The coffin was fabricated from black wenge, a hardwood identified for its resilience. Its journey started 10 days earlier than on a gray avenue in Brussels. It was carried via the Belgian capital to a ceremony at a Sixteenth-century palace, then pushed to the Congolese embassy, to a public sq. for a viewing and, lastly, to the airport. It was lifted on to a airplane and flown throughout the Mediterranean to Tunis and on to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a distance of some 4,000 miles.
What made the casket uncommon was not the size of its journey however what was inside: a single, gold-capped molar. It belonged to Patrice Lumumba, the anti-colonial hero, pan-African nationalist and the DRC’s first democratically elected prime minister, who was tortured and assassinated in 1961.
I noticed the coffin on a late-June day in Kinshasa, because it neared its closing vacation spot. Escorted by a army band, it was carried via the grounds of L’Echangeur, a tower inbuilt 1974 as a monument to Lumumba. The grounds have been full of individuals, the environment each solemn and celebratory. There have been chants of “père de la patrie” (father of the nation) and “héros des opprimés” (hero of the oppressed). A gaggle of Lumumba lookalikes wore tailor-made fits, skinny ties and semi-rimless glasses, their hair neatly parted to 1 aspect. “Lumumba is the Jesus of Africa, we have to pray to him!” somebody shouted from behind a fence.
“He’s our father and, lastly, after 61 years, we are able to mourn,” Juliana Amato Lumumba, his daughter, instructed me. “Bringing him again to his nation of life, to his ancestors . . . that’s essential.” Authorities ministers and visiting dignitaries sat beneath the cover of an enormous Congolese flag and watched as a purpose-built mausoleum grew to become the coffin’s final cease.
Patrice Émery Lumumba was 35 years outdated when he was killed by firing squad on January 17 1961. A tall, slim man with excessive cheekbones, he was a gifted orator who led his celebration, the Mouvement Nationwide Congolais, to victory within the DRC’s first elections after the nation declared independence from Belgium in 1960. He had been prime minister for lower than three months when he was deposed in a coup supported by the previous colonial energy and the US. A number of months later, Lumumba was arrested, tortured and shot to dying by political opponents within the hostile province of Katanga. His homicide came about within the presence of Belgian officers.
Lumumba’s physique and people of two colleagues who had been travelling with him, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo, have been by no means discovered. A long time later, a Belgian police commissioner within the Congo named Gerard Soete confessed that he and his brother had been given the job of disposing of the three our bodies. They minimize the corpses into items, in line with a thinly fictionalised e-book Soete wrote in 1978, titled The Enviornment: the story of the dying of Lumumba.
On the time of its publication, few appeared to grasp it was based mostly in truth. Soete had described the grisly scene within the third particular person, writing: “As quickly as they put the our bodies close to the empty barrels and assemble their tools, they realise that they aren’t ready for that type of job. They return to the automotive and drink whisky . . . When he’s left with solely the torso and the top, he all of a sudden realises the horror of what he’s doing . . . ”
Ludo De Witte, a Belgian sociologist who wrote a groundbreaking account of the homicide and its causes many years later, defined that “the a part of [Soete’s] e-book which recounts his exploits . . . needs to be learn as genuine testimony”. Over lunch in Brussels, De Witte instructed me that Soete had confessed to him that he took Lumumba’s tooth as a trophy. Within the e-book, Soete gave a special motive: “Right here is the one materials proof of the Prophet’s dying. If a cult of martyrdom ever appeared, he might present it with relics. He takes some pincers out of the device bag, and extricates with issue two gold tooth from the Prophet’s higher jaw.”
Soete and his brother dissolved the remainder of the physique components in vats of sulphuric acid that belonged to the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, the corporate established by King Léopold II in 1906 to use the Congo’s mineral sources, whose profitability Belgium was so intent on defending from Lumumba’s nationalist motion.
De Witte’s painstakingly researched e-book prompted a furore on its publication in 1999, main Belgium to arrange a parliamentary inquiry into its accountability for the killing. In a 2000 documentary, Soete admitted having two of Lumumba’s tooth however then stated he had thrown them into the North Sea. He died that very same 12 months. Throughout an interview with a Belgian journal in 2015, his daughter confirmed one gold-capped tooth in a padded field. De Witte complained to the police, and Belgian authorities lastly confiscated the tooth.
4 years later, Lumumba’s household have been nonetheless ready for restitution. In June 2020, on the top of the Black Lives Matter protests within the US, Lumumba’s daughter Juliana wrote to King Philippe of Belgium. “We, Lumumba’s kids, name for the simply return of the relics of Patrice Émery Lumumba to the land of his ancestors,” she wrote. “Why, after his horrible homicide, have Lumumba’s stays been condemned to stay a soul perpetually wandering . . . used on the one hand as trophies by a few of your fellow residents, and on the opposite as funereal possessions sequestered by your kingdom’s judiciary?”
Three months later, a Belgian courtroom lastly cleared the best way for the tooth to be returned to the DRC. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed the handover, however in 2022 the ultimate stage of its journey started.
The day earlier than the tooth was laid to relaxation within the mausoleum, it was taken in its casket to the Lumumba household residence in Gombe, an upmarket riverside district that’s residence to Kinshasa’s political elite and its embassies. Because it was carried via the doorway, a choir of two dozen ladies sang: “Hear, hear, the promise we made to Lumumba, we need to hold it till as we speak. We surprise concerning the dying of Lumumba. Who ordered the dying of Lumumba?”
A standard chief named Konde Omekonga Lokolonga led a musical ceremony to welcome the tooth and to appease spirits that had been rattled by the homicide. He wore a ceremonial leopard-skin cap and drummed an elondja, a tubular instrument, painted with leopard-like spots.
“I’m very comfortable for the return of Lumumba since his soul, till now, was wandering right here and there,” Lokolonga instructed me. “The spirits are comfortable as a result of Lumumba’s relics have returned. The Congolese are comfortable as nicely.”
Lokolonga defined that within the Congolese religious custom, a single a part of a physique — a nail, a clump of hair, a bone or tooth — might symbolize the entire particular person and that its burial would permit its soul to relaxation in peace. The individuals I spoke to not often referred to it as la dent (the tooth), however reasonably as le corps (the physique). Earlier than arriving in Kinshasa, it had first travelled to Onalua, Lumumba’s birthplace, then to Kisangani, the place he had labored as a civil servant and constructed his political profile, after which to Shilatembo, the place he had been killed.
One in all Lumumba’s grandchildren, Yema, a 30-year-old journalist, flew in from her residence within the Netherlands. “We’re Bantu. We transmit our historical past via symbols,” she stated, as we sat within the backyard of the household home. She was referring to the cluster of a number of ethno-linguistic teams that span huge components of Africa. “All these funeral vigils that we’ve got performed everywhere in the nation are symbolic, however in addition they present that he’s come residence, that his spirit can settle down and that it’s our flip, as soon as we’ve buried him, to proceed his path and his work.”
No DNA check had been carried out as a result of it might have destroyed the tooth, Belgian officers stated. “We’ve sufficient proof to say that it’s, successfully, the tooth of Patrice Lumumba,” Eric Van Duyse, spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s workplace, instructed me in Brussels, citing a “clear line” of testimonies, together with from Soete. “However we don’t have the DNA proof as, in session with the household, we determined to not do it.”
Roland Lumumba was two years outdated when his father was killed. In February 1961, his mom Pauline Opango marched via Léopoldville, now Kinshasa, with about 100 others to demand the return of her husband’s physique for burial. She carried Roland in her arms. At present, he’s president of the Patrice Lumumba Basis, which works to protect his father’s legacy via arts and tradition. “The Belgians have been accountable however weren’t alone on the bottom,” he instructed me on the Congolese embassy in Brussels, the place the casket was on show for the diaspora to pay tribute. “However the Belgians had the braveness to say they have been accountable. Now, if you wish to know the entire fact, it goes on. It doesn’t finish right here as we speak.”
Some Congolese consider that Lumumba was a marked man from the second he made a speech on the day of the nation’s independence, June 30 1960, at a ceremony within the Palais de la Nation, the constructing initially created because the residence of the colonial governor-general. The then-King Baudouin of Belgium spoke first, saying that the independence was the results of “the genius of King Léopold II”.
This reference to Léopold, who had dominated the Congo as his private fiefdom and whose colonising of the nation led to slavery, beheadings and the amputation of palms as punishments for staff, and an estimated 10 million deaths, was outrageous to many Congolese. The king went on to say that for 80 years, Belgium had despatched “the most effective of her sons” to the Congo and patronisingly added: “Don’t substitute the constructions that Belgium palms over to you till you might be certain you are able to do higher . . . It’s your job, gents, to point out that we have been proper in trusting you.”
The king’s speech was adopted by an uncontroversial handle by the brand new Congolese president, Joseph Kasavubu. Then, regardless of no point out of it within the official programme, prime minister Lumumba took the stage. His phrases have been a pointed rebuke to the condescension of the Belgian monarch: “Though this independence of the Congo is being proclaimed as we speak by settlement with Belgium . . . no Congolese will ever neglect that independence was received in wrestle, a persevering and impressed wrestle carried on from everyday . . . crammed with tears, hearth and blood. We’re deeply happy with our wrestle,” he continued, “as a result of it was simply and noble and indispensable in placing an finish to the humiliating bondage compelled upon us. That was our lot for the 80 years of colonial rule and our wounds are too contemporary and far too painful to be forgotten.”
Lumumba’s handle was met with a standing ovation. However it didn’t go down nicely with the king, the assembled Belgians or different western observers. A dispatch that ran in The Guardian was headlined “Marred”, and described King Baudouin behaving “with nice dignity” regardless of “a speech by Lumumba, which might solely be described as offensive”.
When the Belgian parliamentary inquiry reported its findings in 2001, it highlighted the speech as a second that “confirmed the mutual mistrust between Lumumba and the Belgian authorities, which undoubtedly influenced tinheritor reactions to the next occasions”. It concluded that members of the Belgian authorities “and different Belgian figures” had “an ethical accountability within the circumstances which led to the dying of Lumumba”, although it fell in need of accepting any obligation.
Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Congolese historian, Lumumba biographer and Congo’s UN ambassador, argues that, even now, Belgium has not absolutely acknowledged its position. “They’re those, alongside america, that plotted it,” he instructed me. “The US has a really quick, weak reminiscence, and 1961 is simply too far behind us now.”
A number of archival paperwork testify to the American authorities’s need to do away with Lumumba on the time. In August 1960, the top of the CIA, Allen Dulles, telegrammed his station chief in Léopoldville: “If [Lumumba] continues to carry excessive workplace, the inevitable outcome will at finest be chaos and at worst pave the best way to Communist takeover of the Congo with disastrous penalties for the status of UN and for the pursuits of the free world typically . . . His removing have to be an pressing and prime goal and that beneath current circumstances this needs to be a excessive precedence of our covert motion.”
Within the days after Congo grew to become unbiased, a mutiny started within the pressure publique, the nation’s armed forces, which consisted of some 25,000 underpaid Congolese troopers overseen by a thousand Belgian officers. Lumumba tried to placate the military by eradicating senior officers and permitting the so-called Africanisation of the management corps. However occasions ran away from him. As troopers rebelled in numerous components of the Congo, some murdered and raped Belgian residents. The Belgian authorities determined to intervene militarily and reoccupy components of its former colony.
It additionally supported the secession of Katanga, the mineral-rich province the place the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga was based mostly and the supply of a lot of Belgium’s wealth. In response, Lumumba and Kasavubu despatched a telegram requesting pressing army assist from the UN. “Take into account unsolicited Belgian operation as act of aggression in opposition to our nation,” they wrote. “Accuse Belgian authorities of detailed preparation of Katangan secession to retain grip on our nation.”
The UN agreed to ship a peacekeeping pressure however declined to intervene in Katanga. Lumumba despatched a second determined message, this time to Moscow: “Could possibly be induced to request intervention by Soviet Union if western camp doesn’t terminate act of aggression in opposition to sovereignty . . . lives of president of republic and prime minister in peril.”
The historian David Van Reybrouck says that this telegram, “in a single swoop, opened a brand new entrance within the chilly conflict”. Western officers frightened that via Lumumba, the Soviet Union would achieve a foothold in central Africa, in addition to entry to mineral sources together with uranium. Relatively than the independence day speech, it might have been this telegram that in the end grew to become Lumumba’s dying warrant. “Lumumba was a nationalist, sure. A pan-Africanist, sure. Somebody with social consciousness who wished an unbiased Congo, sure. However he was not a communist,” Jean Omasombo Tshonda, a political scientist on the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, instructed me. “He was making an attempt to make unbiased Congo work at a time of bother.”
Lumumba’s assassination sparked demonstrations in London, Belgrade, Cairo, Moscow and New Delhi. Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru referred to as it “a global crime of the primary magnitude”. Ghana’s independence hero and the daddy of African nationalism, Kwame Nkrumah, slammed the UN for not intervening: “The primary time in historical past that the authorized ruler of a rustic has been performed to dying with the open connivance of a world organisation.” Later, the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, decried the assassination in a fiery speech earlier than the UN.
It’s unattainable to know what sort of prime minister Lumumba would have been if he had not been ousted, or how he would have modified the Congo if he had not been killed. However it’s exhausting to think about he might have been worse than the person who obtained the help of Belgium and the US: Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. He took energy in a coup in 1965, renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko, renamed the nation Zaire, and dominated as a dictator for 32 years. His kleptocratic regime looted the state for many years.
The president of Congo works from a modernist compound on the crest of a hill on the outskirts of Kinshasa that overlooks the Congo river. Félix Tshisekedi is a burly man with rimless glasses, who speaks confidently, incessantly punctuating his sentences with a smile. Wearing brown slacks and a relaxed grey-blue jacket, he sat on a cream leather-based couch between two shiny blue and yellow cushions. “He’s a real icon,” Tshisekedi stated of Lumumba. “Regardless of the numerous generations that got here and went, and that is the third era since Lumumba, he’s nonetheless considered an icon.”
Tshisekedi understood the facility of the second Lumumba’s tooth lastly got here residence. The federal government had put a Congolese film-maker, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, answerable for organising the celebrations. Within the week of the burial, the flags on authorities buildings have been flown at half mast and the capital was plastered with billboards thanking the héros nationwide. On the ceremony, Tshisekedi instructed the assembled crowd that the nation was lastly in a position to finish the interval of mourning that had begun 61 years earlier than.
Not everybody was comfortable about Lumumba’s legacy being utilized by politicians from different events. Joseph Anganda, a senior member of Lumumba’s celebration, believes that Congolese governments, beginning with Mobutu and persevering with with Tshisekedi, have taken benefit of Lumumba’s story. “Individuals are not sufficiently knowledgeable concerning the fact,” he instructed me. “The federal government is making an attempt to get issues on its aspect, however Félix Tshisekedi comes from political tendencies which might be against the fashion and insurance policies of Patrice Lumumba.”
Tshisekedi took workplace in 2019, after it was introduced that he had received the presidential election. However opposition politicians and the Catholic Church instantly questioned the outcome. The church issued an announcement saying the outcome didn’t correspond with the info from its tens of hundreds of observers monitoring the vote. FT evaluation of two separate collections of voting information confirmed that his opponent Martin Fayulu was the clear winner. Tshisekedi has repeatedly denied fraud. Presidential elections are as a consequence of be held in December this 12 months, and a few analysts contemplate it possible that he’ll win, this time most likely legitimately.
As I stood on a balcony overlooking Lumumba’s casket in Kinshasa’s Palais de la Nation, Marie Misamu Bakala, a 62-year-old janitor, squeezed herself via the door, in between dignitaries, to have the ability to see “papa Lumumba” for the primary and final time. She was solely a 12 months outdated when he was killed, however remembered her mother and father talking fondly of him. She broke into tears. “Papa is residence, lastly,” she whispered. “It has been too lengthy.” “There’s a historic trauma amongst many Congolese as we speak,” Mona Pembele, a Congolese-Belgian activist, instructed me. Lots of the older individuals I spoke to felt anger or grief. The intervention of their nation’s nascent democracy, the brutal remedy of their elected prime minister, occurred inside residing reminiscence.
In Brussels, a number of weeks earlier, I had spoken to a nurse, Tima Kamba, who had moved to Belgium from the Congo as a toddler. She had come to wave goodbye to the casket at Place Patrice Lumumba, the sq. named in his honour. “After 60 years, the Belgian authorities says it has an ethical accountability. However the Belgian authorities has been concerned within the dying of papa Lumumba from the start until the tip. Ethical accountability?” She was incredulous. “The Congolese love the Belgians, however Belgium doesn’t know the way to love the Congolese. All as a result of there’s a historic drawback. They don’t know the way to love us as a result of they’ve our blood on their palms.”
The Congolese author In Koli Jean Bofane, who has lived in Belgium since 1993, felt the ceremonies across the tooth’s return shouldn’t disguise the horror of its historical past. “The entire thing is macabre,” he stated, as we drank Congolese beer and ate grilled plantains in Brussels’ African quarter, Matonge. “Think about that the assassins of John Fitzgerald Kennedy come to let you know how they killed him and stored a tooth or a finger. How would Individuals really feel?” On a avenue nook close to the restaurant, Congolese-Belgian artists had put up a giant papier-mâché reproduction of the tooth.
Lumumba believed in democracy and the rule of regulation. In a letter smuggled out of the cell during which he was stored within the closing days earlier than his dying, he wrote with determined readability: “The penal code in impact within the Congo expressly stipulates the prisoner have to be taken earlier than the inspecting Justice of the Peace investigating the costs on the day following his arrest on the very newest . . . Regardless of the circumstances, the prisoner is entitled to a lawyer . . . No warrant for our arrest has been served. We’ve merely been stored in a military camp for thirty-four days, in punishment cells.”
No person with energy listened. No attorneys got here. As De Witte recounts in his e-book, an ally of Lumumba tried to present the letter to the UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, who was visiting the DRC on the time. Hammarskjöld, a Swede, reportedly turned purple and requested that or not it’s given to his non-public secretary. Simply 5 months earlier, Hammarskjöld had instructed a US consultant on the UN that he believed the “scenario in Congo wouldn’t be straightened out till Lumumba was handled” and that Lumumba have to be “damaged”.
The tooth’s return has reopened the talk over what precisely Belgium owes to Congo and what different colonial powers owe to their former colonies. The Royal Museum for Central Africa outdoors Brussels incorporates some 84,000 objects; in February final 12 months, it gave an inventory of its stock to the DRC to permit for an investigation into their provenance. “That is larger than a tooth,” Amory Lumumba, one other grandchild, instructed me over jambon-fromage at a bakery in Kinshasa. “It’s about what it represents.”
But the tooth additionally had a selected energy of its personal. It spent many years hidden in a international land, the trophy of a person who brutalised and dismembered its proprietor. Its grim existence proved one thing about Belgium’s colonial historical past that the nation’s establishments had labored to neglect. In Brussels, Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s prime minister, spoke candidly concerning the contradiction between the humane democracy he hoped to symbolize and the fact of the Belgian authorities’s actions six many years in the past. In a speech earlier than Lumumba’s household on the Palais d’Egmont, he stated: “A person was assassinated for his political convictions, his phrases, his beliefs. For the democrat that I’m, it’s indefensible. For the liberal that I’m, it’s unacceptable. And for the human that I’m, it’s odious.”
At present, the DRC stays one of many poorest international locations on the earth, broken by corruption, many years of kleptocratic authorities and insurgent militia teams. But its mineral deposits — it’s Africa’s largest copper producer and the supply of half of the world’s cobalt — proceed to draw the curiosity of personal firms, militias and nation states, together with China. The Kinshasa mausoleum during which the tooth now lies, which reportedly price $2.4mn, was constructed by a Chinese language firm. Above it’s a solid bronze statue of Lumumba that was erected in 2002 by a North Korean state-controlled building firm.
In contrast to the Lumumba who was caught on movie simply after his closing arrest — a cowed, crushed man in a short-sleeved shirt, whose beard had been shorn, whose eyes are glazed over with ache and dread — this model of the nation’s first prime minister seems proudly over the capital metropolis, his swimsuit jacket buttoned, his expression agency and decided. One in all his palms is raised, as if in greeting, or farewell.
Andres Schipani is the FT’s east and central Africa bureau chief
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