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8829: Raul Peck (fwd)
From: Dan Craig <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The Rise and Violent Fall of Patrice Lumumba
By BILL BERKELEY
There is a scene in the director Raul Peck's chilling biographical
film "Lumumba" in which the title character, the doomed Congolese
Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, played by Eriq Ebouaney, confers
alone with his army chief of staff, the soon-to-be military
strongman Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. It is September 1960.
Their fledgling independent nation is disintegrating into chaos. "I
am at your side," coos the suavely malign Mobutu, played by Alex
Descas. Lumumba replies: "You are no longer beside me. You're
behind my back." Mobutu returns soon thereafter to place Lumumba
under house arrest.
In The New York Times Index for 1960, the Congo occupies more than
12 pages of entries, more than any other country except the United
States, and just slightly more than Fidel Castro's Cuba. Four
decades later, with Congo again consumed by a more obscure but no
less ruinous war, Mr. Peck's film provides a disturbing reminder of
a turning point in history that helps explain how that African
nation wound up on the road to its present ruin.
Mr. Peck, a Haiti-born director who examined that country's
Duvalier dictatorship in his 1993 film "The Man on the Shore," has
said his aim was to produce a political thriller that illuminates
how power works behind the scenes in such places.
"Lumumba" recounts the swift rise and fall of the man who became
Congo's first and last legitimately elected prime minister after it
won independence from Belgium in 1960.
The film begins with images from the Belgian colonial era —
pith-helmeted white officers lording it over barefoot natives in
scenes that recall one of Africa's most violent and predatory
colonial orders. The narrative picks up the energetic and
articulate Lumumba as a young salesman for a Belgian beer company
who emerged in 1959 as a popular nationalist leader. Jailed and
brutally beaten, he was then freed to participate in negotiations
in Brussels that would lead to the Congo's independence. Lumumba's
party won the largest number of votes in the country's first free
elections, and he became prime minister at the age of 35.
Within days, the vast new nation began to unravel. The army
mutinied. Belgium's military intervened to protect its citizens and
encourage the mineral-rich province of Katanga, led by the
conniving opportunist Moïse Tshombe, to secede. United
Nations troops intervened to little effect. Nikita Khrushchev
decided to send Soviet planes, weapons and advisers to help
Lumumba, seeming to confirm the worst fears of the Eisenhower
Lumumba and his neophyte nation, which at independence had barely
a dozen university graduates, were caught up in a web of cold-war
intrigue and neocolonial knavery. Just six months after he took
office, Lumumba was murdered by Congolese rivals with the collusion
of the United States and Belgium.
Americans tend to think of Africa's current wars as remote and
irrelevant to our interests. "Lumumba" recalls that in fact
Americans have been centrally involved in events that set the stage
for these wars. The movie is grounded in well-documented historical
fact. The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in 1975 that
there were grounds for "a reasonable inference" that President
Eisenhower had authorized Lumumba's assassination, and that the
director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen Dulles, had
approved a plot that involved sending a doctor equipped with vials
of poison to Leopoldville, the Congo's capital. The committee
found no evidence of direct American involvement in Lumumba's
eventual murder, though. Instead, it said Washington had supplied
money and arms that enabled Mobutu to consolidate power. Mobutu in
turn delivered Lumumba into the hands of his Congolese rivals and
their Belgian allies.
In martyrdom, Lumumba achieved iconic status across Africa and
much of the third world. It is not necessary to accept Mr. Peck's
largely uncritical rendering of his personal character, nor to
assume that Lumumba would have proved an enlightened leader. What
we do know is that his murder paved the way for three decades of
Mobutu's kleptocratic despotism, in what he called Zaire, and the
chaos that has engulfed Congo since he fled in 1997.
Some 2.5 million Congolese may have died in three years of
fighting, famine and disease in wars that have drawn in six
neighboring countries and profited business as far afield as
Belgium, Pakistan and Russia.
"We thought we controlled our destiny," the embattled Lumumba
laments at one point in this powerful film, "but other powerful
interests pulled the strings." Forty years on, Congolese can be
forgiven if they feel the same way.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company