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Belgium returns Congolese independence hero’s tooth to family

BRUSSELS – Belgian authorities on Monday returned a gold-capped tooth that belonged to slain Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba, as the former colonial power continues to grapple with its bloody past and seek reconciliation.

The restitution of the relic came after Belgian King Philippe expressed his opinion earlier this month “deepest regrets” for his country’s mistreatment in its former African colony, Congo, which is 75 times the size of Belgium.

After a private ceremony attended by Lumumba’s relatives, at which the federal prosecutor handed over a suitcase containing the tooth, the Belgian Prime Minister and Congolese officials are also scheduled to meet Lumumba’s family.

After his assassination in 1961, Lumumba’s body was dismembered and dissolved with acid to prevent a grave from becoming a place of pilgrimage. The tooth was confiscated decades later by Belgian officials from the Belgian police commissioner’s daughter, who said he took it after overseeing the destruction of Lumumba’s body.

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Two years ago, the federal prosecutor said there was no absolute certainty that the returned tooth was Lumumba because no DNA test could be carried out.

For many in Congo, Lumumba remains a symbol of what the country could have become after independence. Instead, it became entangled in decades of dictatorships that drained its vast natural 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 when he asked the Soviet Union for help to crush a secessionist movement in the mineral-rich Katanga region, he quickly fell out of favor with both Belgium and the United States during the Cold War era.

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 imprisoned. Lumumba’s assassination by separatists in January 1961 finally paved the way for Mobutu to rule the country he later renamed Zaire for decades until his death in 1997.

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Although Lumumba’s killers were Congolese, questions remained about the extent to which Belgium and the United States could have been involved in his death due to his alleged communist connections.

An inquiry by the Belgian parliament later found that the government was “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death. A US Senate committee found in 1975 that the CIA had hatched a separate, failed plan to assassinate the Congolese leader.

Two years ago, the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence sparked a call to rest Lumumba’s soul. Demonstrators gathered outside the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa demanding the return of his remains along with cultural artifacts stolen during colonial rule.

In Belgium, the international protests against racism after the death of George Floyd in the United States given new impetus to activists fighting for the removal of monuments to King Leopold II.

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Leopold had plundered the Congo during his reign from 1865 to 1909, forcing many of its inhabitants into slavery to extract resources for his own profit. In 1908 he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule the colony until its independence in 1960.

Amid the Black Lives Matter actions, protesters took down busts of the former monarch blamed for the deaths of millions of Africans, and King Philippe later expressed regret at the violence the country committed when it ruled the Congo . None of his predecessors had gone so far as to show remorse.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/06/20/belgium-returns-congo-independence-heros-tooth-to-family/ Belgium returns Congolese independence hero’s tooth to family

Sarah Y. Kim

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