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.
But the situation on the ground was more complex and contradictory. Communication with competing Congolese parties was often confusing and negotiations remained inconclusive. Pressure was exerted through multiple Western interests, including the mining companies operating in Katanga and elsewhere in the sub-region. Belgium, the United Kingdom and France (the latter two had turned against Hammarskjöld during the Suez Crisis of 1956), the USA, the British settler colonial minority regimes of the Central African Federation (Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland) and Apartheid South Africa, all had a massive geostrategic and economic interest to remain in control over the Congo generally, and Katanga specifically. This collided with the opposing interests of the Soviet Union, which was keen to secure a stake in the resource-rich territory – or at least to prevent the West from establishing another satellite regime while ignoring the aspirations of African leaders for self determination.
Many countries had a geostrategic and economic interest in remaining in control over the Congo generally, and Katanga specifically.
The result was an increasingly toxic situation on the ground. The secret services of all the major Western powers were operating side by side with mercenaries and Belgian troops. And the global contestation over the Congo was active even in the UN Secretariat itself. The “Congo Club”, comprising senior UN officials directly involved in the operations both in the Secretariat and on the ground, had an influential role in advising the Secretary-General. These individuals also had direct responsibilities in issuing and implementing directives.
These influential officials included most notably the US-Americans Ralph Bunche, who had served as an intelligence agent in the Office of Strategic Services, the WWII spy agency that preceded the CIA; and Andy Cordier, the Irishman, Conor Cruise O’Brien and the Indian Rajeshwar Dayal; as well as the first commander of the UN forces, the Swede von Horn (who had absolutely no grasp of the local realities).
The Congolese scholar Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja maintains that some of these UN officials “shared a common Cold War outlook with Western policy makers, and saw their mission in the Congo as that of preserving the then existing balance of forces in the world”. As he argues, some members of the Congo Club “wittingly or unwittingly” might have “provided to those seeking Lumumba’s demise the justification and the opportunities they needed to remove a democratically elected leader from office by illegal means”.