Friday, January 28, 2022

Bringing Lumumba Home

Artwork: “The Death of Lumumba” by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu.

Last Monday, January 17, was the 61st anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Émery Lumumba (1925-1961), a leader of the Congolese independence movement who served as the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Republic of the Congo). Throughout much of his adult life Lumumba resisted colonialism and corporatism, a defiant stance that without doubt led to his murder.

As I’ve noted previously, I first became aware and interested in the life of Patrice Lumumba when I attended a special screening of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba at the University of Minnesota Film Society in 2000. (Today, Peak is probably most well-known for his 2016 film based on the writings of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro.)

According to The Guardian, Peak’s 2000 film, Lumumba, which features French actor Eriq Ebouaney in the title role, is a “commendable effort” and a “corrective to imperialism.”

After seeing the film shortly after its release, I did some research on Lumumba and found myself moved by the images that show him captured and bound while on his way to be executed. I was struck by his calm countenance, even as he no doubt knew what awaited him. To this day I find myself wondering if I could be so brave and calm in the face of torture and death.

In commemorating the life of Patrice Lumumba on the anniversary of his murder during a US-backed coup 61 years ago, I share a recent op-ed by Ira Dworkin on the long overdue return of Lumumba’s remains to his family. These remains (comprising of a single tooth) are held by the Belgian government responsible for Lumumba’s death. Dworkin documents how Lumumba’s family “continues to be victimized,” and he compellingly argues that the return of Lumumba’s remains “must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to [Lumumba’s] assassination and cover-up.”

Dworkin’s op-ed was first published last Friday, January 21, by The Elephant, an online publication dedicated to “speaking truth to power.”


Bring Patrice Lumumba Home

By Ira Dworkin

January 21, 2022

For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Félix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay – this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.

At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.

The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance – from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.

In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.

While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.

These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.

Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction – at multiple levels and taking different forms – remains constant.

In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.

Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Félix Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Étienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Félix’s election. Félix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi” for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.

Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.

For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.

Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.

Ira Dworkin
January 21, 2022

Above: Patrice Lumumba, about whom Colin Legum, a journalist, author, and notable anti-Apartheid activist, wrote in 2001: “I had got to know Lumumba reasonably well. . . . I found him gentle, and advanced in his social ideas, formed by his Christian beliefs and admiration for social democratic ideas. . . . Under different circumstances he could have been an impressive leader and saved the Congo from its terrible fate under the likes of the kleptomanic Mobutu.”

Related Off-site Links:
Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) – Sean Jacobs (Jacobin, January 17, 2017).
Brussels Sets Straight Historical Wrong Over Patrice Lumumba Killing – Patrick Smyth (The Irish Times, July 5, 2018).
Congo Rising to Produce Feature Film Patrice Lumumba in Africa; Compelling Story of Martyred Congo Leader Coming to the (January 14, 2021)
In Search of Lumumba – Christian Parenti (In These Times, January 30, 2008).
Patrice Lumumba: The Most Important Assassination of the 20th Century – Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja (The Guardian, January 17, 2011).
Death of Lumumba – A History of Foreign Involvement – S.A. Randhawa (I/R/M, December 13, 2019).
Both Belgium and the United States Should Be Called to Account for the Death of Patrice Lumumba – Tim Butcher (The Spectator, March 7, 2015).
Patrice Lumumba’s Daughter: I’m Demanding Belgium Give Back My Father’s Remains – Juliana Lumumba (Jacobin, August 1, 2020).
Congo’s Patrice Lumumba: The Winds of Reaction in Africa – Kenneth Good (CounterPunch, August 23, 2019).
The Tragedy of Lumumba: An Exchange – Ludo De Witte Colin Legum and Brian Urquhart (The New York Review, December 20, 2001).
Martyr by Choice – Catherine Hoskyns (The New York Review, April 5, 1973).
An Exchange on the Death of Lumumba – A.C. Gilpin and Catherine Hoskyns (The New York Review, April 22, 1971).
Who Killed Lumumba? – Catherine Hoskyns (The New York Review, December 17, 1970).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Raoul Peck on Patrice Lumumba and the Making of a Martyr
Remembering Patrice Lumumba
John Pilger on Resisting Empire
Resisting the Hand of the Empire
New Horizons

Opening image: “The Death of Lumumba” by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu. Notes the website Lumumba and Art:

We can see Lumumba in the clothes familiar to us in many of the photographs of him, dressed in a white shirt and the pants of his suit. He is lying dead on the ground, with other bodies in the background. These are those of Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito. From a large wound on the right side of Lumumba the word unite (or unité) is formed in blood.

Although creating the familiar image we know from the photos and video images of his arrest, it creates a picture that we do not know, because there is not a photograph of Lumumba murdered. Tshibumba, with this painting, then fills a mystery gap in the history of the final moments of Lumumba, while staying true to the images we do have of him.

Mary Nooter Roberts says about this picture that the light on the forehead of Lumumba, which forms a cross, is again derived from an interpretation of a photograph of Lumumba with the light probably caused by the flash of a camera. This cross is then extended in the three symbolic crosses on the right-side of the painting.

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