Douglas-Home considers the ‘crocodile option’ for Congo’s ousted prime minister
[ 19 September 1960 ]
In May 1960, Patrice Lumumba was elected prime minister of the Congo. He was a troublesome believer in independent economic development, who thought Congolese nationals rather than foreigners should be allowed to run the important offices of government and that Congo could somehow be allowed to remain neutral in the Cold War. For London and Washington, such an example of independent development risked establishing a dangerous precedent.
Lumumba was still considered a threat to British and American interests after a military coup on Wednesday 14 September isolated him in his home, where UN guards were posted to protect him. By Saturday 17 September, he had disappeared and was presumed to be in hiding.1 When President Dwight Eisenhower met with British Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home two days later, on Monday 19 September 1960, the minutes record that ‘the president expressed his wish that Lumumba would fall into a river full of crocodiles.’ Lord Home was sympathetic and, according to the same notetaker, he joked that ‘regretfully that we have lost many of the techniques of old-fashioned diplomacy.’2
The following week, Lord Home, along with British Prime Minister Macmillan, met Eisenhower in New York. This time it was the British Foreign Secretary who appeared the most eager to follow through on the president’s earlier hint of an arranged accident. The minutes note that ‘Lord Home raised the question why we are not getting rid of Lumumba at the present time,’ and that ‘He stressed now is the time to get rid of Lumumba.’3 Soon after the meeting, MI6’s station chief in the Congo was given the task of arranging Lumumba’s removal, which was achieved when Belgium mercenaries tortured and then shot the former prime minister dead and chopped up his corpse on 17 January 1961. His murder guaranteed continued Western control of Congo’s vital mineral interests and that country remained open to major multinationals including BP, Unilever and British American Tobacco. It also paved the way for the rise to power of Mobuto, who in 1961 was Chief of Staff, but through a CIA backed coup in 1965 soon became one of Africa’s most corrupt and feared dictators.
- ‘Congo: “Lumumba in Flight,”‘ The Daily Mirror, 17 September 1960, p. 5 and ‘Big Question in Congo: Where is Lumumba ?’ The Coventry Evening Telegraph, 17 September 1960, p. 1.
- Gordon Corera, MI6: Life and Death in the British Secret Service, Phoenix, London, 2012, pp. 124-125.
- Ibid., p. 125.
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