DEATH IN THE CONGO:
DAG HAMMARSKJOLD AND PATRICE LUMUMBA
Patrice Lumumba (right), the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, helped lead his country to independence in 1960. However, his dream of a free and prosperous Congo soon came to a bloody end. Foreign powers and local politicians vied for control of the country and its mineral resources. After seeking Soviet aid, Lumumba was targeted for elimination by the United States and Belgium, the former colonial power. Aged just 35, Lumumba was deposed, imprisoned, tortured and killed.
The United Nations, under the leadership of Dag Hammarskjold (left), attempted to find a solution to what became known as the Congo Crisis. In September 1961, Hammarskjold died in a plane crash while on his way to talks aimed at reaching a peace agreement. His death, with fifteen other people on the flight, was highly controversial at the time. Fifty-seven years later, the plane crash is once again the subject of a UN investigation that is looking into the possibility that Hammarskjold was assassinated and that his murder was covered up by powerful forces.
The Republic of the Congo (left) and the separatist region of Katanga (right). Backed by Belgium during the Congo Crisis, the breakaway region of Katanga contained vast mineral wealth. Lumumba wanted to maintain the territorial integrity of his newly independent country by retaking Katanga, which was occupied by Belgian special forces and foreign mercenaries. Hammarskjold also wanted the Belgian forces to leave in order to uphold the sovereignty and integrity of the Congo, one of the newest members of the United Nations. He sent UN peacekeepers to try to maintain order and push for a peaceful compromise.
Lumumba and Hammarskjold meet at the United Nations Headquarters, New York, in 1960. Lumumba wanted UN and US support to help retake Katanga from the Belgian-backed separatists. Feeling that he had no choice, Lumumba then sought Soviet aid. It was a decision that led to his downfall.
“Welcome to the most impossible job in the world.”
These were the less than encouraging words that greeted Dag Hammarskjold as he deplaned at Idlewild Airport in New York. The Swedish diplomat was about to take over the role of Secretary-General of the United Nations.
The year was 1953 and the UN was caught in the middle of a dangerous and escalating rivalry between the USSR and the United States. In addition, an anti-colonial wave was sweeping across Africa and Asia, as a host of peoples who had been colonized and oppressed by the European empires sough to win their freedom.
Hammarskjold did face a seemingly impossible set of tasks. And yet, he seemed to rise to the challenges. Beset by rival powers, who often turned their ire against him, Hammarskjold sought to strengthen the UN and establish its place as a global force for good - a powerful arbiter and peacemaker in the midst of the Cold War and all of the other conflicts that beset the world.
The nexus of Cold War geopolitics and the struggle for national liberation was nowhere more clear than in the Belgian colony of the Congo.
In 1959, following massive protests and growing violence, the tiny European country of Belgium agreed to the independence of its massive African colony. The most prominent leader of the Congolese independence movement was Patrice Lumumba. Young, handsome, and charismatic, Lumumba became an icon of the anti-colonial revolution - not just in the Congo, but across the world.
He, together with other Congolese political leaders, negotiated what appeared to be a peaceful transfer of sovereignty with the Belgian government. Congo would become a free country. A war for independence had been avoided.
But things were not so simple …
While Belgium acceded to the formal independence of their colony, the same economic interests that had brought the Belgian colonizers to Africa in the first place remained. Congo was rich in mineral resources, including gold, diamonds and uranium. The Belgians would not give up this fabulous wealth so easily.
Many black people resented the fact that, in their supposedly free country, the old white elite continued to run much of economy, the administration of the state, and the security forces. To them, it seemed that the Belgians had duped the Congolese politicians by granting independence to Congo in name only.
Meanwhile, the United States and the Soviet Union - the post-war superpowers - were vying for control over the new countries that were peeling away from the old and crumbling European empires.
The United States wanted to make sure that the Congo, with its vast natural resources, remained within the Western sphere. Washington had an uneasy relationship with Brussels over the future of the Congo. Belgium backed a breakaway region, Katanga, which contained much of Congo’s mineral wealth, while the US policy was to support a united Congo - under American sway.
But both countries were agreed that, whatever happened, the Soviets could not be allowed to extend their influence over the Congo.
So, when Patrice Lumumba reached out to the USSR for support in defeating the Katanga separatists, he sealed his fate.
Operating from the US embassy in the Congolese capital, Leopoldville, the CIA orchestrated a campaign that would lead to a military coup, the rigging of parliamentary votes, and, ultimately, the murder of Lumumba.
At the UN, Dag Hammarskjold remained adamant that, however bad things might seem in the Congo, there was still the possibility that a lasting peace could be achieved through dialogue. He was an idealist, in as much as he believed that the peoples of the world could - indeed, had to - learn from each other in order to secure a peaceful future for humanity. He did not accept "zero sum" politics or the notion that one ideology held a monopoly on wisdom.
His idealism, however, was rooted in hardscrabble politics. Hammarskjold was very well aware of the harsh realities of conflict and the difficulties of negotiation. He thought that the UN could only achieve good through strength. Though he did not want the UN to get dragged into another war, as had occurred in Korea, he was willing to deploy international peacekeepers to maintain order and to try to secure the unity of the Congo.
Hammarskjold had a vision for the United Nations. It should be a force that could - by military means if necessary - uphold international law and bring warring parties together for peace talks.
This vision was put to the test in the Congo Crisis. The UN sent an international peacekeeping force to the Congo in an effort to contain the spiraling violence and maintain its territorial integrity. Hammarskjold hoped that Lumumba and other Congolese politicians could come together, and that these talks might result in a settlement that would see the country remain intact, with a federal system, and the departure of the Belgian military force and mercenaries from Katanga.
The death of Patrice Lumumba seemed to put paid to such negotiations. But Hammarskjold was not a man to be stopped - he could adapt to any situation, driven by his goal of securing a lasting peace. Even as tensions escalated between UN peacekeepers and the Belgian-backed forces in Katanga, Hammarskjold pushed forward his agenda to convene all-party talks to resolve the Congo Crisis.
Traveling from UN Headquarters in New York, Hammarskjold arrived in the Congo in 1961. He then flew from Leopoldville to the neighboring British colony of Rhodesia, where the leader of the Katanga region was in hiding. The UN Secretary-General was set to hold talks there that, he hoped, would be a step toward fresh roundtable negotiations between all Congolese parties.
But his plane crashed as it came in to land at a Rhodesian airstrip near the border. The circumstance of the crash and the British-led investigation that followed were - and still are - steeped in controversy and suspicion. Unsatisfied with the British explanation of what happened to Hammarskjold's plane, the UN began its own inquiry, which in 1963 produced an open verdict.
Almost 60 years later, the death of Hammarskjold remains a matter of contention. Even now, the United Nations has relaunched an investigation, taking into account new and previously overlooked evidence, which is expected to issue findings in 2018.
Attribution for music used in this episode:
Assassinations Podcast Theme Music (Intro, Outro, and Transitions) written and performed by Graeme Ronald
Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius- Public Domain
Ambient Overtones by Szabo David- Public Domain