Belgium had been since 1884 the metropolis of the colossus that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a colonization that culminated in an assassination and the whim of a drunk. On January 17, 1961, Prime Minister Patrice Emery Lumumba, overthrown by a coup d’état promoted by Belgium and the CIA – who attributed communist whims to him – was executed in a forest in the eastern region of Katanga. However, the plan to erase the trace of the crime did not work at all. A Belgian gendarme, Gérard Soete, completely drunk, pulled two teeth from the corpse “as a hunting trophy”, he confessed in 1999, before dissolving it in sulfuric acid. One of those two teeth, the only thing that remains of Lumumba, arrived this Wednesday by plane in a coffin to Congo. The tooth will now travel the country on a journey that will culminate in its burial on the 30th, the 62nd anniversary of the independence of the DRC, in a mausoleum in Kinshasa.
The return of this dental piece is “a relief” for the family and “for the Congolese people” who “will finally be able to mourn”, explains Jean Jacques Lumumba, great-nephew of the leader, by phone from Paris. But that gesture, more than half a century after the assassination, is “insufficient.” “It is necessary for justice to clarify this heinous crime and thus end impunity in Congo,” says the relative of the Congolese leader.
The restitution of the only remains of Patrice Lumumba – by the Belgian federal prosecutor, Frédéric Van Leeuw, on Monday in Brussels – is part of Belgium’s attempt to heal the wound of a colonization that dragged between five and 10 million to death of people out of a population of 20 million, according to various studies. They died from slavery, forced labor, and disease; for torments such as the amputation of hands and feet or for experiments such as the one that blinded Congolese who had been injected with arsenic.
However, the will to turn this page of its history meets with the resistance of the Belgian authorities to apologize unequivocally. The reason —according to media such as the Belgian newspaper Sudinfo— is that a clear apology could “cost Belgium billions”, alluding to possible lawsuits against the state that could result from an assumption of full responsibility for such atrocious acts. Jean Jacques Lumumba confirms that, in 2011, his family filed a lawsuit for war crimes in a Brussels court, still unsubstantiated. In it, the Belgian state is accused of “having participated in a plot” to eliminate the Congolese leader. The prime minister’s nephew also alludes to another of the limits of the Belgian will to repair the atrocities of colonization: Belgium “still has not declassified numerous documents” about the assassination.
The Belgian authorities have limited themselves to recognizing a “moral responsibility” in the abuses of the colonial period, including the Lumumba crime. That expression was used by Prime Minister Alexander de Croo on Monday during the tooth handover ceremony, in which he juggled apologizing while at the same time describing Belgium’s role as that of a passive witness. “It is possible that the Belgian ministers, diplomats, officials or military did not have the intention of having Patrice Lumumba assassinated, no evidence has been found to prove it (…) They preferred not to see. They decided not to act,” he said.
King Philippe of Belgium, who visited the Congo in early June, has expressed himself in similar terms. In a letter to the Congolese president, Félix Tshisekedi, the monarch underlined his “regret” for the colonization, but did not apologize. He also did not take Lumumba’s tooth with him to give it to the family, as he was believed to do. The sovereign did return another much less controversial looted object: a Congolese mask that until now was exhibited in the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
Numerous investigators have argued that Belgium’s role in Lumumba’s crime was not that of a mere accessory. In Congo, an epic story, David van Reybrouk it reflects how Brussels and the US bought a traitor to seize power from Lumumba, who was reproached for his lack of meekness and his supposed communism. That traitor was the Congolese chief of staff, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, then dictator of Congo between 1965 and 1997. Overthrown in September, after Mobutu’s coup d’état, Lumumba was handed over by Belgium to the Katanga authorities, who had already threatened to kill him. Brussels had also bought wills in that region to force its secession from the independent Congo and continue plundering its minerals. The pilots who flew Lumumba to Katanga were Belgian; the members of the firing squad were Congolese, but the order to shoot was given by a Belgian officer. The gendarme Soete, the one who pulled out the tooth, was Belgian.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits