“Death in the Congo” highlights obscure subject: African liberation

The struggle for African liberation, often spearheaded by socialist, left-leaning national liberation movements, is an important part of African history. Many figures loom large as part of this history, including Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo.

Young and charismatic, Lumumba endeared himself to the emerging national liberation movement, while trying to balance conflicting needs and agendas in a country largely controlled by Belgian financial interests – even after independence.

During this time, the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, as the ‘Cold War’ turned hot in many decolonizing nations, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence throughout Africa, including the Congo. Ultimately, the CIA, the United Nations and Belgian royalty would coalesce in the now independent African nation to rout the radical independence movement, oust and then assassinate Lumumba.

This is the backdrop of Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick’s new book Death In The Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba.

While informative, Death In The Congo unfortunately misses the mark. Gerard and Kuklick spend considerable text describing political Ping-Pong, the back and forth deliberations and insider discussions within Belgian, UN and US ruling circles. Throughout, this reviewer felt overwhelmed with information and minutia, but gained very little political context. People deliberated, events unfolded, however, the larger political context – a world torn between competing economic and ideological camps, and Lumumba’s role in the unfolding drama – was largely missing.

Additionally, most of the analysis, quotes, conversations and events are told from a Western perspective. African voices are almost absent, and/or minimized when – in my opinion – they should have been the dominant narrative.

Furthermore, I came away from Death In The Congo with very little additional information about the man Patrice Lumumba, his life’s story, what made him tick. Often it is the nuance, the personal events that unfold over the course of a person’s life that shape their political, ideological perspective on the world. Death In The Congo did not tell Lumumba’s story and as a result the forces – their politics, interests and ideology – that coalesced and engineered his ousting and assassination are less understood, are murky.

Not to be too harsh, Death In The Congo did add some insight as to CIA fears that Lumumba “could bring to the Congo what Fidel Castro had brought to Cuba.” Undoubtedly, as Gerard and Kuklick wrote, “The revolution in Cuba and the dangerous Castro were the lens through which American decision-makers viewed the Congo.” Lumumba came to power roughly one year after the success of the Cuban Revolution, and CIA director Dulles strained to label him a Marxist – though his own agency’s analysis “emphasized that nothing substantiated the allegation of Lumumba’s communism or communist sympathies.”

Most probably, Lumumba was a Pan-African nationalist – not necessarily a Marxist – who attempted to straddle the fence between capitalism and socialism. He, undoubtedly, made overtures to both camps. According to the State Department, Lumumba was “an unscrupulous opportunist and probably the most able and dynamic politician in the Congo…Ideologically he is probably not faithful to either East or West, nor is he likely to be prejudiced against accepting aid from either side.”

The African American Communist Party, USA leader, Claude Lightfoot, remarked in the mid-1960s: “Clearly, the first important lesson of the African revolution is that the Black man’s destiny is intertwined in numerous ways with the trends and currents prevailing over the entire world, especially with the global struggle between capitalism and socialism.” He added, that this “global struggle” was a “central fact of our time,” and that national independence struggles had to take a side. For, to not do so only emboldened reaction, colonialism and imperialism.

If anything, we learn that Lumumba was faced with a complex set of circumstances. He tried to bring democracy to a former Belgian colony. He tried to modernize the political infrastructure and institutions, while juggling the external and internal threats – from the Congo military (headed by Joseph Mobutu, who would soon become dictator), Belgian royalty, the United Nations and the CIA. He was besieged from all sides, but ultimately tried to stay neutral in a world polarized, which may have been his greatest mistake.

Lumumba remarked in summer 1960: “We are neither communists, Catholics, nor socialists. We are African nationalists. We reserve the right to choose our friends in accordance with the principle of positive neutrality.” Roughly six months later he would be lined-up before a firing squad and assassinated.

Death In The Congo isn’t a bad book. It fills a void. It sheds some light on an obscured subject, a subject clouded by Cold War historiography. But it could have illuminated so much more.

Death In The Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba

By Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick

Harvard University Press, 2015


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.