The 1961 death of Patrice Émery Lumumba was continental and diasporic catastrophe. His murder, actually, not his death. And whenever I encounter some taunt that Africans have neither the will nor capacity for socialism or even so-called “democracy,” I think of Lumumba, le prophète, and the murders of socialists that followed—Amílcar Cabral and Omar Blondin Diop in 1973, Thomas Sankara in 1987, and countless other Cold War assassinations and underminings and subversions. Because during the time of these proxy battles in Africa, there was a larger bipolar struggle for geopolitical domination, and anti-communism was a proxy for anti-blackness. The west saw these arrogant, childishly naïve natives believing they could rule themselves, even fighting often protracted bloody wars for their independence. It is from this milieu that Lumumba—born Élias Okit’Asombo, whose surname means “heir of the cursed” (“okitá/ó” means “heir” or “successor,” “asombó” means “bewitched people who will die quickly”) in his native Tetela—emerged. His assassination was, arguably, the most important of the 20th century.
Before it was the Republic of Congo upon declaring independence on 30 June 1960, it was the Belgian Congo. Before it was the Belgian Congo, it was the Congo Free State, its governance overseen by King Leopold III. That, too, was continental catastrophe. The ironically named Free State functioned as the monarch’s personal plantation for rubber, ivory, and minerals; Leopold had acquired this land in Africa’s so-called “dark heart” under the auspices of abolishing the Arab slave trade. There, a native hand was worth less than a bullet, and disputed figures place the death toll from 1885 to 1908 anywhere between five and twenty million. Lumumba inherited the afterlife of Leopold’s selfish brutality, and just four months into his attempted alleviation of a Congo crisis so many decades in the making, would-be president Mobutu staged a coup d’état: Lumumba would be deposed and subsequently assassinated at age 35, the fate prophesied by his given name coming to fruition.
In a letter to the head of the United Nations Operation in the Congo, Rajeshwar Dayal, he wrote: “...we are living amid absolutely impossible conditions; moreover they are against the law.” While he wrote of his ousting, he also, perhaps, foresaw the neocolonialism that would follow: three decades of a Mobutu dictatorship, bloody regional wars, weaponized rape, further western enclosure of precious/conflict mineral resources (including the tantalum, tungsten, and tin essential to our beloved consumer goods—“coltan as cotton,” as Saul Williams says). When we mourn Patrice Lumumba, we mourn the necropolitical deluge that came in the wake of his death by firing squad. What could the Democratic Republic of Congo have been?