Belgium admits role in killing of African leader

Stephen Castle
Saturday 17 November 2001 01:00

Forty years after the unsolved murder of Africa's most promising post-independence leader, Belgium has owned up to its role in an assassination which became a symbol of colonial wrongdoing.

The findings of an official inquiry published yesterday give a damning account of Belgium's part in the murder in 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first premier, and said a Belgian minister then in office was morally responsible.

Eighteen months of research by parliamentarians and experts has produced a painstaking account of how officials, ministers and even Belgium's King Baudouin either plotted to kill Lumumba or were aware that others were doing so. In particular it chronicles how Belgium handed Lumumba to his enemies in the breakaway province of Katanga without requesting guarantees of his safety – a move which sealed his fate.

The commission of inquiry did not call specifically for an apology to the Congo, but invited parliament to debate the issue. The Foreign Minister, Louis Michel, who set up the investigation, may make an expression of regret next week when he visits Kinshasa.

Lumumba, born into a peasant family in Kasai province, became an icon of the left after his untimely death in January 1961. Less than a year before, in June 1960, he had attacked the racism and paternalism of the outgoing colonial rulers in an breathtaking speech in front of King Baudouin and the Belgian Prime Minister, Gaston Eyskens. His words crystallised a rift with Belgium and its Western allies, increased Cold War suspicions that Lumumba was a communist subversive and strengthened the determination to get rid of him.

Within days of independence, Congo was in turmoil as Belgium intervened militarily and helped to orchestrate the secession of the mineral-rich Katanga province, led by Moise Tshombe. As he battled to prevent the disintegration of the country, Lumumba was detained and, on 17 January 1961, transferred to Katanga. Within five hours of his arrival, he had been tortured and executed by a firing squad commanded by a Belgian.

Even as the government in Brussels insisted that Lumumba was alive and well, a Belgian police commissioner named Gerard Soete cut up the body and dissolved it in acid, keeping two teeth as a grisly souvenir. Yesterday's report was produced by a unique inquiry, which opened the Belgian royal family's archives and its security services, and raided the homes of some key players who are still alive.

Initially dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow, the tribunal silenced its critics through painstaking work which proved the complicity of much of the Belgian establishment in the destabilisation of a newly-independent nation.

Daan Schalck, a Flemish socialist parliamentarian on the inquiry, said: "We have seen that the Belgian government and the king pursued a different policy in the Congo. We have seen that even among the officials advising the minister they were making plans to kill Lumumba, who was the Prime Minister of Congo, and that the minister knew about it."

Few leading Belgian figures emerge well, King Baudouin included. With his own informants in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) the king sometimes seemed to be running a policy at odds with that of his government. The inquiry established that he saw at least one letter which revealed that Tshombe planned to eliminate Lumumba. Although Baudouin marked the document himself, there is no evidence he did anything to avert the plans or that he even passed the information to his own government.

However, the chief villain in Brussels emerges in the shape of the minister for African affairs, Harold Aspremont Lynden, who had himself written a letter referring to the need for Lumumba's "elimination". Here the tribunal's findings are careful. There was clearly a plan to murder Lumumba since he was taken swiftly to a point of execution where preparations had been made. While Aspremont Lynden approved the transfer to Katanga, there is no evidence he knew about the murder plot.

Nevertheless, the minister was well aware of the threat to Lumumba, sought no guarantees of his safety and therefore bore a moral responsibility for the assassination.

Evidence that Britain and the USA played a role in the killing were not investigated.

Belgium's 19th-century colonisation of Congo wasparticularly brutal and history has coloured subsequent relations. The inquiry president, Geert Versnick, said its work had provided an important way for Belgium to confront its past and to repair relations which Africa.

But it also tells a more simple human story. As Mr Versnick put it: "I am shocked by the lack of respect for the life of a human being. At that time the fact that Mr Lumumba should not be in power was the most important thing for Belgium. We do not say that the murder was planned by Belgium, but they [in Brussels] did not care."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments