[This interview was conducted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez for Democracy Now!]
JUAN GONZALEZ: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. He was the first democratically elected leader of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo had been a colony of Belgium since the late 1800s, which ruled over it with brutality while plundering its rich natural resources. Patrice Lumumba rose as a leader of the Congo’s independence movement and, in 1960, was elected as the first prime minister of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Lumumba’s pan-Africanism and his vision of a united Congo gained him many enemies. Both Belgium and the United States actively sought to have Lumumba overthrown or killed. The CIA ordered his assassination but could not complete the job. Instead, the United States and Belgium covertly funneled cash and aid to rival politicians who seized power and arrested President Lumumba. This is how it was reported in a Universal Studios newsreel in December of 1960.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS NEWSREEL: A new chapter begins in the dark and tragic history of the Congo with the return to Leopoldville of deposed premier Lumumba, following his capture by crack commandos of strongman Colonel Mobutu. Taken to Mobutu’s headquarters past a jeering, threatening crowd, Lumumba—Lumumba, but promised the pro-red Lumumba a fair trial on charges of inciting the army to rebellion. Lumumba was removed to an army prison outside the capital, as his supporters in Stanleyville seized control of Orientale province and threatened a return of disorder. Before that, Lumumba suffered more indignities, including being forced to eat a speech, which he restated his claim to be the Congo’s rightful premier. Even in bonds, Lumumba remains a dangerous prisoner, storm center of savage loyalties and equally savage opposition.
AMY GOODMAN: On January 17th, 1961, after being beaten and tortured, the Congolese prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was shot and killed.
For more, we go to Adam Hochschild. He’s the author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa and the forthcoming book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion. He teaches at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, is co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, had an op-ed in the New York Times this week called “An Assassination’s Long Shadow.” Adam Hochschild is joining us from San Francisco.
Explain this “long shadow,” Adam.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, Amy, I think the assassination of Lumumba was something that was felt by many people to be a sort of pivotal turning point in the saga of Africa gaining its independence. In the 1950s, there were movements for independence all over Africa. There was a great deal of idealism in the air. There was a great deal of hope in the air, both among Africans and among their supporters in the United States and Europe, that at last these colonies would become independent. And I think people imagined real independence—that is, that these countries would be able to set off on their own and control their own destiny economically as well as politically. And the assassination of Lumumba really signaled that that was not to be, because, for Belgium, as for the other major European colonial powers, like Britain and France, giving independence to an African colony was OK for them as long as it didn’t disturb existing business arrangements. As long as the European country could continue to own the mines, the factories, the plantations, well, OK, let them have their politics.
But Lumumba spoke very loudly, very dramatically, saying Africa needs to be economically independent, as well. And it was a fiery speech on this subject that he gave at the actual independence ceremonies, June 30th, 1960, where he was replying to an extremely arrogant speech by King Baudouin of Belgium. It was a speech he gave on this subject that I think really began the process that ended two months later with the CIA, with White House approval, decreeing that he should be assassinated.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, for most Americans, who—we’re not, perhaps, as familiar with African colonialism, since that was basically a European project throughout the 19th century—the role of Belgium and the importance of the Congo as really the jewel of Africa in terms of its wealth and resources—how did the Congo suffer before Lumumba came to power?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, the story really begins, in the modern era, in 1885, when—or 1884 to ’85, when all the major countries of Europe led—preceded by the United States, actually; we were the very first—recognized the Congo not as a Belgian colony, but as the private, personally owned colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, a very greedy, ambitious man who wanted a colony of his own. At that point, Belgium was not sure that it wanted a colony. Leopold ruled this place for 23 years, made an enormous fortune, estimated at over a billion in today’s American dollars. Finally, in 1908, he was forced to give it up to become a Belgian colony, and then he died the following year. And the Belgians ran it for the next half-century, extracting an enormous amount of wealth, initially in ivory and rubber, then in diamonds, gold, copper, timber, palm oil, all sorts of other minerals. And as with almost all European colonies in Africa, this wealth flowed back to Europe. It benefited the Europeans much more than the Africans.
And the hope that many people had when independence came all over Africa, for the most part, you know, within a few years on either side of 1960, people had the hope that at last African countries would begin to control their own destiny and that they would be the ones who would reap the profits from the mines and the plantations and so on. Lumumba put that hope into words. And for that reason, he was immediately considered a very dangerous figure by the United States and Belgium. The CIA issued this assassination order with White House approval. And as was said at the beginning, they couldn’t get close enough to him to actually poison him, but they got money under the table to Congolese politicians who did see that he was assassinated, with Belgian help. It was a Belgian pilot who flew the plane to where he was killed, a Belgian officer who commanded the firing squad.
And then, the really disastrous thing that followed was this enthusiastic United States backing for the dictatorial regime of Mobutu, who seized total power a couple years later and ran a 32-year dictatorship, enriched himself by about $4 billion, and really ran his country into the ground, was greeted by every American president, with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter, who was in office during those 32 years. And he left the country a wreck, from which it has still not recovered.
AMY GOODMAN: Adam Hochschild, I want to play a clip of the former CIA agent John Stockwell talking about the CIA’s plans to assassinate the prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba.
JOHN STOCKWELL: The CIA had developed a program to assassinate Lumumba, under Devlin’s encouragement and management. The program they developed, the operation, didn’t work. They didn’t follow through on it. It was to give poison to Lumumba. And they couldn’t find a setting in which to get the poison to him successfully in a way that it wouldn’t appear to be a CIA operation. I mean, you couldn’t invite him to a cocktail party and give him a drink and have him die a short time later, obviously. And so, they gave up on it. They got cold feet. And instead, they handled it by the chief of station talking to Mobutu about the threat that Lumumba posed, and Mobutu going out and killing Lumumba, having his men kill Lumumba.
INTERVIEWER: What about the CIA’s relationship with Mobutu? Were they paying him money?
JOHN STOCKWELL: Yes, indeed. I was there in 1968 when the chief of station told the story about having been, the day before that day, having gone to make payment to Mobutu of cash—$25,000—and Mobutu saying, “Keep the money. I don’t need it.” And by then, of course, Mobutu’s European bank account was so huge that $25,000 was nothing to him.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former CIA agent John Stockwell talking about the CIA’s plans to assassinate Lumumba. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Adam, I’d like to ask you—you were in the Congo shortly after Lumumba’s death. Could you talk about—we have about a minute—could you talk about your personal experiences there and what you saw?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Yes, I was there. I was just a college student at the time. And I wish I could say that I was smart and politically knowledgeable enough to realize the full significance of everything I was seeing. I was not, and it was really only in later years that I began to understand it. But what I do remember—and this was, as I say, six months or so after he was killed—was the sort of ominous atmosphere in Leopoldville, as the capital was called then, these jeeps full of soldiers who were patrolling the streets, the way the streets quickly emptied at dusk, and then two very, very arrogant guys at the American embassy who were proudly talking over drinks one evening about how this person, Lumumba, had been killed, whom they regarded, you know, not as a democratically elected African leader, but as an enemy of the United States. And so, of course, I, as a fellow American, they expected to be happy that he had been done away with. There was something quite chilling about that, and it stuck with me. But I think it’s only in much later years that I fully realized the significance.
AMY GOODMAN: Adam Hochschild, I want to thank you very much for being with us, author of several books, including King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed.