Live and Let Die: Did British Spies Kill The Dream Of A Free And Prosperous Congo?

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An esteemed literary journal -- one of the last places you might look for breaking geopolitical news -- has divulged some surprising information about the mysterious 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, one of 20th century Africa’s most important leaders.

It all began with the March 21 issue of the London Review of Books, wherein the historian Bernard Porter appraised Calder Walton’s new work of nonfiction: “Secrets of Empire: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire.” Readers responded with letters, a few of which were published in the April 11 issue. Among these was a two-paragraph note from a British peer in the House of Lords, Baron David Lea.

In a venue that would seem more appropriate for an afterthought, Lea dropped a bombshell. He noted Porter’s ambivalence about whether the UK was involved in the assassination of Lumumba, and asserted that British spies were, in fact, directly involved.

His letter was titled, simply, “We Did It.”

Lea recalled a chat he’d had several years ago with the Baroness of Monmouth, or Daphne Park, a former intelligence agent who died in March 2010. Over tea, only months before her death, the two friends were discussing the murder of Lumumba.

“I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba’s abduction and murder,” wrote Lea, “and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. ‘We did,’ [Park] replied. ‘I organized it.’”

That admission is just one more clue in the mysterious case of the death of one of Africa’s most well-known nationalist leaders.

Patrice Lumumba was an important pre- and post-independence leader in the Belgian Congo, which became the Republic of the Congo, then Zaire, then the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He became the country’s first popularly elected prime minister in June 1960, just as the huge country was achieving independence after decades of brutal Belgian rule and exploitation.

Lumumba was a charismatic figure whose nationalist aims were in line with those of many Third World leaders during that era, but death came so swiftly that his potential impact on history was barely realized.

Lumumba championed full sovereignty for the Congolese people, which confounded the aspirations of Western powers – including Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States – whose officials were angling for control of the country’s vast mineral reserves.

The Cold War heightened tensions even more. When mutinous Congolese troops under Belgian influence fought for the secession of the resource-rich southern province of Katanga, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for help – a move that may have sealed his fate.

As the central government split between supporters of Prime Minister Lumumba and President Joseph Kasavubu – a more Western-friendly figure – Lumumba found himself on the wrong side of history. In October, the United Nations recognized the administration of Kasavubu, who was by that time working closely with a military colonel, Joseph-Desire Mobutu. (Mobutu would seize power in 1965 and become Mobutu Sese Soko, who renamed the country Zaire and ruled as dictator for the next 32 years.)

In December 1960, only six months after his election, Lumumba was arrested by forces loyal to Kasavubu. He was sent to Katanga province, where he was killed by a firing squad.

The Belgian author Ludo de Witte notes in his widely cited 2002 book, “The Assassination of Lumumba,” that Belgian officials were present for the killing and went so far as to dissolve the corpse in sulfuric acid in order to do away with all evidence. It has since been widely speculated that American intelligence workers were also involved in Lumumba’s assassination, at least insofar as they backed his opponents Kasavubu and Mobutu.

British involvement has also been suspected, and Lea’s letter to the London Review of Books adds weight to the theory that MI6 was a major player in the death of Lumumba.

The late Daphne Parks was herself an interesting figure. They called her the Queen of Spies, and she worked clandestinely as the head of MI6 operations in Leopoldville during the early 1960s. (Leopoldville is now Kinshasa, the DR Congo’s capital city.)

Parks has been described as warm, chatty and frumpy. She didn’t fit the typical image of an international spy, which is perhaps why she was able to do her job so well. Her work took her all around the world – she worked in Moscow, Hanoi, and Ulan Bator, Mongolia. She retired to Great Britain and, in her old age, used to ride around the House of Lords in an electric wheelchair.

According to one obituary in The Guardian, Parks befriended Lumumba during the early 1960s and seemed to despise the Belgians in the Congo. But her covert actions belied those appearances.

As Lea wrote in this week’s letter, Parks believed that Lumumba was a threat to Western interests because he “would have handed over the whole lot to the Russians: the high-value Katangese uranium deposits as well as the diamonds and other important minerals largely located in the secessionist eastern state of Katanga.”

And so the DR Congo’s most charismatic early leader was struck down, with Parks apparently acting as a ringleader in the assassination.

Had Lumumba lived, there is no telling whether he could have brought peace to his people. Decades of colonialism had already left the state fractured and poverty-stricken when he became prime minister, and real progress would have been a tall order for anyone at that time. Still today, the country is plagued by chronic violence, underdevelopment, instability and weak governance.

The true extent of the West’s involvement in the death of Lumumba is still unclear, though Lea’s admission could yield more clues to that mystery. But even if covert operations and targeted assassinations did prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a toehold in central Africa, they apparently did not bring the DR Congo any closer to long-term stability -- instead, they have thwarted civil political engagement.

Today, lack of political engagement is one of the DR Congo’s most pressing issues. The central administration is weak, and the power of current President Joseph Kabila – whose last election was condemned as flawed -- barely reaches beyond the city limits of Kinshasa, leaving eastern provinces at the mercy of roving militant organizations. The mineral riches of Katanga and other eastern provinces like North and South Kivu have been exploited by criminal groups and their backers in neighboring countries.

The DR Congo also suffered through two massive conflicts between 1996 and 2003 – the First and Second Great Congo Wars – which collectively killed more than 5.4 million people.

Last week, the United Nations stepped up its efforts to bring peace to the DR Congo by authorizing its peacekeepers to engage in offensive combat operations, which should help to rein in violence. Last month, a group of African leaders and U.N. representatives gathered to lay the framework of a new agreement that envisions a comprehensive, inclusive approach to forging peace in the DR Congo.

These overt moves are a far cry from the undercover means by which Western powers sought to wield influence in central Africa decades ago. That might please Lea, who disagreed with Parks when she pointed to the Soviet threat as a good reason to target Lumumba.

He told her, according to his letter, that he “didn’t see how suspicion of Western involvement and of our motivation for Balkanizing their country would be a happy augury for the new republic’s peaceful development.”

It was surely an interesting chat over tea for the aging baron and his friend, the baroness. But for the 68 million people of the DR Congo, the closed-door decisions made by Western officials decades ago altered the course of history in fundamental ways – and the consequences persist to this day.

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