Did the British Have a Hand in Patrice Lumumba's Assassination?

A British peer claims that MI6 played a major role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of Congo.

Born a farmer's son in the Belgian Congo, Lumumba led an independence movement that helped liberate his country. At age 35, he became prime minister of the new Republic of the Congo. His reign would last only 12 weeks. 

On January 17, 1961, Lumumba and two of his ministers were executed by a firing squad. The executions came after a coup d’état led by Colonel Joseph Mobutu and backed by Belgium and the U.S.. Mobutu became president of Congo-Leopoldville (later renamed Zaire) in 1965. During the coup, Mobutu claimed Lumumba, who'd raised the wages of all government employees except the Army, incited the military to rebellion. 

The involvement of the deposed Belgian government and the U.S. in Lumumba's assassination is well documented. Both powers had a vested interest in keeping rich African resources out of African control. When Lumumba requested military aid from the USSR in 1960, it spurred U.S. and Belgian fears that the Soviets would gain control over the Congo's mineral deposits. In response, the U.S. and Belgium provided aid to Lumumba's political rivals to ensure his deposition and elimination. After his arrest, the Soviet Union pressured the UN to seek Lumumba's release and reinstatement as Prime Minister.

Though rumors circulated regarding Britain's involvement in the assassination of Lumumba, no one had come forth with solid evidence until a recent letter to the editor written by Lord David Edward Lea appeared in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. Lea wrote the letter in response to the book Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, in which author Calder Walton writes, "The question remains whether British plots to assassinate Lumumba … ever amounted to anything. At present, we do not know."

In his letter, Lea claims that British involvement in the assassination is not in question: "Actually, in this particular case, I can report that we do. It so happens that I was having a cup of tea with Daphne Park … She had been consul and first secretary in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, from 1959 to 1961, which in practice (this was subsequently acknowledged) meant head of MI6 there. I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba’s abduction and murder, and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. 'We did,’ she replied, 'I organised it.'"

Daphne Park died in 2010, a few months after the alleged conversation took place. When contacted by The Hindu, who first reported on this story, Lea declined to provide comment beyond the information in his letter, stating, "That's the conversation I had with her and that’s what she told me. I have nothing more to add." MI6 also declined to comment. 

Since the death of Park, who was in Kinshasa (then known as Leopoldville) at the time of Lumumba's killing, there have been no known sources in British intelligence who have opened up about the details surrounding this event. Though Lea's revelation will likely generate interest in the British involvement in, or even, as Park allegedly said, organization of, the assassination, it's unlikely that information will be extracted from the notoriously secretive MI6 unless an insider decides to talk. 

Though a letter to the editor of the London Book Review is hardly definitive proof of British involvement, it does make sense that the Western Bloc power player would want a stake in the Congo region's natural resources and would go to any means to keep those resources out of Soviet control.