Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Leopoldville 1960 – Patrice Lumumba’s Residence

This photograph, taken of a villa on Boulevard Albert 1er across from the Leopoldville golf course in May 1948, was Patrice Lumumba’s residence in 1960 when he became Prime Minister of the independent Republic of the Congo.  Lumumba was allocated the house by virtue of his nomination in February 1960 to the College Exécutif, a six-member advisory committee of Congolese representatives to the Governor General.  Otherwise, even this late in the colonial period, an African could never have purchased a house in the European city. Lumumba was tapped to represent Kasai Province, though he had lived in Leopoldville since September 1957 (Jan. 17, 2016).
The villa on Blvd. Albert 1er, May 1948 (author coll.) 

Family photo in the garden. (Published in Jet Magazine, March 9, 1961)
After the Elections in May, Lumumba was designated to form the first government. Kasa-Vubu, representing the important Bakongo community in the capital (Jan. 13, 2019), threatened to boycott and a compromise was reached whereby Kasa-Vubu would be elected President by the Parliament. Jean Van Lierde, a friend and advisor to Lumumba, recalled waiting at the house on the Boulevard on June 23 for Kasa-Vubu’s three ABAKO nominees for the Premier’s expansive cabinet. Following the Independence festivities and transfer of sovereignty to the new nation, President Kasa-Vubu moved into the former Provincial Governor’s mansion on Mont Stanley (Jan. 28, 2019), while Lumumba had to wait until July 5 for Governor General Henri Cornelis to vacate the Governor General’s residence on Ave. Tilkens (Ave du Fleuve) (Sep. 12, 2011).  By this time, General Janssens’ neo-colonialist position had precipitated an army mutiny and plunged the new nation into the Cold War.
Lumumba gives a press conference in the residence, June 2, 1960 (author coll.)
Belgian actions to safeguard its citizens by militarily occupying key cities and airports provoked Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba to break relations with Belgium on July 14. Lumumba announced the country would call for Soviet support if Belgium did not withdraw. Meanwhile, the United Nations responded decisively to a separate request to send a peace-keeping force to the new country. Relations with the UN soured in August when the international body appeared to acquiesce to the secession of Katanga Province. Furthermore, relations between President Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba became strained as the Prime Minister expressed increasingly strident anti-imperialist positions while the President appeared influenced by strong messages from western Ambassadors.  Both Brussels and Washington approved plans to remove Lumumba. The conflict came to a head on September 5 when Kasa-Vubu went on Radio Leopoldville to dismiss Lumumba.  Shortly afterwards, Lumumba came on the radio dismissing the President. The following day, Kasa-Vubu’s Prime Minister designate, Joseph Ileo, issued a warrant for Lumumba’s arrest. The United Nations closed the radio and all airports in the country.
Ghanaian soldier at the radio station September 5, 1960 (author coll.)
According to the Loi Fondamentale, the constitutional framework drafted by the Belgians, Kasa-Vubu was in his rights as President. But Lumumba cried foul and secured a vote in his favor in both Houses of the National Assembly on September 8, and called upon the UN to reopen the radio and airports. The UN placed guards at Parliament, the President and Prime Minister’s residences. In the afternoon of September 11, a National Army (ANC) unit arrested Lumumba at his residence on Blvd. Albert, executing Ileo’s warrant.  He was taken to Camp Leopold II (now Kokolo), but released after two hours. The Premier toured the cité rallying his supporters, then drove to the radio station three blocks from his home.  A Ghanaian guard detail refused him access.  At that point, Lumumba decamped from the Prime Minister’s residence for his private one.  Mme. Lumumba was seen leaving the residence in a vehicle filled with the family’s luggage.
Ghanaian troops at the Prime Minister's Office. Lumumba on the balcony (arrow)
(author coll.)

Ghana troops reinforce positions at the radio station, September 1960 (author coll.)
Tensions remained high in the city, with neither side conceding and the UN’s stated position of neutrality appearing to favor the Kasa-Vubu faction. Ghanaian troops withdrew from the Radio station on September 13 when the new Minister of Information in the Ileo government arrived to take possession.  The following day, Colonel Mobutu announced on the radio he was neutralizing both factions until the end of the year – a coup d’état.  He created an interim government of technocrats -- the College of Commissioners -- comprised of the cream of Congo's few university graduates.

Mobutu kept up the pressure.  On September 15, he announced the expulsion of Soviet and Czech embassies for distributing pro-Lumumba propaganda.  The next day, his troops arrested staff at the Prime Minister's residence and those at the administrative office on the street behind the Residence.  Lumumba left his private home and went into hiding, but on Sunday, September 18, returned to the official residence on the Congo River.  Ghanaian troops ensured his safety and screened journalists to an impromptu press conference.

Lumumba left the official residence several times over the next three weeks to rally supporters, but always returned to the safety of the Ghana guard detail.  The College of Commissioners fulminated about this, calling for an ANC guard at the Residence, for the electricity and water to be cut off, and for Mobutu to execute the arrest warrant.  Finally on October 12, Mobutu acted, deploying Congolese soldiers in an outer ring around the Ghanaians.  He reached an agreement with the UN that Lumumba would only be arrested if he left the Residence.
Ghanaian troops secure the perimeter of Lumumba's private residence (author coll.)

Col. Mobutu attempts to arrest Lumumba on October 11, 1960. The Ghanaian guard refused. 
(Author coll.)
On the night of November 27, in pouring rain, Lumumba slipped out of his residence, hidden on the floor of the back seat of his Chevrolet station wagon under the legs of the house workers.  Driving the workers home at night was a normal occurrence and the UN detail barely gave to car a look.  The ANC questioned the driver, who said he was also going to buy cigarettes, and would bring them back a carton, and they let him pass.  Lumumba rendezvoused with a number of supporters (including Pauline and son Roland, who had moved into the cité), and in a three-vehicle convoy set out for Stanleyville (Kisangani), 2000 kilometers to the northeast, where Lumumbists under Antoine Gizenga held power.  On December 1, Lumumba and his party were apprehended by Congolese security services near Mweka in Kasai Province.  His return to Leopoldville and subsequent transfer to and murder in Katanga is beyond the scope of this post, but can be consulted in detail in Ludo De Witte’s The Assassination of Lumumba (2001).
Lumumba in his car before confinement (The Africa Report, Sept. 18, 2020)

During years the family was in exile, Lumumba’s younger brother Louis was an influential player, elected as Governor of Sankuru Province in 1963 and named to the Board of Air Congo in 1968.  In 1971, however, he was accused of illegal diamond dealing.  The family retained possession of the house on the Boulevard, even while the children now and then appeared as members of the opposition to Mobutu in the diaspora. With Mobutu’s overthrow in May 1997 and Laurent Kabila’s advent as President, daughter Juliana Lumumba returned to Kinshasa as Minister of Culture and Arts in Kabila’s government.
The Lumumba residence in 2006 (author coll.)
In June 2013, the Matata Ponyo government released an RFP to rehabilitate the Lumumba residence and construct an annex for Mama Pauline Opango Lumumba.   Additional RFPs were issued following year in April and May, for further restoration of the residence and to build a guard house and upgrade the security wall around the property.  Pauline Opango Lumumba died in December 2014 and the family held a wake at the residence. Ownership of the property passed to Lumumba’s son, Roland.

Pauline Opango Lumumba's wake (Radio Okapi, Aug. 28, 2017)
In December 2018, “African Challenges” published an article by a Kinshasa correspondent arguing the house should become a museum. It cited the only “unique” historical relic was a white Ford Maverick up on blocks in the rear of the property.  Why, the author asked, wasn’t the state doing more to preserve such important artifacts of this National Hero?  The question of museum status (and public support) for the Lumumba residence, as well as that of Kasa-Vubu on Ave. Kasa-Vubu, are important issues for the country to address 60 years on, but the Maverick (which could be seen in the carport in 2006) was not the getaway car.  The Chevrolet station wagon has consistently been cited as the vehicle.  Ford did not introduce the Maverick until 1970.  
The Maverick on blocks outside the carport (African Challenges, Dec. 22, 2018)

A view of the Maverick in 2006 (author coll.)
The Lumumba residence occupies a prominent, easily accessible, location in Kinshasa and could be repurposed as a museum if the family agreed. As a tourist attraction for both national and foreign visitors, it has huge potential to tell Lumumba’s and the country’s story.

  • African Challenges, Dec. 22, 2018. “Devoir de mémoire: ce qui reste du héros national Patrice Lumumba à Kinshasa”
  • De Witte, Ludo, 2001. The Assassination of Lumumba, Verso.
  • Radio Okapi, Dec. 12, 2014.