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Huduma Namba: Another Tool to Oppress Kenyans?

8 min read.

Since independence the Kenyan state has decided who is an “insider” and who is an “outsider” and which territorial spaces they should occupy. This has led to the politics of exclusion and marginalization based on geographical boundaries, religion or ethnic identity. These second-class citizens are then forced to use personalised patronage networks to gain access to their rights as citizens, such as the right to an ID or a passport. Will the Huduma number foster this reality?

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When President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that the newly rolled out National Integrated Identity Management System, popularly known as Huduma Namba, would be the “single source of truth” about every Kenyan, I wondered if he understood the reality of what it means to be a citizen of a country where identity often determines destiny, and where the acquisition of documents like IDs and passports is quite often based on the whims of the state, or one’s ability to pay a bribe.

Besides, what “truth” is revealed about a person through this biometric registration system? I have a Huduma Namba, therefore I am? Do I cease to exist in the eyes of the state because I do not possess one? What truths are not – and can never be – revealed by a mere number? Can my hopes and dreams, pains and sufferings, joys and disappointments, be encapsulated in a plastic card in my possession?

The Huduma Namba form requires those registering to provide details of their national ID, National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), National Social Security Fund (NSSF), birth certificate, driver’s licence and Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) PIN numbers. I wonder how an 80-year-old Turkana woman will obtain a Huduma Namba when she doesn’t even have a birth certificate or an NSSF number.

And because the government has threatened to deny services to those who do not obtain a Huduma Namba (a cabinet secretary threatened to deny passports to people who do not have one), what happens to those Kenyans who have not been able to obtain any type of identity document because the state decides who is a bona fide citizen and who is not?

Take the case of the late Adam Hussein Adam, an activist whose ancestors were brought to Kenya from the Sudan by the British to serve in the King’s African Rifles. Adam, a Nubian, was born in and grew up in Kenya but was denied a Kenyan ID and passport for most of his life. (Which means he would also have been disqualified for a Huduma Namba.) For this reason, he failed to secure a place on the national rugby team and could not accept a scholarship to study in New Zealand. He got several offers from international organisations to work abroad, but could not take them up because he did not possess a passport.

When Adam applied for a Kenyan passport, he was told to bring his parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ birth certificates, which was impossible, as his parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations had no birth certificates.

Between 1992 and 2000 Adam unsuccessfully applied for a Kenyan passport five times. After producing 13 documents to prove his identity, he was finally invited for an interview. He was told by immigration officers that Nubians are not regarded as Kenyans. He was denied a passport, and so he remained stateless.

In 2003, he filed a case in the High Court seeking an interpretation as to whether Nubians are Kenyans. The High Court told him to collect 120,000 signatures from Nubians plus documentation proving their identities. Adam thought it was strange that a court would ask Nubians for identification documents since these were the very documents that were being denied to them, and the reason for which Adam had gone to court in the first place.

Adam eventually acquired a Kenyan passport, but the struggle was long and hard. The mind boggling hostile bureaucracy he faced was the kind of “death by a thousand small cuts” that Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda talked about in a recent article.

In 2006, he took his case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and also petitioned the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. In 2011, these bodies found that Kenya had violated the rights of Nubian children to non-discrimination, nationality and protection against statelessness.

Adam eventually acquired a Kenyan passport, but the struggle was long and hard. The mind boggling hostile bureaucracy he faced was the kind of “death by a thousand small cuts” that Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda talked about in a recent article.

Kenyan Somalis have faced similar obstacles. In 1989, President Daniel arap Moi’s government began implementing a screening exercise on ethnic Somalis to determine whether they were Kenyans or Somalis. As Kenyan human rights lawyer Gitobu Imanyara commented at the time, the exercise effectively “de-citizenised” an entire community and placed the burden of proving that they were Kenyans on their own shoulders.

Since independence the Kenyan state has decided who is an “insider” and who is an “outsider” and which territorial spaces they should occupy. This has led to the politics of exclusion and marginalisation based on geographical boundaries, religion or ethnic identity. Somalis, Nubians, coastal Muslims, Asians and other “non-indigenous” groups considered lower down the “citizenship ladder” are, therefore, viewed as “second-class citizens”, and are more vulnerable to state persecution and neglect. These second-class citizens are then forced to use personalised patronage networks to gain access to their rights as citizens, such as the right to an ID or a passport.

Will the same apply to the Huduma Namba? Will some people simply become “de-citizenised” by virtue of the fact that the Kenyan state did not recognise their existence? Will not having an ID, and therefore, a Huduma Namba, mean that a section of Kenyan society will remain permanently un-serviced and further marginalised?

The Chinese and Indian models

To be fair, the use of technology to obtain mass biometric and demographic data is not new. In recent years, both the Indian and Chinese governments have introduced unique identity numbers that they, like the Kenyan government, claim will make it easier to provide government services to citizens. (Though it must be noted that in much of the rest of the world, government services are not denied to people who cannot prove their identity. When I lived in London, for example, I could use the National Health Service simply by virtue of being a resident in the UK; my Kenyan passport did not deny me access to free healthcare. In the United States, a driving licence, Green Card or passport are sufficient proof of identity.)

The Kenyan High Court that ruled that registering for a Huduma Namba should be voluntary and not mandatory

In 2009, India introduced Aadhaar – a 12-digit unique identity number (UID), tellingly managed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, not the Ministry of Planning – in order to streamline “targeted delivery of financial and other subsidies, benefits and services” to the residents of India and to prevent leakages in service delivery.

However, since its introduction, the Indian government has been encouraging citizens to link their Aadhaar numbers to a variety of commercial services, from mobile SIM cards to bank accounts (imagine the implications of that!), which raises concerns about whether the state has the right to deny people services provided by private companies and entities. Will those who do not have the Aadhaar card be denied a SIM card, for example?

It has become virtually impossible to carry out any business in India, including admission to a private hospital, without presenting the card, which has been hailed by a World Bank economist as “the most sophisticated ID programme in the world.

The legality of Aadhaar has been challenged in Indian courts, mainly with regard to issues to do with privacy, surveillance and citizens’ rights to welfare services, especially those citizens who are marginalised. Like the Kenyan High Court that ruled that registering for a Huduma Namba should be voluntary and not mandatory, the Supreme Court of India gave an interim order stating that “no person should suffer for not getting an Aaadhar”. However, it has become virtually impossible to carry out any business in India, including admission to a private hospital, without presenting the card, which has been hailed by a World Bank economist as “the most sophisticated ID programme in the world”.

There are also lingering privacy and surveillance concerns. There have been cases where biometric data has been shared with security and other state agencies, which raises questions about whether the data is safe and confidential. Moreover, if financial or other personal information is leaked or gets into the hands of criminals or hackers what recourse is there for the victims?

China’s “social credit system” is potentially even more problematic. This system, which was introduced in 2014, essentially rates citizens for their “good behaviour”. Authorities add or subtract points from citizens through the system, depending on how they behave. Jaywalking or neglecting to pay a bill could deny you certain rights, services or privileges, such as housing benefits or access to credit. More serious “crimes” could get you blacklisted by the government, which means you are basically denied all government services, a concept that negates the very essence of citizenship.

Some have accused the social credit system of giving the Chinese Communist Party complete power and control over the Chinese people. As one commentator put it, “China’s social credit system has been compared to Black Mirror, Big Brother and every other dystopian future sci-fi writers can think up. The reality is more complicated – and in some ways, worse.”

In an authoritarian state like China, where all citizens are heavily monitored and where freedom of expression and of the media are restricted, such a system could be used to conduct mass surveillance on citizens and to punish dissidents, thereby giving more power to a government that already enjoys unrestrained authority – and further curtailing people’s freedoms.

Kenya’s poor record in the use of technology

The very idea that you could be denied a service because you cannot identify yourself through a number also negates basic constitutional freedoms and rights that both Kenya and India guarantee, the right to privacy being among these freedoms and rights. Apart from concerns that the Huduma Namba could be used to promote the private commercial interests of President Uhuru Kenyatta, whereby banks associated with the Kenyatta family could benefit from a credit scheme linked to the Huduma Namba (as claimed recently by David Ndii in an article published in the eReview), Kenyans have legitimate reasons to be worried about the government having access to so much of citizens’ personal data.

In the absence of a law protecting personal data from abuse or misuse, what guarantee do Kenyans have that their data will not be sold off to a third party for political or commercial reasons

First, in the absence of a law protecting personal data from abuse or misuse, what guarantee do Kenyans have that their data will not be sold off to a third party for political or commercial reasons? As with Facebook, which is facing allegations of making users’ data available to nefarious “social engineering” and “mind control” companies like Cambridge Analytica to benefit certain politicians and political parties during elections in the United States and in Kenya, how do we know that the data obtained by the government will not be used to manipulate elections or prevent certain voters from voting? Will the Huduma Namba now replace the voter’s card?

Secondly, the Kenyan government has proved to be completely inept (or deliberately malicious) in using technology, as demonstrated during the 2013 and 2017 elections when the biometric digital systems for voting either failed or malfunctioned, and when servers seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Apart from questions regarding the procurement of the technology, and whether kickbacks were involved, Kenyans watched in horror as the electoral body fumbled through the election results, even claiming that several voting stations could not electronically transmit the election results. Astonished voters like myself ended up voting in stations where our details were entered in a book as fingerprint recognition technology malfunctioned. If an entire election can be bungled in this way, what fate will befall the Huduma Namba database?

Moreover, all attempts by this so-called “digital” government to introduce computerised systems in government, ostensibly to reduce corruption and to streamline service delivery, have failed miserably; on the contrary, corruption has reached unprecedented levels. It is now an accepted fact that the introduction of the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) in government procurement led to the disappearance and theft of billions of shillings from state coffers. If IFMIS can be so easily manipulated by government officials, then how easy will it be to hack or manipulate the Huduma Namba system?

The issue, I believe, is mainly about trust: How does one trust a government/state that has a reputation of criminalising citizens, where the onus of proof of citizenship falls on the citizen and not the government, and where lack of one document or another can land you in jail? If the government can use the information citizens provide against those very citizens, then what incentive do those citizens have to give the government that information?

Until Kenya reaches a stage where citizens feel protected – rather than persecuted – by the state, where being born is not a crime, there will continue to be lingering doubts about the real intentions of the Huduma Namba biometric registration scheme.

Kenya is not Norway or Sweden, where citizens are convinced that the government is working in their interest, where there are sufficient checks and balances to prevent fraud or malpractices, and where people believe that their taxes will benefit the public, not corrupt politicians. Until Kenya reaches a stage where citizens feel protected – rather than persecuted – by the state, where being born is not a crime (to paraphrase Trevor Noah), there will continue to be lingering doubts about the real intentions of the Huduma Namba biometric registration scheme.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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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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