Lumumba, Hammarskjöld and the Cold War in the Congo – by Henning Melber (New African – January 17, 2017)

Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in January 1961. Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash under dubious circumstances in September 1961 not far away from where Lumumba was executed. They were in different ways the most prominent victims of the battle for the control over the Congo and its mineral-rich Katanga province at the height of the Cold War, when the winds of change were sweeping across the African continent.

After Congolese Independence in June 1960, Moïse Tshombe declared, with Belgian support, the secession of Katanga. At the request of President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, the UN Security Council mandated Hammarskjöld to intervene. But the Cold War constellation turned this into a mission impossible.

Hammarskjöld was soon criticised by either the East or the West for almost every subsequent decision. He tried to maintain ownership over the UN’s role by seeking the cooperation of as many states as possible from the non-aligned movement. India’s Nehru, Egypt’s Nasser, Guinea’s Sekou Touré, Ghana’s Nkrumah and Tunisia’s Bourguiba, became important counterparts and at times even allies to bring a visible involvement of the South into the peacekeeping efforts.

Moroccan, Swedish and Irish blue helmets also strengthened the operations. Appreciating Hammarskjöld’s intentions, African leaders sought first to influence Lumumba towards measured interaction with the UN and later refused support to the Soviet initiative campaigning for Hammarskjöld’s resignation.

When Lumumba was ousted as prime minister, Hammarskjöld was at pains to determine how the UN should respond. The Congo mission was tasked by a Security Council resolution to act in consultation with the constitutional government. But when President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba clashed in early September 1960, the question boiled down to who could claim legitimately to represent the government.

Hammarskjöld and his legal advisors concluded that the provisional constitution for the Congo, the Loi Fondamentale, allowed the chief of state (which was the president), under Article 22, to dismiss the prime minister and appoint a new one, if his action was endorsed by at least one minister, which had been the case.

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