By William Dowell (TIME 2001)

Film director Raoul Peck thought that Patrice Lumumba was a misguided fanatic until he began investigating the story for his ground breaking film.

    "Who needs the Congo?" some Westerners are tempted to ask as the U.N. prepares to dispatch 5,000 troops to monitor yet another fragile cease-fire in what appears to be an endless regional war. The answer, is just about everyone. Ever since Belgium's King Leopold colonized it as his personal commercial property in 1885, the Congo has fascinated the industrialized world — both with its treasures, and with the boundless venality of those who have pursued them.

The uranium in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima came from the Congo. So does the cobalt, essential in the construction of advanced fighter aircraft, as well as diamonds, gold and some of the purest copper on the planet. Even the coltan computer chips in the latest Sony Play Station are made from columbite-tantalite, a mineral mined in the Congo.

So there are plenty of reasons for the industrialized world's enduring interest in the fate of Africa's second-largest country, which borders nine others. But the consequences of that interest have had no small part in shaping the relentless tragedy of the Congo's past century. Two recent books and a new feature-length film offer fascinating insights into how the Congo arrived at its present day chaos.

The road to Kleptocracy

Adam Hochschild's brilliant and damning "King Leopold's Ghost" describes the early colonization and exploitation of the Congo. Long before Sierra Leone, Belgium's colonial army encouraged the amputation of body parts as proof that native soldiers had actually killed their enemies. Former Financial Times correspondent Michela Wrong's "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz" details Joseph Desire Mobutu's rise to power and his descent into paranoia, isolation and self destruction. Mobutu's Congo, Wrong writes, was a modern-day kleptocracy — a nation state that institutionalized theft.

But as intellectuals in Africa and the African diaspora seek their own explanations for the failures not only of post-independence Congo, but also of post-colonial Africa more widely, there is renewed interest in the story of Patrice Lumumba. Haitian-born director Raoul Peck's powerful new film, "Lumumba," uses the story of the Congo's first and last democratically-elected prime minister to graphically and explosively explore Western complicity in the Congo's slide into chaos following its independence in 1960.

Peck decided to make the film, which opens at New York's Film Forum on June 27, after a Swiss producer suggested a movie about a white doctor who goes to Africa to find himself. "That's been done a hundred times," says Peck. "I wanted to make a film about an African in Africa."

Caught in history's current

Even then, Lumumba was not an easy subject to tackle. In the two months he served as prime minister before being overthrown in a coup and eventually executed, Lumumba had managed to alienate the outgoing Belgians, the United States and the U.N. Worse — from a Western point of view — he deigned to flirt with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. The accumulation of propaganda against Lumumba was so damning that Peck initially found it hard to focus on the man. "I couldn't feel any sympathy for Lumumba," he says. "It took me time to see the man behind the image."

After interviewing hundreds of witnesses, a different image emerged — Lumumba as a self-educated nationalist reacting to a harsh colonial regime. "He was self-taught and he had a crash-course in world politics," says Peck. "He didn't really have time to develop an ideology or a message." The fact that Lumumba could be effective at all was something of a miracle. By the time of independence, the Belgians had allowed only 17 Congolese to obtain a university education. Larry Devlin, a CIA agent in the Congo at the time, agrees with Michela Wrong that Lumumba tried to use the Russians but was never really a communist. "Poor Lumumba. He was no communist," said Devlin. "He was just a poor jerk who thought 'I can use these people.' I'd seen that happen in Eastern Europe. It didn't work very well for them, and it didn't work for him."

The CIA's poison in the drawer

Lumumba's flirtation with the Russians led the U.S. , Belgium and other Western powers to look for a more malleable alternative to rule the Congo. They settled on Lumumba's former aide, Joseph Desire Mobutu, who had been promoted to head of the army. Mobutu was flooded with Western money and arms, and within two months was able to out-maneuver the remnants of Congo's civil government, launching the newly-independent nation's long slide into institutional theft and ultimate bankruptcy. Lumumba was placed under house arrest, and after he escaped, was captured, tortured and turned over to Moise Tshombe who had tried to lead a secessionist movement in Katanga, the Congo's richest province. With the blessing of both Belgium and the U.S., Lumumba was nearly beaten to death, then taken out to an isolated forest and shot. His body was hacked to pieces and then dissolved in acid in order to prevent its use as a symbol by the warring political factions.

Michela Wrong points out that Lumumba had been considered so dangerous by Washington that President Eisenhower actually signed off on an assassination plot. The idea was to slip him a poison that would mimic a fatal local disease. Devlin told Wrong that he kept the poison in his desk for several months and then dumped it in the river. In the end it wasn't necessary.

So deep was the charismatic Lumumba's popularity among Congolese that even after ousting him, Mobutu felt obliged to build him a monument as one of Africa's great heroes. Like many other projects, the monument was never finished. There was another plan to name a boulevard in the capital after Lumumba. That also fell by the wayside. So the best monument may, in fact, turn out to be Peck's film which is based on solid research and hundreds of interviews with key participants, including one of the Belgian secret agents sent to dispose of Lumumba's body. The film is a reminder that Patrice Lumumba's dream of independence, which inspired his fellow Africans, is not quite forgotten even today. And it is an even greater reminder that in the chaos that the Congo has become, none of us are quite as innocent as we'd like to believe.