Melber, a Namibian, is senior advisor to the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, as well as being an extraordinary professor at the Department of Political Studies at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, as well as the Centre for Africa Studies, University of Free State, South Africa.
He quotes one of Hammarskjöld’s closest advisors at the UN, Brian Urquhart (a former UN under-secretary), who wrote: “[Hammarskjöld] had hoped that the UN, having no past in many African countries, could play a special role in their future.”
Melber’s chapter focuses on Hammarskjöld’s approach to, and role in, the decolonisation of societies on the African continent, with special reference to the Congo as “his most prominent and final engagement”.
But he pulls no punches when he notes the ‘missions unaccomplished’ by Hammarskjöld and the UN, noting: “There is no comment by the UN, as a moral authority, on the British policy in Kenya, where the brutal response to the so-called Mau Mau rebellion could have justified some critical observations. Also, any critical engagement with the French war waged against the Algerian liberation movement was missing.”
But the crisis that unfolded after the independence of the Congo was, in Melber’s view, Hammarskjöld’s greatest challenge, especially in dealing with Western interests vested in the Congo that sought to influence Hammarskjöld’s policies.
It is worth revisiting the circumstances that Hammarskjöld encountered with the Congo. Newly independent, the Congo elected Patrice Lumumba as its first prime minister.
But the old colonialist power, Belgium, still retained huge economic interests in the state, principally mining, and they distrusted Lumumba. Relations between Hammarskjöld and Lumumba were not that much better. The two men had different conceptions of the role of the UN intervention in the Congo and after the Katanga Province attempted to break away from the Congo, Lumumba expected UN support and even military assistance to confront this. Nor did it help that Ralph Bunch, Hammarskjöld’s Congo adviser, did not get on with Lumumba
Lumumba had delivered a powerful speech, known as his ‘tears, fire and blood speech’, at the independence ceremony in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), which created great anger and stiffened opposition to him. Under pressure from Western powers, Congo’s President Kasavubau dismissed Lumumba as prime minister.
Lumumba contested the president’s move and the Congo’s two parliamentary chambers, the parliament itself and the senate, reaffirmed his right to stay in office, but he lacked the support of the army led by General Mobutu.
J. Omasombo Tshonda, in a chapter that explores the relationship between Lumumba and Hammarskjöld, describes the differences “as being the ‘truth’ (i.e. true independence for the Congolese) and the promotion of ‘order’ (favoured by UN and Western powers).
Lumumba was placed under house arrest, encircled by UN peacekeepers and Mobutu’s soldiers, but made a break for freedom to join with his supporters.
Chased by Mobutu’s troops, he was arrested. UN peacekeepers were close by, but remained passive although they must have known Lumumba was in grave danger. Tshonda writes that shortly after Lumumba’s arrest on 1st December 1960, “Hammarskjöld visited the Congo but showed no apparent concern for the fate of Lumumba. Lumumba was brutally assassinated on 17th January 1961.”