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Somaliland Electoral Law Imperils Inclusive Representation

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The absence of legal commitments to promote representation of women, minorities, and clans from contested regions in the upcoming elections will reinforce an exclusionary voting system.

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Somaliland Electoral Law Imperils Inclusive Representation
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30 years after declaring independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland can take pride in an impressive but not flawless democratisation record. Since 2002, the people of Somaliland have participated in six multi-party elections: three presidential elections (2003, 2010 and 2017) and two district council elections (2002 and 2012), but only one parliamentary (2005), and none for the House of Elders (Guurti). At last, combined local council and parliamentary elections will take place on 31 May 2021, respectively four years and eleven years after they were due.

The repeated postponements of elections have at times caused political tensions and uncertainty. This has undermined Somaliland’s democratisation process, weakened public confidence in democracy, stalled institution-building and reforms, and damaged the country’s relationship with the international community.

The main obstacle to holding parliamentary elections has been the difficulty in reaching a political compromise on the allocation of the 82 seats in the House of Representatives to Somaliland’s regions – and by extension, their clans – without a reliable national census. The 2005 parliamentary election could only take place because the National Electoral Commission (NEC) brokered a compromise on seat distribution just weeks before the polls.

However, the five-year mandate of the House of Representatives came to an end in 2010 without a reliable national census having been carried out, or a political solution put in place to resolve the issue of seat distribution. Disagreement on this issue delayed the holding of parliamentary elections for the next 10 years. Whenever the issue was raised, the only solution proposed was to return to the 2005 compromise formula. However, this has elicited strong opposition from people in Awdal region (western Somaliland), particularly from the Samaroon clan, who felt that the 2005 arrangement did not allocate them enough seats. Leaders from the clan threatened to boycott any future polls if a revised seat allocation formula was not agreed.

The national clan arithmetic and balance were at the centre of this stand-off. Expectations in Awdal region were anchored in a demand to allocate half of the seats of the House of Representatives to non-Isaaq clans (including Samaroon, Isse, Harti). The argument was based on the need to protect minority rights against majority rule and promote equitable clan representation rather than representation based on population. Among the leaders of the populous Isaaq clans in particular, the proposal was perceived as unreasonable and provocative. It was also seen as an attempt to win the other non-Isaaq clans, such as the Harti, over to the Samaroon cause.

Given the overwhelming public support in Awdal for stronger representation, and the fear of alienating other non-Isaaq constituencies, Somaliland’s political leaders refrained from addressing this divisive issue, contributing to the continued postponement of Somaliland’s parliamentary elections. But growing internal and external pressure forced President Musa Bihi to act.  In September 2020, he endorsed a new electoral law, which stipulated that parliamentary seats would again be distributed according to the 2005 arrangement. The law was passed in early October, despite strong opposition from MPs and elders in Awdal region, paving the way for the NEC to prepare parliamentary elections.

Women’s candidacy and representation 

The change in 2002 from the clan-based system of representation to electoral democracy with universal suffrage gave women in Somaliland the right to stand for election and to vote. There was hope among women that recognition of their political rights would improve women’s participation and representation in Somaliland’s politics unlike in the clan-based system of nominations, which discriminated against women.

However, the first test of the new system — the local council elections held in 2002 — demonstrated that formal recognition of the political rights of women was rarely respected in practice and was not enough to significantly improve their political participation. Clan influence remained extremely strong and most Somalilanders voted along clan lines, which tends to exclude women. The patriarchal clan system meant that very few women were put forward for election. In 2002, this resulted in only two women being elected among a total of 379 local councillors.

Even when the law allows it, few women run for office in Somaliland. And women too generally vote along clan lines, often under the direction of the men in their family. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 2005, women’s groups and other civic organisations campaigned hard to have provisions included in the electoral law that would establish a quota for women candidates. However, the initiative was rejected by parliament. Once more, female candidates were largely excluded from the electoral process due to the strong clan influence in the nomination process and voting patterns. As a result, out of the 246 candidates in the parliamentary elections, only seven were women and of the 82 MPs elected, only two were women.

Efforts to amend the electoral law to set a quota for women continued and in 2007, constant pressure and lobbying from women’s groups and other civic organisations eventually persuaded the government and parliament to include provisions in the electoral law that would grant a  quota for female candidates. But although the proposal was endorsed by the House of Representatives, it was rejected by the House of Elders due to opposition from religious groups. The proposal was put to a vote again in 2020, but both Houses rejected the amendments under external pressure.

In the absence of a quota or a framework for promoting women’s representation, female candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections on 31 May 2021 have sought support and endorsement from their respective clans. Seven women reportedly pursued the backing of their clans. Only one of them won the full support of her clansmen, setting a precedent as this was the first time in Somaliland’s history that clan elders, intellectuals, the diaspora, youth, opinion makers, and businessmen publicly endorsed a woman’s candidacy. Securing her clan backing furthered her candidacy. Resources were mobilised and a database was established to support her and to ensure high turnout in her clan constituency during the voter registration exercise. In contrast, a female candidate who failed to secure the support of her clansmen has faced strong and consistent resistance and opposition from her clan leadership and politicians.

Marginalised communities

The most marginalised groups in Somaliland are the Gabooye, who constitute the traditional occupational castes (“low caste”) known as Tumaal, Midgaan and Yibir. (In casual speech, these groups are often referred to as Beelaha Gabooye, although members of the various sub-groups do not necessarily accept this appellation. For the purposes of brevity, the term Beelaha Gabooye is used to refer to the Gabooye, Tumaal, and Yibir together.)  For the Gabooye, the challenge of representation is more a question of their social status rather than their numbers; they have a significant number of voters to pick up seats in Hargeisa and other urban centres. But their internal divisions and especially their lack of political, social, and economic clout as a result of years of marginalisation hinder the nomination and electoral success of Gabooye candidates. To rectify this, Gabooye representation had also been discussed as part of the failed attempts to establish quotas.

Female candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections have sought support and endorsement from their respective clans.

In the absence of quotas, the Gabooye now compete with candidates from the “noble” sub-clans of Somaliland, both to get nominated by the parties and to win seats in the parliamentary and local elections. Local observers believe that at least one Gabooye candidate in Hargeisa has a good chance of winning a parliamentary seat because he is a prominent and outspoken member of a political party and enjoys public support.

Harti candidacy and representation

In the eastern regions of Sool, Sanaag and Togdheer that are the object of contest between Somaliland and Puntland, the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli clans — which are sub-clans of the Harti clan federation which includes the Majerteen of Puntland — have long been divided in their attitudes towards Somaliland. In the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections, there were security concerns about holding elections in some of these contested areas. Exclusion of these territories from the poll would have reduced Harti representation in the new parliament. A provision was therefore made in the electoral law for eight reserved, uncontested seats for these Harti sub-clans – six for the Dulbahante and two for the Warsangeli.

In spite of this, Harti representation decreased from 14 to 10 following the 2005 parliamentary election. Of these seats, 8 were from the uncontested list, while 2 were elected.  In contrast, the number of Samaroon seats from Awdal region increased from 10 to 13. Candidates from the Isaaq clans won 57 seats, gaining 10 seats at the expense of the Harti and minority representation. Members from Isaaq clans now controlled 70 per cent of the House, up from 63 per cent before the polls.

Ensuring the active participation of the Harti clans in the upcoming parliamentary election remains a challenge. There was an understanding between some Harti MPs and the president that the provision granting uncontested seats for the non-voting Sool, Sanaag, and Togdheer regions would remain. However, the plan met with strong opposition from some Isaaq MPs in these three regions who hope to win these seats in an electoral contest. They pressured the government to back off and passionately lobbied other Isaaq MPs to vote against reserved seats for the Harti. All Samaroon parliamentarians and most of the Harti MPs boycotted the parliamentary debate on the electoral law in protest against the proposed seat allocation. In the end, the law was narrowly approved by Isaaq MPs in parliament, and no seats were reserved for Harti constituencies.

For the Gabooye, the challenge of representation is more a question of their social status rather than their numbers.

Those opposed to the special arrangement argued that the Harti communities could organise themselves as a political group to register enough voters to compete successfully in the elections. This sentiment is shared by some members of the Harti, particularly those from the areas controlled by Somaliland, such as Sool region. Efforts by the competing candidates from the Dulbahante clan in Sool, government officials from these areas and the political parties have all considerably improved participation in voter registration. The Dulbahante districts now account for more than 57 per cent of the registered voters in the region, which would enable Dulbahante candidates to win 6 or 7 of the 12 electoral seats if there is high voter turnout. By contrast, the Warsangeli candidates (mostly in Sanaag) were far less successful because large sections of the area are not sufficiently under the control of the Somaliland government. The two predominantly Warsangeli districts have registered only about 10,000 voters. Together with about 16,500 other voters in the capital district of Eiragabo, Warsangeli candidates stand a chance to win only 2 out of 12 electoral seats in Sanaag. The refusal by parliament to allocate uncontested seats could inflict substantial damage on political representation in Somaliland if the Harti constituencies fail to gain sufficient numbers in the House.

Reinforcing exclusion

The absence of legal commitments and special arrangements to promote the representation of women, minorities, and clans from Somaliland’s contested regions in the upcoming parliamentary election will reinforce an exclusionary majoritarian voting system. This will clearly produce segments of winners and losers and will ultimately lead to less inclusive representation.

The most obvious losers will be women. Already, few women are running for parliament due to the prevailing social barriers. At best, women are likely to have only one representative in parliament. This will mean that women continue to be denied equal legislative rights, which will also have a negative impact on public policy.

Harti representation in parliament could reduce further after the upcoming election, thereby increasing their sense of marginalisation within Somaliland.  It is also foreseeable that Isaaq clans will increase their share of seats at the expense of the Harti, while Samaroon representation will probably remain unchanged, thereby increasing Isaaq dominance in the parliament and further cementing their majoritarian rule.

This article relies heavily on interviews and informal discussions with candidates and MPs from Awdal, Hargeisa, Sool, East Sanaag and West Sanaag conducted between 6 and 22 December 2020.

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Mohamed Ibrahim Gani is a is freelance consultant and researcher who has written extensively on conflict, socio-economic needs, the judicial system, decentralisation, women’s rights, elections, civic education, youth, diaspora, institutional development and reconstruction in Somaliland over the past 25 years. He has held senior positions in the Somaliland Government and in civil society.

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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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