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Belgium’s unfinished reckoning with its colonial previous – POLITICO


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The tooth’s journey begins within the Belgian Congo within the Thirties. Within the Katako-Kombe area, not removed from the colony’s geographic middle, it pushes by the gum and into the mouth of a younger, precocious boy.

For the primary a part of its historical past, the tooth does what enamel do. It performs its half in consuming and talking — serving to to enunciate Catholic prayers, novice poetry, declarations of affection and anger, the every day patter of on a regular basis life. Later, it kinds a part of a stunning smile and shapes the syllables of political speeches, oratory that transforms the historical past of its nation. Sooner or later alongside the best way, it will get broken or decayed and is capped with a glittering golden crown.

Then comes a darker interval. The tooth’s proprietor is Patrice Lumumba, the primary democratically elected prime minister of Congo, a person many need useless. In 1961, Lumumba is assassinated, his physique is buried, disinterred, dismembered and dissolved in acid. The tooth is preserved — delivered to Belgium by a Belgian police officer named Gérard Soete as what he later describes as “a kind of searching trophy.” 

For almost 40 years, the tooth is out of public sight, till Soete goes on tv to confess his participation in Lumumba’s homicide and shows it. Years later, it’s seized from the home of Soete’s daughter and its subsequent — and almost definitely closing — chapter begins.

At the moment, Lumumba’s tooth is the focus, because the Belgian authorities will get prepared at hand it over to his household because the independence chief’s solely recognized stays. For now, it sits in a “custom-made field” in a protected within the places of work of the Belgian federal prosecutor in downtown Brussels, based on Eric Van Duyse, spokesperson for the prosecutor’s workplace. 

However on June 20, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo will formally hand it over to Lumumba’s descendants, in what’s deliberate to be step one on its journey again to the nation of its origin.

For Lumumba’s kids, the ceremony is a chance to lastly lay their father — one of many nice figures of the African independence motion — to relaxation.

“For us, as Africans, the mourning began about 60 years in the past,” mentioned Roland Lumumba, one among Patrice Lumumba’s kids. “With the return of part of him, … it’s his physique, we are able to end the mourning and transfer on. It’s a aid for us.”

Requested whether or not he had ever seen the stays of his father, he responded, “not but.”

For Belgian authorities, the handover is a part of an ongoing effort to easy relations with its former colony. The prime minister travels to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the king and queen of Belgium and different officers subsequent week.

However Lumumba’s tooth, and its troubled, horrible historical past, can be an disagreeable reminder of a historical past Belgian authorities have been reluctant to take accountability for — and nonetheless seem to wish to preserve at arm’s size.

In 1999, the Belgian sociologist Ludo De Witte printed a e book “The assassination of Lumumba” that spurred a nationwide reckoning, together with a parliamentary inquiry into the independence chief’s loss of life. Since then, nonetheless, progress has been “fairly disappointing,” De Witte mentioned.

“We have to concretely acknowledge the accountability on this affair, to attract sensible conclusions on all ranges, to offer Lumumba a spot worthy of his fame, of his significance for the historical past of Africa,” De Witte mentioned.

Belgium’s function, he added, ought to be clearly expressed, “on all ranges: political, ideological … and monetary.”

Morally accountable

Lumumba’s time as head of his newly unbiased nation lasted lower than three months.

On June 30, 1960, as a part of the ceremony marking the tip of Belgian rule, King Baudouin gave an handle in Kinshasa praising the advantages of colonialism and wishing for heat relations between Belgium and its former territory.

Lumumba, simply put in as prime minister, responded with a speech denouncing the atrocities dedicated underneath Belgian rule. Congo’s freedom, he reminded his listeners, had been achieved not by its colonizer’s magnanimity however by a battle for which the Congolese spared neither their “drive” nor their “blood.”

Patrice Lumumba, the primary democratically elected prime minister of Congo | Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho through Getty Pictures

Coming on the top of the Chilly Battle, Lumumba’s ascendency sparked fears within the West that he might flip his nation towards the Soviet Union, to the extent that the CIA plotted to assassinate him.

His temporary, tumultuous tenure was adopted by a coup in September and his arrest later that yr. He was killed in January 1961 by the authorities of Katanga, a breakaway Congolese state, after being tortured within the presence of Belgian officers.

For many years after Lumumba’s homicide, Belgium maintained an official silence on the circumstances surrounding his loss of life. However in 2001, because the nation started wrestling with its brutal historical past as a colonizer, a parliamentary inquiry discovered the Belgian authorities was “morally accountable” for Lumumba’s assassination.

The inquiry discovered “no single doc” that proved the Belgian authorities gave the order to kill Lumumba, however it concluded Belgian officers had beforehand plotted to kidnap and probably assassinate him within the months main as much as his loss of life, and the federal government did nothing to attempt to cease his homicide when he was transferred to Katangese authorities.

It additionally discovered King Baudouin was knowledgeable in a letter that there have been plans to “bodily neutralize” Lumumba however didn’t act on the knowledge.

The parliamentary fee “tried in a method to restrict the damages with its conclusions” and shied away from linking Belgium on to the assassination, De Witte mentioned, “as a result of the diplomatic, ideological and monetary penalties can be extraordinarily nice.”

In 2002, then Belgian Overseas Affairs Minister Louis Michel expressed “honest regrets” for Belgium’s function within the homicide.

Nadia Nsayi, a political scientist specialised in Congo, mentioned Belgium’s assumption of accountability had been gradual, however it was nonetheless welcome.

“Lumumba has develop into a logo of the battle in opposition to colonialism, the battle for freedom, not just for Congolese however for Africans as an entire,” Nsayi mentioned. “Belgium has acknowledged ethical accountability. It additionally contains political accountability. The crux of the matter is that Belgium didn’t give the Congolese a good probability of independence.” 

Nationwide hero

For a lot of Congolese, Belgium’s makes an attempt at reconciliation fall far wanting atoning for the nation’s colonial previous. Congo’s occupation, first by King Leopold II after which by the Belgian state, is taken into account one of many extra brutal in African historical past, that includes pressured labor, systematic mutilation and the loss of life of as much as 10 million individuals.

And whereas Belgium has slowly began to attempt to make amends, its efforts have largely been small and symbolic. Final yr, King Philippe — an oblique descendent of King Leopold II — broke his silence on the nation’s colonial previous. He expressed his “profound remorse” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” dedicated in Congo underneath Belgian rule. 

And in February, Prime Minister De Croo agreed to debate the return of 84,000 artifacts to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Belgian authorities’s remedy of Lumumba’s tooth is in some methods indicative of the gradual, halting progress.

{Photograph} of Lumumba’s tooth | Jelle Vermeersch

It was solely in 2016 — after Lumumba’s kids filed a criticism in opposition to 12 Belgian officers suspected of collaborating in his homicide — that his tooth was recovered from the household of Soete, the police officer who had disposed of his physique.

In 2020, through the international Black Lives Matter motion, Lumumba’s daughter Juliana addressed a letter to the king asking him at hand over her father’s stays.

That prompted the prosecutor’s workplace to inform the household the tooth was at their disposal. However slightly than merely being allowed to gather the stays, the household and others within the diaspora campaigned for an official handover ceremony.

“We actually needed to return the [remains] of Lumumba with honor and all of the recognitions on behalf of Belgium,” mentioned Jean-Marie Mosengo, a Congolese artist presently dwelling in Paris who has argued for a ceremony to mark the event.  

“Lumumba is part of Congolese heritage to at the present time,” he mentioned. “Everybody is aware of him, he’s a nationwide hero.”

When the royal couple travels to the Democratic Republic of the Congo it will likely be their first go to in 10 years. However the truth that the king is protecting his distance from a ceremony thought-about of excessive significance by many in Congo and Belgium has some questioning the sincerity of his regret.

Requested whether or not the king’s absence was a method to put a ways between the monarchy and the method of restitution, De Witte, the writer of the e book on Lumumba, mentioned, “Sure, after all.”  

“It’s already a giant concession from the Belgian institution that De Croo goes to talk” through the handover, he added.

The king’s journey was separated from the restitution of Lumumba’s stays as a result of the Congo journey is a response to an invite from the Congolese president, mentioned François Bailly, spokesperson for De Croo, whose workforce is in contact with the Congolese to prepare the tooth’s repatriation.

Bailly mentioned that as a result of the tooth was held by the prosecutor’s workplace, it was a matter for the federal government to deal with, slightly than the king in his function as head of state.

Relations between Brussels and Kinshasa within the restitution course of are “constructive,” based on the Congolese Embassy in Brussels. “There isn’t any cloud. It’s good … There may be good suggestions, a superb feeling between the 2 international locations.”

The tooth was initially scheduled to journey to the DRC final yr, however its return was delayed due to a spike in COVID instances there.

‘Nonetheless pending’

Additional complicating issues is the unfinished investigation into Lumumba’s assassination. Prosecutors have mentioned they’re treating the act as a warfare crime and are investigating whether or not they can cost the 2 suspects who’re nonetheless alive.

“It’s a comparatively advanced investigation,” mentioned Van Duyse. “With time passing by, many witnesses have disappeared, there are usually not many survivors left. Even among the many doubtlessly incriminated individuals, there are usually not many survivors left.”

Soete, the police officer who carried the tooth to Belgium, died in 2000.

“Virtually till 2020, justice has probably not moved,” De Witte mentioned, declaring that prosecutors took greater than 9 years to request entry to the related paperwork held by the parliament.

“Throughout this era, they only needed to attend till all 12 [incriminated] had died, after which they may shut the case with none additional motion,” he added.

Earlier this yr, the Belgian parliament rejected the request by prosecutors to entry the paperwork, ruling they have been off-limits as a result of the dialogue had been held behind closed doorways. “I don’t wish to hinder the investigation, fairly the opposite, however I’m the guarantor of compliance with the foundations of the meeting,” mentioned Eliane Tillieux, the president of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives.

Prosecutors say they are going to ask an arbiter to find out whether or not they need to have the ability to use the fee’s non-public deliberations.

One of many final images to indicate Patrice Lumumba, alive earlier than his homicide in 1961 | Horst Faas/Related Press

Van Duyse, the spokesperson for the prosecutor’s workplace, identified that no DNA take a look at has been carried out to show the tooth was Lumumba’s and mentioned that doing one would have destroyed it. Throughout his tv look, Soete mentioned he had additionally taken one other tooth and a bit of a finger. The whereabouts of these just isn’t publicly recognized.

Maybe inevitably, given the person it as soon as belonged to, the tooth is prone to turning into embroiled in Congolese politics. The nation is scheduled to carry a presidential election subsequent yr.

“Everybody wakes up on the eve of the elections and places ahead their hyperlinks with Lumumba’s considering … It’s a traditional; it doesn’t shock anybody in Congo … It’s the recreation of all events,” mentioned Marie Omba Djunga, a Congolese advisor engaged on the stays restitution. 

Considered one of Lumumba’s sons, Man-Patrice, opposed the return of the stays final yr, accusing the Congolese management of looking for to “reap political good points” out of the restitution.

Following the handover ceremony, the tooth is anticipated to stay a day in Brussels to permit the diaspora to pay their respect on the Congolese Embassy and at Place Lumumba, a sq. in central Brussels.

After that, it will likely be taken on a tour of Congo, touring first to Lumumba’s dwelling village, then to Kisangani within the north, the place he spent most of his political profession. It’ll then go to Shilatembo, the village the place Lumumba was killed, earlier than lastly touring to the capital Kinshasa, the place a mausoleum is being erected to carry it.

Then, if all goes based on plan, 62 years after Lumumba led his nation into freedom, his tooth will lastly be laid to relaxation.

Barbara Moens contributed reporting.



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