Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and white supremacy in Africa
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
THE world of 2017 is awash with new conspiracy theories, but there are old cover-ups that still prevail. Did the Soviets, as some still believe, have a hand in the murder of President Kennedy, who plays a minor part in this book? Only if you were born before the end of the Second World War will you remember the catastrophe of the death in a plane crash in September 1961 of Dag Hammarskjöld, possibly the best Secretary-General the United Nations has ever had.
This book is an updated version of an investigation into the death by Susan Williams, published five years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the event. One is amazed, as the author is clearly frustrated, that still no official international re-investigation of the circumstances has taken place. As the retiring UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said in August 2016, “This may be our last chance to find the truth. Seeking a complete understanding of the circumstances is our solemn duty to my illustrious and distinguished predecessor.”
The author’s research reads like a novel by Agatha Christie at her best. Every chapter reveals a new suspect, but, in contrast with the detective writer’s work, the last chapter remains unwritten. That Hammarskjöld was murdered is now hardly open to doubt. This book takes apart the various efforts at covering up the truth behind the atrocity.
Hammarskjöld’s “crime” was to support, with the full weight of the UN, a peaceful way forward in the fraught process of decolonisation in Central Africa in the early 1960s. In doing this, he cut across a raft of different vested interests, principally in the UK, Belgium, South Africa, and what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). There were also extensive mining concerns.
Britain, it must be said, was not trying to block the evolution to black-majority rule (see Harold Macmillan’s brave “wind of change” speech in South Africa in February 1960), but its white colonial administrators were often riven by prejudice.
This forms the crux of the first and disastrously bungled inquiry into the crash. Lord Alport was the British High Commissioner in Salisbury (now Harare, Zambia). His obituary in The Independent (October 1998) makes it clear that he did not really want to be there: his political ambitions had led him to hope for a higher career path at home. On one occasion he stated: “The African does not, unhappily, possess in many cases sufficient moral courage or breadth of mind to enable him to surmount the obstacles” [of relationships with people of a different colour].
Alport was waiting for Hammarskjöld’s arrival at Ndola Airport on a mission to halt the civil war raging in Katanga (Congo) near by. When the plane did not arrive, Alport went home after declaring, without a shred of evidence, that Hammarskjöld had decided to “go elsewhere”. The fatal crash site was not officially “discovered” until 15 hours later, despite several Africans’ having found it much earlier. Quicker action might even have saved the life of Hammarskjöld, who seems for a while to have been alive after the crash. The Rhodesia-led inquiry dismissed the incontrovertible evidence that a second plane had been seen firing on the UN plane that night. Africans were not, apparently, reliable witnesses.
As I saw on a visit to Ndola and the Zambian Copperbelt in 1985, this is not bandit country, but a land of prosperity. The reputation of local people has been besmirched by the shenanigans of a second inquiry, too, by the UN itself in early 1962, which reached an open verdict.
Susan Williams, in the final pages of this magnificent book, states her belief that the US and British secret services may still have relevant evidence that they are withholding.
Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.