Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba met a grisly end after his assassination in 1961: His body was dismembered and dissolved with acid in an apparent effort to keep any grave from becoming a pilgrimage site.
Then, the story goes that a tooth was pulled from his corpse during the effort in the middle of the night. And even that was taken from Congo, brought home to colonizer Belgium by a man whose family then apparently kept it for more than half a century.
Now a court in Belgium has cleared the way for the tooth presumed to be Lumumba’s to be returned home, with prosecutors announcing Thursday that it will soon be handed back to his relatives after years of lobbying efforts.
Daughter Juliana Amato Lumumba had renewed the family’s calls around the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium in June, commemorations which came amid a global reckoning over racial injustice that has brought new scrutiny of European wrongs in Africa.
“In our culture as in yours, the care given to someone’s remains is a sign of respect for that human being,” she wrote in her letter to Belgium’s king asking for help in returning the remains.
“So why, year after year, is Patrice Emery Lumumba condemned to remain a dead person without burial, having only a date on a tomb?”
Lumumba remains for many in 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 Congo’s first prime minister in 1960.
But historians say when he reached out to the Soviet Union for help in putting down a secessionist movement in mineral-rich Katanga region, he quickly fell out of favor during Cold War times with both Belgium and the United States.
So when dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a military coup later that year, Western powers did little to intervene as Lumumba was arrested and jailed. Lumumba’s assassination by separatists in January 1961 ultimately cleared the way for Mobutu to rule the country he later renamed Zaire for decades until his death in 1997.
Even though Lumumba’s killers were Congolese, questions have persisted over how complicit Belgium and the United States may have been in his demise because of his perceived Communist ties.
A Belgian parliamentary probe later determined that the government was “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death. A U.S. Senate committee found in 1975 that the CIA had hatched a separate, failed plan to kill the Congolese leader.
Eric Van Duyse, a federal prosecutor’s office spokesman in Belgium, told The Associated Press there is no absolute certainty that the tooth being returned to Congo is Lumumba’s since no DNA test could be conducted.
“If such a test had been done it would have destroyed the tooth itself,” he said.
Judicial officials were all but certain, though, that it belonged to Lumumba because of where authorities got the tooth from, Van Duyse said, refusing to elaborate.
For now the tooth remains in a court registry until it will be handed over at an unspecified date.
Four years ago, a magazine in Belgium published an interview with the daughter of one of the policemen who had destroyed Lumumba’s remains that night. The journalist reported being shown a tooth believed to have been taken from the corpse.
The 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence reignited the calls to put Lumumba’s soul to rest. Protesters gathered outside the Belgian Embassy in Kinshasa, seeking restitution of his remains along with cultural artifacts taken during colonial rule.
“We want them to hand over Lumumba’s tooth,” said Johnny Makola, who was among the protesters in the crowd. “He is a national hero.”