An African murder mystery

Image of Simon Kuper

Just after midnight on September 18 1961, an aeroplane carrying Dag Hammarskjöld, the dapper secretary-general of the UN, crashed near Ndola in British-run Northern Rhodesia. The Swede was found the next afternoon, unburned but dead beside the charred aircraft. A Rhodesian inquiry blamed pilot error. But that was almost certainly wrong. Most likely, Hammarskjöld was murdered. For once, the conspiracy theories are true. That’s the conclusion of a startling, meticulous, convincing book, written in the understated prose of a Scandinavian crime thriller, by Susan Williams, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London.

“It’s a very well-researched book,” the South African judge Richard Goldstone told me. “A number of people read it and thought something should be done.” An international commission of lawyers including Goldstone is now deciding whether to recommend a new UN inquiry into Hammarskjöld’s death. That inquiry will surely come. It may even reveal who killed Hammarskjöld.

In 1961, the world was watching Congo. As Africa decolonised, the country had gained independence from Belgium. At issue was: would the new African states be truly independent, or would western powers continue to control them?

The issue was tested days after Congo’s independence, when the province of Katanga seceded. Katanga contained most of Congo’s natural resources – including the uranium that had gone into the American atom bombs dropped on Japan. “The US had established global control on the basis of this uranium,” Williams told me. The western powers couldn’t let such precious resources be destroyed or passed to the Soviets.

Katanga’s secession had much western support. Moreover, South Africa and the white-run Central African Federation – comprising today’s Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe – feared black rule. In short, many forces opposed the new Africa.

Against these forces stood Hammarskjöld’s UN. The Swede wanted a truly independent Congo, which would include Katanga. After Katanga seceded, UN troops intervened. A hot war developed with Katanga’s white mercenaries. The night Hammarskjöld flew to Ndola hoping to negotiate a ceasefire, his plane took a roundabout route to avoid Katanga’s Fouga jet, which had been raiding the UN’s troops and airbases.

Williams initially dismissed the notion of Hammarskjöld’s murder as “ridiculous”, she told me. “But then, in different archives, I kept coming across more evidence.” Some of the evidence was known in 1961-62, but discounted by two Rhodesian inquiries. Some evidence Williams unearthed herself, from archives and witnesses in countries from Sweden to Zambia. And more continues to surface. Put together, the picture is damning.

For instance, several witnesses in 1961 reported seeing a second plane flying over Hammarskjöld’s, followed by an explosion. The only one of the 16 passengers to survive the crash, the bodyguard Harold Julien, who would die days later, said the aircraft exploded. But the Rhodesian inquiry dismissed black witnesses as unreliable, and Julien was delirious – although his doctor testified otherwise.

Charles M. Southall, in 1961 a young American working for the National Security Agency in Cyprus, recalls listening to a live recording that night of a pilot shooting down Hammarskjöld’s plane. Southall implicates the US’s Central Intelligence Agency. “If the CIA didn’t order Hammarskjöld’s death,” he told Williams, “at least they paid for the bullet.”

And the authorities at Ndola airport behaved suspiciously. Soon after Hammarskjöld’s plane signalled to Ndola its intention to land, it disappeared. The British high commissioner Lord Alport said the plane must have “gone elsewhere”, and closed the airport, a most unusual action when a flight is missing. The next day, the search began late. Hammarskjöld’s plane was officially found 15 hours after it disappeared, just eight miles from the airport.

But Williams produces evidence that the crash scene was located hours before its official discovery. That would have given suspects time to tamper with the wreck; and, possibly, to shoot Hammarskjöld, who may have survived the crash. A photograph of him taken in hospital later showed an apparent whitening out of something on his forehead – “what may have been a bullet hole,” says Goldstone. Indeed, in a memorandum in 1993 Alport wrote, remarkably, that Hammarskjöld “died shortly after the crash”.

Someone killed Hammarskjöld. It’s just not clear who. It’s even possible there were two plots against his plane. The Swede had lots of enemies – Goldstone, who was in Johannesburg in 1961, remembers many South African whites rejoicing at his death – and some were ruthless. Nasty things happened in central Africa. Belgium, for instance, has since admitted having played a role in assassinating Congo’s prime minister Patrice Lumumba in January 1961.

A new UN inquiry might produce embarrassing findings. Even if Rhodesians killed Hammarskjöld without telling the British, the UK would be implicated, because it ran foreign policy for the Central African Federation. There would be even greater embarrassment if American intelligence was involved. Goldstone cautions that we will probably never be sure who did it. “It’s a question of probabilities, not proof beyond all possible doubt,” he says. But almost certainly, there is something to discover.

‘Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, The Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa’, by Susan Williams, is published by Hurst & Co (£20).

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