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Tooth of Patrice Lumumba, slain Congo independence icon, returned to family by Belgium


A tooth believed to have been ripped from a man who once carried a nation’s hopes of freedom and democracy is finally going home.

The symbolic handover of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba’s remains is meant to soothe a family’s and a country’s historic pain, but it is also reviving memories of European colonialism and America’s covert war to contain communism.

While the restitution of Lumumba’s tooth Monday may be viewed as a chance for redemption by Belgium amid continuing global outrage over the 2020 killing of George Floyd, some accuse Brussels of exploiting the occasion without making a solid commitment to rectify its historical wrongs.

Gerard Soete said he took Lumumba's tooth as "a kind of trophy" while secretly dismembering the prime minister's corpse.
Gerard Soete said he took Lumumba’s tooth as “a kind of trophy” while secretly dismembering the prime minister’s corpse. Courtesy Jelle Vermeersch

The return of what is widely believed to be Lumumba’s tooth means his family can finally have a “resting place where they can pray for their father,” said Brussels lawyer Christophe Marchand, who represents two of Lumumba’s five children, Francois and Roland. Without the remains, they can’t fully mourn, he said. 

Roland Lumumba said Friday at a news conference in Brussels, “I can’t say it’s a feeling of joy, but it’s positive for us that we can bury our loved one.”

Following its handover to the family and an official ceremony in the Belgian capital, Lumumba’s tooth will return to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although exact details are unclear, a homecoming tour is expected to take the relic to Lumumba’s home village, ending with an official burial in the capital, Kinshasa.

African sovereignty

The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Lumumba’s election as the independent DRC’s first prime minister shortly beforehand brought hope that the break with colonialism would bring about a real democracy.

“We were so hopeful that independence would mean progress, better working and living conditions, more prosperity, using our national resources for the well-being of our people,” said Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a professor of African studies at the University of North Carolina. 

To many Congolese, Lumumba is a national hero and a “standard bearer of the Congolese independence movement,” said Nzongola-Ntalaja, who has written extensively about Lumumba’s rise from postal clerk and beer salesman to leader of a nation. “We consider Lumumba to be a great chief and a great leader.” 

His reputation stretched across the continent, said Reuben Loffman, a lecturer in African history at Queen Mary University of London, who said Lumumba, a charismatic orator, was “somebody who stood up for African sovereignty in desperate circumstances and died for that belief.” 

But at the height of the Cold War, Lumumba was also perceived as a Soviet sympathizer, alarming the U.S. and its Western allies. 

Ousted by a Western-backed coup three months after he took office, Lumumba was abducted, tortured and assassinated in 1961 at the age of 35. His body was then dug up, dismembered and dissolved in acid by Belgian officers, one of whom said he pocketed a tooth as a “trophy.” 

Thus Lumumba’s family and his country were deprived of a burial and a grave. 

Lumumba’s assassination remains part of the “national trauma” for the Congolese, Nzongola-Ntalaja said, and it has had far-reaching effects on the nation. The new Congolese democracy unraveled in its wake, shaking the country the size of Western Europe. 

In 1997, when the kleptocratic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed after 32 years in power, the country was left in chaos, with one of the highest debt burdens among developing nations. Today, despite the DRC’s vast mineral wealth, most of its people benefit little from their country’s riches. It’s home to the world’s third-largest population of poor people, according to the World Bank.

Although Belgium-backed Congolese separatists executed Lumumba in January 1961, an inquiry by the Belgian Parliament 40 years later established that certain members of the Belgium state at the time were “morally responsible” for the circumstances leading to his death. The prime minister at the time, Guy Verhofstadt, apologized in 2002 for Belgian involvement in Lumumba’s death. 

Lumumba’s son Francois launched a separate inquiry into his death in Belgium in 2011, seeking to prosecute 10 Belgians for their connection to his father’s murder. It remains ongoing, with only two of the accused still alive.

There are also lingering questions about the role the U.S. might have played in his death.

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