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Belgium returned a single tooth to the Congo this week. Here's why

Belgium's King Philippe greets the children of the Congo's former prime minister Patrice Lumumba, from left, Juliana, Francois and Roland at the Royal Palace in Brussels, Monday, June 20, 2022
Geert Vanden Wijngaert
Belgium's King Philippe greets the children of the Congo's former prime minister Patrice Lumumba, from left, Juliana, Francois and Roland at the Royal Palace in Brussels, Monday, June 20, 2022

This week, an unlikely artifact has been returned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). And along with its return is the hope that there will be some closure for those subjected to a gruesome chapter of European colonialism.

The object? A tooth that had once belonged to Patrice Lumumba, and is now all that remains of The Democratic Republic of the Congo's first democratically-elected prime minister.

Lumumba was known as a charismatic leader whose reputation inspired hope for independence throughout Africa in the 20th century. He first took power when the Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

Months later, however, Lumumba was assassinated after a Belgian-supported coup. He was tortured and executed, and his body dissolved in acid.

One Belgian police officer took this tooth as a memento back to his country. On Monday, Belgium's prime minister returned that tooth to Lumumba's family in a ceremony that took place in Brussels.

Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the Belgian government accepted "moral responsibility" for the crime of Lumumba's assassination.

"A man was murdered for his political convictions, for his ideals. As a democrat and a liberal, I cannot accept this," the Brussels Times reported him saying.

At the ceremony, Lumumba's daughter, Juliana, thanked the Belgium king and its government for returning her father's remains.

Juliana had sent a letter to Belgium's King Philippe on June 30, 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, asking for the return of these remains.

She said that the ceremony underlined Belgium and the DRC's common history and hope for its shared future. But she also mourned that key facts about his assassination were still not fully accounted for.

"Father, how did you die? We don't know. When did you die? We don't know. Where were you assassinated? We still don't know that, either," she said.

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a Congolese historian who participated in the independence movement led by Lumumba, and also currently serves as the Congo's representative to the United Nations.

He joined Ari Shapiro to discuss the history leading up to this moment, and the context that may have been left out.

This interview has been lightly edited, and contains violent and disturbing content.

Interview highlights

On Patrice Lumumba and his historic legacy

Patrice Lumumba was a charismatic leader, very eloquent speaker, and a person who really could mobilize people to fight for independence. He was a unifier. He created the first all Congolese political party based not on ethnicity, or based on region, but for the entire country, and was a person who was very much committed to improving the livelihood of Congolese people.

[Lumumba] was on the radio and television on a regular basis. He's a national hero, and we celebrate January 17th as Lumumba Day. So he's very well known.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo delivered a speech during a ceremony to hand over the tooth.
NICOLAS MAETERLINCK / Belga/AFP via Getty Images
Belga/AFP via Getty Images
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo delivered a speech during a ceremony to hand over the tooth.

What is known about Lumumba's assassination?

The West did not like him. President Eisenhower of the United States gave orders to the CIA to assassinate him at the meeting of the National Security Council on August 18th, 1960, by the simple expression, "Can't we get rid of that guy?" But Allen Dulles, the CIA boss, understood exactly what the President meant, because it was something that Dulles was used to.

The Belgians also had their own plan to assassinate Lumumba by hiring a crocodile hunter to shoot him. But all of those plans were abandoned for a better plan, which was to use Congolese adversaries of Lumumba, to make sure that Lumumba [would lose] power, and then could be arrested and executed.

On what the Democratic Republic of the Congo would be like today if Lumumba were still alive

Well, we don't really know, but certainly [it] would have been much better than what it is today. Because Lumumba would be the kind of person who would fight against corruption. Who would make sure that Congolese interests come first, before the interest of other countries. And I think that that would have made for a much better country than what we have had, at least until the day the last government, which ended in 2018.

On the return of Lumumba's tooth to the Democratic Republic of the Congo

For the family it is one thing that [gives them] a place where they can go. And also for the Congolese people, we have a mausoleum where this tooth is going to be led to rest. And this will be a very, very good thing in terms of having a place of remembrance, a place where the Congolese can go and honor Lumumba.

More has to be done. And we [have] waited without discussing the question of the return of artifacts. Some Congolese also are addressing the question of reparations. The government isn't really talking about it right now. Because I think that they believe we should go slowly step by step, and engage in discussion and maintain the excellent relations we now have between the Congo and Belgium. But we'll certainly like to see more.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.