Lumumba’s Tooth and the Toothless African Leaders

There is always something fundamentally disturbing about the way in which colonialists and white supremacists sought to destroy Black bodies.

The remains of slain Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Emery Lumumba have been returned to his family. “The remains” are nothing more than a piece of Lumumba’s tooth, which has been kept in Belgium since his assassination on 17 January 1961. This return brings finality to an unnecessarily prolonged process of bringing closure to Lumumba’s family, the country and the continent. Had it not been for a 2016 legal challenge instigated by Ludo de Witte, author of The Assassination of Lumumba, the fate of Lumumba’s tooth could still be uncertain today.

Destruction of the Black Body

Details of the assassination itself are well-documented, and reveal a morbid encounter at the hands of merciless colonialists acting in cahoots with their local lackeys. There is always something fundamentally disturbing about the way in which colonialists and white supremacists sought to destroy Black bodies. Still do. Lumumba, alongside Joseph Okito (former vice president of the senate) and Maurice Mpolo (former minister of youth and sports) were first executed by firing squad, had their bodies chopped into pieces before they were dissolved in sulphuric acid. This obsession with destroying a Black body, never mind one inhabited by a person of no less a stature than Prime Minister, is routinely glossed over in most commentary. Yet, that act in the Congo – preceded by Belgian king, Leopold II’s demand that Africans who did not meet rubber production quotas have their limbs chopped off – reveals the exact nature of the Euro-American depravity that gave us slavery and colonialism and their attendant harm.

Congo gained Independence from Belgium in June 1960. As Lumumba became Prime Minister, there were fears from the colonisers and their western allies, especially France and the United States of America (USA) that the mineral-rich and strategic country would become friendly towards the Soviet Union and therefore harm the neo-colonial prospects of the West. This was in the midst of the Cold War, after all. Hence Lumumba, a revolutionary with a plan and vision for righting colonial wrongs and restoring dignity to the people of the Congo had to be deposed. That is how in September 1960, barely two months after becoming Prime Minister, Lumumba was toppled. In the subsequent months before his assassination, he unsuccessfully attempted to regain control of the government.

Fundamentally, therefore, the extent to which Black bodies are destroyed invokes the question of Identity and Dignity. To chop off the limbs of children in the Congo because they have not produced enough rubber is to impugn their dignity. To sit, idly, and watch a genocide against the Tutsi unfold in Rwanda – perhaps even fanning and funding the flames of hate – and do nothing about it is to impugn dignity. To bomb schools, as the Rhodesian government did in what is present-day Zimbabwe is to impugn dignity. Countless other gut-wrenching examples exist on the continent and beyond, each example proving the fact of just how worthless the lives and dignity of Black bodies are in the eyes of colonialists and white supremacists.

In Lumumba’s case, particularly, it should not be lost that beyond the political impact of his assassination is a family that was robbed of a husband, father, brother, uncle, and friend. This matters because when understood against the backdrop of colonialism’s attempt to tear apart the Black family nucleus, one can see just how dangerous the obsession with, and destruction of, the Black body by colonialists and white supremacists is. This also explains why the question of Lumumba’s dignity, and that of his family, was not lost to his daughter, Juliana, who in 2020 reacted to the news that her father’s tooth would finally be returned by saying: “My first reaction is, of course, that this is a great victory because at last, 60 years after his death, the mortal remains of my father, who died for his country and its independence and for the dignity of Black people, will return to the land of his ancestors.”

Independence, Indignity and Black Pain

It is no accident that Lumumba’s assassination and the subsequent decapitation of his body mirrors the violence inflicted on Black bodies across the world since time immemorial. Even in 2022, when young Black people in Eastern Europe speak of the racism they are encountering; and when Black professional footballers and other sports professionals have to ‘take-a-knee’ as a statement against racism, while many others continue to punctuate their social posts with the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, the violence suffered by the Black body is persistently painful. Far from the social media performative actions, children are getting raped by white peacekeepers in countries like the Central African Republic (CAR), and yet more children in countries like Malawi are being made to chant, on video, self-demeaning racist slurs for the entertainment of Chinese social media users. It is a tragic indictment of the state of Blackness, globally. And that is not even a tenth of what is currently going on out there!

So, the question must be asked: can we ever elevate the war against the Black body if we, as Africans, are not invested in memorialising the mass graves; if we are not prepared to empathise with the chopped limbs, gorged eyes, beheaded bodies; if we are not prepared to understand what disruptions came with the villages that were razed to ground; and not prepared to take our Independence seriously? Without confronting our open wounds and understanding the pain that has been inflicted upon us – on our Black bodies – and the extent to which such harm has dehumanised us, there can be no concrete and decisive movement towards the path of liberation and its attendant freedom – the freedom to be whatever we want to be. This was the common denominator in most liberation struggles fought across Africa. It is surprising, therefore, that this most consequential act of resistance across the continent is frequently reduced to passive commemoration, usually marked as a country’s Independence Day. Part of the reason, to be fair, is because the significance of Independence has been rendered meaningless by the neo-colonial order that followed independence in most countries, effectively changing nothing structurally but simply the face of the oppressor.

This is precisely why someone like Lumumba matters. At independence, the political leaders who took their independence seriously were either deposed or assassinated. This is the fate that befell the likes of Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Patrice Lumumba (Congo) and Samora Machel (Mozambique). Others, such as Amilcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) were assassinated on the eve of independence, before they could even get into power. Yet others, such as Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), who rose to fight the neo-colonialism were also assassinated while in power. What these leaders have in common – and there are a few more examples on the continent – is that they were serious about destroying the capillaries of colonial power and their machinations in independent State.

This is how, for example, Belgian diplomat, Jacques Brassine, once described Patrice Lumumba: “He was dangerous. He wasn’t open to the solutions we sometimes wanted to apply.” Knowing Lumumba’s vision for the Congo and rest of Africa, it means that Belgium was opposed to the unity of Africans, their independence and right to self-determination. But it does not end there. Justifying Lumumba’s assassination, Belgian spy, Louis Marliere once said: “He [Lumumba] chose the wrong side.” And, of course, the “wrong side” in this context means that Lumumba chose freedom for oppressed people instead of complying with Belgium and the West’s neo-colonial demands. After all, on the eve of independence, Lumumba had declared, somewhat defiantly: “We are certain that we know where we are going.”

On independence day itself, 30 June 1960, Belgian king, Baudouin, had this to say in his speech: “the Independence of the Congo is the crowning moment of the mission conceived by the genius of King Leopold II, undertaken by him with courageous tenacity and pursued with great perseverance.” This statement would be disgustingly ridiculous were it not for its attempt to minimise and invalidate the agency of the Congolese in fighting for their independence. At least there was consistency with Belgium’s distaste and dislike of a country it had colonised, amassed wealth from, maimed, tortured and killed millions of its people.

Lumumba was not scheduled to speak on this day but he knew he had to correct not only past historical wrongs, but also the one he had just witnessed in the speech delivered by Baudouin. So, he rose to speak: “You who have fought for Independence and today are victorious, I salute you in the name of the Congolese government,” he said. “I salute all our friends who fought relentlessly at our side. We’ve been subjected to insults and sarcasms, to the blows we had to endure from morning to night just because we are Africans. We learnt that the Law was never the same, according to whether it was applied to whites or Blacks. Who will ever forget the shootings, or the barbarous jail cells awaiting those who refused to submit to this regime of injustice and exploitation.”

Toothless Africa       

In 2015, while in Kinshasa, I visited a statue honouring Lumumba’s memory. In my reflections of this event, I wrote, elsewhere: “at Lumumba’s height, perched on that concrete block, I could not exactly see the fullness of his face. For some reason, I remembered a scene from one of the documentaries about him that I have watched. In this scene, a Belgian official, a white man, brandishes Lumumba’s tooth in front of the camera and says he kept this piece of tooth because Lumumba “had very good teeth”. This man, Gerard Soete, was one of the men who assassinated Lumumba.”

I went on: “my interest in seeing Lumumba’s full face was triggered by the need to make sure, to confirm, if in this monument that had been erected, he had all his teeth. I laughed at myself for a brief moment for harbouring such ‘silly’ thoughts. Yet, if this monument was an attempt at recovering and sustaining Memory, then it had to be sure that it not only rehabilitates the mutilation that colonialism wrought but also, reconfigures the truthful representation of a hero like Patrice Lumumba.”

Soete died an unrepentant man, much like his own country Belgium and their Western allies. Herein lies a critical lesson for Africa – choose yourself; do not be apologetic about choosing what is best for yourself. Yet, as time progresses since that first moment of independence in Ghana in 1957, Africa has been consistently losing its – for want of a better word – bite. We are losing on all fronts, becoming a defeated, hopeless people. Toothless, in fact, despite a massive population, vast mineral deposits, favourable climate conditions, unmatched talent and resilience. We are losing because most of our leaders have repeatedly allowed colonialism to continuously reinvent itself within our so-called independent States. Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that it took over 61 years for Lumumba’s tooth to be returned, and when it did, it was not even on Africa’s terms!

One hopes the return of Lumumba’s tooth, this month, will inspire a generation of courageous and patriotic leadership across Africa that can rise up and fight for a better continent. As the world around us changes, and imperial threats against Africa increase, it is foolish to not realise that we have firmly entered the phase of a new liberation struggle. History demands that we reconnect with our common aspirations for liberty, freedom and prosperity; the very same aspirations that inspired millions – the likes of Lumumba, for example – to resist and fight colonialism. If we cannot do it for ourselves, then it is imperative that we do it for posterity’s sake.

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