Belgium returns to the family the tooth of the hero of Congolese independence

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

The relic was restituted after King Philip of Belgium voiced his allegations earlier this month. “Deep regrets” for the abuses of his nation in the former African colony of Congo, which is 75 times larger than Belgium.

Following a private ceremony in the presence of Lumumba’s relatives, during which the federal prosecutor handed over a case containing the tooth, the Belgian prime minister and Congolese officials are also scheduled to meet with Lumumba’s family.

After his assassination in 1961, Lumumba’s body was dismembered and dissolved with acid in an apparent effort to prevent a tomb from becoming a place of worship. The tooth was extracted by Belgian officials decades later by the daughter of a Belgian police commissioner, who said she took it after watching the destruction of Lumumba’s body.

Two years ago, the federal prosecutor’s office said there was no absolute certainty that the returned tooth belonged to Lumumba, as a DNA test could not be performed.

For many in the Congo, Lumumba remains a symbol of what the country could become after independence. Instead, he plunged into decades of dictatorship that drained his vast mineral wealth.

After pushing for an end to colonial rule, Lumumba became the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo in 1960.

But historians say that when he turned to the Soviet Union for help in suppressing the secessionist movement in the mineral-rich Katanga region, he quickly fell out of favor during the Cold War in both Belgium and the United States.

So when dictator Mobutu Cese Seko seized power in a military coup later that year, Western forces did little to intervene, as Lumumba was arrested and imprisoned. The assassination of Lumumba by separatists in January 1961 eventually cleared the way for Mobutu to rule the country, which he later renamed Zaire, for decades until his death in 1997.

Although Lumumba’s killers were Congolese, questions remain about how Belgium and the United States may have been complicit in his death because of his alleged communist ties.

A Belgian parliamentary inquiry later found that the government was “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death. The U.S. Senate Commission found in 1975 that the CIA had devised a separate, failed plan to assassinate the Congolese leader.

Two years ago, the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence renewed calls for Lumumba’s soul to rest. Protesters gathered in front of the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa, seeking restitution of his remains, along with cultural artifacts taken during colonial rule.

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

Leopold plundered the Congo during his reign of 1865-1909 and forced many of his people into slavery to extract resources for their own gain. In 1908 he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule the colony until it became independent in 1960.

Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter protests, protesters removed busts of the former monarch, who was responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans, and King Philip later deplored the violence perpetrated by the country during Congolese rule. None of his predecessors had gone so far as to express remorse.

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