Patrice Émery Lumumba

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Biographical information


Prime Minister, activist, civil servant

First name: 
Middle name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
2 July 1925
Location of birth: 
Onalua, Belgian Congo
Date of death: 
17 January 1961
Location of death: 
Near Elisabethville, Katanga (Lubumashi, Democratic Republic of Congo)

Patrice Émery Lumumba was the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was an independence leader who played a significant role in helping Congo prise its independence from Belgium. His government, however, was overthrown in a coup, and Lumumba himself was imprisoned and later executed in a joint plot that reportedly involved Belgians, Britons and Americans.

Lumumba was born into the Tetela Tribe on 2 July 1925 in Onalua, Belgian Congo. He was raised in a Roman Catholic family and attended missionary school as a boy, where he supposedly developed and cultivated an interest in literature. He also studied at a government training school.

After his formal education, he managed to secure work as a postal clerk in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) during the 1940s. And in 1951 he married Pauline Opangu, with whom he had five children.

Lumumba harboured deep antipathy toward the Belgian colonial rule, and he entered politics in 1955. He served as a regional leader for Cercles of Stanleyville and joined the Liberal Party of Belgium. He travelled to Belgium in 1955, but the colonial government arrested him on a charge of embezzling post office funds. He received a two-year prison sentence, but the sanction was commuted to 12 months. He was released in June 1956.

Lumumba returned to politics in 1958 when he helped found the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). And in December 1958, he attended the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra, Ghana as the MNC President.

Lumumba was arrested again in October 1959 for inciting an anti-colonial riot in Stanleyville that resulted in several deaths. He was convicted and sentenced to another spell in prison. But during his incarceration, the MNC took part in the local elections in Congo, which were held in December 1959. They won a strong majority and managed to compel Lumumba’s release from prison.

Lumumba attended the Brussels Conference in January 1960, which resulted in a declaration of Congo’s independence on 27 January, and 30 June set as the date of independence. Congo would hold an election in May of that year to elect the first leaders of the independent state.

The MNC won the election and, at 34 years old, Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Joseph Kasa-Vubu became the President. King Baudouin of Belgium prevailed on the newly independent country to remain under Belgium’s leadership. Lumumba made an impassioned response which unequivocally rejected the notion of Belgian leadership. The response humiliated the King and dismayed many western – but not African – observers.

Lumumba’s introduction to governmental leadership was disastrous. And the great misfortune stemmed from widespread discontent in the army. For a start, Lumumba gave pay increases to all government workers save for the army. And many soldiers took dim views toward the entirely Belgian officer class. They rebelled and the country collapsed into unrest.

On 11 July 1960, Moise Tshombe declared himself regional leader of Katanga. The secession was supported by several actors with commercial interests in play such as the Belgian government, and firms with stakes in various commodities.

United Nations forces had a presence in the Republic of Congo at the time, but they did not act to quell the rebellion. Their inaction prompted Lumumba to seek aid from the Soviet Union. President Kasa-Vubu took exception to Lumumba’s approach and sought to have him ousted from office. Lumumba was equally unimpressed by the President and sought to have him removed from office. This divide exacerbated the country’s plight.

Joseph Mobutu, a lieutenant general, arranged a coup in the wake of the country’s political disunity. Lumumba was placed under house arrest, but he managed to escape temporarily. During his short-lived freedom in Stanleyville, he tried to rally his supporters. But he was recaptured on 1 December 1960 in Port Francqui by Mobutu’s forces and taken to Leopoldville.

The Soviet Union demanded Lumumba’s immediate release and urged to United Nations Security Council to pursue the same goal. Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N. Secretary General, called for due process of law, but the resolution for immediate release that the Soviets wanted was defeated. Lumumba was taken to Katanga. And on 17 January 1961, Lumumba, and two others, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, were executed by firing squad without due process. The executions gave rise to international outrage.

Belgians and Americans were reportedly involved in the executions. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reportedly sought to have Lumumba executed before. But, on that version, the CIA ended up funnelling money, along with funds from the Belgians, to Lumumba’s adversaries. 

The Belgian government offered an official apology to the Democratic Republic of Congo in February 2002 for its failure to discharge a “moral responsibility” and “an irrefutable portion of responsibility in the events that led to the death of Lumumba.”

• Patrice Lumumba: The First Prime Minister of Congo 12 November 2014)
• Nzongola-Ntalaja G.Patrice Lumumba: The Most Important Assassination of the 20th Century 12 November 2014)
•  Patrice Lumumba Biography 13 November 2014)
•  Weissman S. What Really Happened in Congo: The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu 13 November 2014)

Last updated : 10-Feb-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 13-Nov-2014