BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgian authorities on Monday returned a golden tooth belonging to slain Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba, as the former colonial power continues to confront its bloody past and looks for reconciliation.
King Philippe of Belgium said earlier this month that his “Deepest Regret” Congo is 75 times as likely as Belgium for his country’s abuses in its former African colony, Congo.
After a private ceremony in the presence of Lumumba’s relatives, federal prosecutors handed over a case containing the tooth, and the Belgian prime minister and Congolese officials are also due to meet Lumumba’s family.
After his assassination in 1961, Lumumba’s body was dismembered and dissolved in acid, apparently to prevent any of the graves from becoming a place of pilgrimage. Decades later, Belgian officials confiscated the tooth from the daughter of the Belgian police chief, who she said he took after overseeing the destruction of Lumumba’s body.
Two years ago, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it could not be absolutely certain that the returned tooth was Lumumba’s because DNA testing was not available.
For many in Congo, Lumumba remains a symbol of what the country could become after independence. Instead, it fell into decades of dictatorship that drained its rich mineral resources.
After pushing for an end to colonial rule, Lumumba became the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo in 1960.
But historians say he quickly fell out of favor with Belgium and the United States during the Cold War when he sought help from the Soviet Union to suppress a separatist movement in the mineral-rich Katanga region.
So when dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a military coup later that year, Lumumba was arrested and imprisoned, with little intervention from Western powers. Lumumba was assassinated by separatists in January 1961, ultimately clearing the way for Mobutu to rule the country, which he later renamed Zaire, for decades until his death in 1997.
Although Lumumba’s killer was Congolese, the question of the extent to which Belgium and the United States may have complicit in his killing has persisted because of his perceived ties to communism.
An investigation by the Belgian parliament later determined the government was “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death. A U.S. Senate committee found in 1975 that the CIA had developed a separate, failed plan to kill the Congolese leader.
Two years ago, the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence rekindled calls for Lumumba’s soul to rest in peace. Protesters gathered outside the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa to demand the return of his body and artifacts looted during colonial rule.
In Belgium, international protests against racism follow George Floyd’s death in US given new impetus Activists fighting for the removal of the monument to King Leopold II.
Leopold plundered the Congo during his rule from 1865 to 1909 and forced many of its people into slavery, exploiting resources for his own benefit. In 1908, he handed it over to the Belgian government, which continued to rule the colony until independence in 1960.
In Operation Black Lives Matter, protesters tore down the bust of the former monarch responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans, and King Philip later lamented the country’s violence while ruling Congo . None of his predecessors expressed remorse.