Patrice Lumumba: the most important assassination of the 20th century

Added: 08-07-2018

This article summarizes the implications of the assassination of Congo’s first elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Killed by opposition groups that were supported by the US and European allies this death symbolized the strong opposition of pan-African movements by western powers. Pan-Africanism was feared by European countries because it threatened their control of African resources.

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Type Reading Time Author Date Source
article 10 minutes GEORGES NZONGOLA-NTALAJA 01-17-2011
Type Reading Time
article 10 minutes
Author Date
georges nzongola-ntalaja 2018-08-07 00:00:00 UTC
Key Takeaways
  • US and Belgium were responsible for funding the opposition groups that killed Lumumba due to invested self interest. 
  • Lumumba’s death caused years of internal conflict and the rise of the dictator Colonel Mobutu. 
  • The death of Lumumba signaled that pan-africanism would be opposed by western powers if it threatened their claims to African resources.


In this Guardian article, Nzongola-Ntalaja summarizes and builds upon the work of Ludo De Witte, who cites the assassination of Patrice Lumumba as the “the most important assassination of the 20th century”. 

Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister, was killed six months after he was elected by the Congolese people in May 1960. This death would deeply impact the future of Congo for the next half-century and the longevity of the pan-African movement. 

Prior to 1960, Congo (now now Democratic Republic of the (DR0 Congo) was a considered a colony of Belgium and experienced infamously brutal treatment from them under the rule of King Leopold II. During this time, the United States accepted Belgium's claims to the Congo and eventually found strategic stake in the Congo due to its uranium deposits during WWII. 

Following years of protests at the end of the 1950’s, Congo gained independence during the height of the Cold War, meaning that involvement with the US or USSR would have political ramifications. Here Nzongola-Ntalaja refers to De Witte’s writing to explain that Lumumba was elected to lead a very fractious and divided Congo state. Looking for resources and support to fulfill his nationalist vision, Lumumba sought the help of the USSR. This was viewed as a dangerous act of opposition and led the US to support opposition parties who ousted, exiled and eventually killed Lumumba. 

The implications of Lumumba’s death were far reaching. Immediately, it allowed four factious self-proclaimed Congo governments to secede. However, the western backing of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (born Joseph-Désiré Mobutu) proved too powerful for these smaller factions and after several years of conflict the Congo was united under Colonel Mobutu thanks to significant US backing. 

On a larger scale, the US and Belgian backed assassination made it widely known that western powers opposed the cultural and economic implications of pan-Africanism. During this time pan-Africanism was a strong movement across Africa that encouraged Africans to reclaim their land and their resources to the benefit of their people. 

By killing Lumumba, one of the movement's foremost leaders, western powers made clear that they had intentions of holding onto their business and resource claims in their former colonies and sought to effectively continue the economic domination of Africa that had taken place over the prior two hundred years.