AT the height of the Cold War in the 1950s-60s, US cultural initiatives seemed to be a relatively innocuous means of exerting soft power. These included State Department-sponsored tours by prominent musicians. The all too few descendants of African slaves whose prodigious talent had elevated them to iconic status were deemed particularly valuable in shaping America’s image in post-colonial Africa.
On one such tour, according to a report by Jason Burke in The Observer, jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong found himself being entertained in November 1960 by Larry Devlin, political attaché at the US embassy in Leopoldville, the capital of Congo.
Devlin was actually the CIA station chief in that city, and was determined to use Armstrong’s tour as a means of infiltrating Elisabethville, the capital of the breakaway province of Katanga, home to Congo’s lucrative repositories of minerals.
Katanga had broken away after Congo won independence in June 1960. At Congo’s independence ceremony, the nation’s newly elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba struck a tone very different from that of the outgoing colonial power’s representatives.
Congo’s fate 60 years ago isn’t a thing of the past.
After King Baudouin of Belgium tried to cast his nation’s role in a benevolent light, ignoring the fact than an estimated half of Congo’s population had perished as a consequence of this benevolence, Lumumba made it clear that independence was the consequence of a brutal struggle, rather than a gift from Brussels. “We are your monkeys no more,” he declared.
Perhaps his fate was sealed even then. Decades later, Devlin confessed to the CIA’s role in toppling Lumumba in a coup led by Colonel Joseph-Desire Mobutu. Lumumba had requested UN assistance to reverse the secession of Katanga under the leadership of Moise Tshombe, whose actions were guided from Brussels, and who was propped up by Belgian and French mercenaries.
The UN responded, but after Lumumba was deposed the blue berets eventually handed him over to Mobutu loyalists, who humiliated him before transferring him to Katanga. He was tortured and summarily executed in January 1961. The CIA has claimed for some decades now that although it was indeed plotting to murder Lumumba, the matter was taken out of its hands. Britain’s MI6 has been more reticent about its role.
Belgium eventually acknowledged its complicity around the turn of the century. A Belgian police commissioner confessed he had dismembered Lumumba’s corpse and dissolved it in a vat of acid. (One wonders if Jamal Khashoggi’s murderers were aware of the precedent.)
Lumumba’s assassination wasn’t the only one in the region in 1961. Soon after midnight on Sept 17, a UN plane carrying its secretary general to a scheduled meeting with Tshombe in Ndola in Rhodesia, just across the Katanga border, crashed a few miles from the designated airport, killing 15 of its 16 passengers, including Dag Hammarskjöld, who shared many enemies with Lumumba — including the semi-colonial separatist forces in Katanga, their supporters in Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as the US and UK secret services.
The official Rhodesian account of an accident caused by pilot error has been questioned ever since. There are any number of alternative explanations — and enduring mysteries — that associates of Hammarskjöld and a small bunch of researches have sought to unravel over the decades.
Foremost among the dedicated academics is the University of London’s Susan Williams, whose research Burke cites in his report about Armstrong. She is the author, most recently, of White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonisation of Africa, which I look forward to reading, but 10 years ago she published Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, a forensic but nonetheless scintillating account of all the available evidence, which spurred a fresh UN inquiry led by former Tanzanian chief justice Mohamed Chande Othman. Lately, Ravi Somaiya’s rather more racy update, Operation Morthor(that’s ‘mor tor’, as in Urdu/Hindi) has revived interest in that enduringly relevant moment in history.
In an interim report in 2017 and a more comprehensive one two years later, Othman did not reach any definitive conclusions, but reinforced the plausibility of extraneous causes in the crash, and requested the US, Britain, Russia and South Africa to share all the intelligence in their archives surrounding the events of Sept 17-18, 1961. Remarkably, even Sweden — Hammarskjöld’s homeland, where he is hailed as a non-aligned hero alongside the nation’s other prominent victim of assassination Olof Palme — has withheld some files over ‘security’ concerns.
It appears increasingly unlikely that the mystery surrounding Hammarskjöld’s death will ever be conclusively unravelled. But there’s no doubting the persisting Western attitude towards Africa. This month’s coup in Guinea was greeted with concerns about multinational mining interests. Primarily, ‘globalisation’ is the continuation of neocolonialism by other means.
Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2021