Belgium returns Patrice Lumumba’s tooth to family 61 years after his murder

Belgian authorities have returned a tooth belonging to the murdered Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba , as the former colonial power continues to confront its bloody past and look toward reconciliation.

The restitution of the relic took place after Belgium’s King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” this month for his country’s abuses in its African former colony, Congo, 75 times the size of Belgium.

After a private ceremony in the presence of Lumumba’s relatives, during which the federal prosecutor handed over a case containing the gold-capped tooth, Belgium’s prime minister and Congolese officials were also due to speak to the family.

After his assassination in 1961, Lumumba’s body was dismembered and dissolved with acid in an apparent effort to keep any grave from becoming a pilgrimage site.

The tooth was seized by Belgian officials decades later from the daughter of the police commissioner who said he took it after overseeing the destruction of Lumumba’s body.

Two years ago, the federal prosecutor’s office said there was no absolute certainty that the tooth being returned was Lumumba’s since no DNA test could be conducted.

Lumumba remains for many in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a symbol of what the country could have become after its independence. Instead, it became mired in decades of dictatorship that drained its vast mineral riches.

After pushing for an end to colonial rule, Lumumba became the newly independent country’s first prime minister in 1960. But historians say when he asked the Soviet Union for help to quash a secessionist movement in the mineral-rich Katanga region during the cold war, he fell out of favour with Belgium and the US.

When the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a military coup that year, western powers did little to intervene as Lumumba was arrested and jailed. His assassination by separatists in January 1961 ultimately cleared the way for Mobutu to rule the country, which he later renamed Zaire, for decades until his death in 1997.

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