Patrice Lumumba’s Homecoming: Belgium to Return Tooth of Murdered African Hero

Congo's independence hero

Patrice Lumumba. Wikimedia Commons.


Patrice Emery Lumumba’s remains—his teeth—are to be returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo, an event that draws memories back to an ugly era when the U.S., Belgium, and other European imperialists covetous of the country’s mineral wealth, ganged up in murdering an African hero of independence. 

The recent announcement comes six decades after the murder of the Marxist and Pan African revolutionary, a dastardly Western intervention that snuffed out Congo’s chances. 

DRC President Félix Tshisekedi told parliament recently that the Pan African legend who was brutalized, tortured, then killed by firing squad, would be given an appropriate burial. “In June 2021, on the sidelines of the celebration of the 61st anniversary of our independence, the homeland will show its gratitude to Prime Minister Patrice Emery Lumumba, one of the national heroes whose relics will be repatriated and to whom we will give finally a burial worthy of his sacrifice for the party,” Tshisekedi said. 

For years, Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana, lobbied Belgium for the return of a tooth of the Congolese and African independence hero to be returned to the homeland. Reportedly that is the only known remains since his murderers crushed his bones into powder then dissolved the remains in acid. There are numerous documentaries and commentaries about Lumumba’s assassination, and a feature film “Lumumba” by Raoul Peck. 

After intense pressure and lobbying, Belgium agreed to hand over Lumumba’s only remains back to his relatives, a significant victory for Africa which still has human remains of many of its heroes held as “trophies” in European museums.

Juliana, the independence hero’s daughter expressed relief following the outcome of a court decision in June this year. “My first reaction is, of course, that this is a great victory,” she was quoted saying, “because at last, 60 years after his death, the mortal remains of my father, who died for his country and its independence and for the dignity of Black people, will return to the land of his ancestors.”

The return of Lumumba’s teeth tells a lot about the African story. The struggle for emancipation and freedom is not yet over. We are just beginning. Today, museums in Britain, Belgium, France and others in European hold tens of thousands of objects and human remains from Africa which were illegally seized amid colonialism and conflict.

The repatriation of the cultural artifacts and our resistance heroes is a must and African governments must continue to pin Europeans to return them back. Zimbabwe, for example, is still pressing Britain to return the heads of Mbuya Nehanda, Sekuru Kaguvi and 13 other prominent war heroes of the First Chimurenga 1890s war of liberation.

Zimbabwean war heroes and numerous others from various parts in Africa were captured and executed by the colonialist forces in the 19th century. The heads were taken to Britain as war trophies. African countries must stand firm and demand the repatriation of the remains of our key revolutionary figures. Their decent burial will help to restore dignity and place our heroes in the appropriate place in the story of our African history.  We must refrain from being used to run errands for the slave masters by defending the continued holding of our cultural artifacts and human remains in European museums.

The return of Lumumba’s remains is a deep symbolic gesture not only to the Congolese people but to all Africans, at home and in the Diaspora.

Lumumba, a revolutionary known for playing a major role in the independence struggle of 1950s, a quintessential figure of the Pan African revolution and symbol of struggle around the world, was assassinated on January 17, 1961 and his body destroyed, except for a single tooth. He became the newly independent Congo’s first prime minister in 1960 when he was just 34 years old, after advocating for an end to colonial rule. But after a U.S- and Belgian-backed military coup and the rise of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Lumumba was arrested and jailed. Lumumba is still a revered political figure and moves to return his relic, are quite befitting and represents a major step in the fight for the repatriation of remains of African political figures still being held by Western museums.

Former President Joseph Kabila’s government erected a monument in Kinshasa in honor of Lumumba, and every year on January 17 Congolese pay homage to him. The battle for the return of the teeth of the revolutionary icon ended in June this year when Belgium gave in to the demands by Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana.

Juliana officially informed President Tshisekedi of the family’s decision to send a letter to the King of Belgium demanding the recovery of her father’s remains “in order to end our interminable mourning.” 

Lumumba’s story of his life is very much the story of our times: looting of African cultural artifacts and the continued barbaric storage of human remains of African resistance leaders, revolutionary movements, the Cold War, East vs West, North vs South, communism vs capitalism and the unfinished struggle to reclaim everything African back.

Throughout his leadership, Lumumba remained unwavering, unflagging in his attack on U.S. and Western imperialism and against the evils of the so-called free markets, a mantra that disguises socio-economic and political domination of former colonies. Lumumba has been praised across the world by the justice loving people for standing up for the oppressed people in Africa, for opposing imperialism, for demanding a more equal society and aiming to make Africans determine how they run their affairs.

He cut a giant figure on the world stage when he became the newly independent Congo’s first prime minister in 1960 after spearheading the struggle to end colonial rule. Lumumba was assassinated by separatists in Congo’s copper-rich Katanga region, backed by the U.S. and Belgium, in January 1961 and his body was dismembered and dissolved with acid, in an apparent attempt to keep any grave from becoming a pilgrimage site.

But despite all the inhuman and barbaric efforts to downplay and erase his memory, Lumumba has remained a revolutionary leader who still commands so much worldwide prominence.

Sifelani Tsiko, a veteran journalist and Black Star News columnist based in Harare, can be reached via [email protected]

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