An African Hero Without A Grave
PATRICE LUMUMBA’S TEETH
– Femi Olugbile (BUSINESSDAY ‘Human Angle’ 21.8.20)
On the 17th of January 1961, shortly before midnight, Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, was taken to an isolated spot in a forest, lined up against a tree and shot dead. So were two of his Ministers, one after another.
The next day, worried that the execution might have been observed by some locals, the executioners exhumed the three bodies and took them to a more secluded spot near the border with Rhodesia.
On the 21st of January 1961, the bodies were dug up yet again. Lumumba’s body was cut up with a hacksaw and dissolved in concentrated sulfuric acid. The bones were ground up and scattered over a wide expanse of land to prevent any possibility of future identification. Two tiny items did not dissolve in the acid. When Belgian Police Commissioner Gerard Soete moved up close, he discovered that they were two of Lumumba’s teeth. He picked them up, washed them in water, wrapped them in a piece of cloth, and put the tiny bundle in his pocket, to be kept as a souvenir.
Fast forward to 2000. In a documentary screened on a German television channel, Police Commissioner Soete, now in comfortable retirement in his home country, described how he had disposed of the bodies of Lumumba and the other two Africans, but had kept two of the Prime Minister’s teeth. He brought out the teeth and displayed them before the camera.
On June 30, 2020, on the sixtieth anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo from Belgian colonial authority, Patrice Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana Amato Lumumba wrote a letter to the Belgium’s monarch, King Philippe, demanding the return of her father’s teeth.
.‘…We, Lumumba’s children, call for the just return of the relics of Patrice Emery Lumumba to the land of his ancestors…The remains of Patrice Emery Lumumba are being used on the one hand as trophies by some of your fellow citizens, and on the other as funereal possession sequestered by your kingdom’s judiciary.’
Her father, she said, was a ‘hero without a grave’. She condemned ‘vile statements made in Belgium about holding some of his remains’. This was clearly in reference to an earlier incident when Soete’s daughter proudly showed off a tooth which she said belonged to the Congolese leader during a newspaper interview.
The Belgian nation, in the era of ‘Black Lives Matter’, was beginning to utter vague words of conciliation, without frontally admitting guilt or responsibility for its racism and rapacity on the African continent, especially in the ‘Belgian Congo’.
On the same date as Juliana’s letter, King Philippe released a statement, expressing, ‘deep regrets’ for the ‘suffering and humiliation’ the Congolese had been subjected to in under Belgian rule. Indeed, millions of Congolese had been killed or mutilated under the most savage conditions of slavery on rubber plantations belonging to Philippe’s ancestor, the brutal King Leopold II.
The Lumumba incident was one of the earliest drama pieces that highlighted the contradictions and hypocrisies of the Western world concerning colonialism, the independence of African nations, and the dangers the West perceived in allowing Africans to run their own affairs.
Patrice Lumumba was born in July 1925 to a farmer’s family in the Kasai province of ‘Belgian Congo’. After early education in Mission schools, he underwent a one-year training at a government post office training school. He took an interest in Philosophy and Literature and wrote Poetry with an anti-imperialist theme.
He founded the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC).
National elections came up. His party won. Lumumba’s government was formally inaugurated on 24th June 1960, with Lumumba as Prime Minister.
Independence Day was celebrated on 30th June 1960 at a ceremony attended by the world press and many international leaders, including King Baudouin of Belgium.
Things quickly went awry from there.King Baudouin offended the African audience by lavishly praising the ‘genius’ of his great-uncle – Leopold II and glossing over his atrocities.
Lumumba immediately rose to deliver an impromptu rebuttal.
.‘…this Independence…it was by fighting that it has been won…a fight…for which we gave our strength and our blood…to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force…’
Europeans were shocked. Time magazine described Lumumba’s speech as a ‘venomous attack’.
Within a few days, disaster unfolded. Soldiers mutinied in different parts of the country.
Trying to jump ahead of the chaos, Lumumba renamed the Army as the ‘Armee Nationale Congolese’ (ANC) and replaced the Belgian head with an indigenous officer.
The State of Katanga under its ambitious leader Moise Tshombe declared independence, in open rebellion.
Belgium intervened, sending in troops ostensibly to protect its citizens.
Frantic, Lumumba appealed to the UN Security Council, who passed Resolution 143, calling for immediate withdrawal of Belgian forces and dispatch of UN Operation in the Congo (UNOC) troops to the Congo.The Prime Minister made a desperate foreign trip to New York and Washington. He wanted arms for his ‘ANC’ troops to counter the Katanga rebellion and widespread insurrection. He got none. In Accra, on his way back home, he signed a secret ‘Union of African States’ pact with Nkrumah.
It was an inexorable downhill journey for Lumumba. He had threatened to appeal to the Soviet Union for assistance if he did not get help from the West. Europe and America, long suspicious, decided he was a ‘communist’ and a danger to their interests. President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to ‘take him out’. The UK government apparently gave similar instructions to MI6. Belgium, of course, always had it in for him.
The rest of the story is well known. Mobutu’s abetted coup. Lumumba was arrested, beaten up, and flown to the rebellious Katanga Province, where he was assassinated, and his body dissolved in acid. Now if only the Belgians could be prevailed upon to release Lumumba’s teeth, his people could bury them in a coffin in a grave with the satisfaction that his spirit is finally home to rest.