Belgium returns Patrice Lumumba’s tooth to his family 61 years after his murder

Belgian authorities have returned a tooth belonging to the murdered Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba, as the former colonial power continues to confront its bloody past and look toward reconciliation.

The restitution of the relic took place after Belgium’s King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” this month for his country’s abuses in its African former colony, Congo, 75 times the size of Belgium.

After a private ceremony in the presence of Lumumba’s relatives, during which the federal prosecutor handed over a case containing the gold-capped tooth, Belgium’s prime minister and Congolese officials were also due to speak to the family.

After his assassination in 1961, Lumumba’s body was dismembered and dissolved with acid in an apparent effort to keep any grave from becoming a pilgrimage site.

The tooth was seized by Belgian officials decades later from the daughter of the police commissioner who said he took it after overseeing the destruction of Lumumba’s body.

Two years ago, the federal prosecutor’s office said there was no absolute certainty that the tooth being returned was Lumumba’s since no DNA test could be conducted.

Lumumba remains for many in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a symbol of what the country could have become after its independence. Instead, it became mired in decades of dictatorship that drained its vast mineral riches.

After pushing for an end to colonial rule, Lumumba became the newly independent country’s first prime minister in 1960. But historians say when he asked the Soviet Union for help to quash a secessionist movement in the mineral-rich Katanga region during the cold war, he fell out of favour with Belgium and the US.

When the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a military coup that year, western powers did little to intervene as Lumumba was arrested and jailed. His assassination by separatists in January 1961 ultimately cleared the way for Mobutu to rule the country, which he later renamed Zaire, for decades until his death in 1997.

Though Lumumba’s killers were Congolese, questions have persisted over how complicit Belgium and the US may have been in his death because of his perceived communist ties.

A Belgian parliamentary investigation later determined the government was “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death.

A US Senate committee found in 1975 that the CIA had hatched a separate failed plan to kill the Congolese leader.

Two years ago, the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence reignited calls to put Lumumba’s “soul to rest”. Protesters gathered outside the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa seeking restitution of his remains along with cultural artefacts taken during colonial rule.

In Belgium, the international protests against racism that followed the death of George Floyd in the US gave new momentum to activists fighting to have monuments to King Leopold II removed.

Leopold plundered Congo during his 1865-1909 reign and forced many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit. In 1908, he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule over the colony until it became independent.

Amid the Black Lives Matter actions, protesters took down busts of the former monarch held responsible for the death of millions of Africans, and Philippe later expressed regret for the violence carried out by the country. None of his predecessors had gone so far as to convey remorse.

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