Today Belgium will officially present Congo’s anti-colonial movement Patrice Lumumba’s tooth to his family members at an official ceremony in Brussels.
A single tooth is all that is believed to remain of Patrice Lumumba, after his assassination in 1961.
Lumumba was assassinated over 60 years ago as Belgian officials looked on. The repatriation of the remains of Congo’s first democratically elected leader comes as Belgium seeks to confront its dark colonial past.
The 67-year-old politician and daughter of Patrice Lumumba, has been waiting decades for Belgium to return the known remains of her father, a tooth and finger bones.
Lumumba’s family and Congolese authorities, led by Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, is in Brussels for this event, which is considered the official mourning of independent Congo’s first prime minister.
While the tooth is just a body part, it also symbolizes a dark period in the history of both Belgium and Congo, its former colony; a period that Belgium is still trying to unpack and accept, according to Juliana Lumumba.
A charismatic but volatile pan-Africanist who played a key part in the fight for independence, Lumumba became the first democratically elected leader of his country, then known as the Republic of Congo, in 1960. Within a year, he had become a victim of cold war politics and internal power struggles, as order collapsed in the new state and rebel groups in the mineral-rich Katanga province sought to break away.
Western officials worried that Lumumba would favour the Soviet Union as a protector and allow Moscow access to strategically critical resources such as uranium.
After a military coup, Lumumba was overthrown, jailed, tortured and shot dead by a hastily assembled firing squad. Forty years later, Belgium acknowledged that it bore “moral responsibility” for his death. The CIA had also laid plans to kill the 35-year-old politician.
But it took decades for the truth about the circumstances of Lumumba’s murder to emerge.
In 2000 the Belgian police commissioner Gerard Soete confessed that he had dismembered Lumumba’s body and dissolved the remains in acid. In a documentary screened on German TV, Soete showed two teeth which he said had belonged to Lumumba.
In 2016, a Belgian academic, Ludo De Witte, filed a further complaint against Soete’s daughter after she showed a gold tooth, which she said had belonged to Lumumba, during an interview with a newspaper. The tooth was then seized by Belgian authorities.
Senior officials will formally hand it over to the family in a specially made casket at a ceremony attended by the prime ministers of Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lumumba’s relatives will also be received by King Philippe of Belgium.
Belgium has recently begun to address the legacy of its exploitation of Congo’s rubber, ivory and timber. As many as 10 million people died from starvation and disease during the first 23 years of Belgium’s rule from 1885, when King Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom. Others were murdered, or deliberately maimed to encourage others to work harder to fulfil impossible quota of lucrative resources.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo described “a turning point” in diplomatic relations between Belgium and its former colony.
The present Belgian king travelled to the DRC for the first time this month, where he expressed “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past”, describing a “regime …. Of unequal relations, unjustifiable in itself, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism”, that “led to violent acts and humiliations”. But King Philippe did not apologise, prompting anger.
Roland Lumumba refused to criticise the king for not apologising fully for the past suffering inflicted on Congolese. “We are not going to remain resentful if the other side is holding out its hand to us,” he said.
He said he hoped to see “a new era” in relations that would help “build the future together.”
Lumumba echoed his father’s famous speech in front of then Belgian king Baudouin at Congo’s independence ceremony.
“His fight was to get out of servitude while remaining with the Belgians as equals,” he said.In a collective editorial published by the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, activists and organizations campaigning for Lumumba’s memory to be honored more widely, also described a “historic turning point”.
“Lumumba will bring back with him his noble political struggle: the defence of national interests, fair distribution of wealth, peace for all, the memory of the past, and the light of the flaming torch of Africa shining across the world,” it read.
An investigation for “war crimes” related to Lumumba’s murder is ongoing, but only two of the accused officials are still alive.
“We hope that there will be a result before they die,” said Roland Lumumba.
Two years ago, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, said the return of the tooth was a symbolic gesture, since there was no “absolute certainty” that the tooth was Lumumba’s. “No DNA test has been carried out; it would have destroyed it,” he said.
The official funeral programme includes public tributes and the opening of a condolence book in Brussels on Monday, June 20.
Lumumba’s tooth will be placed in a box which will then be placed in a coffin. The coffin and the entire delegation will leave Brussels on Tuesday for a quick stopover in Kinshasa, before travelling on Wednesday to Lumumbaville in the central DRC province of Sankuru where he was born.
It is in Lumumbaville — named after Lumumba— that the family of the illustrious prime minister will officially lead the mourning.
The coffin will leave Lumumbaville for Kisangani, Lumumba’s political stronghold in the northeast of the DRC, where his followers organised resistance against the Kinshasa government in 1964 after the death of their leader.
On Sunday, June 26, the coffin will arrive in Lubumbashi in what is now the southern province of Haut-Katanga, where he was assassinated.
Lumumba’s remains will then arrive in the village of Shilatembo, the scene of the crime. The coffin will return to Kinshasa on Monday, June 27. From that date, flags will be flown at half-mast and the whole country will mourn until June 30, the historic date marking the anniversary of Congo’s independence.
Burial will be held on the same day at the Patrice Emery Lumumba Memorial in Kinshasa in a public ceremony.