Two days ago, Belgian authorities returned a relic of the murder of Patrice Lumumba to his family in a private ceremony in Brussels. It was a gold-capped tooth, the only remnant of the body of the heroic Congolese leader at independence.
The gold-crowned tooth in a blue box is now contained in a casket that would be finally laid to rest at a memorial site in Congo next Monday, the 62nd anniversary of the independence of Congo from colonial Belgium, which today is the de facto capital of European Union.
Following the burial, three days of “national mourning” will be observed in Congo, a country that has hardly known peace in his largely tumultuous history.
Doubtless, Lumumba’s place in the history of Africa’s struggle for total liberation will remain in gold while the role of western imperialists and their local collaborators in his murder will always be recalled as one of history’s worst infamies.
The Belgian police officer who supervised the bestiality of Lumumba’s murder, Gerald Soete, said the gold-capped tooth “is a hunting trophy;” but decent observers have described it as one the “macabre mementoes” kept for 61 years. The return of Lumumba’s tooth is a chilling reminder of one of the most brutal footprints of western imperialism and neo-colonialism on the African continent.
The first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lumumba, was captured, tortured and executed by firing squad on January 17, 1961.
Trouble started three months after Lumumba formed the first post-independence government in Congo. The government was overthrown and he and two others – Maurice Mpolo (a minister) and Joseph Okilo (a senator)- were arrested. Lumumba’s body was reportedly first buried in a shallow grave. But the Belgian colonialists did not want any trace of Lumumba in history. They were not satisfied with killing Lumumba; they foolishly resolved to even deny him martyrdom. So Belgian officers ordered that his body should be dug up. The body was dismembered and dissolved in acid.
Only the teeth survived the cruelty.
This horrific event took place in the second half of the 20th Century, 16 years after the end of World War II and hundreds of years after the same Congo was an infamous source of slaves shipped to the West.
So much for the civilising mission of the Europeans in Africa!
After Lumumba, other revolutionaries and radicals have also been victims of the inherent wickedness of imperialism. The body of the great Argentine Marxist revolutionary, Ernesto Che Guevera, was similarly treated in a bestial manner by his captors, the American-backed Bolivian forces, on October 9, 1967. Guevera was executed a day after his capture. His hands were cut as “proof of death” and the remains were buried in an unmarked grave. It took 30 years before the grave was discovered and a proper burial was done in Cuba. The most recent display of this act of barbarism was in Libya in 2011 when the country’s leader for 42 years, Muammar Gaddafi, was brutally killed and his body was kept in a shopping centre freezer before burial. These horrific acts, grossly in violation of basic human dignity, decency and international laws, were perpetrated by those the West supported in their war of ”freedom and democracy” in Libya. The same West is today lecturing the rest of the world about “war crimes,” “human rights” and “democracy.”
The half -hearted regrets so far expressed by the Belgian government should be put in the context of its shameful past. About six years ago, the Lumumba family lodged an official complaint against the daughter of the Belgian police commissioner keeping Lumumba’s tooth, Soete. She inherited the golden tooth from her savage father. Soete, of course, regarded Lumumba as a game only fit for hunting. Whatever happened to the humanity of the colonial agents?
Belgian officials did a good thing by seizing the tooth from Soete’s family.
The process of Belgium confronting its past probably begun earlier this month with the country’s King Philippe expressing his “deepest regrets’’ for his country’s atrocities in Congo.
On Monday, Belgium formally accepted moral responsibility when its Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said inter alia: “It isn’t normal that Belgians held on to the remains of one of the founding fathers of the Congolese nation for six decades.
“I would like, in the presence of his family, to present in my turn the apologies of the Belgian government… “A man was murdered for his political convictions, his words, his ideals.”
Besides, Belgium has also taken symbolic steps at honouring the imperishable legacy of Lumumba by naming a square in Brussels after the icon of African revolution.
In a joint statement, Belgian social justice activists and organisations aptly called the events of the last few days in memory of Lumumba a “historic turning point.” In the statement published in the Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, they said: “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.”
Although only two of the officers involved in the murder are still alive, an investigation has been launched for “war crimes” for what happened in Congo in the days of Lumumba.
The history of Belgium’s relations with Congo has been defined by a litany of acts of inhumanity. From 1885, Belgian King Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State for 23 years from Brussel as a personal estate. In those terrible 23 years, about 10 million people died of starvation, disease and abject poverty. Several others were killed by the Belgian police while some were maimed for not working hard enough in extracting resources for the King. It was not until 1908 that the country changed from being a personal estate of the King to a colony of Belgium. So the colony of Belgian Congo was born.
In their moments of needless self-flagellation, liberal African scholars are wont to say in the discussion of “post-colonial” problems of the continent that Africa should stop blaming its present troubles on its colonial past. This seeming rationalisation of the enormity of the inhumanity of the African colonial experience is sometimes intellectually overplayed. It is based on an unfortunate short view of history of colonialism and its consequences. The story of Congo is a proof that the role of imperialism and neo-colonialism cannot be discounted in properly diagnosing the contemporary African condition. Today’s troubles of Congo have much to do with its colonial history.
The first president of Ghana, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, wrote a book on this question. It is entitled The Challenge of Congo. And 55 years after the publication of that book, Congo has remained a huge challenge! In his time, Nkrumah defined that challenge as the achievement an All-African Government that could muster sufficient resistance against foreign intervention and manipulation on the continent. Nkrumah, the greatest African of the 20th Century, was convinced that without such a political unity the victory of the African revolution would be ‘incomplete.” What with Katanga secession, political instability of immediate post-independence years, repeated foreign military interventions, the monumental failure of the United Nations’ operations, the murder of Lumumba, the Mobutu 32-year disastrous dictatorship and the crises thereafter, Congo has been a troubled nation.
At independence in 1960, Congo was already a theatre of the Cold War. The West was determined to prevent the mineral-rich central African country from being in the orbit of the Soviet Union. Uranium, in particular, was a point of attraction in Congo. From the progressive tone of Lumumba’s response to the address of the Belgian King on the day of his inauguration, it was clear that he would be a marked man in the book of the West. During the ceremony, Belgian King Baudouin praised his predecessor, King Leopold II, who once owned Congo exclusively, as the “civiliser” of the plundered country. Lumumba replied the King trenchantly amidst applause saying that instead of Belgium bringing civilisation to Congo, what actually happened was “the humiliating slavery that was imposed on us by force.”
And Lumumba paid the supreme sacrifice for that audacity.
Shortly before his death, Lumumba wrote a letter from custody to his wife, Pauline Opango. Below is the conclusion of the letter:
“Neither brutality, nor cruelty nor torture will ever bring me to ask for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head unbowed, my faith unshakeable and with profound trust in the destiny of my country, rather than live under subjection and disregarding sacred principles.
“History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that is taught in Brussels, but the history which will be taught in the countries freed from imperialism and its puppets. Africa will write her own history, and to the north and south of the Sahara it will be a glorious and dignified history.
“Do not weep for me, my dear wife. I know that my country, which is suffering so much, will know how to defend its independence and its liberty.
“Long live the Congo! Long live Africa!
The tragedy of Congo, nay Africa, 61 years after is that that the fervent hope expressed by Comrade Lumumba in captivity is yet to be realised.
Worse still, the history which Lumumba wrote about in the letter to his wife is hardly being taught in independent African countries.