1961 was a very bad year for Africa. On 17 January of that year, Patrice Lumumba, the legitimate Prime Minister of the Congo, was murdered in cold blood after he had been handed over to the secessionist rebels in Katanga, led by Moise Tshombe.
The villain who handed him over was [the then] Colonel Joseph Desiree Mobutu, who had deposed Lumumba in a coup he mounted on 14 September 1960, with the active assistance of Western conspirators led by the Belgians and the Americans.
Lumumba had invited the United Nations to the Congo to help him stabilise his country after its Belgian-led army, the Force Publique, mutinied a few days after the Congo achieved its independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960. But the UN troops – including many Ghanaians soldiers sent by President Kwame Nkrumah to assist his friend, Lumumba – were confused about their mission in the Congo.
The Ghanaian troops thought they were being sent by the UN to do what Lumumba wanted them to do, in order to end the secessionist regime Tshombe had set up in Katanga. But the UN officials, once in the Congo, came under the influence of Western intelligence organisations and proved more an obstacle to Lumumba than a help. Under their British Commander, Major-General H T Alexander, the Ghanaian contingent were slavishly tethered to the Western line in the Congo, as General Alexander was known to be in cahoots with the British mission in the Congo, which, of course, followed the policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) of which both Britain and Belgium were members.
And it was, of course, the Americans who more or less laid down this NATO line, which was that Lumumba was a dangerous closet Communist who must be opposed at all costs, lest he delivered the Congo and its vast mineral resources – including uranium – to the Russians. (The uranium used in making the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans in 1945 came from a mine in the Congo).
Now, UN political policy was under the direction of Dr. Ralph Bunche, a highly-regarded black American whose “mediation” efforts in Israel in the 1940s had won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. What was not known about him by the general public was that he had “joined the US Office for Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor organisation to the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIA) during World War Two.” So, Bunche must have been very well briefed indeed on NATO’s objectives in the Congo, and that he contributed a lot towards aligning UN policy – and activities – in the Congo, with what he was by the CIA and the State Department in Washington.
This alignment of UN policy on the ground in the Congo with NATO objectives created some situations in the Congo that made people like President Kwame Nkrumah, who supported the UN’s activities in the Congo, to scratch their heads. In one instance, Lumumba was prevented, by UN officials, from broadcasting on his own radio station. The UN also prevented him from flying troops to Leopoldville from his stronghold, Stanleyville, to kick out Mobutu and his coup-makers.
At one stage, Lumumba was forcibly “placed under protection” by UN troops, ostensibly to get killed by Mobutu’s troops as he tried to make his way to Stanleyville. But whether by accident or by design, he escaped from the UN’s “protection”, and it was while he was trying to go Stanleyville that he fell into the hands of personnel loyal to Mobutu. He was most probably betrayed to them by UN officials.
Once he got hold of Lumumba, Mobutu, under the tele-guidance of the Americans and the Belgians knew what to do – send him to Katanga! If he was killed there, it would not be Mobutu’s responsibility. True to expectations, Tshombe immediately got Lumumba liquidated – by Tshombe’s Belgian military and police “advisers”. (Most of these had been procured for him by Union Miniere, the Belgian mining company which was leading the secessionist movement in Katanga, with Tshombe as its paid frontman.
Lumumba’s murder created mayhem in international relations at the time. The Soviet leader, Mr. Khrushchev, no doubt armed with evidence provided by Soviet spies within NATO’s ranks, asked for the immediate resignation of the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Dag Hammarskjöld. The Secretary-General came under such pressure that he became personally involved in matters related to the UN mission in the Congo. Thus it was that Eight months after Lumumba’s death – on 18 September 1961 – Dag Hammarskjöld was himself killed in an air crash, while he was on his way to Ndola, in the then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) to meet Tshombe, in an effort to work out an arrangement whereby Tshombe’s Katanga would reach a sort of accommodation s with the Leopoldville regime.
Hammarskjöld made the trip without taking with him, the man he had himself appointed to be his representative in Katanga, Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien (later Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Legon.) The question is: why did he do this? Dr O’Brien, in his book, To Katanga and Back, says Hammarskjöld was prevailed upon to drop O’Brien from his team by Lord George Lansdowne, a junior British Foreign Office Minister who arranged for the meeting between Hammarskjöld and Tshombe to take place in Northern Rhodesia, then a British colony. The venue having been arranged by the British, it would have been thought that they would take stringent steps to protect Hammarskjölds’ flight. They couldn’t care less. In fact, when the crash occurred, it took almost a whole day for the wreckage to be found, although villagers in the vicinity of the crash had reported to the police that they had seen a plane come down.
It was all so bizarre: Hammarskjöld had, under pressure from the British, acted as if he was a head of state going to a foreign country to engage in talks with the country’s leaders, behind the back of his own accredited ambassador to the country! The one person who had gained anything – his life – from the fiasco was Dr. O’Brien. It was, no doubt, this “romantic” aspect of the matter that made Dr. Kwame Nkrumah invited Dr. O’Brien to come and work in Ghana. Definitely, had he gone with Hammarskjöld, Dr. O’Brien would have been the 17th person to die in the air accident.
“Accident”! Was it an “accident”? Quite a few enquiries have been conducted into the “incident” (a more exact term!) including two by the UN, none of which has been able to establish all the facts about the air crash. Crucial evidence has been deliberately removed, or people have told lies to the investigators.
A scintillating book, entitled “WHO KILLED HAMMARSKJÖLD”, has been written by a very intelligent and assiduous writer called Dr. Susan Williams [Hurst ad Company, London ISBN: 978-1-84904-802-6] that examines in scholarly detail, all the available facts – and even conspiracy theories – relating to the air crash. No-one can call himself or herself a serious student of world politics since 1945, who has not taken the trouble to obtain and read this book. For Africans interested in how “Great Power” interference in our internal affairs can produce unexpected consequences, the book is simply a MUST.
The efforts of Dr. Williams have been brilliantly complemented by the publication, on 12 January and 20 January 2019, of articles in the London Observer,, to be found on the London Guardian website (www.guardian.co.uk) that take the investigation of the Hammarskjöld air crash a great deal further. One article, written by Emma Graham-Harrison, Andreas Rocksen and Mads Brügger, reports that “new evidence has emerged linking an RAF [the UK’s Royal Air Force] veteran to the death in 1961 of the UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in a mysterious plane crash in southern Africa. [The RAF veteran] Jan van Risseghem, has been named as a possible attacker before, but has always been described simply as a Belgian pilot. The Observer can now reveal that he had extensive ties to Britain, including a British mother and wife, trained with the RAF and was decorated by Britain for his service in the second world war.”
The Observer says Film-makers investigating the 1961 crash for a documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, have found a friend of Van Risseghem “who claimed the pilot confessed to shooting down the UN plane. The film-makers also gathered testimony from another pilot that undermines one of Van Risseghem’s “alibis” for that night.
Van Risseghem’s whose father was Belgian, escaped occupied Europe at the start of the Second World War to join the resistance in England. He trained with the RAF and flew missions over Nazi-held areas.
At the end of the war, Van Risseghem returned to Belgium with his British wife, but by 1961 he was in the Congo, flying for Tshombe’s separatist rebels, who had declared independence for Katanga. There, the documentary claims, Risseghem “was ordered to shoot down the plane carrying Hammarskjöld”.
It was not clear at the time of the crash, whether it had been caused by sabotage or was a tragic accident. More than half a century later, the UN is still investigating what happened. But as news of Hammarskjöld’s death emerged, in September 1961, the RAF veteran was apparently an obvious suspect, who was “named as the possible attacker” by the US ambassador to the Congo at the time, in a secret cable sent the day of Hammarskjöld’s death that has only recently been declassified.
For decades, Van Risseghem appeared to have proof that he wasn’t flying in the region on the night Hammarskjöld’s plane came down outside Ndola. Flight logs appear to show that Van Risseghem was not flying for most of that month, returning to duty only on 20 September 196. However, another mercenary flying for the Katangese, Roger Bracco, told the film-makers that his colleague’s logbooks are dotted with “apparent forgeries.”
Another person has also come forward to claim that, less than a decade after Hammarskjöld’s death, Van Risseghem told him he it was he who has attacked the plane. This man, called Pierre Coppens, met Van Risseghem in 1965, when he was flying for a parachute training centre in Belgium. Over several conversations (he claimed) Van Risseghem detailed how he overcame various technical challenges to down the plane, unaware of who was travelling inside. “He didn’t know,” Coppens said. “He said ‘I made the mission’ and that’s all. And then I had to go back and save my life’.” Van Risseghem died in 2007.
A follow-up article in The Observer of 20 January 2019 provides an intriguing background to the activities of mercenaries largely based in apartheid South Africa, who wrecked many African nations with bloody military attacks and coups d’etat in the years 1960-80, creating the destabilised polities that remain in parts of Africa to this day.
Cameron Duodu, is a United Kingdom-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. Copyright © Cameron Duodu
This article was originally published as; That Hammarskjöld Plane Crash of 1961 – The Skeletons are now Coming Out of the Cupboard!