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Towards an African Revolution: Fanon and the New Popular Movement (Hirak) Engulfing Algeria

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Sixty years after the death of the revolutionary Frantz Fanon and the publication of his masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, Algeria is undergoing another revolution. In the first of a two-part blogpost, Hamza Hamouchene provides a brief historical account of Fanon’s anti-colonial thought, his critique of the postcolonial ruling elites and the new popular movement (Hirak) engulfing Algeria.

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During the upheavals that the North African and West Asian region witnessed a decade ago – what has been dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’- Fanon’s thought proved to be as relevant as ever. Not only relevant, but insightful in helping to grasp the violence of the world we live in, and the necessity of a sustained rebellion against it.

Fanon’s wrote during in a period of decolonisation in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. Born in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean, though Algerian by choice, he wrote from the vantage point of the Algerian revolution against French colonialism and of his political experiences on the African continent. Today, we might ask: can his analyses transcend the limitations of time? Can we learn from him as a committed intellectual and revolutionary thinker? Or should we just reduce him to another anti-colonial figure, largely irrelevant for our post-colonial times?

For me, as an Algerian activist, Fanon’s dynamic and revolutionary thinking, always about creation, movement and becoming, remains prophetic, vivid and committed to emancipation from all forms of oppression. He strongly and compellingly argued for a path to a future where humanity ‘advances a step further’ and breaks away from the world of colonialism and European universalism. Fanon represented the maturing of anti-colonial consciousness and he was a decolonial thinker par excellence.

Despite his short life (he died at the age of 36 from leukaemia in 1961), Fanon’s thought is rich and his work, in books, papers and speeches, prolific. He wrote his first book Black Skin, White Masks in 1952, two years before Điện Biên Phủ (the defeat of the French in a crucial battle in Vietnam) and his last book, The Wretched of the Earth in 1961. His 1961 classic became a treatise on the anti-colonialist and Third-Worldist struggle, one year before Algerian independence, at a moment when sub-Saharan African countries were gaining their independence – an experience in which Fanon was deeply and practically involved.

In Fanon’s intellectual journey, we can see the interactions between Black America and Africa, between the intellectual and the militant, between theory and practice, idealism and pragmatism, individual analysis and collective action, the psychological life (he trained as a psychiatrist) and physical struggle, nationalism and Pan-Africanism and finally between questions of colonialism and those of neo-colonialism.

Fanon did not live to see his adoptive country become free from French colonial domination, something he believed had become inevitable. Yet his experiences and analysis were the prism through which many revolutionaries abroad understood Algeria and helped to turn the country into the mecca of Third World revolution.

Six decades after the publication of his masterpiece The Wretched, Algeria is witnessing another revolution, this time against the national bourgeoisie that Fanon railed against in his ferocious chapter ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.’

Fanon and colonial Algeria

The Algerian independence struggle against the French was one of the most inspiring anti-imperialist revolutions of the 20th century. It was part of a wave of decolonisation that had started after the Second World War in India, China, Cuba, Vietnam and many countries in Africa. The wave of decolonisation inscribed itself in the spirit of the Bandung Conference and the era of the ‘awakening of the South’, the Third world as  it was then known, which has been subjected to decades of colonial and capitalist domination under several forms, from protectorates to settler colonies.

Frantz Fanon methodically unpicked the mechanisms of violence put in place by colonialism. He wrote: ‘Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.’ According to him, the colonial world is a Manichean world (to see things as having only two sides), which goes to its logical conclusion and ‘dehumanises the native, or to speak plainly it turns him into an animal.’

What followed the insurrection on November 1, 1954, launched by nationalist forces against the French, was one of the longest and bloodiest wars of decolonisation, which saw the widespread involvement of the rural poor and urban popular classes. Huge numbers of Algerians were killed in the eight-year war against the French that ended in 1962, a war that has become the foundation of modern Algerian politics.

Arriving at Blida psychiatric hospital in 1953 in French controlled Algeria, Fanon realised quickly that colonisation, in its essence, produced madness. For him, colonisation was a systematic negation of the other and a refusal to attribute humanity to them. In contrast to other forms of domination, the violence here was total, diffuse, and permanent.

Treating both French torturers and liberation fighter, Fanon could not escape this total violence. This led him to resign in 1956 and to join the Front de libération nationale (FLN). He wrote: ‘The Arab, alienated permanently in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation.’ He added that the Algerian war was ‘a logical consequence of an abortive attempt to decerebralise a people’.

Fanon saw colonial ideology being underpinned by the affirmation of white supremacy and its ‘civilising mission.’ The result was the development in the ‘indigènes évolués’ (literally the more  evolved natives) of a desire to be white, a desire which is nothing more than an existential aberration. However, this desire stumbles upon the unequal character of the colonial system which assigns places according to colour.

Throughout his professional work and militant writings, Fanon challenged the dominant culturalist and racist approaches on the ‘native’: Arabs are lazy, liars, deceivers, thieves, etc. He advanced a materialist explanation, situating symptoms, behaviours, self-hatred and inferiority complexes in a life of oppression and the reality of unequal colonial relations.

Fanon believed in revolutionary Algeria. His illuminating book A Dying Colonialism (published in 1959) or as it is known in French L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algérienne, shows how liberation does not come as a gift. It is seized by the popular classes with their own hands and by seizing it they are themselves transformed. He strongly argued the most elevated form of culture – that is to say, of progress – is to resist colonial domination. For Fanon, revolution was a transformative process that created ‘new souls.’ For this reason, Fanon closes his 1959 book with the words: ‘The revolution …changes man and renews society, has reached an advanced stage. This oxygen which creates and shapes a new humanity – this, too, is the Algerian revolution.’

Bankruptcy of the post-colonial ruling elites

Unfortunately, the Algerian revolution and its attempt to break from the imperialist-capitalist system was defeated, both by counter-revolutionary forces and by its own contradictions. The revolution harboured the seeds of its own failure from the start: it was a top-down, authoritarian, and highly bureaucratic project (albeit with some redistributive aspects that improved people’s lives in the reforms carried out in the first years of independence).

However, the creative experiences of workers’ initiatives and self-management of the 1960s and 1970s were undermined by a paralyzing state bureaucracy that failed to genuinely involve workers in the control of the processes of production. This lack of democracy was connected with the ascendancy of a comprador bourgeoisie that was hostile to socialism, workers control and staunchly opposed to genuine land reform.

By the 1980s, the global neoliberal counter-revolution was the nail in the coffin and ushered in an age of deindustrialization and pro-market policies in Algeria, at the expense of the popular classes. The dignitaries of the new neoliberal orthodoxy declared that everything was for sale and opened the way for mass privatization.

Fanon’s work still bears a prophetic power as an accurate description of what happened in Algeria and elsewhere in the Global South. Fanon foretold the bankruptcy and sterility of national bourgeoisies in Africa and the Middle East today. A ‘profiteering caste’, he wrote, that tended to replace the colonial ruling class with a new class-based system replicating the old structures of exploitation and oppression.

By the 1980s, the Algerian national bourgeoisie had dispensed with popular legitimacy, turned its back on the realities of poverty and underdevelopment. In Fanon’s terms, this parasitic and unproductive bourgeoisie (both civilian and military) was the greatest threat to the sovereignty of the nation. In Algeria, this class was closely connected to the ruling party, the FLN, and renounced the autonomous development initiated in the 1960s and offered one concession after another for privatizations and projects that would undermine the country’s sovereignty and endanger its population and environment — the exploitation of shale gas and offshore resources being just one example.

Today, Algeria – but also Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Gabon, Angola and South Africa, among others – follows the dictates of the new instruments of imperialism such as the IMF, the World Bank and negotiate entry into the World Trade Organisation. Some African countries continue to use the CFA franc (renamed Eco in December 2019), a currency inherited from colonialism and still under the control of the French Treasury.

Fanon predicted this behaviour of the national bourgeoisie when he noted that its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation but rather consists of ‘being the transmission line between the nation and capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.’ Fanon’s analysis of the class basis of independence speaks to the contemporary postcolonial reality, a reality shaped by a national bourgeoisie ‘unabashedly…anti-national,’ opting he added, for the path of a conventional bourgeoisie, ‘a bourgeoisie which is stupidly, contemptibly and cynically bourgeois.’

Fanon also noted in 1961 the international division of labour, where we Africans ‘still export raw materials and continue being Europe’s small farmers who specialise in unfinished products.’ Algeria remains in a extractivist model of development where profits are accumulated in the hands of a foreign-backed minority at the expense of dispossession of the majority.

The Hirak and the new Algerian revolution

Fanon alerted us sixty years ago that the enrichment of this ‘profiteering caste’ will be accompanied by ‘a decisive awakening on the part of the people and a growing awareness that promised stormy days to come.’ In 2019 Algerians shattered the wall of fear and broke from a process that had infantilised and dazed them for decades. They erupted onto the political scene, discovered their political will and began again to make history.

Since 22 February 2019, millions of people, young and old, men and women from different social classes rose in a momentous rebellion. Historic Friday marches, followed by protests in professional sectors, united people in their rejection of the ruling system and their demands of radical democratic change. ‘They must all go!’ (Yetnahaw ga’), ‘The country is ours and we’ll do what we wish’ (Lablad abladna oundirou rayna), became two emblematic slogans of the uprising, symbolising the radical evolution of a popular movement (Al Hirak Acha’bi). The uprising was triggered by the incumbent president Bouteflika’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term despite suffering from aphasia and being absent from public life.

The movement (Hirak) is unique in its scale, peaceful character, national spread – including the marginalised south, and participation of women and young people, who constitute the majority of Algeria’s population. The extent of popular mobilisation has not been seen since 1962, when Algerians went to the streets to celebrate their hard-won independence from France.

The popular classes have affirmed their role as agents in their own destiny. We can use Fanon’s exact words to describe this phenomenon: ‘The thesis that men change at the same time that they change the world has never been as manifest as it is now in Algeria. This trial of strength not only remodels the consciousness that man has of himself, and of his former dominators or of the world, at last within his reach. The struggle at different levels renews the symbols, the myths, the beliefs, the emotional responsiveness of the people. We witness in Algeria man’s reassertion of his capacity to progress.’

The Hirak succeeded in unravelling the webs of deceit that were deployed by the ruling class and its propaganda machine. Moreover, the evolution of its slogans, chants, and forms of resistance, is demonstrative of processes of politicisation and popular education. The re-appropriation of public spaces created a kind of an agora where people discuss, debate, exchange views, talk strategy and perspectives, criticize each other or simply express themselves in many ways including through art and music. This has opened new horizons for resisting and building together.

Cultural production also took on another meaning because it was associated with liberation and seen as a form of political action and solidarity. Far from the folkloric and sterile productions under the suffocating patronage of authoritarian elites, we have seen instead a culture that speaks to the people and advances their resistance and struggles through poetry, music, theatre, cartoons, and street-art. Again, we see Fanon’s insights in his theorisation of culture as a form of political action: ‘A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people’s true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people.’

The struggle of decolonisation continues

Leaving aside largely semantic arguments around whether it is a movement, uprising, revolt or a revolution, one can say for certain that what is taking place in Algeria today is a transformative process, pregnant with emancipatory potential. The evolution of the movement and its demands specifically around ‘independence’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘an end to the pillage of the country’s resources’ are fertile ground for anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and even ecological ideas.

Algerians are making a direct link between their current struggle and the anti-French colonial resistance in the 1950s, seeing their efforts as the continuation of decolonisation. When chanting ‘Generals to the dustbin and Algeria will be independent’, they are laying bare the vacuous official narrative around the glorious revolution and revealing that it has been shamelessly used to pursue personal enrichment. We see a second Fanonian moment where people expose the neo-colonial situation and emphasise one unique characteristic of their uprising: its rootedness in the anti-colonial struggle against the French.

Slogans and chants have captured this desire and made references to anti-colonial war veterans such as Ali La Pointe, Amirouche, Ben Mhidi and Abane: Oh Ali [la pointe] your descendants will never stop until they wrench their freedom!’ and ‘We are the descendants of Amirouche and we will never go back!’

The struggle of decolonisation is being given a new lease of life as Algerians lay claim to the popular and economic sovereignty that was denied to them when formal independence was achieved in 1962. In Fanon’s prophetic words: ‘The people who at the beginning of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeism of the settler – Blacks and Whites, Arabs and Christians – realise as they go along that it sometimes happens that you get Blacks who are whiter than the whites and the hope of an independent nation does not always tempt certain strata of the populations to give up their interests or privileges.’

This two-part long read is an extract from a chapter in a forthcoming book Fanon Today: The Revolt and Reason of the Wretched of the Earth (edited by Nigel Gibson, Daraja Press 2021).

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian researcher-activist and commentator, he works as the North Africa Programme Coordinator for the Transnational Institute (TNI).

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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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