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The Dancing Started too Early.
A review of "Lumumba", the Film
E. Ablorh-Odjidja

The film, "Lumumba" by Raoul Peck is excellently crafted, but it presents a peculiar problem. Its interpretation of the events in the Congo is too narrow. Moreover, the implication that Ghana, a sister country paid only "lip service" to the plight of the Congo is a view that requires scrutiny.

Scrutiny is required before this film can be allowed to pass on - from an enticing entertainment vehicle and, perhaps, a flawed docu-drama, to a lesson worthy for history.

Immediate attention must be brought on the role Ghana played in the turbulent Congo affairs of the 60s. By every measure, her role was exemplary. She was the first nation to send troops to the Congo to aid Lumumba, in support of the country's newly attained independence; long before the United Nations thought of bringing in help.

So to indict Ghana as the film "Lumumba" does is a revision of history and an attempt to undermine the iconic and spunky nature of the liberation spirit of that entire era in Africa.

Also, to allow this "lip service" accusation to stand is to permit the charge that the CIA and the Belgians were at the center of the murder plot of Patrice Lumumba to wither, an indictment which this writer at first thought was the theme of the film.

The CIA's connection to the Congo has been revealed. And the Belgian's sponsorship of the secession that lead to Lumumba's murder is a matter of history, one that even the most innocent of men should expect from this spurned, voracious colonial administration.

Which leaves one to wonder why Raoul Peck indicted Ghana, the champion of the liberation movement in Africa of that era, in this manner?

In "Lumumba", Raoul takes on a huge project, but he tells the story in 115 minutes only. Perhaps, a longer duration could have allowed a broader perspective and the chance to tie events in the Congo to other happenings on the continent.

The Congo Raoul depicts is huge, but there is no sense of its size in the film. Its history is a microcosm of the continent's own. In the space where the Congo occupies lies the heart of Africa. Some still prefer to call it "The Heart of Darkness."

Indeed, the Congo is the Balkans of Africa. To tell her story is to tell the story of all Africa. Unfortunately, Raoul's film is silent on all these layers of influences and connectivity.

In June 30, 1960, the Congo became independent, with Mr. Patrice Lumumba as her first Prime Minister and Mr. Joseph Kasavubu the Head of State. By the end of that same year, Lumumba had been ousted.

The Congo had been primed for explosion before she became a sovereign state. The new constitution created under the influence of Belgium was rigged to allow same powers to the six regional heads of the country as was given to the central government headed by Lumumba.

The flare-up came when pent-up racial resentment among blacks turned into riots in Katanga, the richest of the six provinces. Mr. Tsombe, the head of that region, was ready with his own mutiny and secession with a lot of help from Belgium, some powerful western business interests, and European mercenaries. He announced secession on July 11, 1960, which led to the arrest and eventual murder of Lumumba.

It was the secession that brought Ghana to the side of Lumumba. Ghana's troops maintained the peace in the Congolese capital for a while until UN troops arrived. Consequently, her contingent was placed under the UN.

Ghana, about 10% the size of the Congo, had put her meager resources to aid a sister African nation while many independent African states remained on the sideline. The film does not debate how Ghana got the "lip service" charge. Nor can it maintain that argument even if it were to start.

Until that argument is fleshed out, the charge of "lip service" by this film will be completely underserved.

Lumumba's assassination was followed by a violent era in Africa's history. The tendency has continued to this date. From the first coup in Congo in 1960, to 1968, the continent saw 64 attempted and successful coups, according to George Ayittey's "Africa Betrayed."

"Lumumba" the film is very appealing in a tragic way. The film's main character is brave, brash, charismatic, and confirms the heroic role of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo independence movement.

However, the film never asked whether the real Lumumba was a good judge of character, but it was quick to charge Ghana with betrayal. The key players who caused his death, Kasavubu and Mobutu, were hand picked by him. These were the compatriots who betrayed Lumumba, not Ghana.

Part of the film's dialogue is credit worthy: "Independence is only a word," says a principal white character. And, his white counterpart responds, "God is a word". In a nutshell, the problem of post-colonial Africa has been stated.

Obviously, the dialogue is not meant to encourage the sacrilegious, but probably to ask or wonder whether many Africans in the 60s understood the word independence, or patriotism? If they did, then how could the struggle for independence have been undercut with coups so soon?

Or, did the dancing and the celebrations start too early and Africa became intoxicated in her new found state of independence?

In another dialogue in the film, one of Lumumba's compatriots observes that "France gave in. Little Belgium has no chance. It is time to eat!"

But, Lumumba, in the film, has a better grasp of things to come as he and the compatriot contemplate the pending liberty from Belgian rule. "They (the Belgians) are either planning their exist or plotting against us," Lumumba says.

As sagacious as Lumumba is at that moment in the film, historically, the fate of Africa had already been sealed by the Berlin Conference of 1884.

It was the Berlin Conference that gave Belgium the right to possess the Congo. The rest of the continent went to other colonial powers. The assumption was (and still is) that Africa was too large and resource rich to be left in the hands of hapless Africans.

Thus, the departing Belgian governor of the Congo(in the film), while bidding "no hasty reforms" in his farewell speech, has already gutted the governmental process to make governance after him a nightmare. Villains like Mobutu have also been prepared to add to the chaos to come. I am inclined to believe that this part is authentic because, historically, the same happened all over Africa.

The historical Lumumba was assassinated in 1961 and what followed immediately was the nightmare that Congo is today.

However, Kudos to Raoul's interpretation of Mobutu's supposed cultural eminence, leopard cap and all, and for not sparing the irony. The wearer of the symbolic leopard cap is depicted in a scene watching over traditional African dancers dressed in bow-ties!

However, unfortunate for Raoul, his rendition of the relationship between Nkrumah and Lumumba, the continent's foremost heroes, is rather shallow. The story of the collaboration and understanding between these two, and Nkrumah's support of Lumumba and eagerness for solution to the Congo's crisis, which is on record, (Nkrumah on the on the Congo Situation) could have been told better.

Putting the words "Ghana pays lip service" in the mouth of Lumumba is, thus, a deliberate stab at Nkrumah and Ghana. If not, then it makes the historic Lumumba either malevolent, or raises questions about Raoul Peck's intentions and veracity.

At the film's end, Lumumba, now captive is walked to his death by two white men, among a throng of armed Congolese soldiers. Yet, not one soldier lifts a finger to save the hero. He has been branded the troublemaker. And, so like the "dog that has rabies," as Lumumba himself said, he is executed in the same manner.

Now, how did Ghana rather betray the Congo?

E. Ablorh-Odjidja. Washington, DC. July 25, 2001.

 

 


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