Heroes’ Day (Patrice Lumumba): January 17
Heroes’ Day is a public holiday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In the night hours of January 17, 1961, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, sending the country (then known as the Republic of the Congo) into turmoil. The reason for his assassination is filled with political intrigue and cold war propaganda, but Lumumba is today honored as a national hero. The government sets aside one of two Heroes’ Days each year to remember Lumumba for his fight to bring “human dignity” to the county.
History of Heroes’ Day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Patrice Lumumba started out working in the Congolese press, editing and contributing to journals and pamphlets for the Liberal Party of Belgium. He found legal trouble when it was revealed that he had embezzled funds from the post office he worked. He serves a year in jail and immediately jumped into politics again upon release.
He helped found the pro-independence Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) in 1958 and eventually became president of the party, one that espoused strong nationalism and anti-colonial sentiment. That same year, Lumumba and other representatives of the MNC attended the All-African People’s Conference, an international conference that put Lumumba’s desire for a free and independent Congo into focus.
Lumumba, however, was making enemies quickly, and he was arrested again in October of 1959 with claims that he had sought to incite anti-colonial riots in the capital. Likely not a coincidence, Lumumba’s trial was scheduled to start the same day that a Congolese independence conference was being held in Brussels. After great effort by Lumumba’s supporters, he was released and allowed to attend the conference, one that set an independence date of June 30, 1960.
Elections were held beforehand, and the MNC won. Lumumba was made the prime minister, and Joseph Kasa-Vubu was made president. On Independence Day, Lumumba trumped Kasa-Vubu’s pedestrian pro-colonial speech with one that denounced colonialism and the atrocities committed on the citizens of the country. This famous speech had serious repercussions for Lumumba, who afterwards was internationally viewed as a threat to long-term economic productivity and trade.
Only a few days into the new government, rebellion broke out around the country, encouraged by a military that quickly dissolved into infighting and looting. Things quickly became grim, and Lumumba made the rash decision to petition the Soviet army for aid in quelling the violence. This somewhat unorthodox approach concerned ranking officials in the government and led outsiders to wonder if Lumumba was a communist.
A series of political battles occurred between Lumumba and Kasa-Vuvu, ending in the arrest of both during a coup led by Colonel Joseph Mobutu. Lumumba escaped but was captured again on December 1, 1960. The United Nations tried to deal with the explosive situation, but the situation became worse when numerous countries pulled their U.N. contingents out of the country.
What happened exactly to Lumumba in the days leading up to his assassination on January 17, 1961 isn’t known. After his death, theories of all varieties were formed about who was involved with his assassination. Declassified U.S. documents have since shown that the U.S. had strong interest in offing him, with numerous hints that his anti-colonial leanings would have been detrimental to lucrative resource trading in the region. Other direct links have since been made to Belgium. Belgian officials offered an apology to the Congolese people in 2002, admitting “an irrefutable portion of responsibility” in the events that led up to his death.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Heroes’ Day Traditions, Customs and Activities
Heroes’ Day is divided into two days in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; January 16 is dedicated to honoring Joseph Kabila and January 17 to Patrice Lumumba.
Today, people pay their respects to Patrice Lumumba, a man who once said “I am a revolutionary and demand the abolition of the colonial regime, which ignored our human dignity.” Lumumba’s sons try to carry their father’s legacy today, participating in politics to bring true democracy to the people of the country.