Home News Belgium Returns Patrice Lumumba’s Tooth Decades After his Murder

Belgium Returns Patrice Lumumba’s Tooth Decades After his Murder

Belgian authorities have returned a tooth of the Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba to his family, 61 years after he was murdered by agents of the former colonial power.

Patrice Lumumba

The tooth is all that remains of Mr Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and a fiery revolutionary who led his country’s campaign for independence from Belgium.

He was an icon of the struggle against colonialism in Africa, but was murdered by separatists and Belgian mercenaries in 1961. His killers dissolved his remains in acid, though some kept his teeth as macabre mementoes.

While the restitution of Patrice Lumumba’s tooth Monday may be viewed as a chance for redemption by Belgium amid continuing global outrage over the 2020 killing of George Floyd, some accuse Brussels of exploiting the occasion without making a solid commitment to rectify its historical wrongs.

Gerard Soete said he took Lumumba's tooth as "a kind of trophy" while secretly dismembering the prime minister's corpse.
Gerard Soete said he took Lumumba’s tooth as “a kind of trophy” while secretly dismembering the prime minister’s corpse. 

A tooth was retrieved from a Belgian police commissioner, Gerard Soete, who in 2000 confessed to being a party to Mr Lumumba’s murder.

According to The UK Guardian, the gold-capped tooth was handed in a light blue case to a group of family members at the Egmont Palace in Brussels on Monday morning.

It was placed in a casket that will be taken to the embassy of the DRC.

Mr Lumumba’s son, Roland Lumumba, said last week that the return of the tooth meant his family would be able to “finish their mourning”.

According to Alexander de Croo, Belgian prime minister, “this is a painful and disagreeable truth, but must be spoken.”

“A man was murdered for his political convictions, his words, his ideals,” he added.

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Additionally, King Philippe of Belgium had earlier this month made his first visit to the DRC, where he expressed “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past”, describing the Belgian rule as a “regime …. of unequal relations, unjustifiable in itself, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism” that “led to violent acts and humiliations”.

The government of the DRC has declared three days of official mourning before the official burial of the tooth in Kinshasa at the end of this month.

As many as 10 million people died from starvation and disease during the first 23 years of Belgium’s rule from 1885, when King Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom.

Following its handover to the family, Lumumba’s tooth will return to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although exact details are unclear, a homecoming tour is expected to take the relic to Lumumba’s home village, ending with an official burial in the capital, Kinshasa.

The children of Patrice Lumumba pay respects during a ceremony at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, Monday, June 20, 2022.

African sovereignty

The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Lumumba’s election as the independent DRC’s first prime minister shortly beforehand brought hope that the break with colonialism would bring about a real democracy.

“We were so hopeful that independence would mean progress, better working and living conditions, more prosperity, using our national resources for the well-being of our people,” said Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a professor of African studies at the University of North Carolina.

To manyCongolese, Lumumba is a national hero and a “standard bearer of the Congolese independence movement,” said Nzongola-Ntalaja, who has written extensively about Lumumba’s rise from postal clerk and beer salesman to leader of a nation. “We consider Lumumba to be a great chief and a great leader.”

His reputation stretched across the continent, said Reuben Loffman, a lecturer in African history at Queen Mary University of London, who said Lumumba, a charismatic orator, was “somebody who stood up for African sovereignty in desperate circumstances and died for that belief.”

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But at the height of the Cold War, Lumumba was also perceived as a Soviet sympathizer, alarming the U.S. and its Western allies.