This week, we marked international human rights day on December 10, the day in 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Palais de Challoit, Paris following the Second World War. On that morning, as I headed out to the airport in Accra to catch a flight to Lagos, I caught a report online that the U.S. State department had just admitted to ordering the assassination of Patrice Lumumba of Congo.
The government had apparently acted on the instructions of President Eisenhower who had approved $100,000 for the operation. The article made me sad. Africans had long alleged that the western countries, particularly the U.S., Belgium and France, had been involved in Lumumba’s death. At least in the case of the first, we now know for sure.
As I reflected on the grisly circumstances of Lumumba’s death, which involved severe torture and finally the burning of his body in Katanga, eastern Congo, I remembered a book that I had read during my master’s program, written by a Swedish scholar who had scoured through U.S. State department records that had just been declassified then.
Among the records, he had read about the impressions State Department officials had formed of Lumumba and later of Mobutu. Of the former, they had described him as irrational, unstable, erratic. Of the latter, their notes had communicated that they saw a man that they could work with. What exactly transpired in the U.S. Government’s encounters with the two men?
First, some context. Of all the colonial systems, that of Belgium is generally considered to have been the most exploitative. This was mainly because the control of the region known as Congo was held by King Leopold, who lacked the means to administer the region and sought only to get whatever wealth could be secured, often resorting to violent, brutal means to do so.
According to accounts, five to eight million people in the colony died as a result. The famous account of British human rights campaigner, E.D. Morel, brought the news of the particularly vicious nature of that colonial enterprise to global attention, and finally, following a campaign spanning many years, the stewardship of the colony was transferred from the king to the kingdom of Belgium. Local conditions improved, but only slightly, and by independence in 1962, the colony only boasted 13 university graduates.
Many of those who had led the colony’s nationalist movement were understandably angry at the exploitation of their peoples, by the injustices and indignities they had suffered, and sought an alternative to their former colonial master. When Patrice Lumumba visited the U.S. and met with senior officials at the State Department shortly after taking office, he spoke about needing schools and other essential development support. He likely spoke critically about Belgium’s exploitation of his country.
The reaction of his audience has already been described, and based on their assessment, his death warrant was a matter of course. In contrast, the young Mobutu, a journalist with some military training, arrived in America, excited. When he met with President Kennedy, he made one request – he wanted to be taken in a plane so he could parachute down. He would later serve over thirty years at the helm of the country in the heart of Africa.
On responsibility, Nelson Mandela once said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” The United States became the most powerful country in the world after the Second World War. The colonial possessions of the European powers were anathema, given its own history, which had included the war for independence it fought against the British.
Within the country and its government, many hoped to define a new world order that recognized the sovereignty of nations. The Congo affair marked the limits of sovereignty for the newly independent states of Africa. 1962 is not 2015. The fall of the Soviet Union closed off the communist path to development, the spectre of which had so propelled the U.S. policy to set aside its own reservations about imperialism and to seek to win the Cold War by any means necessary.
And at the turn of the millennium, the United Nations, under Kofi Annan had offered the world a new development compact through which the wealthier and poorer countries of the world could work together. One wonders what Lumumba’s fate might have been if this global development compact had been in place in 1962 as opposed to in 2000. The collaboration on development, however, does not mean that all is well. At the end of the year when the millennium compact comes to an end, most of the countries of Africa will have failed to achieve the goals. Inadequate financing for their various development plans accounts for much of the failure.
According to Global Financial Integrity, which released a report in July 2014, the western countries’ relationship with Africa is defined by ‘sustained looting’ to the tune of $60 billion a year. In 2016, a more ambitious, more comprehensive framework will take the place of the millennium compact, to be implemented over the next fifteen years. If the limited progress made on the first goals reflected the limits of the transfer of resources between Africa and the world, the next set will require a deepening of partnership if the goals are to be met.
A change in orientation in the leadership of the U.S. and in the former colonial powers in Europe will be decisive. President Jimmy Carter is known to have said “Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy, because human rights is the very soul of our sense of nationhood.” Clearly an ideal to be aspired to that has not always been reflected in the actions of the world’s only superpower, but as we reflect on Africa’s past, the continent’s leaders must gather their courage and seek once more to strike a new deal with our old friends if 54 countries and one billion people are to ever enjoy the development prospects enjoyed by the rest of the world.