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The day Béchir Ben Yahmed met Patrice Lumumba – Jeune Afrique

Béchir Ben Yahmed, an African in the century

“I discovered Liberia in August 1960, when the idea of ​​creating a continental development organization was gaining ground among the new African elites: it would be the African Development Bank (ADB).

Romeo Horton, the Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia, had organized a meeting for this purpose, in which I participated as the representative of Tunisia, with my compatriots Mansour Moalla, who was preparing the launch of the Central Bank of Tunisia, and Abdelaziz Mathari, who still chaired the STB [Société tunisienne de Banque][1]. My participation in this trio was a bit incongruous. I came from the private sector, poorly accepted at the time. In my dual capacity of former HEC and former minister, however, I was included in the delegation.

Liberia was a symbolic destination. It was, along with Ethiopia, the only country in Africa not to have been colonized (it had actually been colonized by blacks of American origin, who had gained the upper hand over the “natives”). We thought these two states were paradises. However, a few years apart, I discovered very poor countries, where inequalities were glaring and the inhabitants illiterate.

Frantz Fanon, then GPRA ambassador, organized our meeting

We had therefore been in Monrovia for a few days, Mathari, Moalla and I, when a telex from the Tunisian presidency reached us. The Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, passing through Tunis, had asked Bourguiba to provide him with experts to help him draw up a development plan and take control of the Central Bank, which is still in Belgian hands.

Lumumba was returning home via Accra and Lomé. We were asked to put ourselves at his disposal. We presented ourselves to him in Accra, where Frantz Fanon[2], ambassador of the GPRA (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic), had organized our meeting. Taking place aboard the Iliouchine of the Congolese Prime Minister, we headed for Léopoldville (future Kinshasa).

Sincere to the core

Throughout the flight I stayed by his side, talking to him aboutAfrica Action[3], which I planned to create, and which did not interest him at all. His thoughts were elsewhere: his country, which had been independent for two months, was in serious trouble. We were both in our thirties. Lumumba was, in 1960, what Thomas Sankara would be twenty years later: eager to build a great country, but idealistic and totally inexperienced. Pan-Africanism was in him. He seemed to me sincere to the core, in search of a solution for the immense and rich Congo, torn by tribalism and coveted by the two great powers of the cold war, the United States and the USSR.

When we arrived in Léopoldville, while the custom wanted the ministers to come and greet the head of government at the airport, only a few of them came to meet him, all or almost all from the same ethnic group as him. Bad omen !

The Congo we discovered was disorganized, divided, fragile. Leopoldville was plagued by riots. The whites – mostly Belgians – had fled. Some had abandoned their American cars in the middle of the street. We were staying in a house-hotel where about twenty Congolese provided the service. A Belgian matron ordered them in an incredibly harsh way. Only ! And there were almost twenty of them, bending over to her!

I don’t trust my people, the Belgians will buy them

Lumumba decided to immediately convene a Council of Ministers and, turning to us: “Since there is room, you will participate. He opened the session by addressing our Tunisian trio: “I have decided to ask the Belgians to transfer the reins of the Central Bank to us. Albert Delvaux, our minister residing in Brussels, will lead the delegation in charge of this negotiation. »

Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese Prime Minister, in New York, July 24, 1960. © Allyn Baum/The New York Times-REDUX-REA

An untraceable head of delegation

So he set up a delegation, of which we were part ipso facto. Then, taking us aside: “I don’t trust my people, the Belgians are going to buy them.” I only trust you. Hold on and bring me the deal. He gave us first-class tickets from Swissair, which was a major airline at the time, and wished us bon voyage.

The negotiation did not take place in Brussels but in a place deemed neutral: the premises of the United Nations in Geneva. Seeing us arrive, the members of the Belgian delegation snickered, no doubt wondering “who were these Arabs”. The Congolese did not come. The Métis supposed to lead the delegation, Albert Delvaux, was nowhere to be found. He and his friends had stayed at the hotel, so we found ourselves alone with the Belgians. There were no negotiations, and I understood then that Lumumba had been quite right not to have confidence in his Congolese emissaries.

This man far ahead of his time will have embraced History. On January 17, 1961, learning of his death, I cried

Moalla and Mathari returned to Tunis disgusted. I remember feeling alone in Geneva, humiliated, pessimistic about the future of Africa. Not knowing what to do, I wrote a letter of explanation and resignation to Lumumba, slipped it into an envelope with my return plane ticket, mailed it and left for Tunis. I’m sure he never received it, but what else could I do?

Despite these vicissitudes, Lumumba will have embraced History. I had been impressed by his career, even though I knew he lacked experience and means, at least as much human as financial.

The fate of this man far ahead of his time was almost written in advance. Without going so far as to imagine that he would be assassinated, I sensed that the future would be very complicated.

However, given his charisma and the presence of the United Nations there, I believed that he could succeed. On January 17, 1961, learning of his death, I cried.

Settlement of postcolonial accounts

In this Cold War era, Lumumba was seen by Westerners as a quasi-communist. Wasn’t he helped by Russia? His death was the result of a postcolonial settling of accounts between, on the one hand, the Soviets and, on the other, the Westerners, to which the officer Désiré Mobutu lent a hand.

The Americans collaborated with his assassins, because, for them, he was pro-Communist or risked being manipulated by the Communists. But the Lumumba that I knew was certainly on the left, and more pro-Russian than pro-American, but above all a “non-aligned”. A free man.

This new contact with a leader from sub-Saharan Africa had strengthened my plan to create a pan-African newspaper for “Blacks” and “Arabs”. The more I advanced, the more I felt that there was no “civilization difference” between them. During all my exchanges with Lumumba, I had felt in perfect harmony. This feeling of fraternity cannot be explained. He was deeply rooted in me. »

Extract of I assume, by Béchir Ben Yahmed, ed. du Rocher, 2021, 525 p., 24.90 euros.


[1] A graduate of HEC like Béchir Ben Yahmed, Abdelaziz Mathari was chief of staff to Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, then founded the Tunisian Banking Company (STB) with BBY and Serge Guetta.
[2] French psychiatrist and essayist, author, among others, of Wretched of the Earth, Martiniquais Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) is one of the founders of the Third World current of thought and a major figure of anti-colonialism.
[3] This weekly, which succeeds The action (1955-1958), will indeed be founded by Béchir Ben Yahmed on October 17, 1960. It changes its name and becomes Young Africa November 21, 1961.

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