In 2001, Ludo de Witte published his book The Assassination of Lumumba. It caused a sensation in his home country Belgium, as his research of the state’s archives laid bare the conspiracy to kill the Congo’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Stephen Williams spoke to the author.
Ludo de Witte explained to New African that in writing his bestseller, The Assassination of Lumumba, he made extensive use of the Belgian Foreign Ministry’s written archives; and researched British, US and UN archives, as well as some personal records of Belgian army officers who were involved in the Congo at that time.
But he makes clear that the main collection of documents that shed new light on the events in the Congo some 60 years ago came from the archives of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Actually, I knew what I had to find because in the personal archives of a Belgian officer it was revealed that the Belgian government had a hand in the assassination of Lumumba,” the author clarifies.
But it was no easy task as the Belgian archives were, in De Witte’s own words, “very badly collected and poorly catalogued”. Nevertheless, this might have been a blessing in disguise as when he started searching the archives he found some documents that the archivists were not even aware of.
“In Belgium, there is a Diplomatic Commission who in principle have to look into all the documents which are 30 years or older, and they can select which you can, or cannot see.
“They can withdraw certain documents if they deem that it is not in the interest of the state to have them released.
“I got a bunch of unclassified papers which proved quite important, and spectacular in what they revealed! The fact that after my book was published the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered the closure of all research of the archives of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi (all former Belgian colonies in Africa) proves that they were appalled that I had ever seen those documents.”
But the question left hanging was whether the state was simply incompetent, or had tried to hush the whole thing up. “In my opinion,” De Witte says, “it’s more about there being a lack of human resources for keeping a close watch on what’s researched and published. The difference with the approach of the Belgian authorities and, for example, the British national archives, is that you only get access to documents in Britain after they have been scrutinised, so you get to see a selection of documents. One archivist told me that depending on the subject they covered, only between 6% and 14% of the documents are made available to researchers.”
The difference appears to be that in Belgium, in principle, you can see all the documents, although technically there is the state’s Diplomatic Commission that will act for the government and go into the archives and take away documents before you can see them.
This, as Ludo de Witte’s experience illustrates, has not been a particularly efficient arrangement, as the archives are so poorly maintained.
“It was a complicity in the political elimination of Lumumba that in the end points to his assassination. But you cannot say that it was complicity in the assassination itself.”
“One of the recommendations of the Lumumba Commission [established after publication of De Witte’s book] given that the state of the archives are so very bad, is that the government was advised to facilitate work to inventorise all the archives – but this recommendation, like all the other the Lumumba Commission made, came to nothing.”
What De Witte describes is, in the field of archival research, something of a cat and mouse game. “We have a situation in Belgium where the archives in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that are 30 years or older, should be freely accessible,”
De Witte explains. “But even these documents, in principle, have to be scrutinised by the Diplomatic Commissioner who can remove documents without the researcher even knowing the documents have been withdrawn. So you have to try to get documents, either through luck or by the generosity of a diplomat who is in a position to help, before they are taken away. That’s basically the situation.”
Before speaking to De Witte, I had come across references to letters that he wrote to the New York Book Review journal discussing what might have been seen as the UN’s complicity in Lumumba’s assassination.
But when I put that to De Witte, he was quick to correct me. “No, no, no. I did not say that. It was a complicity in the political elimination of Lumumba that in the end points to his assassination. But you cannot say that it was complicity in the assassination itself.
“What I said is that during the course of transferring Lumumba to Katanga, and on his arrival there, the UN stayed extremely passive.
“The UN forces didn’t move. I think they didn’t want to interfere with Congolese authorities or the Belgians behind them, even though they saw that Lumumba had been heavily beaten during the flight, and while he was taken out of the plane when he arrived in Katanga.
“But the most important element in the eyes of the Congolese Government concerning Lumumba, is that when he fled his house at the end of November and tried to reach his supporters, he was chased by Mobutu’s troops, supported by Belgian and CIA personnel. The New York UN headquarters had made it clear that it could take Lumumba into protective custody only if he was still the prime minister.
“But that was not the case as Lumumba had been controversially dismissed as PM by President Joseph Kasavuba. Consequently, the UN headquarters ordered that under no circumstances should Lumumba be taken into the UN’s protective custody. A copy of the order document was found in the UN archives.
“In fact, the rank and file of the UN Blue Helmets wanted to take him into protective custody. But the officer in charge followed his orders from headquarters, and that is how he fell into the hands of Mobutu’s troops and was transferred to Katanga where he was killed.”
“This is a very important element in the succession of events which proves a clear complicity of the UN. Hammarskjöld never spoke about it, and even in writing to the UN’s Security Council afterwards, when he told the UN he didn’t know where Lumumba was and that they couldn’t take him into preventive custody. That was clearly a lie.”
De Witte’s thinking on the Lumumba assassination has aroused a string of supporters for Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s actions at the time – not least those outlined in a new book edited by Carsten Stahn and Henning Melber – Peace, Diplomacy, Global Justice and International Agency.
Speaking in London last month, Henning indicated that he thought Hammarskjöld’s actions at that time were informed by a desire to keep the UN neutral or impartial, and outside of the Congo’s political landscape.
But given the historical importance of the UN’s role, it will be fascinating to see if De Witte’s new book, which will cover the period between 1964-65 in the Congo, especially the rebellions and the Mobutu coup in 1965, will add fresh dynamics to this debate. The book will come out in Dutch later this year and in French and English translations in 2015.