For much of the past year, it has been expected that the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, will finally be returned to his children in Belgium and then repatriated to congo. . Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the country’s 61st independence anniversary passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, the current Prime Minister Alexandre de Croo of Belgium, and Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, was then scheduled for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the growing number of Covid-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply linked to a series of other political maneuvers and other seizures which are undoubtedly factors in the decision.
At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. Like Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to flee to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that Lumumba’s remains spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of her children, whose daughter Juliana Lumumba described in a open letter to the king of the belgians Last year.
The story of the execution and its consequences is well told by Ludo de Witte in The assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with support from Kantangese neocolonial separatists and the United States. Two days later, Gérard Soete, Belgian police commissioner for Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate any physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization that its identification would inspire. Although the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what its executioners feared, as Africans around the world engaged in protests and other groundbreaking acts of commemoration – from the well-known protest at the United Nations and other cities around the world at a heritage in a visual, musical and literary culture which continues to this day.
In February 1961, as the African Heritage Women’s Cultural Association held a large protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow, Pauline Opango Lumumba, led a march of family and supporters to the offices. of the UN from Rajeshawar Dayal to Kinshasa. There she requested that the UN help her receive her husband’s remains for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche issues ‘apology’ for NYC protest, Lorraine Hansberry “accelerate[ed] publicly apologize to Mrs. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche. Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other black activists organized a to wake up for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem Bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She and her iconic display are commemorated in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On the contemplation of Pauline Lumumba’s breasts”, who is part of a long line of African American efforts to raise the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s requests remains after 6 years.
As Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulfuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept the trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them to friends and journalists. After Soete’s death, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, resulting in a bizarre interview from 2016, during which a reporter found the remains in his possession. (In his efforts to defend his father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was inflicted on his children.) Belgian police intervened, and for the past five years Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government. responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled that they should be returned to the family.
These most recent delays come at a time when the continued mistreatment of human remains is capturing public attention. The Morton Collection case at the University of Pennsylvania led an activist Abdul Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city was holding extra leftovers victims of his violence against the organization MOVE.
Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has established the Missing Persons Task Force to identify the remains of black victims of the apartheid era in the country. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project was deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the disappeared at all stages, while viewing their work as integral of the wider mission of the TRC, and further representing a broader model of repatriation of human remains and property. As different as these instances of violence may be, government sanctions – at many levels and in different forms – remain constant.
In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, the repatriation and commemoration of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off a to-do list. On the contrary, the return must be part of a larger and continuous process: “I told Belgium that if we want a reconciliation, we need a reconciliation of memories because we cannot make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory. Juliana’s words carry particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a very critical historical report this may or may not lead to meaningful action of the type the family has demanded.
son of Lumumba Guy Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit repatriation for political ends. Tshisekedi himself knows some of the political challenges of the commemoration after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after the election of Felix. Félix quickly loses all rights he had on his own father’s coat (see The Bob Elvis Song “Letter to Ya Tshitshi” for a recent impeachment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from concerned opponents. his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission approaching the 2023 election cycle.
Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international position has been solidified through his post as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to member states. He recently met President Biden and do an official visit to Israel, the latter being of particular concern given his historic involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and his continued role in plundering Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and its observer status with the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.
For decades, the Lumumba family made a series of unanswered requests through formal inquiries and legal remedies. A group of scholars and activists also asserted that the return of Lumumba’s remains should not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full account of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent cover-up.
Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can grieve on their own terms and all of their demands for justice will be met immediately and unequivocally.