Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

Hammarskjöld and Lumumba

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fifty years ago, this week, Dag Hammarskjöld died in an airplane crash in Northern Rhodesia, today Zambia. He was surely the greatest Secretary General the United Nations has ever had. It is he who in effect invented peacekeeping missions that have – despite faults and criticism – reduced conflicts in many parts of the world. Having led the creation of what was then the largest peacekeeping mission ever in the Congo – ONUC - he was on a mission to negotiate the reunification of the country following the secession of its richest province. Hammarskjöld’s goal made him many enemies especially among white southern Africans, but also in the US. His death may very well have been an assassination.

Fifty years ago, another man whose fate was deeply linked to Hammarskjöld’s also died. He was clearly murdered and his name was Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first elected Prime Minister. Lumumba also had many enemies.

Immediately after the Congo achieved independence on June 30, 1960 the country’s army mutinied and Katanga, its richest province, seceded with the support of Belgian – the former colonizer – troops. Most Belgian civil servants fled the country. Faced with this chaos, Lumumba first appealed to the US to help restore order and maintain the unity of the Congo. His request was rejected and he was advised to turn to the UN. This is when Hammarskjöld’s and Lumumba’s interests connected. Lumumba thought the UN would use the rapidly put together ONUC to protect the Congo’s sovereignty and most important to force an end to Katanga secession. Hammarskjöld is said to have viewed the opening in the Congo as a first step in placing the rest of African decolonization under UN responsibility.

Alas, this was not to be. Lumumba was quickly viewed as a Soviet agent or dupe by the Eisenhower Administration. It gave the CIA orders to assassinate him. Hammarskjöld rejected Lumumba’s request that he use ONUC troops to end Katanga secession. He believed he would be able to achieve that goal through negotiations. This caused a deep rift between the two. Lumumba was captured by his Congolese arch enemies and Hammarskjöld refused to use ONUC troops to liberate him. He was sent to Katanga and there killed. 

Hammarskjöld was a very sophisticated man and Lumumba was young and rash with little worldly experience. But, sadly and ironically history proved that Lumumba’s analysis was correct and Hammarskjöld’s wrong. The endless negotiations to bring Katanga back into the Congo’s fold failed and the UN – with the Kennedy Administration's support - organized two military campaigns against Katanga. The second succeeded and the secession ended.

There is a second irony in this story. President John F. Kennedy was elected in the fall of 1960. He was eager to open doors to the Third World but the Eisenhower Administration’s policy in the Congo stood in the way. There is little doubt that he intended to seek a compromise including in the case of then imprisoned Lumumba. This intention endangered the very life of Lumumba’s enemies. He was murdered two days before the Kennedy inauguration. If the US elections had occurred six months earlier, would either Hammarskjöld or Lumumba have died when they did?