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Commonwealth Journalists' Association

© Commonwealth Secretariat
© Commonwealth Secretariat

By Kaye Whiteman, CJA member

As the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) moves into a tense period of elections, a new book puts all fifty-one years of independence, into a broad if not exactly comforting perspective. The book, by Susan Williams, has the challenging title of Who Killed Hammarskjold?  The title provides half the answer, in that it definitely supposes the UN’s second  Secretary-General, the Swede Dag Hammarskjold, was indeed killed by a person or persons unknown, therefore rejecting all the carefully constructed arguments at the time that the plane crash of September 1961 had been an accident.

The book explores with high forensic skill all the different arguments to support the idea that he was indeed intentionally assassinated, but does not come to definite conclusions on the exact means. Susan Williams is too punctilious an academic to force the issue, but she has marshalled the evidence well enough for most readers to form their own assessment. There were too many suspicious circumstances for anyone now to accept the accident theory. But there were also unsolved mysteries, Why was Hammarskjold’s body curiously unscathed in the crash? Was it true that he has an ace of spades playing card in his hand? Why were there so many witnesses to the presence of a smaller plane, confirming the charge made at the time, but discounted in an official Rhodesian report (that was bound to want to cover up in any case)?

Ironically some of the new evidence can be found in the papers of Sir Roy Welensky, at the time the Prime Minister of the Central African Federation, and a central figure in the drama, confirming some of the theories put forward at the time that there was a cover-up. They also, however, in some cases add to the mysteries. For example, the circumspect behaviour of the British High Commissioner in Salisbury, Lord Alport, leaves many suspicions. There were many pro-Katanga whites who certainly believed at the time that ‘their side’ had been responsible for downing the plane. But although the circumstantial evidence is increasingly compelling, there is no clinching proof of how it happened and who exactly did it, supporting the author’s call for a new inquiry into the crash.

There is an unusual episode in the Williams’ book about one André Gilson, an employee of the Union Minière, the multi-national mining company that effe3ctively ran Katanga, and master-minded the province’s secession. UN Intelligence had collected allegations that Gilson had been responsible: it was something he had himself claimed, and a congratulatory party had been held in his honour in Elisabethville. There is a pile of other testimonies, some of them from the archive of a senior UN official, a close friend of Hammarskjold, George Ivan Smith, who spent his remaining investigating the killing. Like Conor Cruise O’Brien, the controversial UN representative in Katanga until shortly before the crash, Smith believed their man had been killed simply because the context was so powerful that it was hard to believe in anything else.

The re-telling of this highly dramatic story is central to the fascination of this book. The context of the shock tremors which the Congo crisis of 1960-1 had in the world, especially in Africa, and how it affected so much of what happened in one of Africa’s most turbulent decades, which make it especially engrossing to read. The author’s scene-setting chapters bring back the whole drama to me, almost as if it were yesterday, to the time when I had just started work as assistant news editor of a weekly illustrated paper called The Sphere (long since dead). Despite my inexperience, the death of Hammarskjold plunged me remorselessly into the bitter emotions of the conflicts surrounding the affair.

The book, which was published in London in September by Hurst, has as its sub- title The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. This sounds sweeping, but puts the emphasis and political context correctly. This was not just a time when Cold War rivalries were at their height, but a period of rapid change in Africa. The year of the Congo’s over-rapidly conceived independence was also the year of the Sharpeville massacre and Macmillan’s ‘wind of change’ speech. The tide of independence was sweeping southwards and the forces of white racial supremacy felt threatened as never before, and the Congo became the theatre of conflict. Thus these forces, and the Western mining corporations that had profited so much from the territory under Belgian colonialism, engineered the secession of the rich mining province of Katanga from the rest of the Congo.

This was a testing period raising all sorts of compelling issues. Firstly, it was too dangerous for Africa to become a setting for Cold War conflicts; secondly that the continent needed to put practical teeth into aspirations for unity, which led in 1963 to the setting up of Organisation of African Unity (OAU); and thirdly that in the condition of newly-independent Africa, secession was a non-starter.

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