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Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba
Harvard University Press, 2015
296 pp., $31.00
John G. Turner
In late January 1961, a Belgian man named Gerard Soete drove near the border between the Congo and Rhodesia. There, he and an assistant exhumed three buried corpses Soete had recently helped inter. They took a hacksaw and severed arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, then placed the "chunks of rotting flesh" in barrels filled with sulfuric acid. Eventually, they ran out of acid and burned the remaining flesh and bones. Among other items, Soete kept a set of teeth as a keepsake. "We did things an animal would not do," Soete later recalled.
One of the corpses was that of Patrice Lumumba, who the previous June had become the Republic of Congo's first prime minister after nearly seven decades of Belgian colonial rule. Lumumba was a nationalist and pan-Africanist who quickly acquired an array of powerful enemies. The Belgians resented his scathing denunciations of their fallen empire. Along with some members of the Western alliance, the United States government feared that Lumumba was a closet communist who would provide the Soviets with an African beachhead. Lumumba had plenty of internal opponents as well. The new state's borders represented a colonial fantasy. Separatists in the southeastern province of Katanga, led by Moïse Tshombe, formed their own breakaway state with halting Belgian support. The new nation immediately descended into chaos.
In Death in the Congo, historians Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick unravel as much of the mystery surrounding Lumumba's assassination as possible. In particular, they give careful attention to both Belgian and American government records. The result is a sober and sobering unmasking of feigned innocence.
Who was to blame for Patrice Lumumba's death? Gerard and Kuklick refer to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, in which detective Hercule Poirot discovers that twelve suspects have all participated in a murder. Each struck the victim with a dagger. Which was the ...