At 6’4”, and with an even bigger ego, Miguna Miguna has never been one to shrink from a fight. His latest confrontation with the authorities may have began with Raila Odinga’s swearing in on January 30, 2018 but the authorities’ attempts to target the lawyers who participated in the swearing-in has turned, in Miguna’s case and by the government’s acts both of impunity and incompetence, into a fundamental question of the meaning of citizenship.
On February 1, 2018, police arrested lawyer and Ruaraka Member of Parliament Tom Joseph Kajwang and charged him for participating in the swearing-in event. His arrest provoked the legal team that prosecuted Raila’s presidential election petition at the Supreme Court into action, convinced that who might be targeted after Kajwang. Miguna was high on the list.
Lawyers John Khaminwa, James Orengo, Julie Soweto, Nelson Havi and Cliff Ombeta had begun preparing applications for anticipatory bail, but a curve ball was heading their way.
At dawn on February 2, 2018, police raided 486 Runda Meadows, Miguna’s home. Miguna would later say that they used an explosive device to blast open his front door; shards of stained glass lay strewn at the entrance. A video circulated of neighbours and relatives in the aftermath of the police raid, protesting Miguna’s arrest while surveying the extensive damage done to the property.
A day earlier, police chief inspector Joseph Gichuki had obtained a warrant from the chief magistrate’s court at Milimani, Nairobi, to search Miguna’s residence for weapons and anti-government materials. Miguna was seized but no returns for the search have ever been filed in court.
Fearing that the police would attempt to hold Miguna over the weekend, his lawyers went before Justice James Wakiaga by 10 am on the day of his seizure and secured anticipatory bail, together with orders for his production in court on February 5. Makadara MP George Aladwa had also been arrested the previous day and released without charge, but Miguna was the big catch.
This was not the first time Miguna’s citizenship had been questioned. Back in January 2010, Party of National Unity spokesman Moses Kuria wrote to then Prime Minister Raila Odinga demanding that Miguna be fired from his position as advisor on grand coalition affairs since he held a Canadian passport.
Police refused to release Miguna despite the court order, and declined to disclose the place of detention, forcing a frustrated and futile search of police stations in Kiambu County over the weekend. His lawyers were informed that he was in a bad way at Lari Police Station but had no access to him.
It would mark the start of a five-day cat-and-mouse game that culminated in Miguna’s forcible removal from Kenya aboard a KLM flight to Toronto, via Amsterdam, and a repeat performance nearly two months later.
Public anger was swift in coming. One man was shot dead by police in protests to demand Miguna’s release in Ahero, Kisumu. For the army of young people, the millions unemployed, the slum-dwelling kibarua youth who forfeited their daily wages to take part in the NASA protests and had been radicalised by police brutality after the August 8 elections, they now increasingly identified with Miguna’s brand of radical politics: loud, direct and unambiguously, eloquently anti-Jubilee.
This was not the first time Miguna’s citizenship had been questioned. Back in January 2010, Party of National Unity spokesman Moses Kuria wrote to then Prime Minister Raila Odinga demanding that Miguna be fired from his position as advisor on grand coalition affairs since he held a Canadian passport. Miguna fought off those allegations, saying he had done what he needed to do to take on a dictatorial regime, and was defended by Immigration minister Otieno Kajwang, who said Miguna had never renounced his Kenyan citizenship.
The abrasive 55-year-old lawyer and author, who unsuccessfully contested the governor’s seat in Nairobi in 2017, fled into exile in 1988 after he was expelled from the University of Nairobi for his activism. He did not have a Kenyan passport. He became a naturalised Canadian after Kenya denied him a passport, and that citizenship was for years the only document standing between him and statelessness. His seizure at dawn was not only meant to detain him but also to revisit his passport issue, notwithstanding that the new constitutional regime allows for dual citizenship.
In the same week that Miguna was waging battles in court, the Director of Immigration suspended the passport of 15 senior NASA officials. Miguna’s personal travails were now part of a State’s agenda to punish collectively the opposition’s leadership. And in attacking Miguna’s right to Kenyan citizenship, they had headed in a direction beloved of failing republics in Africa.
Deportation, involuntary exile and banishment are stock-in-trade tactics of independent African nations. Bequeathed to them by their colonial predecessors, these are effective instruments for decapitating the organic leadership of restive populations. In the early colonial era, recognizing that they were not yet then strong enough to crush African resistance without provoking a wider revolt, the nascent colonial administrations routinely employed these tactics to subdue the African political leadership.
The record of deportations in colonial and post-colonial East Africa is long and infamous. To wit: Waiyaki wa Hinga, leader of the Kikuyu stood up to colonial officials: sentenced to deportation in Mombasa (he died at Kibwezi en route from Nairobi. It is said that he was buried alive and sitting); Mekatilili wa Menza and Wanje wa Mwadorikola: arrested in October 1913 for resisting labour conscription among the Giriama – deported to Mumias in western Kenya, but escaped a few months later and walked back home to continue with the resistance; Harry Thuku, founder and secretary of the Kikuyu Central Association: deported to Kismayu in Somalia in 1922 for agitating for improved living conditions for Africans. Here, we see a successful case of regime conversion. Thuku returned a changed man, conservative and pro-government and, to the end of his days in independent Kenya, deeply suspicious of African liberation.
Similar tactics were employed against Kabaka Muwanga of the Kingdom of Buganda, and Omukama Kabalega of the Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom. Both kings were deported to the Seychelles for resisting British occupation in the 1890s. Interestingly, their deportation officer, Frederick Lugard, was the same man who as a company man for the Imperial British East African Company at Fort Smith in Dagoretti, had made a treaty of friendship with Waiyaki wa Hinga, leader of the Kikuyu. When Lugard was forced to leave suddenly to organise the colonial forces in the Battle of Mengo in Buganda, his replacement at Fort Hall, George Wilson, abrogated the terms of the treaty, which included formal terms for the procurement of food and livestock, and turned Waiyaki into a rebel.
In the independence era, President Daniel arap Moi revoked journalist Salim Lone’s Kenyan citizenship for ‘disloyalty’ in 1982 before it was restored a year later. President Milton Obote cancelled Prof Mahmood Mamdani’s Ugandan citizenship after he gave an address at a Red Cross conference in 1985. Changes in constitutions appear to have done little to wean African states off the colonial instinct.
Banishment became a regular form of silencing dissent in apartheid South Africa, famously at its Robben Island Prison, as well as in the native Bantustans and the so-called free states.
In the independence era, President Daniel arap Moi revoked journalist Salim Lone’s Kenyan citizenship for ‘disloyalty’ in 1982 before it was restored a year later. President Milton Obote cancelled Prof Mahmood Mamdani’s Ugandan citizenship after he gave an address at a Red Cross conference in 1985.
Changes in constitutions appear to have done little to wean African states off the colonial instinct. When Miguna landed aboard an Emirates flight on March 26, his right of return backed by a slew of court orders, the full complement of the public service and the police were summoned to deal with him. The first sign of what the government planned to do was revealed when immigration lawyer Fred Ngatia reached out to Nelson Havi, one of Miguna’s lawyers, proposing that just the two of them meet Miguna on the airside. This was a suggestion that went against the court’s explicit orders, which had directed that officials of the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights observe the process of re-entry. During the next three days, as the stand-off against Miguna raged, the KNCHR would be systematically frustrated as they attempted to gain access to Miguna.
Two months after his first illegal deportation, Miguna was methodical in his dealings with the government. Arriving at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at about 2.30 pm, Immigration officials wanted him to hand in his Canadian passport – they were willing to give a visa gratis, but he declined, insisting that they comply with the various court orders.
Accepting to enter Kenya on a visa was made to appear like a small price for Miguna to pay: Officials had offered him the visa gratis, sweetened by making it for an unlimited time, and with no restrictions – and ultimately said they only wanted his passport to note down a case number.
James Orengo – as one of Miguna’s lawyers he was a regular presence at the JKIA – believed that Miguna could postpone his fight with immigration officials. That is, until he spoke to some officials. Had Miguna handed in his passport, he would have been deported immediately, says Julie Soweto, a member of his legal team.
Unknown to Miguna’s lawyers, the immigration officials had already purchased a ticket for his flight on the 8.40 pm Emirates flight to Dubai. Officials had disobeyed all the other court orders and were only seeking to comply with one requiring him to use his Canadian passport in default. At 8 pm, any pretense at diplomacy fell away. Suddenly there were a lot more police at the airport; a commando unit either of the Administration Police or the GSU also arrived with Emirates cabin crew to take Miguna to the aircraft.
NASA leader Raila Odinga had arrived, apparently convinced that he could spring Miguna from the airport. But the police locked down the terminal. Odinga was reduced to sitting in a chair in the baggage hall, from where he made ineffectual phone calls. The image of the NASA leader helplessly trying to stop Miguna’s seizure by the police is perhaps the most eloquent summary of his influence in the wake of the ‘handshake’ deal with Uhuru Kenyatta.
Another Emirates flight was departing at 10.40 pm, but it was delayed for an hour. At 11.34 pm, police officers in jeans and t-shirts stormed the baggage hall and seized Miguna, frisking him in the hope of taking his passport. He had rehearsed this part, careful to avoid arrest. With one foot in the cabin, and the other outside the aircraft, he let rip: “Where are [sic] my luggage? Where is my passport?”
Indeed, immigration lawyer James Nyikuli called Havi to ask for Miguna’s passport, which he did not have. Miguna could not be placed on an aircraft against his will; and the pilot could not fly with a screaming passenger shouting, “I am not boarding.” Loud and boisterous, tall and intimidating, a lone ranger prone to going it alone, Miguna is an inconvenient victim – and many people have condemned him for not yielding ground. Yet, allowing his Canadian passport to be stamped on entry would have amounted to surrendering his Kenyan citizenship, even if only symbolically — a prospect he was unwilling to countenance.
James Orengo believed that Miguna could postpone his fight with immigration officials. That is, until he spoke to some officials. Had Miguna handed in his passport, he would have been deported immediately.
On Twitter, he would write: “In 1962, @RailaOdinga fled to East Germany on a Tanzanian passport. In 1991 @RailaOdinga fled to Norway on a Ugandan passport. Ngugi wa Thiong’o fled to the UK in 1982 on a Ghanaian passport. But they were not forced to return to Kenya as foreigners. Am I a second class citizen?”
With his deportation aborted, Miguna’s lawyers returned to court on March 27 and obtained further orders for his release and production in court – all to no avail. Justice George Odunga, as duty judge, issued new orders for Miguna’s production and the personal appearance of Dr Matiang’i, the Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet and Immigration Permanent Secretary Gordon Kihalangwa. When they did not show up or produce Miguna in the afternoon, he ruled that them in contempt but invited them to hear their sentence the following day. That order too, was ignored.
Advocates who went to the airport to serve Odunga’s orders ran into a wall of 50 heavily armed police officers. Restaurants were shut, the doors to the terminal were blocked, and the lawyers faced off with the police. They were reading out the court orders, complete with a Kiswahili translation, when a lorry-load of police drove in at high speed, abruptly putting an end to this latest attempt to force the government to comply with the courts.
At 6 am the following day, Miguna called one of his lawyers. His speech was slurred but he reported that over 30 people had stormed into the toilet where he had been confined, pinned him down, sedated him and put him on a flight to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Memes of Miguna’s trademark skullcap and glasses on a black background now immortalize the struggle of conscience versus state power. But the emblem is also a reminder of the difficulties of attempting revolutions by using the law. Miguna has stirred a deep revolutionary instinct in the restless Kenyan youth.
Despite the government’s attempts to trivialise Miguna’s experience, the desperation that has driven it to its present actions now hides in plain sight. Although designed to psychologically break the spirit of resistance, the consequences of deportation always outlive the crises that set them off in the first place, and sometimes fuel and spark bigger fires.
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Educating the Native and the Ivy League Myth
Elite schools in the US continue to place a premium on institutions, not ideas. Where you went to school is what matters.
As a young student, I was always fascinated by the “top” universities and the erudite people that emerged from those august institutions. My first contact with Ivy League people was when I arrived at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in 1999 to start my MSc research. I met students and faculty from Princeton University (which is a trustee of the research centre) and was reassured that they looked “normal”, given all the academic challenges and foibles that a Kenyatta University student like me had. After I finished my MSc, the administration was impressed enough with my work to offer me a job as resident scientist, which I took up with the alacrity of someone catching a big break through hard work (I got a rude awakening later, but that’s a story for another day). As part of my job, I was to supervise a group of Princeton undergraduates undertaking a senior field project and, wanting impress, I sharpened my ecologist brain, especially because I thought I would be instructing some of the world’s sharpest young minds. Now I laugh at my consternation when, after mapping out clear and easy ecological transects for them, they strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle (they were ladies) and that the boss might be offended.
Later on, I asked a postgraduate student from the same institution how these ladies could be so casual about their studies and she couldn’t hide her amusement at my ignorance. “Grad school is competitive. Undergrads get in because of money and name recognition.” I was stunned, but I remembered this when I saw the poor work they submitted at the end of their study. Being an aspiring lecturer (and a student of the late brilliant Prof R.O. Okelo) I marked them without fear or favour, assuming that they would be used to such standards at Princeton. I was told that I couldn’t give them such low marks because they were supposed to qualify for med school after their biology degrees.
They strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle.
The next cohort included one serious student who I actually enjoyed instructing and who finished her course successfully. By that time though, I was getting restless and had started writing an academic and financial proposal for my PhD, and I finished it about six months after my student had returned to the US to graduate. The then Director of Mpala, Dr Georgiadis, refused to let me do my PhD on the job, so I submitted my proposal to several conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. I received a positive response from them (offering me a grant) which hit me with a strange mixture of feelings. First of all, I was elated at the prospect of starting my PhD, but I was completely baffled by the signature on the award letter. It was signed by the undergraduate student that I had supervised about eight months earlier. An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder. It was my rude awakening to the racial prejudice that is de rigueur in African conservation practice. But I had to get my academic career moving, and indulge my first taste of the ultimate luxury that my competence and my work could afford me, which was the ability to say “NO”. It was with extreme pleasure that I wrote and signed my letter of resignation from my job at Mpala, leaving it on the Director’s desk.
Years later, after I finished my PhD and had a useful amount of conservation practice under my belt, I attended the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Sacramento, California, where there was a side event featuring publishers from several Ivy League universities. I excitedly engaged them because at the time Gatu Mbaria and I were in the middle of writing “The Big Conservation Lie”. I pointed out to all of them that there were no books about conservation in Africa written by indigenous Africans, but they were uniform in their refusal to even read the synopsis of what we had written. I later understood why when I learned that in US academia, African names — as authors or references — are generally viewed as devaluing to any literature.
An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder.
From Sacramento, I made the short trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, to give a seminar to an African Studies group. I felt honoured to be making an academic contribution at an Ivy League university and I prepared well. My assertions about the inherent prejudices in African conservation practice were met with stunned silence by the faculty, many of whom are involved with conservation research in Africa. One bright spot in that dour experience was the brilliant PhD student who echoed my views and pointed out that these prejudices existed within academia as well. I later found out that he was Kenyan — his name is Ken Opalo and he now teaches at Georgetown University.
Fast forward to today. The Big Conservation Lie was published, and after the initial wailing, breaking of wind, gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Mbaria and I are actually being acknowledged as significant thinkers in the conservation policy field and our literary input is being solicited by various publications around the world. Now, the cultural differences between how European and American institutions treat African knowledge are becoming clear (certainly in my experience). I have been approached by several European institutions to give talks (lectures), and have contributed articles and op-eds (to journals and magazines) and one book foreword. Generally, the approach is like this:
“Dear Dr Ogada, I am_______ and I am writing to you on behalf of________. We are impressed with what you wrote in _____ and would appreciate it if you would consider writing for us an article of (length) on (topic) in our publication. We will offer you an honorarium of (X Euros) for this work, and we would need to receive a draft from you by (date). . .” Looking forward to your positive response. . .”
When inviting me to speak, the letters are similarly respectful and appreciative of my time. The key thing is the focus on and respect for one’s intellectual contribution. Publications from American Ivy league schools typically say:
“Dear Dr Ogada, I am __________, the editor of __________. We find your thoughts on _______ very interesting and we are pleased to invite you to write an essay of________ (length) in our publication. Previous authors we have invited include (dropping about 6-8 names of prominent American scholars).
The entire tone of the letter implies that you are being offered a singular privilege to “appear” in the particular journal. It is even worse when being asked to give a lecture. No official communication, just a casual message from a young student saying that they would like you to come and talk to their class on__________ (time and date on the timetable). No official communication from faculty or the institution. After doing that a couple of times, I realized that the reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications, or (God forbid) have an African name in the “references” section of their work.
The reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications.
European intellectuals seem to be catching on to the fact that knowledge and intellect reside in people, not institutions. That is why they solicit intellectual contributions based on the source of an idea they find applicable in that space and time. Name recognition doesn’t matter to them, which is why they seek people like Ogada, who doesn’t even have that recognition in Kenya. The elite schools in US still place this premium on institutions, which is why whenever an African displays intellectual aptitude, those who are impressed don’t ask about him and his ideas, but where he went to school. They want to know which institution bestowed this gift upon him.
For the record, I usually wait about a week before saying “no” to the Ivy League schools. Hopefully, they read my blog and will improve the manner in which they approach me, or stop it altogether.
Cuba Can Help Vaccinate the World
On 25 January, the Progressive International will host a special briefing live from Havana with Cuba’s leading scientists, government ministers and public health officials as part of its Union for Vaccine Internationalism.
2022 began with a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases crashing over the world, according to the World Health Organization. Over 18 million cases have been recorded in the past week alone, a record number since the pandemic began two years ago. In the first 10 days of January, nearly 60,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded worldwide — though the total death count is far higher than the official statistics describe.
The Omicron variant is reported to have less “severe” implications among vaccinated patients. But the world remains perilously under-vaccinated: 92 of the WHO’s member countries missed the 2021 target of 40 percent vaccination; at the current pace of rollout, 109 of them will miss their 2022 targets by July.
These statistics tell a story of a persistent vaccine apartheid. Across the EU, 80 percent of all adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Omicron is a death sentence for thousands in these countries — and as the virus travels across the Global South, new variants will emerge that may be less “mild” for the vaccinated populations of the North.
But the governments of these Northern countries refuse to plan for global vaccination — or even meet their own pledges. By late last year, they had delivered only 14% of the vaccine doses that they had promised to poorer countries through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing initiative. Big pharmaceutical corporations are focused almost exclusively on production of boosters for the world’s rich countries, creating a shortfall of three billion doses in the first quarter of this year.
President Joe Biden could easily help fill this shortfall by compelling US pharmaceutical corporations to share their vaccine technology with poorer nations. But he has so far refused to do so. A new production hub in Africa — where only 3 percent of people are vaccinated — is now trying to replicate the Moderna vaccine. But without Moderna’s help, or Joe Biden’s executive action, production could take more than a year to begin.
Amidst this crisis of global solidarity, Cuba has emerged as a powerful engine of vaccine internationalism. Not only has the island nation successfully developed two Covid-19 vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness, and vaccinated more than 90 percent of its population with at least one dose of its homegrown vaccine, Cuba has also offered its vaccine technology to the world. “We are not a multinational where returns are the number one reason for existing,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo of the Finlay Vaccines Institute in Cuba. “For us, it’s about achieving health.”
But the US and its allies continue to oppress and exclude Cuba from the global health system. The US blockade forced a shortage of syringes on the island that endangered its vaccine development and hindered mass production. US medical journals “marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries,” according to Vérez Bencomo. Meanwhile, the WHO refuses to accredit the Cuban vaccines, despite approval from regulators in countries like Argentina and Mexico.
That is why the Progressive International is sending a delegation to Havana: to combat misinformation, to defend Cuban sovereignty, and to help vaccinate the world.
Bringing delegates from the Union for Vaccine Internationalism, founded in June 2021 to fight the emerging apartheid, the Progressive International will convene Cuban scientists and government representatives to address international press and members of the scientific community in a showcase of the Cuban vaccine on 25 January.
The goals of the showcase are both local and global. Drawing attention to the promise of the Cuban vaccine and the perils of the US embargo against it, the showcase aims to forge connections between Cuba’s public biotech sector and manufacturers who might produce the vaccine and help the Cuban government recuperate the costs of its development.
In the process, the showcase aims to set an example of international solidarity in the face of the present global health crisis, advancing the cause of vaccine internationalism around the world.
This article was first published by Progressive International.
DRC: Bring Patrice Lumumba Home
The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.
For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.
At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.
The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance—from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.
In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.
While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.
These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.
Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction—at multiple levels and taking different forms—remains constant.
In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.
Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Felix’s election. Felix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi” for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.
Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.
For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.
Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.
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