Lumumba's Tooth

Sardoine Mia, 9PM, Acrylic on Canvas, 50x65 cm


Patrice Lumumba's tooth is a symbol of European (post-)colonial violence in Africa

On the 20th of this month, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo restored one of his teeth to Patrice Lumumba's family, during a ceremony broadcast live on television. Lumumba was a central figure in the independence of Congo, then a Belgian colony, made official on June 30, 1960. On the occasion of the independence ceremony, in the presence of Balduíno, King of the Belgians, Patrice Lumumba delivered a speech with a strong anti-colonialist content,[1] provoking surprise and indignation in the former colonizers.

Patrice Lumumba's anti-colonialist awareness developed rapidly: if even in the mid-1950s, he believed in a peaceful evolution of the Belgian colonial system in the Congo, by the end of that decade he had become a supporter of independence for his country. This accelerated advance of their anti-colonialist consciousness accompanied the radicalization of Congolese politics that resulted from the vertiginous decomposition of the colonial order. In addition, his participation in the Conference of African Peoples in Accra, at the end of 1958, where Patrice Lumumba met, among other African leaders, Frantz Fanon, also played an important role.

Assuming the post of prime minister with independence, Patrice Lumumba stayed in office for less than three months, until September 14, 1960, when a coup d'état led by Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, then Secretary of State, removed him from power. and installs a provisional government. Shortly afterwards, on January 17, 1961, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated along with two of his close collaborators. With the support of Western powers, Mobutu ruled the country from 1965 until shortly before his death in 1997 – between 1971 and 1997, under his rule, the Democratic Republic of Congo was renamed Zaire. Self-styled “father of the nation”, Mobutu started a movement to promote national “authenticity” and, in 1972, he abandoned his baptismal name and changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko.

It took more than three decades after the murder of Patrice Lumumba for the events surrounding him to begin to surface. in your book The Murder of Lumumba, originally published in 1999, Belgian sociologist Ludo De Witte writes: “For almost forty years, these black pages [about the Lumumba murder] will be kept in silence, beyond the reach of history books”.[2] A few years earlier, in 1991, Jacques Brassinne, who had been a colonial official in the Belgian Congo, defended a doctoral thesis in Political Science at the Free University of Brussels entitled Investigation into Lumumba's death, in which he details the circumstances of the death of the Congolese leader, but states that it was the result of a settling of accounts between leaders of the new nation.

Opposing Brassinne's attempt to erase colonial violence, De Witte consistently shows that Patrice Lumumba was assassinated with the support of Brussels and its tentacles in the Congo. For De Witte, Western intervention in Congo responded to the pressing objective of halting the process of radicalization of the anti-colonial struggle in the country – a struggle that was aimed, above all, at putting an end to the domination of foreign capital over the natural resources of the new nation.[3]

Following De Witte's book, which had a great impact on Belgian public opinion, a commission of inquiry was set up by the parliament, which lasted from March 2000 to October 2001. In its report, the commission considered that, from the beginning , the Belgian government showed little respect for Congolese independence. According to his investigations, “concrete actions were taken with a view to overthrowing Patrice Lumumba: support for the secessions of the Katanga and Kasaï regions, use of secret funds, pressure on [Congolese President] Kasa-Vubu to remove Lumumba, encouragement of all opponents of the prime minister”.[4] However, the commission concluded: “No physical elimination order was given explicitly from Brussels, the final decision having been taken by the Congolese, albeit with the support of Belgian government bodies. This allowed [the commission] to conclude that certain members of the Belgian government have a moral responsibility in the circumstances that led to the death of Patrice Lumumba.”[5]. This “moral” responsibility would thus exempt those involved from any criminal liability.

More recently, in 2021, White malice: the CIA and the covert recolonization of Africa, by the English historian Susan Williams, shed light on the participation of the North American government in the production of political turmoil in Africa, with the final objective of controlling the natural resources of the continent's former colonies. At the time of its independence, Congo was at the top of the list of US priorities in Africa, due to its geographical position and its strategic mineral resources, particularly uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga. It was from this mine that the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities in 1945 came from.[6]. In the early 1960s, when the Cold War was already heating up, the US government feared that the new Congolese government would approach the Soviet Union and that, in the end, Katanga's uranium would fall into Moscow's hands.

In an interview in 2001, Howard Imbrey, a CIA official working in the Congo during that period, described the country's vital importance to the United States: “'We didn't want the Russians to get all the uranium. They already had uranium in their territory, but we certainly didn't want them to control all the ore that came from Congo. We did our best to stop them…'”.[7] Until independence, Congolese uranium was sold to the United States by the Belgians, but Lumumba had made it clear that the sale of the mineral would be reviewed.

At a meeting with US businessmen in New York in July 1960, Lumumba was asked what he would do with the contracts signed by the Belgians, to which he replied: “'The exploitation of Congo's mineral riches must serve our own interests in the first place. people and other Africans. (…) As I said, Belgium will not have any monopoly in the Congo now. Henceforth, we are an independent and sovereign state. Belgium does not produce uranium; it will be advantageous for both our countries if the Congo and the United States negotiate their own agreements in the future'”.[8]

US President Dwight Eisenhower was furious with these statements. Later that day, Patrice Lumumba's entourage received a call from Eisenhower's office making it clear that the US president would not receive the Congolese prime minister on his trip to the United States: “'I'm sorry, tell your prime minister. minister that the president would rather go play golf than meet Patrice Lumumba'”.[9] Shortly afterwards, at a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the situation in the Congo, on August 18, 1960, Eisenhower stated that it was necessary to eliminate Patrice Lumumba.[10].

Susan Williams concludes that, although the participation of the US government in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba seems invisible, the CIA pulled the strings that led to the death of the Congolese leader by third parties. In addition to pointing to the role, respectively, of the Belgian and US governments in Lumumba's murder, both De Witte's and Williams' books draw attention to the omission of the United Nations in the separatist conflict in Katanga, a province for which Patrice Lumumba was taken away on the day of his death and murdered.

The death of Patrice Lumumba in Katanga was accompanied by extreme squalor. After being tortured, the Congolese independence leader was shot. His body was dismembered and dissolved in sulfuric acid, so as not to leave any traces. In an interview in May 2000, the former Belgian policeman Gerard Soete, who worked in Congo at the time of independence, was the one who revealed how he disposed of the body of Patrice Lumumba and his two collaborators by order of the separatist government of Katanga: “ Accompanied by 'another white man' and some Congolese equipped with 'a metal saw and a barrel of sulfuric acid, we dismembered the body. The hardest thing was cutting it into pieces before pouring in the acid'”.[11] By the time he was already in his eighties, Soete concluded: “'I think we did something good, to save thousands of people and keep calm in an explosive situation'”.[12]

After that interview, Soete gave statements to television stations and declared that he had extracted two of Patrice Lumumba's teeth to keep them as trophies. “'Everyone wanted to boast about having killed Lumumba and, to prove it was me, I kept my teeth'”[13], said the former police officer. He further said that he took "a boat to dispose of the teeth in the North Sea and 'hear no more of this story'"[14]. In June 2000, Soete died in his hometown of Bruges. But in 2016, his daughter was interviewed showing one of Patrice Lumumba's teeth – the fate of the second tooth is unknown.

At that point, the relatives of the Congolese leader filed a lawsuit to recover the mortal remains, handed over to them only on the last 20th, accompanied by a formal apology from De Croo, who reiterated the thesis of Belgian moral responsibility.[15]. In Kinshasa, a burial ceremony will take place on June 30, the date of celebration of the 62nd anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The tooth will be deposited at the Patrice Lumumba Memorial, currently under construction in an area where a statue of the Congolese independence leader already stands.

Patrice Lumumba's tooth is a symbol of (post-)colonial European violence in Africa. It also represents the class of obstacles that the young African nations and their citizens would henceforth have to face in their quest for sovereignty and independence. Dissolving the body of the Congolese leader in acid was intended to erase, not leave traces of such violence. After forty years, with the revelations of Gerard Soete, but especially now, with the return of Lumumba's tooth to the family, Belgium is confronted with the violence of its colonial administration in its death throes.

At the time of Patrice Lumumba's assassination, the Belgian throne was occupied by a successor to Leopold II, whose reign from 1865 to 1909 was responsible for the colonial holocaust in the Congo that, it is estimated, caused the death of ten million people. The return of the mortal remains to the family is an important milestone that could point towards a concrete policy of memory and reparation, but Belgium still has to do more than acknowledge its moral responsibility, apologize and send the royal family on a visit to the Congo. .[16]

*Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri is a professor at the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). He is currently a visiting researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Author, among other books, of Unfettered capitalism: The critique of domination in the debates at the Instituto de Pesquisa Social in the early 1940s and in the elaboration of the Dialectic of Enlightenment (Humanitas).




[2] Ludo De Witte. L'assassinat de Lumumba. Paris: Éditions Karthala, 2000, p. 11.

[3] See: De Witte, 2000, pp. 374 ss.



[6] See: Susan Williams. White malice: the CIA and the covert recolonization of Africa. New York: PublicAffairs, 2021 [e-book], pp. 40 sec.

[7] Williams, 2021, p. 172.

[8] Williams, 2021, p. 218.

[9] Williams, 2021, p. 220.

[10] See: Williams, 2021, pp. 242 ss.







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