Leo Zeilig

– Leo Zeilig

Writer, Leo Zeilig, tells us how he came to write Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader and why he felt ‘angry’ after completing the book.

You’ve lived most of your life in England with time spent living in Canada and Africa, at what point did you become interested in the former Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba and what instigated this interest?
When I was a student, more than twenty years ago I read a selection of talks by Malcolm X, in one of them he mentioned Patrice Lumumba’s speech delivered on the first day of Congo’s independence. He stated, in no uncertain terms, that all African-Americans needed to memorise this speech, as it was the greatest speech that any black man had ever made. He was not exaggerating. I read it and became obsessed. I wanted to know why he had been killed, but at the time the circumstances of Lumumba’s murder were not entirely clear. The brilliant historian and investigative researcher, Ludo de Witte, had not yet published his exposé detailing the Belgian state’s elimination of Lumumba.

I suppose Lumumba presented me with a paradox that I am still trying to unpick today. The paradox can be framed like this: many of the last century’s most important struggles against colonial rule (mass movements, strikes, armed struggles) which eventually swept away Europe’s gunboat diplomacy and its settlements through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, occurred in Africa. These movements and nationalist parties were often spearheaded by extraordinary people, which included both leaders at the top and also an army of ordinary people who animated these movements from below. Yet when I began studying Africa, writing about the continent and travelling through it in the mid-1990s, Africa had seen living standards collapse, health and education systems had buckled – often under the pressure of IMF ‘user fee’ reforms – while the continent’s political class had become the willing agents of underdevelopment and had facilitated dependency on Western aid. How could so much hope, such phenomenal revolutionary movements, give way to this avalanche of failure?

Early on I became convinced that one of the answers to this paradox lay in the events that took place in 1960-1 in the Congo, and that Lumumba’s murder by the ex-colonial power, Belgium with Congolese ‘puppets’ (as Lumumba described the political elite who cooperated with the United States and European powers in a letter written to his wife while in prison) was a vital event in Africa. One could even say that his death was the catalyst that set in motion many of the processes which contributed to the unravelling Africa’s newly won independence.

Your book, Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader, is your second visit at revealing Congo’s contemporary period, your first being a co-authored work on the economic history of the country, what compelled you to write a book focusing solely on Lumumba’s life?
There was simply nothing written in English on Lumumba’s entire life – his transition from member of the Congolese-Belgian elite (as much as there really was one) to revolutionary in late 1960s. There were certain superb academic books in French and de Witte’s book on the exact circumstances of Lumumba’s murder, but nothing written for a non-academic audience interested in the life of this extraordinary man.

You mentioned that books on Lumumba were scarce when you started out. How were you able to find out about him? What did your research process involve? 

Patience. I am not normally known for patience, but I needed it. My own training, through various degrees and a PhD, did not equip me to write a book that was rigorous, accessible, surveyed the available literature and also contained original fieldwork. The book went through various drafts, I sent it to de Witte to read for factual accuracy (he has encyclopaedic knowledge of the Congo) and various friends and colleagues who have an expertise in the country. I also made several research trips to interview members of Lumumba’s family and old comrades of his who were still alive. I travelled to Lubumbashi in the south as well as the capital Kinshasa, where I met and interviewed his children. I was also extremely privileged to meet one of Lumumba’s most loyal comrades who had accompanied Lumumba as he attempted to flee Belgian troops, Joseph Mobutu’s soldiers [Lumumba’s former comrade and Army Chief of Staff] and the United Nations in November 1960. I dedicated the book to him.

How has being so immersed in Lumumba’s life changed you?
If I am honest it has made me angry. The aftermath and consequences of Lumumba’s murder (and the resistance in the years after his murder) are still with us. Congo’s independence was pre-figurative of ‘national liberation’ on the continent, it was a false dawn, a ‘prison’ as Lumumba described it before he died. Personally, it has been important for me to reflect the continual movements for change on the continent, as well as the heroism and courage of his family and comrades. (In November 2007 while in Kinshasa, I battled to keep my eyes dry when Juliana, Lumumba’s only daughter, wept as she told me how much she missed her father). But it has also given me hope for the struggles across the continent – the epoch of revolts that continued to shape the continent after 1960. Egypt is the latest and the most important example. Interestingly, Lumumba sent his children and wife to Egypt in 1960, when he knew he might be killed. President Nasser welcomed them into his own family, he was clear that Congo’s future was Africa’s and Egypt was very much part of the continent.

If you could pick one of the many leaders who were instrumental during the time of Africa’s anti-colonial movements to explore in another biography, who would you choose?
Captain Thomas Sankara. He is still the poster-boy for many radicals in Africa today, he was the brave, though flawed leader of Burkina Faso’s so-called revolution in 1983, until his murder in 1987. The point of politically engaged research is not to simply romanticise African revolutionaries, but to rescue them from the lies and condescension of official history and chart their failures and the weaknesses of the movements they led. We urgently need to do this so that our struggles to change the world can develop and grow in the future in order to avoid the same mistakes. The greatest danger facing Africa is the absence of an ideological alternative to global capitalism – which has offered the continent nothing – as well as organisations that can help direct and build that alternative.

The next couple of months will see a renewed interest in Lumumba with the Young Vic’s staging of the events leading up to his death, adapted from the play by the Martinique political activist, Aimé Cesaire. It seems that Lumumba’s inspirational and tragically short life has inspired a creative legacy, but what do you believe has been Lumumba’s political legacy to Africa?
Lumumba has left a remarkable legacy. Principally he is recognised for the remarkable stand he took against imperialism and his refusal to negotiate or compromise on Congolese independence. For Africa he mapped the limits of national liberation, identified the class of elitist ‘puppets’ who often had led Africa’s decolonisation, but were happy to see the continuity of ‘colonial’ politics after independence. But Lumumba was not simply Lumumba; he was a symbol of the movement against European rule in the Congo and elsewhere (and indeed the struggle against imperialism and empire everywhere in the Global South). After Lumumba’s murder in January 1961, it took the Europeans, with a motley group of mercenaries from South Africa and heavy Belgian involvement, until 1965 to crush the struggle for independence in the Congo – despite an on-going war and the country’s status as a nominally independent state, anti-colonial movements were still able to thrive in the country.

To celebrate the Young Vic’s ‘A Season in the Congo’, which charts the life of this remarkable leader, HopeRoad are giving you 50% off when you buy Leo Zeilig’s ‘Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader’. Just enter SP67KZ52MH when you get to the checkout – offer ends August 17th 2013.