The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu
It didn’t take long for Congo’s transition from Belgian colony to sovereign state to turn ugly. Both the Soviet Union and the United States were keeping a close eye on the mineral-rich country at the heart of Africa when, on June 30, 1960, it gained independence under a democratically elected government headed by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. A charismatic nationalist, Lumumba led the only party in parliament with a nationwide, rather than ethnic or regional, base. Within days, however, Congo’s troops mutinied against their all-white officer corps (a holdover from the colonial era) and started terrorizing the European population. Belgium responded by sending forces to reoccupy the country and helping Congo’s richest province, Katanga, secede. The United States, declining the appeals for help from the new Congolese government, instead threw its support behind a UN peacekeeping mission, which it hoped would obviate any Congolese requests for Soviet military assistance. But Lumumba quickly came into conflict with the UN for its failure to expel the Belgian troops and end Katanga’s secession. After issuing a series of shifting ultimatums to the UN, he turned to Moscow for help, which responded by sending transport planes to fly Lumumba’s troops into Katanga.
That’s when the Eisenhower administration sent in the CIA. In the decades that followed, the dominant narrative in U.S. foreign policy circles portrayed the U.S. covert action in Congo as a surgical, low-cost success. Even the 1975 U.S. Senate investigation by the Church Committee, which was heavily critical of the CIA, concluded that of the five covert paramilitary campaigns it studied, the operation in Congo was the only one that “achieved its objectives.” Those who hold this view credit the U.S. government with avoiding a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union and China while foiling the communists’ attempts to gain influence over a key African country. They acknowledge that the CIA contributed to the fall of Lumumba, who lost a power struggle with Joseph Mobutu, the pro-Western head of Congo’s army, in September 1960. But they maintain that even though the CIA plotted to assassinate Lumumba — once even trying to get a recruit to poison his toothpaste or food — it never did so, and had no hand in his eventual murder, in January 1961. They also recognize the agency’s contribution to the military defeat of Lumumba’s followers. As for Mobutu, who would go on to become one of Africa’s most enduring and venal leaders, proponents of the orthodox account argue that his faults became clear only later, many years after CIA involvement had run its course.
Over the years, many scholars and journalists have challenged parts of this orthodoxy, and public perception has begun to catch up. But their case has been hampered by the shortage of official documentary evidence. Recently, however, new evidence has become available, and it paints a far darker picture than even the critics imagined. The key sources include files from the Church Committee, which have been slowly declassified over the last 20 years; a 2001 Belgian parliamentary investigation into Lumumba’s murder; and a new volume, released last year, of Foreign Relations of the United States, the State Department series that presents a document-by-document record of U.S. decision-making. The new volume, on Congo, contains the most extensive set of CIA operational documents ever published.
We now know that even though the threat of communism in Congo was quite weak at the time of Congo’s independence, the CIA engaged in pervasive political meddling and paramilitary action between 1960 and 1968 to ensure that the country retained a pro-Western government and to help its pathetic military on the battlefield. So extensive were these efforts that at the time, they ranked as the largest covert operation in the agency’s history, costing an estimated $90–$150 million in current dollars, not counting the aircraft, weapons, and transportation and maintenance services provided by the Defense Department. The CIA had a hand in every one of Congo’s major political turning points during the period and maintained a financial and political relationship with every head of its government. And contrary to the conclusion of the Church Committee, Lawrence Devlin, the CIA station chief in Congo for most of the period, had direct influence over the events that led to Lumumba’s death.
Not only was U.S. involvement extensive; it was also malignant. The CIA’s use of bribery and paramilitary force succeeded in keeping a narrow, politically weak clique in power for most of Congo’s first decade of independence. And the very nature of the CIA’s aid discouraged Congolese politicians from building genuine bases of support and adopting responsible policies. The agency’s legacy of clients and techniques contributed to a long-running spiral of decline, which was characterized by corruption, political turmoil, and dependence on Western military intervention. So dysfunctional was the state that in 1997 it outright collapsed — leaving behind instability that continues to this day.
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In the beginning, U.S. covert action in Congo was exclusively political in nature. Washington worried that Lumumba was too erratic and too close to the Soviets and that if he stayed in power, Congo could fall into further chaos and turn communist. Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, cabled the CIA station in Léopoldville, the capital, in August 1960: “We conclude that his removal must be an urgent and prime objective and that under existing conditions this should be a high priority of our covert action.” So the CIA station, in tandem with Belgian intelligence officials, subsidized two opposition senators who attempted to organize a vote of no confidence against Lumumba’s government. The plan was for Joseph Kasavubu, Congo’s president and Lumumba’s rival, to dissolve the government after the vote and nominate one of the senators as the new prime minister. The CIA also funded anti-Lumumba street demonstrations, labor movements, and propaganda.
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