Featured Notes Wole Olaoye

Lumumba’s Tooth

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EditPro | Lagos Metropolitan newspaper By Wole Olaoye. wole.olaoye@gmail.com

Imagine reducing a human being— a political leader carrying the hopes and aspirations of millions of people… imagine reducing that person to just one tooth! One tooth — that’s all that remains to show that Patrice Émery Lumumba, a pan-Africanist and former Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, ever trod this earth.

After his political rivals led by President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Chief-of-Staff Joseph-Désiré Mobutu — with the active support of the United States and Belgium— succeeded in kidnapping, torturing, humiliating and executing him, they conspired to make him vaporise. The conspiracy of hate was so incendiary that they couldn’t bear allowing him to have a corpse, much less a grave.

They cut up his remains and soaked the lot in acid. Only two gold-capped teeth, kept as hunting trophies by one of the Belgian officers who participated in the murder, survived. Eventually, only one was found by the authorities who have now returned it to the Democratic Republic of Congo for burial.

Sixty-one years later, Lumumba’s golden tooth is being given a hero’s burial in the much-troubled Democratic Republic of Congo. After death, a person’s teeth are the most durable part of the body. That explains why they are often found with ancient skeletons. In the horrendous circumstances of Lumumba’s vaporisation, the survival of his tooth is a metaphor for the return of the native to his roots; the completion of a cycle of evil and the rebirth of hope.  

Those who masterminded Lumumba’s killing expect Africans to be grateful that they have at least retrieved Lumumba’s tooth from the trophy collection of Belgian police commissioner, Gerard Soete who participated in killing the African hero. I cannot for one minute lose sight of the symbolism of lumping a body part of an African with souvenirs from hunting expeditions. This is worse than racism. It betrays the sub-human texture of the psychological makeup of the West.

I am not one to play racial games or indulge in race baiting. However, I can’t help but note that the Black race is the most exploited and most dehumanised species of homo sapiens since the beginning of creation. From age to age, other races, especially the caucasian race, have visited untold horrors on black peoples, depopulated the African continent and shipped into slavery some of the strongest specimens of humanity that ever walked the earth. It is difficult to imagine if any other race — white, brown or yellow — would have been able to survive the multiple vicissitudes visited on black people over the ages.

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Congo had been particularly unfortunate to have the barbaric Belgians as colonial overlords, starting from the time of King Leopold II, the evil ruler who appropriated the Free State of Congo consisting of 3,000-square-mile, resource-rich interior jungle and Savannah to himself for 20 years. 

His private police force, the Force Publique, was the ultimate agent of terror used in maintaining the huge slave camp which the country had become. About 15 million people died during Leopold’s reign of terror either directly through his police enforcers or through diseases that had ravaged the land

At first, Leopold exploited ivory. But when the demand for rubber rose, he assigned a daily rubber quota. Congolese people were captured and forced into labor under torturous conditions. A man’s family or relatives might be held hostage until he returned from the rubber forests. If the man did not return with enough rubber, his kin was often raped, tortured, or maimed. The hands of those who couldn’t meet their quota were routinely chopped off.

A Catholic priest was reported to have been shocked by it all. He interviewed a man named Tswambe, about the much despised state official Léon Fiévez, who ran a district along the river. Tswambe gave him ear-popping details: 

“All blacks saw this man as the devil of the Equator … From all the bodies killed in the field, you had to cut off the hands. He wanted to see the number of hands cut off by each soldier, who had to bring them in baskets … A village which refused to provide rubber would be completely swept clean. As a young man, I saw [Fiévez’s] soldier Molili, then guarding the village of Boyeka, take a net, put ten arrested natives in it, attach big stones to the net, and make it tumble into the river … Rubber causes these torments; that’s why we no longer want to hear its name spoken. Soldiers made young men kill or rape their own mothers and sisters…”

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In exchange for rubber and ivory that came out of Congo, the royal butcher, Leopold II sent in soldiers and guns. He was said to have made about 70 million Belgian francs in profit while his exploitation lasted. Even after the Belgian State bought off the Congo from Leopold, it continued with its own version of racism and bestial exploitation.

To this day, Belgium has not changed. It is still a primitive, self-serving thieving entity that believes that the end justifies the means, no matter how odious. The other day, King Philippe of Belgium made his first visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he expressed his deepest regrets for the wounds of the past, characterised by unequal relations, paternalism, discrimination and racism that, “led to violent acts and humiliations”.

He did not apologise for the crimes King Leopold II and his other ancestors committed against Congolese people. Apparently, he believes that it is beneath him to apologise to his ancestors’ slaves.

I recall that the death of Lumumba took my neck of the woods by storm when it happened in 1961. Any pupil or student who grew up in the Western Region of Nigeria could not have missed the total grief that enveloped the region where Lumumba was considered a hero. The Action Group government of Chief Awolowo celebrated African leaders with socialist /welfarist leanings. Thus, people like Nkrumah of Ghana and Lumumba of the Congo were considered heroes.

Lumumba’s death was a region-wide loss; no less. Musician Hubert Ogunde cut it all out on vinyl for posterity:

Awon odale ti won pa Lumumba, (All the conspirators who killed Lumumba)

Ha! Aye ma re o,  (Ha! Treacherous world),

E o j’iya lat’aye lo   (You’ll suffer here on earth)

Ke to lo j’iya l’alujanna o.  (Before suffering in the hereafter)

Those were the days when political leaders earned their stripes by passing through the furnace of anti-colonial struggles amidst orchestrated conspiracies, betrayals and brutal repression. Those were the days of trail-blazers like Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal; Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria; Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana; Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea; Hubert Maga of Benin; Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon; Sylvanus Olympio of Togo; Modibo Keïta of Mali et al. 

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The challenges facing the new generation of African leaders are enormous. Apparently, current and future generations of African leaders will still have to battle the same demons their forebears fought against in very brutal unequal battles and wars. The West is still replete with many Leopolds and the economic rat race has become even more vicious with the invention of new tools and stratagems for sabotaging ‘uncooperative’ nations.

France is still kneeling on the necks of Francophone African countries through its ‘colonial debt ‘ overhang that allows it to continue to manage its former colonies as if they were boarding house students. With the African Union increasingly becoming a mere lounge for African leaders to fraternise and backslap each other — a far cry from the combative pro-liberation OAU of the 70s and 80s, I fear that the task of reining in these racist oppressors all over the continent is becoming harder by the day.

But I have hope that the millennials will rise up to their historic responsibility and liberate their space from the leeches which have over the years underdeveloped the continent. To each generation, its responsibilities!

The formal burial of Lumumba’s tooth will at least give his family some sort of closure. The consolation is that they have a tiny piece of him, minuscule as it is. 

The ancient Greeks and Egyptians described a mythical bird called the Phoenix, a magnificent creature that was a symbol of renewal and rebirth. The phoenix was a powerful being that appeared human. It possessed the ability to incinerate things through touch and was immune to conventional methods of killing; though the phoenix could technically “die”, it would resurrect soon after being killed. 

Like the Phoenix, the internment of Lumumba’s tooth, dust to dust and ashes to ashes, will trigger a rebirth in the Congo and on the continent of his birth.

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(Wole Olaoye is a Public Relations consultant and veteran journalist. He can be reached on wole.olaoye@gmail.com, Twitter: @wole_olaoye; Instagram: woleola2021)

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