17 January 1961
On 17 January 1961, Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, was abducted, tortured and then shot dead in a coup masterminded by MI6. To prevent any possible autopsy, Belgian mercenaries, who had been involved in his death, dug up and dismembered his body from where it had been hastily buried, and dissolved what remained in sulfuric acid.
A year earlier, on 27 January 1960, Congo had declared its independence and in May the 34 year old Lumumba had won the country’s first general election. However, he quickly displeased Belgium, the country’s former colonial ruler, by announcing that he hoped to replace most of the Belgium born civil servants with Congolese employees and to release many of the prisoners detained under colonial rule. More worryingly for Western powers, he also began to replace European officers in his army with Congolese nationals. When the United States refused to help him suppress a Belgium backed secessionist rebellion in the uranium rich Katanga province, he turned to Moscow for military support, although he made it clear he viewed communism as no better than colonialism and was determined to take a moderate middle path.
This impartiality was deeply worrying to both London and Washington. In September 1960, Britain’s foreign secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, informed the Cabinet that Lumumba had obtained ‘considerable support from the Soviet bloc.’ Douglas-Home explained that Lumumba’s popularity made it difficult to oppose him publicly, but action might be undertaken ‘privately.’ Prime Minister Harold Macmillan agreed and Douglas-Home threw himself into the work of overthrowing Lumumba with an earnest enthusiasm. When President Eisenhower confessed to Douglas-Home, while the Foreign Secretary was in Washington, his wish that Congo’s prime minister should ‘fall into a river full of crocodiles,’ Douglas-Home felt encouraged by such dark humour and voiced his own conviction that they should ‘get rid of Lumumba.’1
Evidence of MI6’s direct involvement in the prime minister’s assassination only finally emerged in 2013. In a letter to the London Review of Books, Lord Lea recalled a conversation with Daphne Park, M16’s former officer in Congo, who when asked whether the agency had had any role in Lumumba’s murder, replied ‘We did. I organised it.’ She explained that London had been deeply concerned about maintaining Western control of the uranium deposits in the eastern province of Katanga.2 However, Park did express her personal regret that Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister had been tortured prior to his assassination.3
- Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers, William Collins, London, 2017, p. 245.
- Benn Quinn, ‘M16 ‘arranged Cold War killing’ of Congo Prime Minister,’ The Guardian, 2 April 2013 accessed online https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/02/mi6-patrice-lumumba-assassination
- Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, Op. cit., p. 245.
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