Belgium gives back to Congo the only thing left of its national hero, Patrice Lumumba: A tooth

Brussels is trying to heal the wounds of its colonial past, yet it continues to minimize its own role in the assassination of the key figure of independence

The three surviving children of Patrice Lumumba behind the coffin containing their father's tooth, in Brussels, last Monday.
The three surviving children of Patrice Lumumba behind the coffin containing their father's tooth, in Brussels, last Monday.OLIVIER HOSLET (EFE)

In 1884 Belgium became the metropolis of the colossus that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a colonization process that culminated in an assassination and the whim of a drunken police officer.

On January 17, 1961, Prime Minister Patrice Emery Lumumba, overthrown by a coup d’état promoted by Belgium and the CIA – which maintained that he had ties to communism – was executed in a forest in the eastern region of Katanga. However, the plan to completely erase any trace of the crime by dissolving the body in sulfuric acid did not quite work. A Belgian gendarme, Gérard Soete, who was completely drunk, pulled two teeth from the corpse “as a hunting trophy,” as he confessed in 1999. One of those two teeth, the only thing that remains of Lumumba, arrived on Wednesday by plane in a coffin to Congo. The coffin will now travel the country on a journey that will culminate in its burial on June 30, the 62nd anniversary of the independence of the DRC, in a mausoleum in Kinshasa.

The return of this dental piece is “a relief” for the family and “for the Congolese people” who “will finally be able to mourn,” explains Jean-Jacques Lumumba, great-nephew of the deposed leader, by telephone from Paris. But that gesture, more than half a century after the assassination, is “insufficient.” “It is necessary for the justice system to clarify this heinous crime and thus end impunity in Congo.”

The restitution of the only remains of Patrice Lumumba by the Belgian federal prosecutor, Frédéric Van Leeuw, on Monday in Brussels is part of Belgium’s attempt to heal the wounds of a colonization process that dragged between five and 10 million to their death, out of a population of 20 million, according to various studies. They died from slavery, forced labor and disease; from torments such as the amputation of hands and feet and experiments such as the one that blinded Congolese people who had been injected with arsenic.

However, the desire to turn this page of history has been coming up against Belgian authorities’ refusal to apologize unequivocally. The reason, according to media outlets such as the Belgian newspaper Sudinfo, is that a clear apology could “cost Belgium billions” in potential lawsuits against the state, if the latter were to assume full responsibility for such atrocious events. Jean-Jacques Lumumba confirms that, in 2011, his family filed a lawsuit for war crimes in a Brussels court, still unsubstantiated. In it, the Belgian state is accused of “having participated in a plot” to eliminate the Congolese leader. The prime minister’s great-nephew also alludes to another one of the limits on Belgium’s will to repair the atrocities of colonization: it “still has not declassified numerous documents” about the assassination.

The Belgian authorities have limited themselves to recognizing a “moral responsibility” in the abuses of the colonial period, including the Lumumba crime. That expression was used by Prime Minister Alexander de Croo on Monday during the delivery ceremony of the tooth, in which he juggled apologizing and at the same time describing Belgium’s role as that of a passive witness. “It is possible that the Belgian ministers, diplomats, officials or military did not have the intention of having Patrice Lumumba assassinated, no evidence has been found to prove it […] They preferred not to see. They decided not to act,” he said.

King Philippe of Belgium, who visited the DRC in early June, expressed himself in similar terms. In a letter to the Congolese president, Félix Tshisekedi, the monarch stressed his “regret” for colonization, but did not apologize. Nor did he take Lumumba’s tooth with him to give it to the family, as he was expected to do. The sovereign did return another much less controversial looted object: a Congolese mask that until now was exhibited in the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren.

Numerous investigators have argued that Belgium’s role in Lumumba’s crime was not that of a mere accessory. In Congo: The Epic History of a People, David van Reybrouck reflects how Brussels and the US bought a traitor to seize power from Lumumba, who was criticized for his lack of meekness and his alleged communist tendencies. That traitor was the Congolese chief of staff, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who would go on to become the dictator of Congo between 1965 and 1997.

Overthrown after Mobutu’s coup d’état, Lumumba was handed over by Belgium to the Katanga authorities, who had already threatened to kill him. Brussels had also bought officials in that region to force its secession from the independent Congo and continue plundering its minerals. The pilots who flew Lumumba to Katanga were Belgian; the members of the firing squad were Congolese, but the order to shoot was given by a Belgian officer. And Gendarme Soete, the drunken officer who pulled out the tooth, was Belgian.

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