Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lumumba, the First Rendition

Still making trouble
The question of who killed Lumumba is in the news again, thanks to a just-published letter in the London Review of Books which reports that a retired MI6 agent, before her death, claimed responsibility for organizing the assassination:
It so happens that I was having a cup of tea with Daphne Park – we were colleagues from opposite sides of the Lords – a few months before she died in March 2010. She had been consul and first secretary in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, from 1959 to 1961, which in practice (this was subsequently acknowledged) meant head of MI6 there. I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba’s abduction and murder, and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. ‘We did,’ she replied, ‘I organised it.’
OK, two things. First, this is so perfectly British you can practically smell the buttered crumpets. It reads like the start of a promising beach novel featuring well-born Brits setting the world to rights during the Cold War (think Nancy Mitford meets John Le Carre). Second, as evidence, it's almost useless. I've read a lot on the Lumumba assassination; I never heard anyone claim that the British were a lead player in the events unfolding then. Why would they be? This was nasty feud for control over a newly independent, mineral-rich country in the heart of Africa, contested by the US, the Belgians, and the Soviets, with the UN acting as both  player and referee. The British had no colonial history and few resources or personnel in the country. Unlike the Belgians, they had no stake in its huge mineral wealth. Nor were they afflicted with the perfervid millennialism of the major Cold War protagonists.

Ludo de Witte has written extensively on the Belgian role in the assassination. Bottom line: they pulled the trigger, dismembered the body, and dissolved it in acid. His book--and a subsequent parliamentary investigation--were considered definitive enough to prompt the Belgian government to offer an official apology to the Congolese for their primary and direct responsibility for Lumumba's death. The American role was more complex. In a national security meeting in August 1960, Eisenhower is reported to have uttered words to the effect of "Who will rid me of this man?"--words that were understood, at any rate, as an order to murder him. The CIA's man in Kinshasa at the time, Larry Devlin, published a self-absolving memoir in 2008 claiming that while he sought to neutralize Lumumba politically, he never authorized or supported US efforts to kill him--even when he was directed to do so by CIA headquarters. Steve Weissman, who's pursued this story for decades, says Devlin was lying his ass off wasn't being entirely forthcoming, as you'll see from this video of a 2012 Wilson Center event.

In brief, Weissman says, Devlin participated in a variety of unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Lumumba, including the infamous attempt to poison his toothpaste; he encouraged other Congolese to carry out the act; and he bought off as many anti-Lumumba people as he could, including a promising young army sergeant named Joseph Mobutu. Then, when the occasion presented itself, he almost certainly greenlighted the decision (made, ultimately, by Mobutu and other Congolese leaders) to transfer Lumumba to Katanga, where certain death awaited him.[1] Devlin also withheld from the ambassador and his superiors in Langley his foreknowledge of the plan to send Lumumba to his death, out of concern that Washington might seek to countermand it.[2]

On second thought, Lumumba's death is a little like a British murder mystery; in particular, Agatha Christie's Orient Express, where, you'll remember, everyone has a hand in the killing. Lumumba's Congolese rivals wanted him dead and brutalized him repeatedly; the Belgians pulled the trigger and disposed of the corpse; and the Americans, operating at times on their own individual initiative and in opposition to fickle and contradictory DC policy preferences, made sure the process proceeded smoothly. As for the British--well, Dame Daphne Park would not be the first elderly person to recall for herself a greater role in world events than the evidence would support.

[1] Remember that in the days prior to his being rendered to Katanga, Lumumba was in the hands of his enemies in Leopoldville (Kinshasa), having been captured on his way to Stanleyville (Kisangani) after escaping house arrest. Chief among those enemies was Mobutu, described by another CIA officer at the time as “our man, the man we had put our chips on,” and a person with whom Devlin had a daily intimate work relationship (and to whom he was dolling out huge sums of taxpayer dollars).
[2] Washington's desire to have Lumumba killed diminished markedly after the international uproar that accompanied his arrest and beat-down. 

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