In The Lumumba Plot (Knopf, Oct.) journalist Reid explores the life of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the CIA’s complicity in his 1961 murder.

What made Lumumba so popular?
He was courageous and unrelenting in standing up to the Belgians, and a tireless, charismatic political organizer. And he was a thrilling speaker, capable of winning people over unexpectedly.

But he also faced opposition in the Congo. Why?
Partly because of geographical and ethnic divisions. Katanga Province seceded and its leader, Moise Tshombe, hated Lumumba’s vision of a united Congo under a powerful central government. Also, the country fell into chaos when he took office—the Congolese army mutinied and the Belgians sent in troops, and Lumumba stumbled in dealing with the crisis.

The American government considered Lumumba a communist. Was he?
Certainly not. What surprised me in my research was how pro-America Lumumba was. He called for U.S. troops to intervene in the Congo—not something you would expect if he were a pro-Soviet communist.

You call the Congolese army’s chief of staff, Joseph Mobutu, who ousted Lumumba in a coup, “the Hamlet of the Congo.” How so?
Mobutu owed his career to Lumumba, who trusted him as a friend. After he seized power, Mobutu was under enormous pressure from the Americans and Belgians to arrest Lumumba, but he wavered and wavered, which is why the press called him Hamlet. He was torn about betraying Lumumba, even distraught; sources describe him losing 30 pounds, drinking, and taking tranquilizers over it.

How culpable was the CIA for Lumumba’s downfall?
There was a plan to poison him with botulinum toxin. A CIA officer named Sidney Gottlieb flew to Congo with a carry-on bag containing a syringe and vials of toxin. He told Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief, to get it into Lumumba’s food or toothpaste so that Lumumba would appear to die of natural causes. The scheme was never carried out. But the CIA financed anti-Lumumba protests, encouraged Congolese president Joseph Kasavubu to dismiss him from office, paid Lumumba’s opponents in parliament to vote him out, and pressed Mobutu to seize power, which also took some cash. Then when Devlin got word that Mobutu was about to send Lumumba to his death, he did nothing. Devlin had enormous influence with Mobutu and could have prevented it.

Lumumba is considered an anti-colonial martyr. How do you see him?
He was the author of his own story, complicated and contradictory. I see him as a man and a leader, not just a symbol.