January 17th will mark the 54th anniversary of the assasination of independent Congo’s first, democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Here, writer and poet, JJ Bola considers his enduring legacy and impact on global art and culture. 

We often hear of political figures that have become cultural icons, for instance Che Guevara and Malcolm X, whose images have been artistically branded on popular items of clothing to the point that many recognise the man and but not what he stood for. It’s one way we can say that a revolutionary’s legacy endures, but that’s just one, perhaps, shallow manifestation; more powerful is the enduring legacy these figures leave in our cultural memory. The reason I mention these two names in particular is because they were both inspired by Lumumba. Guevara travelled to Congo in 1965, after hearing about Lumumba’s anti-imperialist resistance, in an attempt to start a left-wing revolution against the then would be dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. In 1964 Malcolm X declared in a speech that Patrice Lumumba was “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent”.

Patrice Lumumba was the first Prime Minister of Congo, a country that gained independence on the 30th of June, 1960 after enduring the brutally dehumanising colonial conquest of the Belgian state initiated by King Leopold II in 1884. Over 10 million Congolese were killed and many lives destroyed during colonisation; not to mention the destruction of land, resources, cultures, and beliefs. Lumumba’s victory and Congo’s independence was a brief moment of victory in a long battle with the forces of empire; brief, because less than a year later Lumumba was assassinated by Congolese rebels, with the support of an international consortium of state security services including M16, the CIA and the Belgian government.

Assassinations are not accidental. They are by definition, political. Often, the target is the one who is considered a threat to the existing order. Lumumba, who led the MNC party (Mouvement National Congolais), took the stage in an impromptu fashion during the ceremony of the proclamation of Congo’s independence. His speech sent tremors through the political landscape – it was bold and awe-inspiring. It condemned, in no uncertain terms, the colonial oppression and injustice suffered by the Congolese at the hands of the Belgians. It spoke so elegantly, with acute vision – of– the bright future of the nation that will come from “a new struggle bringing peace, prosperity and greatness”. Many argued that it was at that moment that Lumumba was marked for death. Ultimately, he would meet his death in a plot orchestrated by western powers but enacted through Congolese opposition, on the 17th of January 1961, a short 7 months after independence, by firing squad; body chopped up into pieces and then poured in acid.

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Patrice Lumumba’s speech that rang across the world

Despite, and perhaps because of his early death, Lumumba’s posthumous influence extended far and wide: in Congo, on the African continent and beyond. He was declared a national hero in Congo in 1966. More than three decades later, a statue was erected in his honour, symbolically placed on the Lumumba Boulevard, which is a major transport route for people in and out of the city from Kinshasa’s airport. The statue depicts Lumumba with his hand raised, as if greeting those who arrive and bidding farewell to those who depart. In Bamako, Mali, there is a large central plaza named Lumumba square, also with its own life size statue. Streets were also named after him, in places such as Gaborone (Botswana), Lusaka (Zambia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Accra (Ghana), Algier (Algeria). Additionally, across Europe in Warsaw (Poland), Donetsk (Ukraine), Leipzig (Germany), and many other places.

Lumumba’s influence also extends into film and literature. In 1968 Aime Cesaire, the poet and politician who pioneered the negritude movement wrote a play A Season in the Congo in 1968.Most recently brought to the London stage, with great success, at the Young Vic in 2013, where Lumumba was played by the award winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Lumumba – a film directed by Raoul Peck, with actor Eriq Ebouaney as the lead was released in 2000 to rave reviews and high acclaim internationally.

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Lumumba’s influence extends even to international music – needless to mention the countless African musicians such as Franco Luambo & O.K. Jazz and Miriam Makemba – there was a popular Argentine band named Lumumba, in his honour. American singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time, mentions Lumumba honourably in his song Done Too Soon. And most notably, in Hip Hop, when multi-platinum award winning rapper Nas dedicated his song “My Country” to Patrice Lumumba saying “just trying to fight for what’s real and destroyed by his own people”.

Lumumba’s short time as a leader and his subsequent assassination were some of the most important events of the 20th century: his influence transcending the political sphere and impacting many on both a cultural and personal level. The legacy he left to the world and his final message that “Africa will write its own history, to the north and south of the Sahara, and it will be glorious and dignified” remaim as powerful as ever 54 years after his death.

JJ Bola is a writer & poet, educator and public speaker. His work focuses on global issues, both political and personal. Find his work at jjbola.com and on twitter @JJ_Bola

JJ Bola