Political Awareness

How Patrice Lumumba Broke the Chains of Colonial Rule


Heroes are not born every day. Yet having said this, one can look towards the early mid 20th century and find a number of national heroes emerging in protest of Africa's wide colonial rule. What was it that made ordinary people such Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Robert Mugabe and this paper's ultimate focus, Patrice Lumumba rise to power? What enabled them to succeed and what precipitating factors within their respective countries push them to fight for self-governance? This paper will look into the life history of Patrice Lumumba to examine the factors that contributed to the awakening of his political awareness and will argue that it was ultimately the awakening of his political consciousness that enabled him to lead his country towards independence.


Essentially politics is the activities of governments concerning the political relations within their sovereign borders as well as between other countries. Politics also concerns itself with the economic and social status of its country. To become politically conscious, one has to realize the state of discrimination and corruption that he is being subjected to in his county. He must become aware of these injustices and use the means of politics to change the situations. In the colonial period of Africa, it can be well understood that the African population did not have governance of its own countries. While some countries, such as the Belgian Congo, required native chiefs to manage the country, “[Belgium] depend on African chiefs...in helping fulfill the task of economic exploitation and political repression,” they had little power and where essentially tools to be used by colonial officials. Reference is made to this to highlight the fact that anyone wishing to significantly change the status of colonial countries had to fight fire with fire. The old ways of the chiefs was a tool the colonialist used; they had no respect for its authority. Africans would have to meet their enemies on a similar platform using the European understanding of politics to do so.

Patrice Lumumba was an African who learned to understand the language of politics. Lumumba used this language to lead his country into independence. As the very definition of politics differed vastly in African societies pre-colonialism, Lumumba would have to quickly learn what it meant to be a political leader of a national party. Factors that contributed to Lumumba's rise to heroism were the origins of his birthplace, his transition into the elitist status, and finally his work as a colonial civil service. Lumumba's life will clearly depict how he gained knowledge of politics and how it empowered him with the tools necessary to combat the repressive presences of colonialism.

Birth Place

Lumumba’s first lessons on the workings of political administration was not found in a classroom. The village he was born into undoubtedly had an impact on his understanding and first notions of colonialism within his own home. Before Lumumba was even born, his people (known as the Batelea group) values, political and social systems, “…had been violently shattered by Arab and European influences.” A professor by the name of Brausche went on to say, “The present picture of the cultural changes which recurred among the [Batelea] during the last century,” referring to the 18th century, “shows that at all times the [Batelea] society has been a permanently changing system.” This is the type of environment Lumumba birthplace was subjected to for centuries. Politics traditions were destroyed, the ways of Lumumba’s ancestors would not be known by him. However, it is important to note that by the time of Lumumba's birth on July 2, 1925 Onalua was firmly in the hands of Belgian rule and administration. Certainly, his upbringing would contribute to his awareness as he experienced the aspects of exploitations by appointed Chief Wembo Nyama.

Early in Belgian rule of the Congo Free State, traditional chiefs were gradually replaced by appointed chiefs. As mentioned earlier, Chief Nyama was appointed to the Onalua region. His chief responsibility was ‘to supervise and collect rubber.” Nyama served the Congo Free State and later on the Belgian Congo from 1893-1940. Due to the rich resource found in Lumumba's home, the effects living in Onalua had a major impact on his understanding of the exploitative aspect of colonial rule. Much later in his life, Lumumba would reflect on this aspect of his life saying, “Back-breaking work has been extracted from us, in return for wages that did not allow us to satisfy our hunger...we have had our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but was only a recognition of the right of the strongest.” The place in which Lumumba called home was a base of operations for the extraction for goods only. The ‘chief’ who resided there was tasked with the organization and exploitation of Onalua’s resources and people. This ultimately contributed to Lumumba's understanding that colonialism needed to come to an end and Congolese self-government to rise in its ashes.


As in Lumumba's case, schooling started a bit later on in peasants’ lives. Sometimes at the age of eight. Lumumba, himself, started at six and went to a Catholic Catechist for the equivalent of two elementary level years. Here, teachers witnessed what a quick learner he was and allowed him to borrow books to improve his reading skills. Secondary, due to his lack of respect for religious authority and “mutual dislike between him and his teachers,” Lumumba never fully completed his studies from 1939-1942 in primary school to grade 5 or later on in Tshumbe Sainte-Marie from 1943-1953. Lumumba believed that his teachers were incompetent; therefore, he left the educational system to learn on his own. It is necessary to point out Lumumba's early childhood education, as we witness his transition from an educational institution to ultimately “prepare Blacks for manual labor. and only one hour per day was given to book study, the rest to farming and other physical work,” - into that of an évolué and how becoming an elite among the African community contributed to his political awareness.

In Belgian Congo, to be an elite was the highest status a Congolese could obtain within colonial rule.  It referred to a distinctive group of individuals who showed evidences of assimilation to western ideals, language and a certain style of dress. Through Lumumba’s education he learned the Belgian language and committed to a somewhat new style of life. As an intellectual elite, he enjoyed a higher standard of life. Early on in his youth Lumumba himself did not disdain this lifestyle proclaiming, “Belgium...came to our help, and, with the assistance of doughty native fighters, was able to rout out the [Arabs]...to teach us and to eliminate certain barbarous practices from our customs...and turning us into free, happy, vigorous, civilized men.” These sentiments from him were obviously vastly different from those of the first elected Prime Minster of Congo later on in 1960. What was different was Lumumba's interpretation of the history of Belgian colonization. Transitioning to an évolué certainly helped Lumumba learn the truths of the darkness behind European civilizing mission.

Between November 1944 and July 1956 Lumumba had entered the world of an official évolué by moving to Kamila, an important mining industry based on cassiterite, where he passed a math and french test. Thus securing him a job as a sales clerk. Then moving, a few months later, to a brighter career in Kisangani. But just before that part of his life is touched upon, it is important to witness in these first few stages of his life as an évolué and how his understanding of colonialism changed. Throughout his youth, “Leopoldian propaganda had presented colonial enterprise in the Congo as humanitarian intervention against the Arab-Muslim slave trade and assisted in bringing the benefits of Western civilization to “‘darkest Africa.’” As a young man of 18 years old, this was Lumumba's prominent frame of reference for the history of the Belgian Congo. Lumumba had to face the reality that this was not entirely the case. He would learn that, “instead of bringing freedom and light...the CFS only collaborated [with the goal of achieving] its expansionist aims...and used...Nyama to consolidate its territorial control and administer the brutal collection of wild rubber in Sankuru.” At the time, Lumumba was still not ready to face the truth completely as he was a fervent believer in the civilizing mission. It would take a few more steps in Lumumba's story until he committed himself to political reform.

As an évolué, Lumumba was in a position to learn (uncensored) the true, and ugly, history of the Congo. This contributed to the factors that helped Lumumba realize the corruption of Belgian colonialist. Effectively, equipping him with the knowledge to later combat these injustices on a political platform. The social discrimination he would face and witness as a civil worker did much to foster his hostility towards the racism and exclusivity found in the colonial system.

Civil Service

Lumumba was a man who loved to learn and in 1947 he began his training at a postal school in Kisangani he finished (1948) the course third in his class out of 34 students. Lumumba had achieved his goal by receiving an elitist career and knowing his field better than anyone. Despite his high ranking achievements, “the reality still remained that the colonial civil service was still divided by a colour bar.” This meaning that even if an African had better qualifications than a European, a white person still receive the best jobs, higher wages, supervisory roles etc. This did not make sense to Lumumba as African elites were achieving the status similar to that of a western citizen. Why then were their status lowered due to skin color?

Living and working in the town had a hand in Lumumba realizing the racial dimension of the colonial system. A friend and employer of Lumumba from 1952-1953, Pierre Clement, recalled his attitude towards the race issue,

He suffers intensely from the differences of legal status between Congolese and Europeans...For Patrice the hierarchy and compartmentalization through which [these differences] express themselves are intolerable...he finds his relations with Europeans disappointing, and bitterly complains that many of them do not treat him in accordance with his expectations, his social standing, his training and degree of ‘civilization.’ He is indignant about the attitude of some of his immediate superiors who allegedly lack all the psychological qualities that one should expect of them, and who take advantage of their position to abuse their authority. He resents the fact that some Congolese whose professional performance is equal to, if not above, that of certain Europeans nonetheless remain their subordinates.

In this instance, Lumumba was not only faced with the realities of discrimination through witnessing it but also by experiencing it first hand for himself. There were definitely, two categories that separated workers between white and black. Being an African, Lumumba belonged to the agents auxiliaires de l'administration who received lower wages among other discrepancies.

The color bar was a source of major grievances for the évolué. A recurring theme in Lumumba's speeches spoke about the dignity of all men regardless of skin colour or race. As Lumumba grew to become more politically aware, the discrimination of his people became too loud for him to ignore. In 1958, Lumumba, now embracing political tactics as the leader of the Movement National Congolese - this will be discussed more below - attended a national conference which was held in Accra Ghana. In a speech he outlines the goals of the movement,

We wish to see a modern democratic state established in our country, which will grant its citizens, freedom, justice, social peace, tolerance, well-being, and equality, with no discrimination whatsoever. We have repeatedly proclaimed that we are against no one, but rather want to free ourselves of the shackles of colonialism and all its consequences...this is why we passionately cry out with all the delegates. ‘Down with colonialism and imperialism! Down with racism and tribalism! And long live the Congolese nation, long live independent Africa!

Here Lumumba was firmly placed against colonialism. His views changed largely due to the undeniable awareness to the discrimination to him and that of the rest of the Congolese évolué in civil service careers.

By looking at Lumumba’s transition from a colonialist enthusiast to, at the beginning stages of a political fighter, it was seen the shift that his life as a civil worker had in igniting the need to change the colonialist system. Lumumba argued that to fully be done away with discrimination between Congolese and Europeans there had to first be a complete liquidation of political, economic and social barriers between the two groups. This would only be achieved by self-governance. The frustrations and thwarted aspirations of Lumumba found an outlet in the organization of political activities. The symptoms of political anesthesia in 1956 by Belgian paternalism, were relatively gone by 1959. It was then that Lumumba acted on an, “unprecedented drive for political mobilization.”

Political Commitment

As Lumumba became deeper involved with the interest of the évolué, in terms of equal rights for workers, his own political desires and goals expanded to include both the economic and social aspects of political change. In so much as his goals were to abolish corporal punishment, to garner equal pay for workers, the extension of property rights to Africans, the improvement to educational institutions to women and children etc. His thoughts began to align in the same ways as other African leaders of the time, with a focus on nationalism and African unity. Over the course of his organized involvement in elite associations, the process of Patrice Lumumba becoming politically conscious and active in the central fight to gain independence grew and became solidified in the organization of the Congolese National Movement national party in 1958. Wherein Lumumba’s resided as its president.

Towards the mid to late 1950s, Lumumba encountered difficulties in managing the various leadership roles he found himself in and his career as a civil service worker. Again Lumumba would face the hardships that came with colonial Congo.

In March 1954, Lumumba was elected president of the Association des Évolués Stanleyville (AES), the most important organization of the Congolese elite in Kisangani. There he became the leading spokesperson of the évolué in relation to the colonial state in Kisangani. He learned key skills in communication, and surprised everyone when he was able to hold the attention of King Baudouin during the king's first visit to the Congo in 1955. This example is used briefly to display the political skills in which Lumumba used to gain connection in a national context and also to exhibit his ability to rise through the ranks and become a respected leader.

A few noteworthy things occurred in Lumumba's life in the transitioning years from civil service worker to political leader. By the end of 1955, Lumumba held leadership positions in nearly all major voluntary associations in the city. Again displaying his knack for political organization and communication. He achieved first class ranking in his eleven-year-old career as a postal employee. Unfortunately, his activities in both regard came to an end in 1956 where upon he was arrested for embezzling funds. Consequently Lumumba was not the only evolve to bend the rule. Some elites would borrow the cash with the full intention of reimbursing it. “...[Lumumba’s] numerous association statuses and the demands for of his assimilation status required a lot more than his salary could bear.” Due to the unequal status of the évolué, in terms of economic wealth, elites were reduced to borrowing funds. This again becoming an instance for Lumumba's awakening to the political crises in his country.

Lumumba spent roughly eight months in prison, whereupon he was released only on the condition that he obtain a job. From September 1957 - January 1959 PL he worked at the Brasserie du Bas -Congo (Bracongo). A major Kinshasa brewery to work the accounting department. From December 5-13, 1958: Lumumba, Gaston Diomi and Joseph Ngalula represent the MNC at the first all African People’s conference in Accra Ghana. “It was the first time in the history of the Congo that black militants participated in an international Pan-African movement.” Upon his return Lumumba addresses a public rally in Kinshasa proclaiming,

...The objective is of the MNC is to unite and organize the Congolese masses in the struggle to improve their lot and wipe out the colonialist regime and the exploitation of man by man...It is high time that the Congolese people prove to the world that they are conscious...that they are in no way divided, but rather are united in a single, just cause...it is time for the Congolese to people to awaken from their slumber, to break their silence. To overcome the fear instilled in them, so as to demonstrate, peacefully but resolutely that they are a force to be reckoned with…”

In conclusion of his journey to political consciousness, Lumumba stood as a leader unafraid of colonial rule. He was able to speak up for his country and continent. Ultimately when it came down to choosing whether or not to remain quiet in his successful careers as a Bracongo, the status of the évolué was ultimately too unjust to bare. On January 1, 1959, Lumumba resigned from Bracongo to devote all of his time and resources to his political work.


As the question of what enables a person, such as Lumumba, under colonial rule to rise to power and want to grasp that power for the betterment of his country is answered, We are left a part of Lumumba's story that is not required to answer that questions. As the course of his life from 1925 - 1959 clearly showed, through his birthplace, education, the difficulties he faced in his civil career and his introduction to pan Africanism the factors that contributed to his political consciousness and therefore his ability to combat colonial rule.

To summarize the end of Lumumba's story, in June 1960 Lumumba led the MNC party to victory by becoming its first elected Prime Minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His unscheduled Independence speech upsets Belgian king and the west. A colonial by the name of Louis Marliere, an employee of Belgian secret service thought, “Lumumba chose the wrong side, of course he was more or less a communist, he chose the Russians over the west” While there was no proof suggesting Lumumba's alignment to communism. The west saw his speech in contrast to their own plans for Democratic Republic of Congo. With this in mind, on August 18 U.S President Eisenhower orders the assassination of Lumumba and on November 27 he was arrested in Kasai and sent to Kinshasa the next day. He was eventually jailed at an elite armored brigade camp at Mbanza Nguni. Finally, on January 17, 1961, he and his two companions Maurice MPolo and Joseph okito were transferred to Lubumbashi and murdered in the evening by a Belgian execution squad.


The bravery and intelligence that Lumumba displayed throughout his political career has made him a national hero for both Congolese and Africans alike. Just before his assassination, he wrote his wife saying,

They have corrupted some of our countrymen…they have distorted the truth and defiled our independence…What is important is the Congo, our poor people whose independence has been turned into a cage…I know and feel in my very heart of hearts that sooner or later that my people will rid themselves of all their enemies, foreign and domestic, they will rise up as one to say no to the shame and degradation of colonialism and regain their dignity in the pure light of day.

Just as Lumumba had done, the Congolese would have to fight against the corruption that is still happening to this day.

Evidently, an anthropologist by the name of Peter Gutkind has done an ongoing study of the development in Africa’s once colonialized population, Congo being among them. He finds that the poorer populations are beginning to move away from activism in social movements and head in the direction of politics in the hopes of improving the development crisis they are facing. He observes,

The depressing conditions of underdevelopment are responsible for the emergence and intensification of political consciousness in the poor layers of cities and the small and middle peasantry.  In the urban context in particular the political awareness, both among the poor and among the rich, is fueled by the crying contrasts of income and lifestyles.

Let’s not forget that Lumumba himself started out as a peasant child of a farmer. He was not born to a chief and yet he was able to rise to the status of the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hopefully, with the legacy that Lumumba left behind, other Africans will find a way to also fight against the corrupted powers through the means of politics.