More than 60 years after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), his remains – which were kept by Belgium – were handed over to his relatives during a ceremony at the Egmont Palace in Brussels.
On Monday morning, ten days before the DRC's 62nd independence anniversary on 30 June, Federal Public Prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw handed over a small blue box containing Lumumba's remains – just one tooth – to Lumumba's next of kin in a private ceremony.
"At last, those are the words on everyone's lips this morning. And by 'at last,' we in fact mean too late, much too late," said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo during an official ceremony in the presence of the family and political delegations.
"It is not normal that Belgians kept the remains of one of the founding fathers of the Congolese nation for six decades," he said. "It is not normal that for six decades, those remains were kept in obscure circumstances, which were never really elucidated, but which in light of what is known today to not make us proud."
De Croo also apologised for the role Belgium played in Lumumba's assassination in 1961, one year after the Democratic Republic of Congo's independence. "A man was murdered for his political convictions, for his ideals. As a democrat and a liberal, I cannot accept this."
Strikingly, De Croo went a step further and added that Belgium should have acted differently. "Belgian ministers, diplomats, civil servants or soldiers may not have had the intention to have Patrice Lumumba killed. No evidence was found to support that they did. But they should have seen that transferring him to Katanga would endanger his life."
"They should have warned, they should have refused any help in transferring Lumumba to the place where he was executed," he said. "But they chose not to see it. They chose not to act."
While the "moral responsibility" of the Belgian Government in the assassination has long since been established, De Croo underlined the importance of repeating it in the presence of Lumumba's family.
"In name of the Belgian Government, I wish to apologise for the way in which it has weighed on the decision to do away with the first Prime Minister of independent Congo."
Similar to the speech of Belgian King Philippe in the DRC's capital at the start of June, De Croo acknowledged the "paternalism, discrimination and racism" at the base of the colonial regime, and acknowledged it still has offshoots in contemporary racism.
Taking Lumumba's tooth back to the DRC is of great "emblematic importance," as it is said to be the assassinated Prime Minister's last remaining body part. However, nobody knows if that is really the case, as his body was never found.
61 years ago, Lumumba was killed in disreputable circumstances and as De Croo touched on in his speech, Belgium has long tried to conceal its involvement. In 1999, however, former Belgian Chief of Police Gérard Soete admitted to assisting in the assassination, and dissolving Lumumba's body in sulfuric acid.
At this moment in time, Soete said he took several of Lumumba’s finger bones and multiple teeth, one of which was covered in gold, reportedly seeing it as "a type of hunting trophy." The remains were kept in his possession, and he even showed them on a Flemish television programme.
Soete died in 2000 and was never prosecuted. During a 2016 interview with Humo, however, his daughter Godelieve Soete showed one of Lumumba’s teeth, after which her house was searched by the police, and the remains were taken to be stored in Brussels’ Justice Palace.
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In 2001, a Belgian parliamentary enquiry determined that several Belgian officials were “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death, and the Belgian Government, then led by Flemish liberal Guy Verhofstadt, officially apologised for the murder a year later.
On Monday, the tooth was officially handed over to Lumumba's next of kin, his daughter Juliana Lumumba, who asked for the return of her father's "relics" in a letter addressed to the Belgian King at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in July 2020.
While handing over the box, Federal Public Prosecutor Van Leeuw said he considered it a great honour, "not to turn the page, but to contribute to our shared history." He also thanked the family for the legal steps they had taken to achieve this and "come one step closer to justice."
"Today, we commemorate, but we also renew. We make an act of partnership between the Belgians and the Congolese," De Croo added. "May this day be the beginning of a bright common future."