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Over the past few weeks, the Belgian government has taken steps towards returning the last known remains of former African revolutionary and first President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrice Emery Lumumba, who was brutally killed in 1961, shortly after his country gained independence. Many believed that his untimely death was because of his radical anticolonial and anti-imperialist stance, which disgusted western leaders at that time. While to many, returning Lumumba’s tooth is an act of goodwill, a kind gesture, a logical courtesy, and the most appropriate thing to do, I argue in this article that returning Lumumba’s tooth is not enough to atone for the crimes against humanity committed against the Congolese by King Leopold II during the brutal period of colonialism, which lasted for over half a century from 1885 to 1960. Thus, Belgium’s quest for forgiveness and reconciliation must involve claiming responsibility for its gory actions in Congo over a century ago as well as paying reparations to that effect.

Map of the DRC

Brief context

In 1885, King Leopold II created the Congo Free State by forcibly claiming the vast expanse of land as his own in his quest to “bring civilization to the people of Congo” whilst enriching himself in the process. He privately held the Congo as opposed to ruling it as a colony, as other European counterparts did throughout Africa. Leopold’s control over the Congo Free State, his own colony, was recognized as a result of the infamous Berlin Conference of 1885. The global demand for pneumatic rubber tires witnessed a huge increase in this period, and this sparked a demand for Central African-produced rubber, which was in vast quantities in the country. Leopold soon provided incentives to businesses eager to extract rubber from the Congo, and the indigenes were exploited and made to work in the fields. One of the most notable atrocities committed by Leopold II in the Congo was the amputation of the hands of Congolese workers when demands or targets were not met. These severed hands were gathered and roasted by Belgian colonists in order to preserve them for later numbering and documentation. Jenny Folsom argues that the practice was so common that the Congolese thought Belgians had an unquenchable desire for African hands. Others were killed by beatings or whippings. Some people were forced to work in slave-like conditions until they died, earning almost no money as laborers, rubber gatherers, or miners. It is said that approximately 10 million Congolese were killed during the brutal colonial reign of King Leopold II. Leopold later “sold” the colony to the Belgian government in 1908.

Statue of King Leopold II in Bruxelle, Belgium (2022)

The Death of Patrice Lumumba

When Congo gained independence in 1960, a young, passionate African revolutionary, Patrice Lumumba was at the forefront of negotiating for the country’s independence. But quickly, problems arose as secessionist groups emerged from the resource-rich Katanga region putting the country’s unity in jeopardy. Lumumba’s strong anti-imperialist concerns infuriated many western leaders who found his statements far-fetched and different from what they were used to hearing. Indeed, Lumumba “ruffled a few feathers” with his strong anti-imperialist stance which many believe to have led to his untimely death. Lumumba was killed by a firing squad, his body dissolved in acid and then butchered. In the midst of this gruesome atrocity was Gerard Soete, a former Belgian police commissioner who was among those involved in carrying out Lumumba’s brutal assassination. Soete took a tooth from Lumumba’s remains and brought it to Belgium “as kind of a trophy”. He died in 2000 but in 2016, his daughter showed the tooth to journalists and a court ruled for the tooth to be handed over to the state. Last month, this tooth was delivered to the Congolese which many people have commended to say Belgium is “facing up to its colonial past.” Subsequently, the current King and Queen of Belgium went to the Congo to reaffirm their deepest regrets for Belgium’s abuse of the Congolese in the colonial era.

The Significance of the Return of Lumumba’s Tooth

The return of Lumumba’s tooth means that the family of Lumumba will finally put to rest the last known remains of their clansman. But most importantly, while there has been so much mystery surrounding his death in the 60s, and the Belgian government not owning up to their brutality in the DRC, the return of the tooth will give some form of comfort, and respite to the family of Lumumba, who have had to endure the grueling situation of not just losing a family member, father, brother, and husband, but also not being able to give him a befitting burial because of the brutal manner in which he was killed. This is the height of suffering a mourning family can ever endure. The return of this tooth will also be meaningful to the people of the DRC, who feel like they lost a hero who could have steered the country in the direction of peace, progress, and prosperity. They will feel a bit of relief to have back a tiny portion of the remains of their independence hero. But this is all that there is to the return. There are other salient issues that the return of Lumumba’s tooth does not address and need to be highlighted.

What Returning the Tooth Does Not Achieve

While it has been said that the Congolese government does not want an apology from the Belgian state, the return of the teeth does not achieve much. The return of Lumumba’s tooth does not uplift DRC’s economic situation in any way, nor does it pull them out of the economic quagmire they have found themselves in ever since the death of Lumumba. The DRC is regarded as the wealthiest nation on earth due to the abundant mineral resources embedded in the country’s vast area of land. If true independence and sovereignty were truly achieved with a leader such as Lumumba at the helm of affairs, it would not be illogical to assume that such a rich country would have been on a path to economic glory at that time and should rightly be one of the economic powerhouses of Africa today. But this was not meant to be because when Lumumba died, the country’s progress plummeted and was ravaged by decades of economic recession under the inefficient, corrupt leadership of the infamous dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Getting back Lumumba’s tooth does not mean that the Congolese have gotten back the fearless, servant leadership that they got in Lumumba nor does it mean that the apparent leadership crisis in the country will eventually come to an abrupt stop. The return of Lumumba’s tooth does not increase the GDP of the DRC and it most certainly does not automatically replace the millions of lives lost during Leopold II’s brutal reign in the country. It also does not automatically make the DRC a rich country or make people forget the past traumas they’ve had to go through or the traumas they went through by just listening to the stories of how their ancestors were stripped of their humanity by a former Belgian King.  

For Belgium’s act of repentance and acknowledgment to be taken seriously and less scrutinized by political analysts, Belgium needs to officially declare its role and take responsibility for its actions in the brutal conditions the Congolese were subjected to during Leopold II’s reign. However, it has been noted by the Prime Minister of Belgium that a parliamentary commission is underway that will examine “the dark areas” of the country’s colonial past. It is my hope that this commission will be allowed to discharge its duties with integrity and genuineness. I strongly believe that at the end of these examinations, all facts will point toward the Belgian king giving a complete apology whilst boldly taking responsibility for the country’s past actions in Congo. After that, talks of reparations should start in earnest to ensure that the Congolese get some financial benefits from the Belgian state as a show of complete repentance and reconciliation. This way, Belgium would not just be taking active steps in recognizing its brutal role in the Congo but also ease the pains of the Congolese by making their economic realities much better. In addition, it can be argued that resources may not trickle down to the masses because of corruption. However, it is the responsibility of the Congolese to hold their leaders to account. This cannot be blamed on Belgium as long as the country plays its own part in owning up to its gory past by paying reparations to the Congolese.

More broadly, Belgium taking ownership of her role in Congo could open up conversations around what genuine reconciliation truly means in contemporary times, especially when power imbalances between countries are at play, as in this case of a “global north” versus a “global south” country. Also, Belgium taking deliberate steps to pay reparations can also spark inspiration in the current world today where other countries who have refused to take ownership of their past inappropriate actions can be inspired to pursue the path of genuine reconciliation. These are the steps humanity needs to take to ensure a peaceful and just world.



Watch Patrice Lumumba’s independence day speech here (30th June 1960)
Sunday Jerome Salami

Sunday Jerome Salami is a young Nigerian passionate about quality education, good governance, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development. He strongly believes that access to quality education and ethical leadership training for young people are at the core of alleviating poverty, fostering strong institutions, and generally achieving sustainable development.