The significance of Lumumba’s golden tooth
Sixty-two years after his brutal murder, a funeral has been held for the DRC’s first post-independence leader, Patrice Lumumba, in Kinshasa, after the only remaining part of his body – a tooth – was returned to his family by Belgian authorities. At least now, the big lie has been exposed for what it was all this time and no one is under any illusions about the real role of Belgium in the Congo – not least the Congolese themselves, writes Anver Versi.
For some time now, we have been experiencing a period of ‘look backs’, during which long-buried or ignored issues have been brought willy-nilly to the surface.
The Black Lives Matter campaign turned the spotlight once again on the ramifications of slavery; which led to the global toppling of statues and other icons celebrating former slavers, which in turn highlighted the marginalisation of Black achievement and historical contributions around the world – and all this was perhaps perfectly encapsulated by the book Born in Blackness by Howard French, which I wrote about recently.
The lid on the chest marked ‘forgotten African history’ was pushed open a bit further in June when the government of Belgium returned a tooth belonging to the murdered Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba to his family.
This gesture, as well as some words of contrition by the Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and King Phillippe of Belgium during a visit to the DRC earlier in the month, marked a very belated recognition of the atrocities and wholesale looting of the country by this European nation.
The Congo’s horrific relationship with Belgium began around 1885 when King Leopold II latched onto the central African country, seizing it as his personal property and launching what has been described as colonial exploitation that was “unbelievable in its brutality, cruelty and lack of any human feeling or compassion.”
In Leopold’s ‘Congo Free State’, over 10m Congolese died over a 23-year period as whole villages and settlements were put under the whip of some of the cruellest taskmasters ever to have lived and forced to fill impossible quotas of rubber sap – or risk having their hands chopped off or being horribly maimed or killed as a warning to others.
Leopold had skilfully obtained an official recognition of his claim to the Congo during the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 when several rival European powers gathered to carve up the continent into the geographical chunks and zones of influence we see in today’s Africa. The vast wealth accumulated by Leopold from the sale of rubber to industrialising Europe and the US turned his once impoverished nation into a respected power and set the pattern for the ruthless exploitation of Africa’s human and natural resources.
In Congo itself, Belgium’s malevolent influence did not end with Leopold but continued well into and after the country achieved independence in 1960, with Patrice Lumumba as the much-loved and universally respected Prime Minister.
Lumumba had rejected the brainwashing the colonial-era schools routinely doled out to African students, convincing them that Belgium was a benevolent and just ruler and that it was civilising the primitive Congolese. Many had bought into this vision – and some say it has not entirely disappeared even today.
The Congo was – and is – a treasure trove of minerals and other natural resources: diamonds, copper, cobalt, gold, iron, uranium, hardwood timber, rubber, ivory and on and on. Belgium and other Western countries were digging their hands into the treasure as fast as they could go.
They saw Lumumba as a threat as he refused to act as their ‘Black agent’ and insisted on independent action. They fomented a rebellion in Katanga. He was arrested, tortured and brutally killed. His body was dissolved in acid with only his gold-capped tooth remaining. It had been taken by one of his killers as a bizarre memento.
It was this tooth that was finally returned to his family members in Belgium. His son Ronald said the family would finally be able to ‘finish their mourning’. The tooth, as the only surviving part of Lumumba’s body, was finally laid to rest in the DRC on 29 June after a funeral was held in Kinshasa.
After decades of denying their role in Lumumba’s death or even acknowledging their horrific history in the Congo, the Belgians showed small signs of recanting. Prime Minister De Croo accepted his country’s moral responsibility for Lumumba’s murder. “This is a painful and disagreeable truth, but must be spoken,” he conceded. “A man was murdered for his political convictions, his words, his ideals.”
Earlier, during his visit to the DRC, King Phillippe agreed that Belgium’s relationship with Congo was one of “unequal relations, unjustifiable in itself, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism… it led to violent acts and humiliations”. However, he refused to apologise on behalf his nation.
Belgium continues to exert considerable influence over the DRC – and continues to benefit financially and diplomatically from its former colony. But at least now, the big lie has been exposed for what it was all this time and no one is under any illusions about the real role of Belgium in the Congo – not least the Congolese themselves.
But as they say: those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.