New Evidence Shows U.S. Role in Congo’s Decision to Send Patrice Lumumba to His Death
by Stephen R. Weissman
August 1, 2010
Fifty years ago, the former Belgian Congo received its independence under
the democratically elected government of former prime minister Patrice
Lumumba. Less than seven months later, Lumumba and two colleagues were, in
the contemporary idiom, “rendered” to their Belgian-backed secessionist
enemies, who tortured them before putting them before a firing squad. The
Congo would not hold another democratic election for 46 years. In 2002,
following an extensive parliamentary inquiry, the Belgian government assumed
a portion of responsibility for Lumumba’s murder.
But controversy has continued to swirl over allegations of U.S. government
responsibility, as the reception for Raoul Peck’s acclaimed film, “Lumumba,”
demonstrated. After all, the U.S. had at least as much, if not more,
influence in the Congolese capital as Belgium. It was the major financier
and political supporter of the U.N. peacekeeping force that controlled most
of the country. According to still classified documents that I first
revealed eight years ago, members of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA)
“Project Wizard” covert action program dominated the post-Lumumba Congolese
regime. However, a 1975 U.S. Senate investigation of alleged CIA
assassinations concluded that while the CIA had earlier plotted to murder
Lumumba, he was eventually killed “by Congolese rivals.
It does not appear from the evidence that the United States was in any way
involved in the killing.”
It is now clear that conclusion was wrong. A new analysis of the
declassified files of the Senate “Church” Committee (chaired by Democratic
Senator Frank Church), CIA and State Department, along with memoirs and
interviews of U.S. and Belgian covert operators, establishes that CIA
Station Chief Larry Devlin was consulted by his Congolese government
“cooperators” about the transfer of Lumumba to sworn enemies, had no
objection to it and withheld knowledge from Washington of the impending
move, forestalling the strong possibility that the State Department would
have intervened to try to save Lumumba. I detail this evidence in a new
article in the academic journal, Intelligence and National Security, vol.
25, no. 2 (The full article is available from the publisher.)
Here, briefly, are the most important new findings:
- Former U.S. officials who knew Lumumba now acknowledge that the
administration of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower mistakenly cast him
as a dangerous vehicle of Soviet influence.
- Covert CIA actions against the Lumumba government, often dovetailing with
Belgian ones, culminated in Colonel Joseph Mobutu’s military coup, which was
“arranged and supported and indeed managed” by the CIA alone, according to
Devlin’s private interview with the Church Committee staff.
- The CIA station and U.S. embassy provided their inexperienced and
politically weak Congolese protégés with a steady stream of political and
military recommendations. The advice arrived both before Congolese
government decisions and shortly afterwards when foreign advisers were
invited in to offer feedback. Devlin’s counsel was largely heeded on
critical matters, especially when it came to Lumumba. Thus Mobutu and former
president Joseph Kasavubu were persuaded to resist political pressures to
reconcile with Lumumba, and Mobutu reluctantly acceded to Devlin’s request
to arrest him. After both Devlin and the American ambassador intervened, the
government dropped its plan to attack U.N.
troops guarding Lumumba. And after Lumumba was publicly brutalized by
Mobutu’s troops, the U.S. embassy under pressure from the State
Department, which was concerned about African governments’ threats to pull
out of the U.N. force pushed Kasavubu into promising Lumumba “humane
treatment” and a “fair trial.”
- In this context of U.S. adviser-Congolese leader interactions, Devlin’s
decision not to intervene after he was informed by a “government leader”
of a plan to send Lumumba to his “sworn enemy” signaled that he had no
objection to the government’s course. It was also seen that way by Devlin’s
Belgian counterpart, Colonel Louis Marliere, who later wrote, “There was a
‘consensus’ and no adviser, whether he be Belgian or American, thought to
dissuade them.” Considering Congolese leaders’
previous responsiveness to CIA and U.S. embassy views, Devlin’s permissive
attitude was undoubtedly a major factor in the government final action.
(Its last-minute switch of sending Lumumba to murderous secessionists in
Katanga instead of murderous secessionists in South Kasai does not change
the crucial fact that Devlin gave a green light to delivering Lumumba to men
who had publicly vowed to kill him.)
- Furthermore, shortly before the transfer, Mobutu indicated to Devlin that
Lumumba “might be executed,” according to a Church Committee interview.
Devlin did not suggest that he offered any objection or caution.
- Cables show that Devlin did not report to Washington the impending
rendition for three days (i.e. until it was already underway), forestalling
the strong possibility that the State Department would have intervened to
try and protect Lumumba as it had done several weeks earlier. When news came
that Lumumba had been flown to Belgian-supported Katanga (but before it
became known that he was already dead), a top State Department official
called in the Belgian ambassador to complain about Belgian advisers’
possible contribution to the Congolese government’s “gaffe” and to insist
upon the need for “humane treatment.”
- The Church Committee failed to uncover the full truth about the U.S.
role because of its inattention to the covert relationship between the CIA
and Congolese decision makers, CIA delays in providing key cables, and
political pressure to water down its original draft conclusions.
Devlin died in 2008 after consistently denying any knowledge of his
Congolese associates’ “true plans” for Lumumba, and maintaining that he had
“stalled” the earlier CIA assassination plot. Yet declassified CIA cables
disprove his claims.
One horrible crime cannot, by itself, change history. But the murder of
Patrice Lumumba, the most dynamic political leader the Congo has ever
produced, was a critical step in the consolidation of an oppressive regime.
At the same time, it crystallized an eventual 35-year U.S.
commitment to the perpetuation of that regime, not just against Lumumba’s
followers but against all comers. In the end, Mobutu’s kleptocracy would
tear civil society apart, destroy the state and help pave the way for a
regional war that would kill millions of people.
There can no longer be any doubt that the U.S., Belgian and Congolese
governments shared major responsibility for the assassination of Lumumba in
Katanga. The young prime minister was an imperfect leader during an
unprecedented and overwhelming international crisis. But he continues to be
honored around the world because he incarnated if only for a moment the
nationalist and democratic struggle of the entire African continent against
a recalcitrant West.
If the U.S. government at last publicly acknowledged and apologized for
its role in this momentous assassination, it would also be communicating its
support for the universal principles Lumumba embodied. What better person to
take this step than the American president, himself a son of Africa?
[Stephen R. Weissman is author of "An Extraordinary Rendition," in
Intelligence and National Security, v.25, no.2 (April 2010) and American
Foreign Policy in the Congo 1960-1964. He is a former Staff Director of the
U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Africa.]
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