Belgium has returned the remains of an African leader more than 60 years after it reportedly conspired with the U.S. to kill the key figure in anti-colonialism.
The French European country returned all that is left of Patrice Lumumba — a gold tooth.
Lumumba was an African nationalist and pan-Africanist who helped his homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, gain its independence from Belgium in 1960, before becoming its first prime minister. His death has had long-term effects on Congolese politics, reports show. His family has pondered over his death for decades.
Several details about his assassination remain unknown.
“Father, how did you die? We don’t know. When did you die? We don’t know. Where were you assassinated? We still don’t know that, either,” Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana said.
Shortly after taking office, Lumumba angered his country’s previous oppressors.
During the official ceremony where the Belgian government handed power back to the Congolese people, Lumumba called out the king for the suffering they endured at the hand of the French European country. He was terminated just five months into his role as prime minister after seeking help from the Soviet Union, and was later imprisoned.
While in custody, Lumumba was reportedly beaten twice, but that did not compare to the demoralization that followed.
Months before his death, Lumumba stood against Belgian King Baudouin, who praised his predecessor, King Leopold II, for being a “civilizer” at the ceremony.
Leopold, who referred to himself as “proprietor” of the world’s only private colony, robbed the Congo of its natural resources like ivory and rubber. The Belgian king reportedly raided villages, holding women hostage and forcing men into labor. Many fled the villages to escape the violence, and tens of thousands also died in failed rebellions against Léopold’s regime.
The enslavement of thousands of Congolese men in Leopold’s rubber labor camps left few workers to cultivate food, leading to famine and disease. As a result, about 10 million people were killed during his rule.
Belgian authorities reportedly killed Lumumba and two of his associates by firing squad in the middle of the night and dumped them in a grave. Then Belgium Police Commissioner Gerard Soete decided to make the bodies “disappear once and for all! There must be no trace left,” according to a book titled “The Assassination of Lumumba.”
Soete and Belgium officers later exhumed the bodies, chopped them into pieces and dissolved them in sulfuric acid. Soete admitted to keeping two of Lumumba’s teeth and fingers; only one tooth reportedly has been found. Soete’s daughter showed reporters the gold tooth in a 2016 interview.
Godelieve reflected on her “poor dad,” who had to live with memories of what he was ordered to do. She also told reporters her family deserved an apology for what he had to endure.
However, Soete said in a 1999 document that he took the tooth and fingers as “a type of hunting trophy.”
Belgian activist Ludo De Witte, who wrote the book about Lumumba’s assassination, led a campaign for the tooth to be returned to the Congolese hero’s family.
“What amount of hatred must you have to do that?” Juliana asked.
“This is a reminder of what happened with the Nazis, taking pieces of people – and that’s a crime against humanity.”
Belgium Prime Minister Alexander de Croo returned the tooth to Lumumba’s family during a ceremony in Brussels. Croo said the government accepted “moral responsibility” for the African leader’s death.
“A man was murdered for his political convictions, for his ideals. As a democrat and a liberal, I cannot accept this,” Croo said.