Patrice Lumumba’s Tooth

Roland, Juliana and Francois Lumumba, children of Patrice Lumumba [1925-1961], the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, stand before their father’s coffin during a ceremony in Brussels, Belgium. Lumumba’s children were present to receive the sole remains of their father – a tooth with a gold crown. Photo: Olivier Hoslet / Confidencial / EFE

The bodies of Patrice Lumumba and his companions Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito disappeared, dissolved in sulfuric acid.

By Rafael Rojas (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – A little over sixty years ago, Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the then recently founded independent Republic of the Congo, was overthrown and assassinated. That first government under President Joseph Kasavubu lasted only three months, even though Lumumba had been the principal leader of the National Congolese Movement, which succeeded in putting an end to Belgium’s colonial rule in the 1961 Brussels Round Table.

Lumumba was assassinated during a coup d’etat led by his former fellow in arms Joseph Mobutu – who would later be known as Mobutu Sese Seco. The coup was backed by Belgium, the United States and the CIA, which had also encouraged the Katanga province to declare secession, resulting in civil war. The pretext of the coup, as so often happened during the most turbulent years of the cold war, was Lumumba’s perceived closeness with the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc after his government was isolated from Europe at the urging of Belgium.

The bodies of Lumumba and his companions Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito disappeared in Katanga, the region controlled by his enemies, dissolved in sulfuric acid. Macabre proof that the Belgian army was involved in that extermination operation was that an official, Gerard Soete, pulled out one of Lumumba’s teeth to keep as a war trophy. It remained in his possession until the Belgian government obtained it at the end of the last century.

In the last few years, prosecutor Frederic van Leew and prime minister Alexander de Croo have pressed for the Belgian monarchy to issue declarations of self-criticism, and to distance themselves from their past colonialism. Public opinion in the Congo as well as from Lumumba’s descendants and those of his companions have pushed for something more consistent: an apology or a request to be forgiven for the atrocities committed in the Congo: not only those of King Leopold II at the end of the nineteenth century, but also those of his successor, King Baudouin and his African administration at very end of the colonial regime.

Up until now, all the gestures on the part of Belgium have been superficial and ambivalent. King Philippe of Belgium has lamented the cruelties of the colonization but like Prime Minister De Croo he maintains that the entire colonial government shouldn’t be held responsible for those crimes. For at least a decade, both the monarchy and the Belgian government have faced demands from the Congolese descendants of the assassinated leaders.

The ceremony in which Lumumba’s tooth was finally returned to his family is one more gesture intended to contain the pressures from the victims. While the family members appreciate it, they consider it too little too late, given the gravity, premeditation, and evident involvement of the Belgian army in the crime. A note from Trinidad Deiros Bronte in the Spanish newspaper El Pais sums up the state of opinion in critical sectors of Brussels. They argue that the resistance to admitting the state’s responsibility and asking forgiveness is due to the possibility that it could lead to tribunals admitting the demands of the Congolese victims.

Lumumba’s tooth in a coffin is left as a symbol of the short memory of this former power and of the difficult-to-overcome pain of decolonization. As Frantz Fanon argued so well, both colonization and decolonization are marked by violence. The two types of violence aren’t equivalent, given the asymmetry of domination, but both generate long-lasting processes of grief and memory with very different effects.

In the case of the former Belgian Congo, today the Democratic Republic of Congo, we’d have to add the problem of post-colonial violence to that of the colonial and anti-colonial period. In the case of the Congo, the Mobutu regime prolonged such violence from 1965 to 1997. Like Obiang in Guinea and Amin in Uganda, Mobuto headed a dictatorship that was highly repressive, kleptocratic and rife with nepotism. That regime involved itself in the Rwandan genocide through its support to the Hutus and their decrees of death to the Tutsis, in what was perhaps the bloodiest episode in the postcolonial history of Africa.

Article originally published in Mexico’s La Razón

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