Patrice Lumumba was the first prime minister of the independent Republic of the Congo. Born in Kasai Province in the eastern Congo, he came from a small tribe or ethnic group—the Batatele. This background was to handicap him in future dealings with rivals who came from major tribal groupings.
Lumumba was born July 2, 1925. Educated by Protestant missionaries, he entered the postal service and became a contributor to the nascent Congolese press. He also became active in trade union activities, and by 1955 was president of a regional labor union.
Convicted of post office embezzlement, Lumumba, after his release from prison in 1957, went on to forge a nationwide political party, the Congolese Nationalist Movement, in October 1958. After attending an All-African Peoples’ Conference in newly independent Ghana in December 1958, Lumumba became a militant nationalist.
In 1959 he joined other nationalist leaders in opposing the Belgian plan for gradual independence in five years. The Belgians were forced to promise independence by June 30, 1960. Elections held in May 1960 gave Lumumba’s party the largest number of votes, and he was offered the position of prime minister.
At that time he began to talk about economic and social changes. Because some of the rhetoric sounded socialist, many in the West feared that the anticolonialist tone in his speeches meant an alliance with the Soviet Union.
After he formed an independent government, on June 23, 1960, Lumumba faced disorder seven days later. Army units rebelled, the province of Katanga seceded, and Belgium sent in troops. Lumumba called upon the United Nations (UN) to restore order; however, it did not intervene.
He then turned to the Soviet Union for planes to transport his troops. He also asked independent African states to support him. These steps were ineffective and caused his internal allies to turn away from him.
On September 5 the president of the Congo, Joseph Kasavubu, who had advocated a more moderate course and favored some form of autonomy, declared Lumumba deposed. On September 14 the army head, Joseph Mobutu, seized power with the approval of Kasavubu. Mobuto and Kasavubu soon reached an accommodation with the UN, which recognized the government in October 1960.
Now powerless, Lumumba sought to travel to Stanleyville (now Kisangani) in northeast Congo, where he still had support. On his way there, however, he was intercepted by soldiers of Joseph Mobuto. After an imprisonment of three months, Mobuto turned Lumumba over to Moïse Tshombe, the head of secessionist Katanga Province, on January 17, 1961.
Lumumba was murdered that same night. In retrospect, Lumumba’s ideas and rhetoric do not appear so radical. He supported a united Congo as opposed to its division along regional/ethnic/ tribal lines. He supported the end of colonialism and proclaimed neutrality in the cold war, with an emphasis on “Africanist” values. These sentiments ultimately led to his undoing.