Lumumba, Mobutu, Zaire, Congo, Katanga. These names and
places were headline material in the heady Fifties. Do they, individually or severally,
mean anything today? Today, few know or care about these people or places. This is a pity
as the Mobutu experience, horrible and sick though it may be, shows the games superpowers
play in mistaken notions of their national interest. Perhaps the retreat of
the world in general, and the United States of America in particular, from idealism can be
traced to their cynical misdeeds abroad but that is another story, for another day!
death occurred in exile on 7 September 1997. His life is an example of faraway countries
becoming the victims of the Cold War. Of treason proving most lucrative to bent
politicians albeit a disaster for their countries. We should recount his story in some
detail as an example of what can happen when powerful countries interfere in the lives of
smaller nations. The foreign hand in action... The year was 1960. Japan,
Germany and Italy had lost their colonies with their defeat in World War II. Among the
victors, Britain had been forced to release India from bondage in 1947 because of the
phenomenon of Mahatma Gandhi, and his repeated Civil Disobedience Movements culminating in
the Quit India movement of 1942. The wartime Army and the post-war Navy revolts had sapped
the morale of the alien civil and the military administrations. Ten all-White divisions on
land with Naval and Air support were needed to keep India in the British empire. This was
logistically impossible for a war-weakened Britain. Hence Indian Independence. But the
price exacted was Partition which led to the bloodiest riots known in history.
Anglo-American interests were safeguarded as Pakistan became a client state of the USA and
bases for bombers could be located on its soil. The Partition of India established a
pattern of the USA supporting whoever would befriend them in newly independent countries
even if it meant literally tearing a country apart. This boded ill for the post-war world.
Younger readers should appreciate that the decade of the Fifties was made golden by a
resurgent idealism informed with the hope and belief that the worst trials of oppressed
humanity were over. That the exploitation of man by other humans was a thing of the past.
That wrongs would be righted and human dignity restored. The allies, the United Kingdom,
France, and the United States of America had won the war in the name of
freedom and it was natural and logical to assume that they would help its
It may be as well to talk about those days of starry-eyed idealism in the hopelessly
cynical political climate of today. Who knows but such talk may cause the dead and dying
embers to glow, to spark and develop into a fire which will cleanse the dross and
falsehoods polluting the world. Amen!
As readers know, colonies and empires mean exploitation and loss of dignity. Japan,
Germany, and Italy lost their empires because they were defeated in the war. In the olden
days, the land lost to the vanquished would have been booty for the victors. In the middle
of the 20th century, this was no longer possible. The stranglehold on power exercised by
the white nations since the 18th century had weakened and there was no way it could be
re-established. Having won the war, the British, the French, the Dutch and the Belgians in
Europe, the Whites in the USA and in South Africa felt that the status quo ante 1939 i.e.
their domination, exploitation, brutalisation and humiliation of coloured people could
continue as it had been vindicated. This was not to be as the long-enslaved people of
their erstwhile colonies were asserting their identities, refusing to accept
an inferior-by-birth status and itching to take their place in the comity of nations.
The United Nations had been formed and its high-minded, idealistic and indefatigable
Secretary-General, Dag Hammerskjold, was working incessantly and travelling non-stop to
confer with leaders, both old and new, in order to help create a more just world order. He
was assisted by Rajeshwar Dayal, a distinguished public servant from India. He had been
spared by India at great cost to its own needs as it felt compelled to contribute what it
The history of foreign domination was bad everywhere but nowhere was it worse than in
Belgian Congo. The Belgians were latecomers in the race for empire and this bit of Africa
was all they could show when the heads of European states met and conferred and exchanged
gossip on their dominions. The capital of Congo was called Leopoldsville after
the Belgian King, Leopold. This petty monarch of a small country put the South African
Whites (Afrikaaners) in the shade in his ill-treatment of his African subjects. The colony
was his personal and private property and its inhabitants his slaves for him to loot and
brutalise without any restraint whatsoever.
Students of English literature will recollect that Joseph Conrads 1902 novel The
Heart of Darkness is set in King Leopolds Congo. Born out of wedlock on 14 October
1930, Mobutu (7 September 1997) was adopted while still an infant by a cook working for
Belgian missionaries. Mobutu was schooled by his adoptive fathers White employers
and became proficient in the Belgian version of French by domestic exposure to them. It
was customary for informers to colonial administrations to work as journalists. They could
access local news and translate what they learnt into the language of their masters so
that it could be used. At the age of 20, Mobutu was recruited into the colonial Army as a
journalist and gave such a good account of himself that he was promoted to the rank of
On leaving the Army in 1956, Mobutu became a columnist and enhanced his usefulness to
the Belgians. In reward for his performance, Mobutu was sent to Brussels to deepen and
widen his skills as well as his loyalty to the masters and to imbibe European ideas of
what makes an African. Europeans have always maintained that African traditions (like
those of the Indians, the Chinese and other Orientals i.e. all non-Whites) have no scope
for democratic values. He was also indoctrinated against egalitarian ideas and socialism.
While in Belgium, Mobutu continued to serve his colonial masters. When the time came, they
nominated him to attend the equivalent of the Round Table Conference and he faithfully
provided them with inside information of the discussions inside the Congolese delegation.
By the time Mobutu and the other participants returned to the Congo, the people had
become impatient for freedom. Riots broke out. The Belgian authorities lost their nerve
and hastily rearranged the timetable and programme for independence. They now set out to
achieve in weeks and months what they had planned to do in years and decades.
Patrice Lumumba emerged as the popularly elected leader of the independence movement
and was chosen to head the new government. As Mobutu was one of the few Congolese with
Army experience and the ability to express himself in French besides experience of having
lived abroad, he was an obvious choice for high office.
There was no stigma attached to having served the colonial masters. Consequently,
Lumumba picked Mobutu to lead the Congolese Army as chief of staff. This was to prove to
be his undoing. On Independence Day, in the presence of the Belgian delegation and its
leader, King Leopold, Patrice Lumumbas independence address made an open reference
to the great indignities and brutalities his people had suffered at the hands of the
Belgians. He also referred to the fact that the elite Force Publique of 25,000 officers
did not have a single African. He announced that he was disbanding this standing insult
with immediate effect.
The Belgians were outraged and embittered from Lumumba and from Congolese independence.
They set mischief afoot by aiding and abetting the secession of Congos copper rich
province, Katanga. Its leader, Joseph Kasavubu refused to recognise the authority of
Lumumba and the central government.
As chief of Army staff, Mobutu came centre stage in Congo. The Russian offer of help to
contain the secession was turned down on his advice foolishly taken by the trusting
Lumumba. The USA moved in behind the scenes. Mobutu, vouched for by Belgium, was now a
Central Intelligence Agency operative kept in funds by them. An aeroplane was placed at
his disposal to jet anywhere he liked in and out of the country.
On 14 September 1960, thirty seven years ago, Mobutu declared a state of emergency and
suspended the political process and the government of Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba took
shelter with UN representative Rajeshwar Dayal and was advised with all the force at
Dayals command that he should not venture escape from Mobutus men besieging
Unfortunately for himself and for Congo, Lumumba attempted to escape on 27 November
1960. He was captured and tortured by Mobutu before being handed over to Moise Tshombe.
His fate is unknown and his body yet to be found. The USA-Belgium axis dramatised his
disappearance by spreading the rumour that cannibal Africans had eaten Lumumba. Dag
Hammarskjold died in a mysterious plane crash when flying to Katanga to deal with the
The fate of Congo was now Mobutu in the fostering care of the CIA. He tried to rule as
best as he could in the image created for a traditional African by his White masters. He
was loyal to the Americans and for himself he amassed some five billion dollars as a
personal fortune. Over the years of his rule, Mobutu was a welcome guest of all the
western powers and his photographs with the Queen of England, the presidents of the USA
and France emblazoned the front pages of prominent newspapers from time to time. He wore a
leopard-skin cap and sported a walking stick with an eagle on top. A Frenchman once
described him as a walking bank vault (five billion dollars!) wearing a
Four decades of freedom lost and continued exploitation of the reserves of the
countrys copper, diamonds and cobalt by the developed nations. Alas for Patrice
Lumumba! Alas for Africa! How long will the national interest of the USA
continue to brutalise the world? When will they learn that cynicism is a two edged sword.
Those who export it will also use it at home.