H. Melber: Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonisation of Africa

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonisation of Africa.

Melber, Hennig
London 2019: Hurst & Co.
180 S.
ca. €37.50
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Ulf Engel, Institut für Afrikastudien, Universität Leipzig

On 18 September 1961 the second UN General-Secretary, the Swede Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld (b. 1905), and his entourage died in a plane crash in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (today’s Zambia), while on a mission trying to solve the then conflict in the Congo. The circumstances of his death are still mysterious: public debates and two investigation commissions discussed whether the crash was caused by a pilot mistake, a technical problem or an attack by another airplane. More recent investigations seem to indicate that the plane was indeed shot down by another plane.

In any case, by the time of his death Hammarskjöld, who had become Secretary-General in 1953, was acting in the midst of a conflict in the former Belgian colony which had gained independence on 30 June 1960. President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba were soon faced by armed mutinies and a rebellious Katanga province in which the provincial president, Moise Tshombe, on 11 July 1960 declared unilateral independence from the rest of the country. The province was of major strategic importance as it harboured huge mineral wealth (inter alia cobalt, copper and uranium), mainly exploited by the Belgian Union Minière du Haut Katanga. Subsequently Belgian paratroopers were deployed to the secessionist province. This in turn made President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba calling the United Nations to intervene on their behalf.

Hammarskjöld immediately called for a meeting of the UN Security Council which, by majority vote (with abstentions by France, the United Kingdom and Taiwan), called for the withdrawal of Belgian troops and authorized the Secretary-General to provide the Congolese government with the necessary troops to restore order in the country. As a result Opération des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC) was established as a multi-national peacekeeping force; it arrived in the Congo on 15 July 1960 and by the end of the year comprised of some 11,000 troops. The conflict quickly escalated, including a rebellion in South Kasai, the dismissal (in September 1960) and, finally after the 31 December 1960 coup d’etat by army chief Mobutu Sésé Seko, the murder of the charismatic nationalist Lumumba on 17 January 1961 – “with the involvement of the CIA, Belgian soldiers and mercenaries” (p. 84).1 In the following months, the UN Secretary-General engaged in, futile, efforts of conflict diplomacy. Africa had already firmly become a battle ground of the Cold War: the United States feared an increasing Soviet influence in that part of the world and accordingly started protecting their “assets”. When his plane crashed, Hammarskjöld was on his way to meet Tshombe in Ndola/Northern Rhodesia, just across the border of Katanga, to negotiate for an end of the secession.

The author of this lucid study, Henning Melber, has been executive director (2006-2012) and senior advisor of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation that is based in Uppsala, Sweden. He still is president of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI), extraordinary professor at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Political Science and at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Gender and Africa Studies. Substantially adding to his previous publications on the UN Secretary-General2, in this well-researched contribution to the field of Cold War Studies, Melber emphatically portrays the biography of a man who himself was driven by strong guiding principles that were nested in the awakening ecumenical spirit of Uppsala (which was the seat of the Church of Sweden). Hammarskjöld, a former civil servant who among others had been under-secretary in the country’s Ministry of Finance (1936-1945), chairperson of the central bank’s board of governors (1941-1948) and head of the Swedish mission to the United Nations (1952-1953), is described as “general” rather than a “secretary”, who “as a proactive guardian of the [UN] Carter [...] took the initiative when the Security Council was reluctant to act” (p. 98).

Melber has been a member of the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust that was founded in 2012 to re-access the circumstances that led to the crash of the UN Secretary-General’s plane some 58 years ago. It prompted further UN investigations. In 2017 an Eminent Person’s report concluded: “On balance, there is an ample sum of relevant eyewitness evidence that tends to establish that there was more than one aircraft in the air at the time. SE-BDY [i.e. the UN Secretary-General’s plane] made its approach to Ndola, that any aircraft other than SE-BDY was a jet, that SE-BDY was on fire before it collided with the ground, and that SE-BDY may have been fired upon or otherwise actively engaged by one or more other aircrafts.” (p. 116)

However, UN member states, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, persistently refused to open their intelligence archives for further probing the issue: The UK (together with Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) was intercepting UN communications in the Congo, and the US had Dakota aircrafts with sophisticated communication equipment in the area. To Melber’s credit, the visions and policies of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld are discussed against exactly this backdrop of decolonisation muddle and beginning Cold War dynamics in Africa.

1 See also Emmanuel Gerard / Bruce Kuklick, Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba, Cambridge 2015; and Stephen R. Weissma, What Really Happened in Congo: The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu, in: Foreign Affairs 93 (2014) 4, pp. 14-24.
2 Inter alia Henning Melber, Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and Africa“, in: Review of African Political Economy 39 (2012) 131, pp. 151-159; and, by the same author “The death of Dag Hammarskjöld”, in: Review of African Political Economy 41 (2014) 141, pp. 458-465.

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