Without an apology or reparations for the colonisation and enslavement of the Congolese people, Belgium’s decision seems to be for appearances rather than a genuine reckoning with its bloody legacy.
In a step towards atonement for its racist and brutal colonial past, Belgium is returning DRC patron saint Patrice Lumumba’s two front teeth for reburial in his ancestral home — 60 years after assassinating him.
Of all of Europe’s ‘former’ African territories, the Democratic Republic of Congo provokes the strongest reactions, not only in Africa but also globally among liberals and conservatives alike.
That story — brilliantly told in Raoul Peck’s sombre and compelling “Death of a Prophet,” Leo Zeilig’s “Africa’s Lost Leader,” Ludo De Witte’s “The Assassination of Lumumba” and by Aime Cesaire in his splendid and comprehensive play, “A Season in the Congo” — has now triggered a belated ‘reckoning’ locally in Belgium, where attitudes and street names have begun to change.
King Leopold’s statue was removed from a public square in Antwerp just a year ago after another was vandalised in Brussels following the Black Lives Matter protests.
As Congolese people, we are in a constant traumatic state of mourning and the return of Lumumba’s remains would have been an emblematic moment for collective memorialisation and healing, even an unprecedented moment to help close a painful chapter.
Yet to Congolese like me, Belgium’s decision to return Lumumba’s remains looks more like a publicity stunt to present the country as progressive and sensitive at a time when its wholesale plunder and brutal legacies at home and across the globe are being laid bare by the BLM protests.
Put yourself in our shoes: would you take Belgium’s decision to return Lumumba’s remains as an atonement or form of restorative justice without an apology for the injustices of colonisation and without reparation for slavery and exploitation?
Belgium’s colonial rule and its brutal assassination of Lumumba in 1961, a year after independence, left Congo disfigured. Anyone who has studied DRC can draw a line from the ongoing killings, violence and famine in Congo today to Lumumba’s assassination, Joseph Mobutu’s 32 years of kleptocratic rule and Belgium’s 80 years of colonial brutality.
Born in 1925 in what had become Belgian Congo after 24 bloody years as King Leopold II’s private property, during which 10 million Congolese were killed, Lumumba was actually something of a latecomer to the independence. Having started his political career demanding more power, he joined the independence movement in 1958, when it was already in full swing.
Witty, charismatic and energetic – just 35 years old when he was killed, he soon personified Congolese audacity and aspirations. Perhaps, this is why he remains revered in many hearts after all these years, having served as prime minister for only 74 days.
On June 30, 1960, he co-led Congo to “independence,” a truly remarkable feat. He gave Congolese people a taste of nationhood after nearly 470 years of colonial brutality. For me, this is Lumumba’s single greatest legacy, even though the kind of Congo he envisaged seems more distant than ever.
Indeed, as if to drive home the consequences of his death, 60 years later, six million Congolese had been killed in wars since 1996. Another 6.6 million are scattered in displacement camps across Congo, unable to return to their homes and community because of violence. Yet almost none of those responsible have been brought to justice.
The road to Lumumba’s assassination began on Congo’s Independence Day. Six months before he was taken down, Lumumba delivered Africa’s most memorable independence line: “Congo's independence is a decisive step towards the liberation of the whole African continent.” These words made white supremacists’ greatest fear — Africa’s rise as an equal — dreadfully real.
Congo was perhaps the West’s most significant colony. One in two Africans sold into slavery came from here. So too did the rubber used to connect and protect machinery for the industrial revolution, as did the copper that made the brass casings of allied shells fired at Passchendaele and the Somme and the uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fast-forward to the present day, and the cobalt for our electric cars and the minerals that make our mobile phones vibrate also come from Congo.
Consequently, King Leopold’s great-grandnephew, King Baudouin, among others, ordered that Lumumba be overthrown — which was achieved on September 14, 1960 — and killed, which happened 125 days later. Barely six months after DRC’s independence, Belgium earned itself the unenviable distinction of being crowned the first European country to assassinate a democratically elected leader in Africa.
Once killed, Lumumba was denied a burial — a taboo act in Congolese culture, which bestows social, cultural, political and spiritual significance on human remains — apparently so that his grave would not become a symbol of resistance.
That’s how much Belgium desired to break the Congolese spirit.
According to Belgian and American “ear and eyewitnesses,” Lumumba and his two friends, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo, were flown to Katanga to be killed after months of imprisonment. Around 10 pm, they were dragged to a nearby bush where a firing squad commanded by Belgian officers, including Commissioner Frans Verschurre, awaited them. There, they were executed and buried in shallow graves.
Yet, even in death, Lumumba continued to frighten the old colonial masters. Perhaps why Malcolm X considered him “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent.” Two Belgian commissioners, Gerard Soete and his brother Michael were sent to exhume what was left of his body, chop it into pieces and dissolve it in sulphuric acid.
In a macabre twist, Gerard kept Lumumba’s front teeth as war trophies to signify Belgium’s colonial victory over and continued subjugation of the Congolese population. When Gerard died, he bequeathed it to his daughter.
This is what Belgium is returning to DRC without an apology, raising serious and painful questions for us all to ponder. What happens when a former colonial power returns the remains of an assassinated anti-colonial fighter without an apology? What happens without the handing over of colonial archives on the genocide that took place under King Leopold?
Or, for that matter, what about the repatriation of, in my estimate, millions of beautiful, curious, sacred and wondrous Congolese objects, artefacts and natural treasures looted over 80 years through violence, conquests and colonisation, objects that made Belgium a world leader in art, culture, science and trade?
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