Almost a decade ago, I penned an op-ed arguing that the coverage of northern Kenya by the mainstream media is lazy, limited and lacks thematic framing. Conflict and terrorism thus become the predominant lens through which the region is viewed. I argued that the news media — which commands a large viewership and readership — turns its attention to northern Kenya when terror and other forms of conflict occur. But this framing has rich historical precedent.
From the Shifta war in postcolonial Kenya to the al-Shabaab attacks in the last decade, the Kenyan media has systematically constructed an image of the region as conflict-centric without wrestling with the historical and contextual underpinnings.
In the traditional sense, the news media plays a critical role in informing citizens on diverse issues. As a primary agenda setter, news media possesses the essential power of telling its audience what to think and how to think about health, conflict, poverty and development, among other issues of national and international importance.
In their assessment of the mass media, Maxwell McCombs, and Donald Shaw — the fathers of agenda-setting theory — argue that mass media owns the attribute of influencing “the importance placed on the topics of the public agenda.” News media assemble issues for the public and, through the order of presentation, have the unique ability to tell the public what to think about. Therefore, journalists are not just leaders in information dissemination; they control the framing of these issues.
Robert Entman, who conceptualised framing in journalism, affirms that media gatekeepers select “some aspects of perceived reality, making them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.”
Kenyan mass media has prominently covered conflict and terror in northern Kenya, informing the public about the wars and the terror experienced in the region. It has framed these incidents in such a way that those Kenyans who have never visited the area, assume that these events dominate the region.
Coverage of Northern Kenya and Africa
Framing in the news media dictates how the public makes sense of how and why issues occur. In his seminal studies on framing types in the news media, Shanto Iyengar introduces two framing types in the news media: episodic and thematic framing.
Iyengar postulates that episodic framing takes place when media gatekeepers attribute social problems to individuals. This occurs when the media covers an issue as a single event without demonstrating why these societal challenges arise.
Thematic framing is when the news media presents information holistically, with a rich in-depth analysis of why the issues covered are occurring. Therefore, if journalists frame an issue episodically, news consumers attribute the challenges to the perpetrators, ignoring societal factors that have contributed to the challenge presented. On the other hand, if an issue is thematically framed, citizens consuming this information point fingers to broader trends and social conditions.
In an article titled Media Framing of Westgate Mall and Garissa University College Terror Attacks in Kenya: News Frames, Responsibility and Major Actors, Kioko Ireri explores how Kenyan newspapers framed the Garissa University and Westgate mall attacks. Ireri concludes that 70 per cent of the sampled news articles received episodic framing. This is consistent with studies on the intersection of conflict in Africa and the Western press.
When al-Shabaab started carrying out large-scale attacks across the country, the media demonstrated clearly how it views attacks depending on where they occur. For instance, prominence was given to the Westgate terror attack, leading to quick coverage. The same treatment was not extended to the Garissa University incident, the worst attack by al-Shabaab in Kenya.
While this can be attributed to the proximity of Kenyan reporters to Westgate, the slow reaction and negative portrayal of the episode in Garissa demonstrated that the location of an attack establishes disparities in how Kenyan mass media covers terrorism in northern Kenya.
Coincidentally, the relationship of the Kenyan mass media with northern Kenya mirrors how mainstream media in the West portrays African countries. It is common knowledge that western press coverage of Africa is awash with negative portrayals of the continent and mainly involves parachuting in white men to cover complex issues.
When al-Shabaab started carrying out large-scale attacks across the country, the media demonstrated clearly how it views attacks depending on where they occur.
Kenyan mass media is a replica of news outlets from the global north. It has been argued and established that the only time Africa is given attention is when events are dominated by negative issues such as poverty, conflict, and natural disasters.
American news organisations send in their journalists to cover news events in Africa. This culture leads to media frames that construct a negative image of Africa and presents the West as a saviour, hence the criticisms. Furthermore, as Lauren Kogen argues in her article Not up for debate: U.S. news coverage of hunger in Africa, American news media organisations largely ignore issues in Africa, and the few that grab the gatekeepers’ attention are dominated by “negative and sensationalist aspects of African politics.”
Similarly, and just like their global counterparts, editors in Nairobi normally parachute in prominent Nairobi-based journalists to cover these conflict stories. The absence of local voices in the construction of narratives from northern Kenya makes it difficult for the rest of the country to have a standard, positive image of this region that other areas enjoy.
This explains why reporting on significant issues in counties like Mandera, Garissa and Marsabit takes longer than when similar issues occur in counties like Nairobi and Mombasa. News outlets employ prominent reporters to cover the latter counties, while the marginalised ones are left to a pool of reporters parachuted in from the capital. Because of a lack of contextual knowledge on the complexities of community-government relations, they submit reports that end up either misrepresenting the issues or framing them in a bad light.
Okari on the Garissa attack
Take the case of Dennis Okari, the prominent Kenyan investigative reporter who has presented some of the best investigative pieces in the country. Okari was deployed to cover the Garissa University attack.
In a follow-up story, Okari travelled to Dadaab, the refugee camp dominated by Somalis, to interview locals and get a sense of what should be done to curb these attacks. He filed a story titled “Children of a Lesser God”, implying that locals in Garissa County viewed Kenyans from other parts of Kenya as inferior to themselves and therefore deserving of death. The title itself defeats the purpose of accurately informing the public on what transpired. Furthermore, the journalist strongly relied on official sources and some victims, leaving out local voices to paint a picture of why such attacks occur in the region. The framing of this particular story cements the argument that parachuted reporters often fail to inform Kenyans holistically on why northern Kenya continues to face conflict and other key challenges.
Moreover, such careless reporting has an impact on the image of these marginalised counties. It also has an economic impact: Kenyans from other parts of the country living in these counties have been forced to leave, leaving a gap in sectors like education, health, and government services. Such careless reporting further contributes to the lack of critical services needed to contribute to the advancement of the entire region.
Just like their global counterparts, editors in Nairobi normally parachute in prominent Nairobi-based journalists to cover these conflict stories.
Another similarity between Western press coverage of Africa and the relationship of the Kenyan press with Northern Kenya is that US mass media has failed to provide fair reporting about issues in Africa, as it tends to magnify official US foreign policy. The foreign policies of Western countries shaped the Western media’s coverage of issues outside their borders after the Cold War and have continued to do so to date.
It has been argued before that the Kenyan government has systematically marginalised communities in the north since independence. This can also be said of the Kenyan media, whose relationship with northern Kenya reflects how successive governments have dealt with the counties of the region. When Kenya became independence, counties in the north were neglected, which explains the region’s acute poverty, underdevelopment, and lack of security.
Therefore, Kenyan media’s limited and negative coverage of issues in the region accurately symbolises how elites in Nairobi think of places like Garissa, Wajir and other counties in the north.
Correspondents in the north
Others might counter that lack of attention, and negative framing can happen in other regions. However, my argument is that counties in the north continue to face issues that need the attention of the press. While there are indeed correspondents in these counties, their remuneration is often unsustainable as they are paid per story filed.
I spoke to several correspondents from the region in confidence, and they informed me that it is a struggle to file stories that touch on vital issues because of the constraints they face. They are not treated like their counterparts in Nairobi and other counties who are armed with the technical and human resources necessary to produce great news stories. One argued, “We don’t have essential tools needed to thrive in filing important reports from this region. This reality makes it difficult for us to file rich stories from this region.” This correspondent confessed that they sometimes receive as little as US$100 a month, meaning it is nearly impossible to lead a decent life as a correspondent in northern Kenya.
Mass media in Kenya has suffered losses that have led to job cuts across Kenya. Mediamax, which owns K24 and the People Daily newspaper, has terminated a significant number of staff contracts.
The Kenyan mass media must also accept these criticisms and prioritise changing how it relates with northern Kenya.
Like elsewhere across the globe, news media in Kenya is market-driven. With the explosion of digital media, advertisers have found cheaper ways of selling their products, pulling out from advertising in the traditional media, leading to more job losses.
However, this should not be a reason to provide limited and war-centric coverage from these counties. Editors should provide the essential tools needed to cover crucial stories from this region adequately. While salaries and upkeep in the mass media remain a challenge across the country, the hurdles faced by reporters in northern Kenya make it difficult to challenge the established narratives.
Under the devolved government, and for the first time, counties solely determine the budget for building schools, expanding hospitals, providing electricity, and constructing road networks, among many other things. The county governments should create an environment that will entice investors to come down and start businesses. However, for devolution to prosper, accountability from institutions within and outside governments is important. Therefore, the media should step forward and play its crucial role of holding county elites accountable for their activities. The Kenyan mass media must also accept these criticisms and prioritise changing how it relates with northern Kenya.
First, it should provide the essential tools needed by local correspondents to cover important stories in the region. Devolution means there is plenty to report about. If the national government can choose to change its handling of this region, so can the mass media. Journalists in places like Marsabit and Wajir can cover more stories that would inform audiences in other parts of Kenya and enable policymakers to propose key recommendations that will lead to the development of this region.
Second, the missing perspectives of local news sources with an in-depth contextual knowledge of the region further reveal why terror coverage by the Kenyan press is often episodic and lacks in-depth analyses of why these attacks occur. Perhaps incorporating more local voices will contribute to achieving a more thematic and balanced reportage of terror in the region, and indeed in Africa.
Third, citizens from this region should establish their own media spaces where they can construct their own stories. There are several media organisations owned by wealthy businesspeople and politicians in the north. But these outlets tend to reach only locals and operate primarily in local languages. This limits other Kenyans from being exposed to stories coming out of this region since they command a smaller audience than their national counterparts.
Perhaps incorporating more local voices will contribute to achieving a more thematic and balanced reportage of terror in the region.
Mainstream national media that operates in the national languages would be an opportunity to produce fair, balanced, and holistic news items that create a fresh image of northern Kenya. We should also be careful about news outlets owned by politicians. With devolution, reporters in these counties should work on stories that inform the public on how their leaders are using public resources. Having these leaders own news outlets is dangerous since they have the power to influence the content that is published.
Moreover, in order to challenge the narratives constructed by the traditional media, it is essential to point out that digital media allows us to create a different image of northern Kenya, Twitter and Facebook enable users to counter narratives pushed by the elite Kenyan outlets within a few minutes. However, it is also important to highlight that while social media provides this unique opportunity, most Kenyans still depend on traditional media for information. The existing digital divide across the country is a reminder that narratives pushed by mass media in the capital still dominate the country.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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