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Legalise It: The Absurd Ban on Marijuana as a Metaphor for Maendeleo-Development

9 min read.

Why marijuana remains illegal (in most of Africa) and tobacco legal speaks volumes about the contradictions of capitalism. Why native enterprises remain ‘informal’ while foreign investment is favoured and sought after by African governments is an old, insidious trick of imperialism. DAVID NDII pens an anti-development manifesto.

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A few weeks ago I made what I thought was an innocuous comment on a Twitter news post in response to a news post reporting that police had intercepted a 17 kg marijuana haul, to which I commented “legalize marijuana”, thereby unleashing a tweetstorm that went on for days.

Why is marijuana illegal? Consumption of marijuana is a victimless crime. It has proven therapeutic value, while tobacco is a proven carcinogen that harms both the smoker and third parties through second hand smoke, yet cigarette smoking is legal but marijuana is criminalized? Is it perhaps because, as I opined in the Twitter debate, tobacco is a big global capitalist enterprise, but everyone can roll their own joint?

This article is not about marijuana. It is a critical reflection on the phenomenon we call development. I will be arguing that the phenomenon we call development shares the same historical DNA as the criminalization of marijuana. The case for decriminalization of marijuana is a metaphor for the deconstruction of this thing we call development. This DNA consists of three things: colonialism, Christianity and capitalism. I will reflect on each in turn.

Why is marijuana illegal? Consumption of marijuana is a victimless crime. It has proven therapeutic value, while tobacco is a proven carcinogen that harms both the smoker and third parties through second hand smoke, yet cigarette smoking is legal but marijuana is criminalized? Is it perhaps because, as I opined in the Twitter debate, tobacco is a big global capitalist enterprise, but everyone can roll their own joint?

In her irreverent and hilarious novel, Red Strangers, Espelth Huxley subjects European superiority complex to Kikuyu customary law. When Karue sends his insolent young son to collect a long overdue bride-price debt that was the subject of a running feud, a fight breaks out and the young man is killed. The family sets about collecting the “blood money”, a hundred and seventeen goats, to compensate the Karue clan for the loss of their son. But the white man has already arrived and Matu is arrested for the murder of the young man and taken to Tetu to face the white man’s justice.

Karue testifies against Matu (though he was not at the scene) but to his great consternation, he learns that his clan will not be paid blood money. Even though it is Matu’s brother Muthengi’s sword which killed the young man, they agree that Matu will confess to the crime since they are brothers – it does not matter; it could as well have been Matu – only to learn that Matu will belong to the white man for six seasons:

The phenomenon we call development shares the same historical DNA as the criminalization of marijuana. The case for decriminalization of marijuana is a metaphor for the deconstruction of this thing we call development. This DNA consists of three things: colonialism, Christianity and capitalism.

Matu said nothing, for the words did not seem to make sense. He supposed that the interpreter had made a mistake. Muthengi however asked: “But why is Matu to stay here in Tetu? The affair of the young man’s death is between Karue and my father Waseru. What has the stranger to do with it?”

“That is the stranger’s law. Matu killed the evil man. Therefore he stays with stranger.”

“Does the stranger give him to Karue?” Muthengi persisted.

“No, he stays here.”

“Who gives him food?”

“The stranger gives him food.”

“Then what does Karue receive in compensation for his son, who is dead?”

“He does not receive anything.”

“That I cannot understand!” Muthengi exclaimed. “If a man loses his son, or a child his father, must not his family be given compensation for their loss? How else can justice be done?”

“Stranger’s justice is different,” the interpreter said. “Matu must stay here.”

“Then the stranger gets something for Karue’s loss, and Karue’s clan gets nothing at all,” Muthengi said. “This seems to me to be a very peculiar law, and one with no justice in it at all. Now I understand how these strangers have become so exceedingly rich; when they sit in judgement they award nothing to the injured person, but everything to themselves.”

“That is the law nonetheless.” The interpreter said.

A law with no justice at all. Law without justice is the essence of colonialism.

The Agikuyu also concluded that Gūtirī mūthūngū na mūbīa (the white man and the priest are one and the same), by which they meant that the church was part of the colonizing mission. I can attest to this.

I spent a considerable part of my childhood and youth at my grandparents’ home in Kijabe, a Christian mission hamlet sad to be the third largest missionary centre in the world, run by the African Inland Mission, the parent of the African Inland Church (AIC). It is, to the best of my knowledge, the only alcohol-free community in Kenya. There is not a single bar in the town, and the shops do not stock alcohol and cigarettes either.

The town belongs to the church. With the exception of public schools, all other formal institutions in the town are part of the church establishment. There’s the Kijabe Mission Hospital, a bible school, a radio station, printing press and the Rift Valley Academy, an international school. Formal wage jobs and business opportunities are given on the basis of religiosity.

Kijabe, a Christian mission hamlet sad to be the third largest missionary centre in the world, run by the African Inland Mission…the town belongs to the church…[and] the community is divided into two: the “saved” and the “unsaved.” My grandfather who was a rebel of sorts designated the Holy Joes as either “hinga” (hypocrites) or “njuhiga” (opportunists). The combination of the two he reserved for the clergy.

The community is divided into two: the “saved” and the “unsaved.” My grandfather who was a rebel of sorts (he was a school teacher far away and only came home on occasional weekends and school holidays) designated the Holy Joes as either “hinga” (hypocrites) or “njuhiga” (opportunists). The combination of the two he reserved for the clergy. Four decades on, not much has changed. It is still a place where drunkards are upright, honorable people, and obsequious sanctimonious scoundrels are the pillars of society. Kijabe is a microcosm of the damage that the Church has wrought in Africa.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines capitalism as “an economic system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than the state”. The Marriam-Webster is more elaborate. It defines capitalism as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision and by prices, production and distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”.

According to these definitions we would be compelled to conclude that pre-colonial Africa was capitalist. Being largely stateless, trade was unregulated and the means of production privately owned by default. We would be wrong. These dictionary definitions are flawed. What they define are contemporary and mostly Western market economics. The juxtaposition of private and state ownership already points to the capitalism/socialism dichotomy, a 20th century phenomenon.

Capitalism as a distinct economic system was introduced in the political lexicon by Karl Marx. Marx refers to it variously as the “capitalist mode of production” or “capitalist system,” and it is thus defined in the Communist Manifesto co-authored by Marx and Friedrich Engels:

“The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus value, and consequently to exploit labour power to the greatest possible extent.”

Abraham Lincoln, in a speech to the US congress, weighed in on the presumption of capitalism as the default of market economy thus:

“It is not needed, nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions; but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effect to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless. Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital, producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation.”

Although Lincoln’s speech, given in 1861, predates his famed correspondence with Marx, Lincoln was very likely influenced by his ideas, since Marx was a prolific contributor to the US press in the 1850s.

The dictionary definition’s most dangerous flaw is that of conflating capitalism with a market economy. It gives the market economy a bad name. The defining feature of capitalism is one where capital employs wage labour. A market economy on the other hand, does not prescribe which factor of production employs the other. Capital can hire labour, or labour can hire capital. To illustrate, consider the boda boda industry. One will find riders (labour) who hire motorcycles (capital) at a fixed fee, owner-operators and even riders who have invested in motorcycles that they lease out.

The defining feature of capitalism is one where capital employs wage labour. A market economy on the other hand, does not prescribe which factor of production employs the other. Capital can hire labour, or labour can hire capital.

It is tempting to dismiss the boda boda industry as a jua kali anomaly, an exception rather than the rule. Here in Kenya we have cooperatives and other collective commercial enterprises operating in many sectors, including one of the largest and most successful financial cooperatives (SACCOs) sectors in the world. SACCOs operate in the market economy, for profit, but they really don’t compete with each other—the serve their members. The smallholder farmer-owned KTDA conglomerate is Kenya’s largest manufacturing concern, and the single largest exporter of black teas on the world. These enterprises operate in the market, they really do not compete with each other, they coexist and cooperate, as each seeks to serve their respective members.

Their objective is not to maximize profit but rather, to improve the welfare of their members. It is possible to conceive of a market economy consisting of a boda boda-style industrial organization, cooperatives and KTDA-type concerns. It is also readily apparent that such an economy would not have the malevolent character we associate with modern-day globalized capitalism.

In Marx and Engels’ day, capital meant industrial capital—machinery and equipment. When he talks of mutual benefits, Lincoln is talking about industrial capital. The malevolence of capitalism is rooted in the nature of finance capital — what Costas Lapavistas has termed “profiting without producing”. Financial capitalism separates profits from production and seeks only a return on money. The malevolence of finance capitalism was postulated most forcefully by Lenin in his 1917 essay Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. E.K Hunt’s textbook History of Economic Thought provides a cogent and most pertinent summary of the thesis:

“When productive capacity grew faster than consumer demand, there was very soon an excess of this capacity and hence there were very few profitable domestic investment outlets. Foreign investment was the only answer. But in so far as the same problem existed in every industrialized capitalist country, such foreign investment was only possible if [the] non-capitalized could be “civilized”, “Christianized” and “uplifted” — that is, if their traditional institutions could be forcefully destroyed, and the people coercively brought under the domain of the “invisible hand” of market capitalism.”

“Uplifted.” Is this not the thing we now call development?

As regards destruction of traditional institutions, it is instructive that when colonialism introduced wage labour, the Agikuyu devised a name for it, guthukuma (verb), as distinct from wiira (work). Gūthūkūma which is most likely a corruption of the swahili word sukuma (to push) conveys involuntary toil. Work was not sold. Even destitute people were not subjected to wage labour. They were adopted as tenants (ahoi), and given an opportunity to work for themselves. When extra hands were needed, such as walling a hut (gūthinga), one invited community members to help (gūtūmana wiira meaning “invitation to work”). The only obligation was to feed the people generously. Even today, if you serve someone a large helping, they might exclaim kari ithinga? (is it for walling work). But over time the distinction disappeared, and wage labour appropriated wiira. People conscripted into servitude and undignified chores resigned themselves to the pragramism of wiira ni wiira, (“work is work”, kazi ni kazi in Kiswahili), which you still hear today. But hidden in the pragmatism is a psychology of resistance that makes Africans problematic wage labour. Deep down, we resent it.

When productive capacity grew faster than consumer demand, there was very soon an excess of this capacity and hence there were very few profitable domestic investment outlets. Foreign investment was the only answer. But in so far as the same problem existed in every industrialized capitalist country, such foreign investment was only possible if [the] non-capitalized could be “civilized”, “Christianized” and “uplifted” — that is, if their traditional institutions could be forcefully destroyed, and the people coercively brought under the domain of the “invisible hand” of market capitalism.

We need not revisit European imperialism to validate the thesis. With its US$ 3.2 trillion trade surplus and excess production capacity at home, China’s unfolding debt imperialism is as textbook a case of Lenin’s capitalist imperative as it can get. It is instructive that China’s imperial ambitions are propelled by the State, rather than private capital — the China Roads and Bridges Corporation is the new Imperial British East Africa Company. This is further repudiation of the dictionary definition of capitalism.

Not to be outdone, the whats-her-name-again Brexit-befuddled British premier was out here hawking “upliftment” aid and investment. The Iron Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is touring West Africa. Last year, Germany published a report proposing a Marshall Plan for Africa. It is a sloppy, callous offensive document, down to dredging up slavery and the 1884 Berlin Conference, as if we need a reminder. That aside, the big idea of the Marshal plan is surprise, surprise, to leverage aid to increase German private investment in Africa.

With its US$ 3.2 trillion trade surplus and excess production capacity at home, China’s unfolding debt imperialism is as textbook a case of Lenin’s capitalist imperative as it can get. It is instructive that China’s imperial ambitions are propelled by the State, rather than private capital — the China Roads and Bridges Corporation is the new Imperial British East Africa Company.

Development is but another name for imperialism.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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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.

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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.

Aluta continua.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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