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Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer

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Three intelligence officers tell Declassified UK that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, tracked and arranged the arrest of Michael Adebolajo in Kenya, contradicting MI6’s testimony to two intelligence oversight reviews.

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Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer
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Republication courtesy of Declassified UK / the Daily Maverick. First published by Declassified UK on 12 November 2020.

The town of Kizingitini on Paté island, just off Kenya’s north-eastern coast, is an otherwise unremarkable fishing village surrounded by mangroves. As a gateway to the Horn of Africa, the island inhabits an historically strategic location, with Arab and Portuguese merchants taking turns to settle the island.

In recent history, the island has enjoyed relative peace and, in a nod to its lush surroundings and history, its locals sing: “None who go to Paté returns; what returns is wailing”.

In November 2010, the island unexpectedly received international attention when British terror suspect, Michael Adebolajo, and five others were arrested there by Kenyan police. They were allegedly planning to cross into Somalia to join the al-Shabaab militant group responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya.

It was one stage of a journey that would end with the murder of a British soldier on the streets of London and a parliamentary investigation into the handling of the case by the UK’s domestic security service MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), known as MI6.

The British government denied prior knowledge of – or involvement in – Adebolajo’s arrest and interrogation, which he claimed was abusive. However, defying expectations, and under controversial circumstances, the British High Commission in Nairobi intervened to bring Adebolajo back to the UK and save him from terror charges in Kenya.

Once back in Britain, Adebolajo claimed he was subject to ongoing harassment by MI5 and that the security agency tried to convince him to become a covert human intelligence source in order to spy on Islamic extremists.

Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya in 2010, but brought to UK and released where in 2013 he murdered British soldier, Lee Rigby

Less than three years after being returned to the UK, on 22 May 2013, Adebolajo and his accomplice Michael Adebowale hunted down Fusilier Lee Rigby, near his barracks in Woolwich, southeast London and brutally hacked him to death in broad daylight. Adebolajo and Adebowale were later convicted of murder and sentenced to life and 45 years in prison, respectively.

Claims that Adebolajo had previously been on the radar of the UK intelligence agencies prompted a parliamentary investigation into whether the killing of Rigby could have been prevented by the spy agencies.

The review by the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), published in 2014, found mistakes in British security operations but concluded they were not “significant enough to have made a difference” in stopping the attack.

The ISC report, and another review conducted in 2016 by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, Mark Waller, both concluded that Adebolajo’s arrest was not procured by British intelligence.

But an investigation by Declassified in Kenya now provides a different picture, contradicting both the reviews and MI6’s testimony to them.

ARCTIC in Kenya

Both reviews covered the involvement of a body called ARCTIC, which the Intelligence Commissioner’s report described as “a Kenyan counter-terrorism intelligence unit which has a close working relationship with… HMG [Her Majesty’s Government].”

It continued: “Although ARCTIC can and does act independently of HMG and without its knowledge, their relationship appears to be much closer in practice than some of the more formal, theoretical statements about it might suggest.”

Declassified previously found that ARCTIC is in fact an MI6 liaison cell within Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) counter-terrorism unit and plays a key role in identifying, tracking, locating and interrogating terror suspects in Kenya.

ARCTIC undertakes undercover operations to produce actionable intelligence on targets who are then killed or captured by the police, including the clandestine CIA-backed paramilitary Kenyan police unit named the Rapid Response Team (RRT). Declassified has also revealed that ARCTIC is involved in raids involving alleged summary executions, such as the case of terror suspect Kassim Omollo in 2013.

Declassified can now reveal that MI6, working with Kenyan’s NIS intelligence officers, tracked and arranged for Adebolajo’s arrest, according to two NIS officers familiar with the operation, who made the admission independently of each other. Their testimony was further corroborated by a former CIA counter-terrorism officer familiar with operations in east Africa.

“For that specific case they [MI6] were here. I can’t deny that”, one of the NIS officers told Declassified. “If it were not for them I think it would have been difficult for us to do that job… That specific assignment was important. Because the mark [suspect] was from their place, their country.”

Declassified has learned that upon Adebolajo’s arrival in Kenya in October 2010, MI6 alerted Kenya’s NIS and sought approval from its Director to meet with two intelligence officers and brief them on the case at NIS’ headquarters in Nairobi.

MI6 told two government reviews it was not involved in Adebolajo’s arrest in Kenya

A team of Kenyan intelligence trackers then moved to the coastal city of Mombasa, where it tracked Adebolajo and his associates to Paté island and arranged for their arrest before they could sail off to Somalia, it was alleged.

An investigating officer with Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) familiar with Adebolajo’s case confirmed to Declassified that his arrest came after the local police officer in charge received intelligence about his movements.

British covert surveillance capabilities played a key role, the two NIS officers told Declassified. One of the officers spoke of the difficulty in tracking Adebolajo due to his awareness of electronic surveillance measures. Believing he could outsmart British and Kenyan intelligence, Adebolajo often relied in Kenya on email communications at internet cafes.

But Adebolajo was unaware of extensive British intelligence surveillance capabilities, including those of MI6’s sister agency, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) — Britain’s signals intelligence organisation — which can conduct surveillance on targets.

The “GHOSTHUNTER” programme, run by GCHQ, operates in collaboration with the US National Security Agency, and can target internet and phone access by identified individuals, by intercepting communications transmitted through satellite terminals, documents leaked by Edward Snowden show.

GCHQ has made regular use of GHOSTHUNTER to locate “high value targets” for kill or capture operations in countries such as Kenya, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to documents leaked by Snowden.

MI6 team worked with Kenyan intelligence cell to track Adebolajo and arrange his arrest, Kenyan officers say

It is possible that, in addition to its own field surveillance capabilities, MI6 relied on the programme’s capabilities to track Adebolajo.

However, the two NIS officers confirmed to Declassified that the arrest was designed to appear exactly as the UK Intelligence Commissioner asserted in his review: “happenstance”.

The officer also confirmed that the ARCTIC intelligence officers who interrogated Adebolajo while in Kenyan police custody were the same officers later involved in the capture and interrogation of another Briton, Jermaine Grant, a year later.

Britain’s Foreign Office, which oversees MI6, declined to answer questions for this article, citing a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.

Misleading inquiries

The Kenyan officers’ testimony contradicts the evidence MI6 provided to the ISC and the Intelligence Commissioner, and the conclusions of both reports. Evidence was given to the ISC by Sir John Sawers, then the head of MI6, and other MI6 officers.

The report of the ISC, which was chaired by former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, stated that “both SIS and MI5 were notified of Adebolajo’s arrest and detention. Prior to this, SIS and MI5 had been unaware that Adebolajo had travelled to Kenya”.

The Intelligence Commissioner’s report similarly concluded: “Neither SIS nor MI5 knew that Mr Adebolajo was in Kenya prior to his arrest there; and SIS had the operational lead thereafter but no contact with him”. The Commissioner, Mark Waller, put down Adebolajo’s arrest by the Paté island police to a “chance sighting”. Waller concluded that the individual MI6 officers who gave evidence to his inquiry “did their best to answer all my questions honestly and truthfully”.

He also described, somewhat inconsistently, MI6’s engagement with the review as “wholly inadequate”, stating that it “provided inaccurate and incomplete information and generally sought to ‘fence’ with and ‘close down’ lines of inquiry, rather than engage constructively.”

Evidence provided to Declassified supports this view. “That’s on them to lie to their oversight committee”, a former CIA counter-terrorism official with knowledge of Adebolajo’s case said of MI6’s claim of non-involvement.

“That whole case was a guy who had been on the radar and they lost him [prior to Lee Rigby’s killing]. For whatever reason, they couldn’t take it to the next level and 6 [MI6] is trying to cover their ass, no different than the FBI does and we do. We fuck up too.”

“That’s on them [MI6] to lie to their oversight committee”, former CIA counter-terrorism officer with knowledge of the case tells Declassified

The Intelligence Commissioner’s report contained hints of MI6’s involvement in the arrest before going on to dismiss them. It noted: “Intelligence Officer 1 [an MI6 officer] took a comment by one of his Kenyan counterparts as an indication that Mr Adebolajo had been arrested as the result of intelligence provided by an agent”. But the report concluded: “As it happens, there almost certainly was no agent”.

The report also stated that on 18 November 2010—three days before Adebolajo was arrested—an MI6 officer presumed to be based in Nairobi sent an email to MI6’s head office in London summarising Kenyan laws and procedures on the arrest, detention and deportation of British nationals suspected of extremism.

The email also outlined the process whereby MI6 and MI5 would work together on the identification of targets—and noted that the British government would work closely with ARCTIC on the planning of detention operations.

Accountability

MI6’s reluctance to disclose its role in Adebolajo’s arrest is likely to be explained by the desire to keep secret its extensive relationship with Kenya’s intelligence service, as recently revealed in a months-long investigation by Declassified. It may face questions about its involvement in Kenya’s bloody war on terror, which has seen hundreds of suspects killed or disappeared.

The ISC stated in its report: “Where HM Government has a close working relationship with counterterrorist units, they will share responsibility for those units’ actions.”

The Intelligence Commissioner agreed, stating: “I consider that any allegations of mistreatment made against ARCTIC would be of concern to HMG irrespective of whether it co-operated in or was aware of the underlying operation because of their close working relationship and intelligence-sharing arrangements.”

The MI6 ARCTIC liaison cell was also behind the intelligence that led to the capture of two Britons in Mombasa three years after Adebolajo’s arrest in 2013, and of a doctor and three others in Kenya in 2016, over alleged attempts to stage an anthrax attack in support of the Islamic State terrorist group, Declassified can also reveal.

A Kenyan officer familiar with the operation to arrest the anthrax attack suspects recalled a pre-meeting between ARCTIC officers, RRT paramilitaries and ATPU officers. The ARCTIC intelligence officers “gave us the type of the suspect, whom we were going to arrest, and—during the search—the items which we were to go for”, the officer said.

One of the Kenyan officers described the ARCTIC cell as “highly mobile, highly covert”, even by NIS standards, and composed of human intelligence field operatives and tech specialists. Alongside MI6, the CIA and Israel’s Mossad each have separate liaison cells within Kenya’s NIS. Each cell is composed of a team of Kenyan officers dedicated to working with the foreign intelligence agencies to counter terrorism in the country.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind told Declassified that its allegations were “very disturbing” but said he was “sceptical” of them, adding that it was “highly improbable” that MI6 officers deliberately lied about their involvement.

He stated: “It is not impossible that certain SIS officers were carrying out activities in Kenya that had not been authorised by London… [but]… my main reason for scepticism is that I cannot see what motive SIS would have had to lie to the ISC.”

Sir Malcolm added: “There would have been nothing embarrassing or controversial for SIS in volunteering this information. It had no relevance to the subsequent brutal murder of Lee Rigby. I do not see any credible motive for the Chief of SIS, and his colleagues, to have lied to a statutory Committee of Parliament.”

But Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chaired one of the reviews, claims there was no “credible motive for the chief of SIS, and his colleagues, to have lied to a statutory Committee of Parliament”

The revelations cast significant doubt on the willingness of Britain’s intelligence oversight body, the ISC, as well as the Intelligence Commissioner, to fully examine Adebolajo’s claims, pursue leads and interview available witnesses as part of their reviews.

The Guardian previously reported that “the committee [ISC] is alleged to have reached its conclusions without speaking to a number of witnesses, including a family member and lawyers, who claim Adebolajo complained a year before the attack of repeated approaches by the security services”.

Tasnime Akunjee, a criminal defence solicitor who is familiar with Adebolajo’s case and represented a close friend of his who appeared on BBC Newsnight to tell Adebolajo’s story, told Declassified, “SIS [MI6] and the UK authorities have worked hand in glove with the Kenyan authorities, with the full knowledge that the Kenyan authorities have been accused many times of extrajudicial killings… That would be their motivation to lie; given that the UK authorities even in Guantanamo Bay have been found liable simply for being present when individuals were being tortured.”

Akunjee added: “Where there is intelligence sharing between countries, the rule is that nobody leaks. If it does leak from one particular side then that relationship is strained or then ceases. So there would not just be a motivation for the security services to keep a lid on this, but generally for the entire UK government to want to maintain that close working relationship with Kenya.”

Former Intelligence Commissioner Mark Waller told Declassified via an intermediary that “he has always felt it inappropriate to give interviews in relation to his role as Intelligence Services Commissioner”.

Sir John Sawers declined to comment. Adebolajo’s lawyers also declined to comment, citing the need to review the findings with their client.

Read Part 1 of this investigation here.
Read Part 2 of this investigation here.

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Namir Shabibi is a British investigative journalist who has written and produced documentaries for the BBC, VICE News and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, among others. Declassified UK is an investigative journalism organisation that covers Britain’s role in the world.

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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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