Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|June 20, 2022|5 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editor’s Desk

Africa needs more than the tooth of a hero  

Am I the only one rolling their eyes at the latest token attempt by a European nation to atone for its wrongs in Africa?

This weekend the Guardian carried a tale of how a gold tooth belonging to Patrice Lumumba the murdered former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is on its way from Belgium to his family back in Africa. I have studied the story for years and appeared in the movie Lumumba more than 20 years ago and have always had a soft spot for his legacy and story.

How Lumumba’s tooth ended in the land of his former coloniser is one of the most shameful stories of Africa. He was elected in September 1960 as the country’s first prime minister – a shining hope of independence and integrity in post-colonial Africa and an inspiration to millions in a country ground under the heel of Belgians for generations.   The father of South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe was one of many Africans who named their sons in his honor.

Lumumba, seen as a volatile, yet an idealistic, leader, also proved a courageous one. Right at the birth of his country, Lumumba told the colonialists where to get off on independence day.

The Belgian King Baudouin, in the handover of power in Kinshasa, unbelievably talked about the “genius”  of his great-granduncle Leopold II of Belgium in arranging the brutal exploitation of a country that saw thousands of people die in the ruthless chase for rubber and other resources. The colonists kidnapped villagers and either mutilated or executed them if their quota of rubber was not extracted.

Thousands upon thousands of poor people died in exploitation beyond belief and most of the profits went to the private bank of King Leopold II, who treated the African nation as if it were his own private game park.

In his impromptu independence speech, Lumumba put paid to the idea that the Belgians were kindly handing over the country talking of his people’s “humiliating slavery.”.

“No Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won,  a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering,” he told a shocked Belgian king.

In the crazy Cold War mentality of the time, in Washington, it was a sign that Lumumba was going over to Moscow taking the country’s rich resources – including uranium – with him. Along with unrest in the new nation of the DRC, this was to prove Lumumba’s downfall.

Western intelligence operatives connived with Lumumba’s opponents – led by army officer Mobutu Sese Seko who was to take over as president  – to literally drag Lumumba out of office. A mob of Belgian mercenaries soldiers and police, humiliated Lumumba as they beat him to death on film. They found a handwritten speech in his pocket and forced Lumumba to eat his own words.

In short, they dismembered him and dissolved the corpse in acid. His teeth became a macabre souvenir of an evil killing.

Now one of those gold teeth is on its way back from Belgium to Africa to Lumumba’s  family to atone for the sins of the fathers. At the very least it will help Lumumba’s family mourn. Even so, the scientists can’t say for sure that it is in fact one of his teeth.

But enough of these tokens of apology for past crimes in Africa.

Let the proceeds of those crimes be repatriated to the Congo and plowed into the infrastructure of the DRC to give a chance to the entrepreneurs and risk takers of the country – the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people who voted for Lumumba 62 years ago. Channel back the funds created by the blood and sweat of the people.

Sound idealistic, but surely that would be a fitting legacy to Lumumba.