Patrice Lumumba is probably one of Africa's most famous historical figures.
He was a popular Congolese nationalist and the first elected prime minister of DRC after independence from Belgium in June 1960. However, military strife and secessionist movements disrupted his rule, and, as a result, his stint as prime minister lasted only three months.
On 14 September 1960, the military, led by Mobutu Sese Seko, toppled his government. He was placed under house arrest in Kinshasa but he managed to slip out of the capital. However, he was captured as he tried to make his way to his stronghold of Kisangani - where his supporters were making plans for him to form an alternative government.
On 17 January 1961, at the age of 35, he was executed by a firing squad.
Forty-one years later, in 2002, the Belgian government apologized to the Congo people for the role it played in the overthrow, capture, and execution of Patrice Lumumba; and it said that it took moral responsibility for the events that led to his tragic end.
Lumumba rose to prominence, first as a trade unionist and, later, as the founder and leader of Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), a political party that had widespread support throughout DRC. He was an outspoken critic of colonialism and among the vocal voices that had, from the early 1950s, demanded the independence of DRC.
He spoke boldly and eloquently against the injustices and humiliation that Congolese people had endured under Belgian rule, the wanton exploitation of Congolese resources by the West, and the condescending attitude of colonial administrators towards black people. This rhetoric made him famous across DRC, but the colonial administrators viewed it as anti-Belgian, and they detested him because of it.
In October 1958, he founded the MNC, which soon became the only party in DRC that had nationwide appeal. The other parties were either regional or tribal. While they advocated for a federal system of Government, MNC and Patrice Lumumba pushed for a united Congo; and the Belgians didn't like it.
Belgium's colonial rule had thrived on a divide-and-rule policy that encouraged Congo's tribes to dislike one another. They knew that a united Congo would weaken their hold on Congo's resources. Therefore, they promoted a "My Tribe-First and Congo-Second" attitude that made Congo's blacks suspicious of one another. The Belgians wanted this ethnic rivalry to continue after independence.
In December 1958, Lumumba addressed the All-African Peoples' Conference in Accra, Ghana, and those present, including Kwame Nkrumah, were impressed by his knowledge, eloquence, and charisma. Still, the Belgians did not like his newly-acquired Pan-Africanist stature, and they started planning to neutralize him.
In October 1959, the colonial government arrested him for inciting an anti-colonial riot in Kisangani and sentenced him to six years in prison. Shortly after, Belgium announced it would grant DRC independence in June 1960; and that the process would begin with local elections in December 1959.
Belgium's plan was, firstly, to grant DRC independence while Lumumba was in still prison (so that he would play no role in post-colonial DRC), and Secondly, to use the elections to install pro-Belgian puppets in post-colonial government. However, despite Lumumba's imprisonment, MNC went ahead and secured a landslide victory in the polls.
In January 1960, Belgium convened a conference in Brussels to discuss the roadmap to independence. On the first day of the meeting, the delegates refused to participate unless Lumumba was part of the process. Two days later, Lumumba was freed from prison and flown to Brussels to join the other representatives.
The conference agreed that parliamentary elections would be in May 1960, and it set the date of independence as 30 June 1960. MNC emerged victorious in the parliamentary elections. The Belgians reluctantly allowed Lumumba to form the government, which he did on 23 May 1960 - with him as Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu as president.