When the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) first Prime Minister and a beacon of hope was executed by firing squad in 1961, under Belgian supervision, his body and those of his two associates (Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo) were dug up from their shallow graves, hacked into pieces, and dissolved in sulphuric acid. It was said that whatever remained of them was set on fire.
For a time, the Katangan government claimed that Lumumba had escaped, and the angry villagers that encountered him killed him. This account was refuted globally, and the real circumstances of his death remained unknown for decades.
One of the investigators that sought the truth was Ludo De Witte, a Belgian historian and sociologist. His book, ‘The Assassination of Lumumba’ spurred the Belgian government’s inquiry because it highlights how Belgium “sought to maintain a covert imperialist hand over the country (DRC).” It unravels the accounts of the assassination using an array of sources, including official memos, to reveal “a network of complicity ranging from the Belgian government to the CIA.” The book’s synopsis details that the fear that Lumumba was a threat to national interest and the chilling details surrounding his death put, “Patrice Lumumba’s personal strength and his dignified quest for African unity in stark contrast with one of the murkiest episodes in twentieth-century politics.”
It is no secret that the location of DRC in terms of the geopolitics of Africa, its wealth, and size were the reasons Lumumba’s opponents feared a radical leader and a radicalised regime. Additionally, the Soviet Union’s support of him was at the time (because of the Cold War) a threat to the West.
But the sordid details did not end with these revelations. In 1999, former Belgian police commissioner Gerard Soete publicly confessed that not only had he been involved in the murder and dissolution of Lumumba’s body but that he also kept parts of him as trophies. He died a year later without prosecution or the retrieval of the relics he had kept.
As caucasity would have it, his daughter went on to show off Lumumba’s gold tooth during an interview in 2016. Belgian authorities finally seized the tooth from a family that flagrantly used the national hero’s remains as a prop, but they faced no consequences.
Enough was enough for the people of DRC (the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence) when in 2020 they called to put Lumumba’s “soul to rest”. Protesters gathered outside the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa demanded the restitution of his remains and the cultural artefacts stolen during colonial rule.
The macabre legacy of Lumumba’s missing remains
61 years after his murder, Belgian authorities have returned the tooth that is allegedly all that remains of the DRC’s fallen son. According to the Guardian, the gold-capped tooth was handed over in a light blue case to a group of Lumumba’s family members at the Egmont Palace in Brussels. It was then placed in a casket that will be taken to the embassy of the DRC, as the first step to repatriation.
Belgium is likely hoping that the return of Lumumba’s remains can help resolve this singular yet pervasive atrocity in their history of exploitation in the DRC
Belgium is likely hoping that the return of Lumumba’s remains can help resolve this singular yet pervasive atrocity in their history of exploitation in the DRC.
During the handover, Alexander de Croo, the Belgian prime minister, recognised hic country’s “moral responsibility” for Lumumba’s killing. “This is a painful and disagreeable truth, but must be spoken,” De Croo said. “A man was murdered for his political convictions, his words, his ideals.”
Just earlier in the month, Belgium King Philippe during a trip to the DRC 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”.
Many criticised his speech because he fell short of an actual apology, qualifying Belgium’s action in broad sanitised language that cannot lead to any meaningful compensation.
In one way at least the hard-won return of Lumumba’s remains can further demonstrate the horrific nature of Belgian imperial rule. His daughter Juliana Lumumba told the BBC that she recognises that her father “belongs to the country because he died for Congo… and for his own values and convictions of the dignity of the African person”.
“What remains is not really enough. But he has to come back to his country where his blood was shed.”