Most fans of The Godfather will recall the following memorable exchange between Michael Corleone and his upstanding wife on his father’s business activities:
Michael: My father is no different than any other powerful man, any man with power, like a president or a senator.
Kay: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.
Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?
I was reminded of that observation by the letter sent to the latest issue of the London Review of Books, from Lord David Lea, on the subject of the assassination of the Congo’s first elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba on 17 January 1961.
Lumumba was briefly one of the most promising progressive politicians in post-colonial Africa, but his fierce criticisms of Belgian colonialism, his commitment to pan-African solidarity, and his determination to use his country’s immense natural resources for the benefit of his own people made him powerful enemies both inside and outside the Congo.
The United States and Belgium considered various ways of kill him, before opting for the combination of destabilisation and military proxies that proved so effective in various countries during the Cold War, from Guatemala to Chile.
The first step towards Lumumba’s downfall took place in July 1960, when a Belgian-backed secessionist revolt broke out in the diamond-rich province of Katanga.
Lumumba initially appealed to the United Nations for assistance to put down the rebellion, which was not forthcoming. When he then appealed for Soviet assistance, his fate was sealed. In September 1960 he was overthrown, following a military coup led by Colonel Joseph Mobutu.
In December he was captured by the military while trying to mobilize popular resistance to the coup. The following month he was taken to Katanga, where he was beaten and tortured by Belgian and Katangan soldiers, before being shot dead by a firing squad directed by a Belgian army officer.
For many years Lumumba’s execution was believed to have been a Belgian/CIA hit. But Lord Lea’s recollection of a conversation with Daphne Park, or rather Baroness Park of Monmouth, former diplomat and M16 controller in various countries, including the Congo, suggests that HMG might also have been involved:
It so happens that I was having a cup of tea with Daphne Park – we were colleagues from opposite sides of the Lords – a few months before she died in March 2010. She had been consul and first secretary in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, from 1959 to 1961, which in practice (this was subsequently acknowledged) meant head of MI6 there. I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba’s abduction and murder, and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. ‘We did,’ she replied, ‘I organised it.’
This is geopolitics crossed with Midsomer Murders: a polite discussion between two peers over a cup of tea – perhaps with some scones thrown in. As Lea remembers:
We went on to discuss her contention that Lumumba would have handed over the whole lot to the Russians: the high-value Katangese uranium deposits as well as the diamonds and other important minerals largely located in the secessionist eastern state of Katanga. Against that, I put the point that I didn’t see how suspicion of Western involvement and of our motivation for Balkanising their country would be a happy augury for the new republic’s peaceful development.
Indeed it wasn’t a ‘happy augury’. And the ongoing mayhem in the DRC is in part the legacy of Mobutu’s years of misrule, and partly a continuation of the same foreign competition for Congolese resources that once resulted in one of the most notorious political assassinations of the 20th century.
In his famous speech, delivered at the ceremony of the proclamation of the Congo’s independence on 6 June 1960, Lumumba once pointed the way toward a very different future, declaring:
‘Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness. Together we shall establish social justice and ensure for every man a fair remuneration for his labour. We shall show the world what the black man can do when working in liberty, and we shall make the Congo the pride of Africa. We shall see to it that the lands of our native country truly benefit its children. We shall revise all the old laws and make them into new ones that will be just and noble.’
Seven months later, that dream was extinguished, in a brutal and sordid act in which some of the world’s foremost democracies were involved. But that is the way that things were sometimes done during the Cold War.
Unlike the Mafia, the states that engaged in this kind of behaviour were prone – as they are today – to lofty talk of moral values, democracy, the evils of totalitarianism etc.
Behind the scenes, these same states were prepared to engage in or facilitate murder, assassination, military coups and massacres as required, and all of it as Michael Corleone – and Baroness Park of Monmouth – might have observed, was nothing personal, just business.