber plantations. It intended on granting independence to the Congo in name only, while using a few African politicians to fool the population.

But, as the Haitian film maker Raoul Peck shows, Lumumba did not play the role that the Belgians and the U.S. had scripted for him.

The film, which covers a big chunk of history in a short time, gives only a very short sketch of the independence movement in the Congo. It shows that Lumumba was part of the tiny urban Congolese middle class, whom the Belgians had selected to educate and play a managerial role. Instead, Lumumba and others worked to build the Congolese National Movement, the first nationwide Congolese political party. The film then just hints at the rise of the movement, showing a Congolese nationalist riot in Stanleyville, after which Lumumba was thrown into prison, where he was beaten and tortured.

The movement amongst the population grew and forced the Belgians to accelerate the schedule for granting independence. They whisked Lumumba from jail directly to Brussels to participate in talks on the formation of a new independent government. Lumumba was selected prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu held the ceremonial office of president.

On June 30, 1960, Belgium formally recognized independence for the Congo. At the ceremony, the Belgian King gave a self-aggrandizing speech, glorifying Belgian rule. Kasavubu followed by doing what was required, politely saying, “Thank you.” But in his speech broadcast on the radio, Lumumba strongly denounced Belgian rule for its brutality, and set the goal of building an independent Congolese state.

But the film shows that the army and the economy remained in the hands of the Belgians. At all the government meetings headed by Lumumba, a Belgian adviser sat in. Within days of assuming office, African troops revolted against the Belgian officers, who had been beating and imprisoning them. But as the film shows, Lumumba did not support the troops. Instead, he urged them to return to their barracks and obey their officers. Thus, Lumumba opposed the rising popular revolt. But the troops did not listen to Lumumba. Without any kind of organization, they began to revolt against all signs of European rule inside the country, trying to drive the Europeans out. These attacks soon spread.

To put down the revolt, the Belgian government sent in its own paratroopers. The biggest and richest province, Katanga, controlled by Congolese leaders in the pay of the big Belgian mining trust, seceded. The Congo was swept by civil war, foreign intervention and chaos, and Lumumba was caught in the middle. He broke diplomatic relations with Belgium.

But he did not try to organize the population to drive the invaders out. Instead, Lumumba looked for another force to uphold his rule – the United Nations. Of course, under the influence of the U.S., the U.N. was more than happy to oblige – although not in the way that Lumumba had hoped. The U.S. used U.N. councillors to reconstitute a more solid army around someone who had solid ties to the U.S. and the CIA, Colonel Joseph Mobutu, a member of Lumumba’s party. So, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for military aid.

But by that time, the U.S. and Belgian governments had marked Lumumba for death, not just to get him out of the way, but to make an example of him to other leaders about what would happen if they chose to defy the imperialists.

The film was meant as an homage to Lumumba. Certainly, he was a man of tremendous courage, as the film shows. But if anything, the film, despite itself, also shows what a dead end his policy was. In a world dominated by imperialism, the idea that the countries of Africa could gain their place in the sun is an illusion.

No, the problem for the people of Africa is that imperialism has to be destroyed internationally. The African working class has the possibility to start a fight which can spread and lead to imperialism’s destruction.