[News] Patrice Lumumba and the Birth of the Republic of Congo

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 21 11:16:19 EST 2016

January 21, 2016

  A Revolutionary Speech: Patrice Lumumba and the Birth of the Republic
  of Congo

by Ludo de Witte <http://www.counterpunch.org/author/ludodew3393/>


/Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader and 
first democratically elected Prime Minister, was executed 55 years ago 
on 17th January, 1961. He had been beated and tortured in a culmination 
of two assassination plots by the Belgian government and the CIA, 
ordered directly by President Dwight Eisenhower to ‘eliminate’ the 
charismatic leader, with the cooperation of British intelligence and 
Katangan authorities. /

/Just months before his deposition in a coup, Lumumba had delivered a 
powerful speech declaring the independence of the Republic of Congo and 
speaking eloquently about the struggle against racism and colonization, 
“an indispensable struggle to put an end to the humiliating 
slavery which was imposed on us by force.”


/He added:/

    /“Our wounds are too fresh and too smarting for us to be able to
    have known ironies, insults, and blows which we had to undergo
    morning, noon and night because we were Negroes. We have seen our
    lands spoiled in the name of laws which only recognised the right of
    the strongest. We have known laws which differed according
    to whether it dealt with a black man or a white./

    /“We have known the atrocious sufferings of those who
    were imprisoned for their political opinions or religious beliefs
    and of those exiled in their own country. Their fate was worse than
    death itself. Who will forget the rifle-fire from which so many
    of our brothers perished, or the gaols in to which were brutally
    thrown those who did not want to submit to a regime of justice,
    oppression and exploitation which were the means the
    colonialists employed to dominate us?”/

/The written text of this speech, delivered on 30th June 1960 in the 
presence of the Belgian King Baudouin, has been held in the archives of 
the Société Générale de Belgique. Ludo de Witte, author of The 
Assassination of Lumumba 
returns to the events of the day in an article originally published in 
French in *Le Vif/L’Express.* /

Few speeches have marked our history as much as that given by the 
Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba on 30 June 1960, the day 
that Congo achieved its independence. This speech could be considered 
the birth certificate of modern Congo, a country that was then emerging 
from eighty years of colonialism and which looked with confidence to its 
future. In Africa this speech is considered one of the key moments in 
propelling the continent onto the international stage. In the West, many 
have seen it as a call to arms opening up Belgian-Congolese hostilities, 
plunging this former Belgian colony into chaos. A chaos marked by the 
fall of the Lumumba government in 1960 and, the following year, by the 
assassination of the man considered in Congo to be the country’s 
first ‘national hero’.

Today, fifty-five years after independence, the paper copy of the text 
read by Lumumba has resurfaced for the first time. This is 
the definitive version of his speech. These are the pages that 
the Congolese prime minister brought with him to the podium. This text 
was written and typed out the previous night, and corrected by hand just 
before and even during the ceremony. We can consider it the country’s 
founding document. It was found in the archives of Finoutremer, the 
former Compagnie du Katanga, which was previously one of the jewels of 
the Société Générale de Belgique. So for more than half a century the 
Congolese were deprived of a document that is essential to 
their country’s history.

*Baudouin warns his government*

Léopoldville (today’s Kinshasa), 30 June 1960s. Distinguished guests 
crowd into the Palais de la Nation, where Congo’s independence is due 
to be officially celebrated. The impressive building on the bank of the 
River Congo was built under the governor general Pétillon. It was first 
conceived as a residence for members of the royal family travelling to 
Africa and, in part, as a residence for the governor general. In the new 
Congo, the parliament would meet there. As if nothing should 
change after power was handed to the Congolese, the guests were welcomed 
by a bronze statue of Léopold II – founder of the independent Congolese 
state – on horseback. Among those in the auditorium: newly elected 
Congolese politicians, Belgian officials, the international diplomatic 
corps, and the national and foreign press.

The rather nervous Belgian élite was asking itself questions. Against 
all expectations the nationalist Patrice Lumumba had managed to form 
a government. Could Belgium hold onto its interests in its ex-colony? 
For months, under pressure from his father Léopold III’s entourage, the 
young king Baudouin warned his government that Belgium’s ‘imperishable 
rights’ in Congo had to be preserved.

Gaston Eysken’s government placed all its hopes in the Congolese army. 
This ‘new’ army, led by Belgian officers, had to ‘contain’ the 
Lumumba government. This was a risky ‘Congolese gamble’. Baudouin wanted 
to make the Congolese prime minister understand that Congolese 
sovereignty had its limits. For the Africans, the king’s speech of 30 
June bordered on provocation.

*Léopold II, the ‘liberator’*

There had been intensive work on this speech at the Palais de Laeken. In 
one draft, Léopold II was described as the ‘liberator’ of Congo, a state 
‘formed by freely concluded treaties between its leaders and the king’s 
Prime minister Eyskens, who checked the text, considered that 
this passage went too far. He wanted completely to get rid of this 
reference to Léopold II. Ultimately he was contented by the term 
‘liberator’ being replaced with the word ‘civiliser’. The sentence 
according to which the Congolese leaders had offered the country to 
Léopold II of their own volition was removed. All in all, the draft text 
focused on its message of saying in veiled but unequivocal terms what 
path the Palace wanted Congo to take: a neo-colonial régime guaranteeing 
Brussels’ interests, with black dignitaries as mere sub-contractors.

The speech by the Congolese president Kasa Vubu, which had previously 
been transmitted to Brussels, and which was meant to follow Baudouin’s 
speech, was so ‘flat’ and ‘academic’ that in a certain sense 
it confirmed or even reinforced the King’s arguments. The ceremony 
seemed to augur well for the Belgian élite.

*The King’s speech*

It began in line with the wishes of the former colonial régime. King 
Baudouin invited those in attendance to celebrate colonisation more 
than he did independence. The sovereign gave the impression that he was 
speaking in the name of his great-uncle, founder of the Congo Free 
State: ‘Congo’s independence marks the outcome of the work conceived by 
the genius of King Léopold II, which he undertook with tenacious courage 
and which Belgium has continued with perseverance. … In this historic 
moment, our thoughts must turn to the pioneers of African emancipation 
and to those after them who made Congo what it is today. They deserve 
both our admiration and your recognition, because it was they who, 
devoting all their efforts and even their lives to a great 
ideal, brought you peace and enriched your moral and 
material inheritance’. In this story crowned with success, there was no 
place for the Congolese people. After this, he again invoked the memory 
of Léopold II, in the following terms: ‘He appeared before you not as a 
conqueror but as a civiliser’. After a summary of the advantages that 
colonisation had brought to Congo: infrastructure, medical care, 
teaching, industry – followed a series of paternalistic remarks. The 
king warned the Congolese over their lack of political experience, the 
danger of tribal conflicts and ‘the attraction that foreign powers could 
exercise over certain regions’. After an homage to the colonial army 
‘which accomplished its burdensome mission with unfailing courage 
and devotion’, came a last piece of advice: ‘Do not compromise the 
future with hasty reforms and do not replace the structures that Belgium 
has left you until you are certain that you can do better … Do not be 
afraid of turning to us for help. We are ready to stand by your side, 
offering you advice and working with you to train the technicians and 
functionaries that you will need’. After Baudouin, Kasa Vubu read out 
his speech, and his words were quickly forgotten.

Baudouin’s idyllic portrayal of the colonial period clashed with the 
memory of the colonised: the millions of dead, as a result of 
the privations, forced labour, disease and repression under Léopold II’s 
rule; the brutal crushing of the revolts of the 1920s and 1930s; the 
terrible ‘war effort’ during the Second World War; the corporal 
punishment with the chicotte whip; the apartheid… But what did that 
matter to Brussels? An unwritten law forbade any discussion of colonial 
abuses, and independence was not meant to change that. Such were the 
Belgian élite’s hopes.

Nonetheless, Lumumba had found out about Baudouin and Kasa Vubu’s 
speeches in advance. And although the protocol did not plan for 
any third speech, Congo made its voice heard ‘in the name of a century 
of silence’, to use a phrase from Jean Jaurès.

*Belgian-Congolese tensions*

There were also other reasons why the Congolese prime minister wanted to 
have his say. Just before independence Brussels and colonial milieus had 
held a knife to the Lumumba government’s throat. The Belgian 
government unilaterally changed the legal status of colonial companies 
to Belgian ones, thus depriving Congo of its shares in the mining 
businesses. An attempt at secession in Katanga was foiled, but the 
secessionist lobby went unpunished.

A further incident: Lumumba wanted an amnesty measure upon independence, 
but the governor general Cornelis was opposed to this. Cornelis proposed 
that King Baudouin take this measure upon the day of his arrival 
in Congo on 29 June. Lumumba gave his assent, but that evening the 
King flatly refused to make the amnesty. The following morning the 
Congolese prime minister handed over the typescript of his speech to his 
ministers, to be amended in the hours that followed. Lumumba confided to 
one of his entourage, Pierre Duvivier, that he was weary ‘of being 
treated like a little kid’. Tired and threatened, the prime minister was 
firm in his conviction: his speech would galvanise the Congolese masses.

*Lumumba’s unforeseen speech*

After the speech by President Kasa Vubu, the President of the Chamber, 
Kasongo, gave the word to Lumumba. This sparked the consternation 
of Baudouin and Eyskens. Indeed, the information service had neglected 
to hand them a copy of the text, though this had been provided in 
advance. The content of the speech gave them an even greater surprise. 
In his introduction the prime minister addressed his remarks not to the 
country’s former ‘masters’ but ‘to the men and women of 
Congo, combatants who are now victorious in their fight for 
independence’. In the typewritten text this address was preceded by 
‘Sir, Excellences, Mesdames and Messieurs’, but he did not 
pronounce these words, choosing to address himself directly to his 
people. Suddenly the eminent foreign guests became the spectators to a 
celebration of the nationalist movement and its first successes.

Was the colony Léopold II’s masterpiece? Lumumba gave the word to 
History itself: colonialism was ‘the humiliating slavery imposed on us 
by force … Our wounds are still too fresh and too painful for us to be 
able to chase them out of our memory’. He bitingly recalled ‘the 
mockery, the insults, the blows we suffered morning, noon and night, 
because we were negroes. Who will forget that blacks were called “tu” 
not out of friendship, but because the respectful “vous” was reserved to 
whites only? We have seen our lands spoiled in the name of supposedly 
legal texts that recognised only the law of the strongest. We have seen 
the law being different for whites and for blacks: accommodating for 
the former, cruel and inhuman for the latter’.

The system was based on repression: ‘We have seen the 
atrocious suffering of those subjected to confinement on account of 
their political opinions or religious beliefs – exiled in their own 
country, theirs was a fate worse than death itself … Who can forget the 
shootings in which so many of our brothers perished, or the dungeons 
that so many were brutally thrown into because they no longer wanted to 
submit to a regime where oppression and exploitation were called “justice”?’

*Not a generous gift*

The Congolese Prime Minister explained that independence was not a 
generous gift offered by the Belgian state, as the king had tried to 
present it: ‘No Congolese worthy of the name will every be able to 
forget that [independence] was won in struggle … we could not be more 
proud of this struggle in blood, fire and tears, since it was a just and 
noble one’. Brussels’ role in the decolonisation process was reduced to 
its proper proportions, ‘Belgium, finally understanding the direction of 
History, did not try and stand in the way of our independence’.

Lumumba then turned to the future ‘We will begin a new struggle, a 
sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity 
and greatness. … We will show the world what the black man can do when 
he is working in freedom, and we will put Congo at the centre of the 
prestige that will shine forth from Africa as whole’. He then solemnly 
declared, ‘We will make sure that our homeland’s earth truly benefits 
its children. We will review all the laws established in other times, 
and make new, just and noble ones’. These promises to the Congolese 
people, dispossessed of millions of hectares of land during the colonial 
period, showed his intention to liberate his homeland from the yoke of 
the colonial inheritance, and to fight any new attempt at a 
neo-colonial recuperation of his country. Congo and Belgium would deal 
as equals, and their cooperation would be ‘profitable to both 
countries’. Foreigners’ assets in Congo had to be respected. But Congo 
would remain vigilant. This also meant an end to trade monopolies: Congo 
would accept the help ‘of numerous foreign countries’ such that their 
cooperation would be ‘loyal’ and ‘not seek to impose any sort of policy 
upon us’. Lumumba finished with a message for Africa: ‘Congo has to 
become a springboard for the liberation of the whole African 
continent’. A warning addressed to other colonial powers and the South 
African apartheid regime.

*Contradictory reactions*

Lumumba’s speech was interrupted eight times by the prolonged applause 
of the Congolese in attendance. His speech concluded with an ovation. He 
was heard on the radio by thousands of Congolese, many of whom had 
not imagined it possible to speak to whites in this manner. 
These minutes of truth were cherished and savoured after eighty years of 
colonialism. For the first time in the country’s history, a Congolese 
man addressed the nation and the world. He had restored confidence to 
his people, taking his place among the legendary leaders of Africa. His 
violent death seven months later did nothing to damage this supernatural 
status – quite the contrary. Decades later researchers in the Sankuru 
region report continual evocations of Lumumba, patiently awaiting his 

For his part, king Baudouin was stupefied. He wanted to leave the 
country immediately, but Prime Minister Eyskens convinced him to 
stay. Lumumba was prepared to give a ‘reconciliatory’ speech in a closed 
circle during the dinner that followed the ceremony. Eyskens himself 
wrote this speech, later declaring ‘I was Lumumba’s nigger!’ The Western 
media lashed out at Lumumba. Time spoke of a ‘venomous attack’. 
Monsignor Van Waeyenberg, rector of the University of Louvain, asked 
if Lumumba ought to be thrown in prison. Conversely, Belgian official 
circles tried to play down the significance of the incident, as La Libre 
Belgique noted.

The British ambassador to Congo aptly explained how this affair was 
received in political and diplomatic circles: ‘Lumumba’s brutal speech 
… was perceived as a means of letting off steam and positioning himself 
as a candidate for an eminent position on the Pan-African stage’. 
Discontent was expressed at the 4 July cabinet council meeting in 
Brussels, but the atmosphere was mainly optimistic.

Colonel Frédéric Vandewalle, head of the colonial security forces, was 
among those in attendance at the Palais de la Nation. The officer who 
would in subsequent years play a major role in the liquidation of 
Congolese nationalism later revealed, ‘For many Congolese this display 
of defiance, which was incongruous and offensive to the Belgians, 
provided retribution. It enjoyed great success among those attending the 
ceremony without having been invited. Their applause was echoed by 
the crowds outside’.

*Making independence palpable*

Vandewalle understood that the Congolese people wanted the authorities 
to make independence palpable by creating jobs, providing 
adult education and raising salaries. ‘The more attentive observer noted 
that during the military parade [after the ceremony at the Palais de la 
Nation] the African crowd gave most applause to the blacks carrying the 
adjutants’ silver star. This opened the first breach in Congo’s 
military’s traditional barrier to any Africanisation of the cadres, 
which most Congolese wanted but which made little sense according to 
Belgian criteria’. Before independence, the nationalist leaders had long 
insisted that the colonial power ought to embark upon the Africanisation 
of the army. The mass pressure for this only increased on the eve of 

The typescript of Lumumba’s speech bears witness to the importance of 
this question. Here we can read an appeal to the Congolese: ‘I ask all 
of you not to demand unreasonable wage rises from one day to the 
next, before I have had time to set in motion the overall plan by which 
I will assure the nation’s prosperity’. On the document itself we see 
that this sentence was crossed out, and the nationalist leader did not 
ultimately pronounce these words. Lumumba was still revising his 
text even during the king’s speech, which suggests that he waited until 
the last moment before getting rid of this line. The king’s speech 
required an unequivocal reply, wholly opposed to 
Baudouin’s paternalistic approach.

*Meeting words with action*

A few days after the ceremony the official guests left Congo. On a sign 
in the military encampment in the capital the Congolese army 
leader General Emile Janssens wrote ‘Before independence = 
after independence’.

Ignoring the Lumumba government, he told the soldiers that they should 
not expect promotions. A military revolt broke out. Lumumba 
rapidly re-imposed control, thanks to the Africanisation of the officer 
corps. Janssens was dismissed. The prime minister thus met the words of 
the 30 June speech with action. With the demise of the white officer 
corps, Brussels lost the instrument through which it intended to hold on 
to control of the Congolese government. We know what happened next: 
Belgian troops intervened under the pretext of wanting to protect the 
whites in the Congo – soldiers had raped white women during the military 
revolt, though this had now been stopped. The Belgian forces separated 
the wealthy Katanga from the central government. Diplomats and secret 
agents plotted against the Prime Minister. In January 1961, Lumumba was 
assassinated, but his partisans did not abandon the struggle. In 
November 1965, after the bloody repression of nationalist revolts 
General Mobutu seized power, with the help of the CIA and the 
encouragement of the Belgian government.

/With Nicolas Manchia./

*Ludo de Witte* is the author of /The Assassination of Lumumba 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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