Why Belgium is returning Congolese hero Patrice Lumumba’s golden tooth

By Editor

A gold-crowned tooth is all that remains of assassinated Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba.

Shot dead by a firing squad in 1961 with the tacit backing of former colonial power Belgium, his body was then buried in a shallow grave, dug up, transported 200km (125 miles), interred again, exhumed and then hacked to pieces and finally dissolved in acid.

The Belgian police commissioner, Gerard Soete, who oversaw and participated in the destruction of the remains took the tooth, he later admitted.

He also talked about a second tooth and two of the corpse’s fingers, but these have not been found.

The tooth has now been returned to the family at a ceremony in Brussels.

Soete’s impulse to pocket the body parts echoed the behaviour of European colonial officials down the decades who took remains back home as macabre mementoes.

But it also served as a final humiliation of a man that Belgium considered an enemy.

Soete, appearing in a documentary in 1999, described the tooth and fingers he took as “a type of hunting trophy”. The language suggests that for the Belgian policeman, Lumumba – who was revered across the continent as a leading voice of African liberation – was less than human.

For Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana, the question is whether the perpetrators were human.

“What amount of hatred must you have to do that?” she asks.

“This is a reminder of what happened with the Nazis, taking pieces of people – and that’s a crime against humanity,” she told the BBC.

Lumumba had risen to become prime minister at the age of 34. Elected in the final days of colonial rule, he headed the cabinet of the newly independent nation.

In June 1960, at the handover of power, Belgian King Baudouin praised the colonial administration and spoke about his ancestor, Léopold II, as the “civiliser” of the country.

There was no mention of the millions who died or were brutalised under his reign when he ruled what was then known as the Congo Free State as his personal property.

This failure to acknowledge the past foreshadowed years of denial in Belgium, which it has only now begun to come to terms with.

Lumumba was not so reticent.

In an address that was not scheduled on the official programme, the prime minister spoke about the violence and degradation that the Congolese had suffered.

In devastating rhetoric, interrupted by rounds of applause and a standing ovation when he concluded, he described “the humiliating slavery that was imposed on us by force”.

The Belgians were stunned, according to academic Ludo De Witte, who wrote a ground-breaking account of the assassination.

Never before had a black African dared to speak like this in front of Europeans. The prime minister, who De Witte says had been described as an illiterate thief in the Belgian press, was seen as having humiliated the king and other Belgian officials.

Some have said that with his speech Lumumba signed his own death warrant, but his murder the following year was also wrapped up in Cold War manoeuvres and a Belgian desire to maintain control.

The Americans also plotted his death because of a possible pivot towards the Soviet Union and his uncompromising anti-colonialism, while a British official wrote a memo suggesting that killing him was an option.

Nevertheless, there seemed to be a personal element to the way Lumumba was vilified and pursued.

The total destruction of the body, as well as a way to get rid of the evidence, seems like an effort to obliterate Lumumba from the memory. There would be no memorial, making it almost possible to deny that he existed at all. It was not enough just to bury him.

But he is still remembered.

Not least by his daughter Juliana – a prime mover in the campaign to get the tooth returned home, who went to Brussels to receive it. – BBC