Africa: Who Killed Hammarskjöld?

Dag Hammarskjöld
5 November 2012
book review

Susan Williams's investigation uncovers new evidence surrounding the unsolved mystery of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld's death.

Sitting in one of Kinshasa's beer gardens, a Congolese journalist commented that all foreign interference in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has been about one thing and one thing alone: free access to the Congo Basin and the riches it contains. "Nothing else has ever mattered", he said. It is a point to keep well in mind.

Three books, two by scholars and one by a journalist, have provided an otherwise sceptical Western audience new and incisive insights into the lengths to which former colonial powers and other major players on the world stage are prepared to go to ensure free access to the Congo Basin. The most recent, by Susan Williams, aims to answer the question of one of the two tragic and mysterious deaths that occurred in central Africa connected to the politics of a newly-independent DRC: that of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

Descending into Mobutu-ist hell

In his book The Assassination of Lumumba, Belgian sociologist Ludo de Witte provided incontrovertible evidence that Western interests in the Cold War and Belgian resentment condemned the DRC's first prime minister to death. Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz gave us a long hard look into not only the realities of the DRC (then Zaire) under Mobutu Sese Seko, but also how everyone who could have done something about the country's descent into Mobutu-ist hell (the US, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Europe) became an expert at looking the other way.

Susan Williams, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, recently added another essential read for those seeking to understand this period. It is a meticulously researched geopolitical piece of detective work, titled Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Southern Africa.

The first few chapters deftly paint the historical background to one of the world's most mystifying aviation accidents, in which the dashing United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was killed. A newly independent DRC, the renegade Belgium-backed province of Katanga packed with mercenaries, intransigent white minority regimes in Lusaka and Salisbury (now Harare) - all working under the heavy shadow of the Cold War. Into this maelstrom flew Hammarskjöld in order to broker an agreement between the UN and the Katangese leader Moïse Tshombe. He never got there. On the night of September 17-18, 1961, his plane went down in the forests just clear of the airport of Ndola, now in Zambia.

The search for answers

How did this happen? The book explores this question and offers a riveting read for anyone interested in a crucial episode in modern world history. Williams details the old Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean), UN and Swedish investigations and the numerous theories trying to explain the crash. She describes the cavalier attitude of the Rhodesian authorities following the crash; they made no secret of their animosity towards the UN and its Secretary-General. Williams then starts the process of deduction and adds her own research, contacting former mercenaries, digging up documents and piecing together the evidence, bit by bit.

She dismisses the early theory of pilot error. But there are at least four other explanations that have been proffered at various times: sabotage, a bomb, a failed hi-jacking and a mid-air attack. After painstakingly taking apart these options she comes closer than anyone has ever been to getting at the heart of the matter. Without having the conclusive evidence in our fingers, we can say that it is very probable someone attacked the UN plane in mid-air, causing it to crash. It is also very probable that soon after the crash, evidence was tampered with. In an elegant turn of phrase, Williams concludes that Hammarskjöld's death "was almost certainly the result of a sinister intervention".

Suspects and motives

But by whom? The book provides direction as to where the focus should be. Was there complicity of the two Rhodesian governments (now Zambia and Zimbabwe)? What about the role of the mysterious South African Institute of Maritime Research, a mercenary outfit, and why have documents pertaining to their possible role in Hammarskjöld's death been misplaced?

Were major international firms like the Belgian Union Minière du haut Katanga complicit? After all, Union Minière was betting heavily on keeping Katanga pried loose from the DRC, the exact situation the UN was trying to remedy. And further afield: should more light be shed on what the UK government was up to? What relevant documents is the CIA keeping from the public eye?

At the moment, a UN commission is investigating the crash at Ndola once again. The publication of Williams's book played a crucial role in re-opening these investigations. But one question must remain unresolved forever: If Hammarskjöld had lived, would he have made a difference?

Perhaps Katanga would have been folded back in the DRC a little earlier. Perhaps the DRC itself would have gone down a less disastrous path. However, Hammarskjöld's untimely death made a stark point: the UN may dabble nicely in all manner of worthy causes, organise International Days to highlight everything under the sun, but there are clear boundaries as to where the UN will be permitted to intervene. Hammarskjöld was certainly not the last secretary-general to be reminded of this fact. But he has so far been the only one who has paid for this reality with his life.

It is not worth harbouring any illusions that the truth will necessarily be fully unearthed this time; we will have to wait for other documents to turn up or be de-classified. But for an answer as to why the second secretary-general of the United Nations had to be removed, the insights of my Congolese colleague hold the key.

Bram Posthumus is an independent press and radio journalist with more than 20 years of experience living and working in West and Southern Africa. Alternating between Dakar and Amsterdam, he reports on political, cultural and economic events for a variety of radio, print and internet media.

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