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Nothing New Under the Sun: The Economics of Neo-Colonial Kenya

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The seemingly frivolous laws passed by the Kenyan state serve to entrench the hegemony of the elite and the extractive and exclusionary patterns of economics that have existed since colonial times.

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In the recent past, Kenyans have been bombarded with a string of proposed, seemingly petty, laws and regulations targeted at the agricultural sector. Kenyans are bewildered and asking the right questions; what purpose do these bills serve? Whose interests are they securing? Surely not those of small-scale farmers? And how are they connected to the trade deals Kenya recently signed with the US and the UK?

Kenyans first heard of a proposed Livestock Act (2021) that would provide a framework for the regulation and development of the livestock sector at the beginning of June 2021. The provisions relating to beekeeping gathered unusual attention because of the frivolous and punitive regulations they would have imposed on farmers. The bill sought to register beekeepers, and required farmers to, among other things, keep their bees in registered and branded hives prescribed by county authorities. Only a public uproar caused Amos Kimunya- the Leader of Majority in the National Assembly – to shelve plans to table the bill before Parliament.

Several provisions of the bill would have locked out many Kenyans, especially small-scale farmers, from beekeeping. FarmBiz Africa reports that Kenya produces approximately 7,300 tonnes of honey every year against an estimated potential of 100,000 tonnes. A litre of honey is five times more expensive than a litre of oil in Kenya. We need to nurture this sector, not stifle it.

But this was not the first time seemingly frivolous laws relating to the agricultural sector were being proposed or made into law. The Irish Potatoes Regulations were quietly passed into law and gazetted toward the end of 2019, barely attracting public attention that was at the time firmly fixated on BBI shenanigans. The Irish potato regulations that, for instance, sought to register growers, transporters, traders, collection centres and warehouses, only came to the attention of most Kenyans when the Nyandarua County Government issued notice of a sensitization exercise on the new regulations.

Earlier in March 2019, the Kenya Dairy Board was forced to suspend the Draft Dairy Regulations (2019) following massive pressure from the public and farmers. The regressive and repressive dairy regulations were rejected by farmers on grounds such as their attempt to prohibit farmers from selling raw milk to neighbours. This was a clear attempt by those who control the dairy industry to show who is boss; ‘’If you don’t sell to us, your produce is illegal’’. The exploitative milk processors were at the time buying a litre of milk from the farmers at 26 shillings, way lower than the 40 shillings the farmers got from selling that same quantity of milk to neighbours at farm gate prices. The Dairy Industry regulations were finally re-introduced and passed in 2021 without some of the controversial sections that had caused that initial uproar, especially those forbidding small-scale farmers from selling milk to their neighbours and other consumers. The new regulations now set a minimum price for a litre of milk, to be reviewed every six months based on small-scale farmers’ demands.

What mischief is the political elite up to through this endless string of frivolous laws?

Kenya is often portrayed in the news as a developing African nation that has its affairs in order. In the eyes of many, it is a vibrant middle-income country with a young and educated population, with agriculture as its mainstay, and blessed with that African beauty that draws tourists year in year out. The reality, however, is that Kenya is the quintessential neo-colonial state, firmly within the orbit of global finance capital. It is debt-ridden after eight years of the UhuRuto administration that has been characterised by ineptitude and is anchored in an economic philosophy of beg, borrow and steal. With its economy doing poorly and unemployment already high, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation by disrupting livelihoods while adding to the numbers of those unable to find work. Salaries have been delayed in several government departments this year, and the country is basically floating on economic guesswork. Retired civil servants, military officers and politicians cannot get their pensions. Existence for many has been reduced to a daily struggle for survival.

The facade is held together by a calculatingly ruthless state machinery that is very adept at shaping and controlling narratives through sleek public relations campaigns, paid hashtags on social media and intimidation of legacy media. Its security organs—the conveyor belts of its monopoly of violence—have no qualms scuttling peoples’ organising through dispersing protests, arresting activists, or dispatching citizens to impromptu extrajudicial meetings with their maker.

Kenya is the quintessential neo-colonial state, firmly within the orbit of global finance capital.

But what is Kenya? Kenya started off as an economic venture. The Imperial British East African Company was set up and granted a charter in 1888 to run this venture with a view to making profit. The profit turned out to be so good that the British crown wanted full control of the cake. Actually, the whole cake—plus the box. Britain duly declared Kenya a protectorate in 1895, and a colony on July 23rd 1920.

Because of its favourable weather, large swathes of fertile land and strategic location, the British colonial empire made Kenya a settler state. Land was forcefully alienated from the indigenous owners and given to white settlers through a series of punitive measures and laws such as the Crown Land Act. The White Highlands were the jewel of the Kenya colony, and the (in)famous Lunatic Express was soon under construction to ease extraction from the hinterland and on to the ports of Britain—and Europe. The railway project was completed despite fierce resistance by numerous Africans—most notably the Nandi resistance led by Koitalel Arap Samoei.

Thereafter, the Kipande tax, hut or pole tax and the breast tax were introduced to force the African into the cash economy through work, and a system of forced labour was imposed on those unable to pay tax. Yes, African men were taxed for having more than one wife. And for every other female in their household. The colonial enterprise could now concentrate on its main objective, economic extraction.

Kenya’s war of independence was waged for land and freedom, not for bourgeois ideas. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as Mau Mau, went into the forests to fight for freedom and to get back their land. As independence loomed, the land issue remained thorny, emotive and close to the hearts of the people. Most African people are tied to the land, their umbilical cords buried in it at birth.

Independence in 1963 failed to address the land question. And it remains a thorny issue to date. No one actually fought for the independence project, though the collaborators wanted “independence” in order to replace the colonialists in the various spaces they occupied— ownership of prime property, lucrative jobs, club memberships, living in leafy neighbourhoods with servants, et cetera. Land redistribution schemes were hijacked and vast swathes of land shared out among Jomo Kenyatta and his coterie, while the petty bourgeois were allowed to acquire some relatively smaller parcels to not only create a semblance of equality but also fabricate a belief among the struggling masses that it was somehow possible to climb up the social and economic ladder, that hard work paid.

Kenya’s war of independence was waged for land and freedom, not for bourgeois ideas.

Many of the Mau Mau and their children were never compensated or resettled by the independence government. They were never allowed to access or control the land they had fought for in such brave fashion. Most of the fertile and highly productive land remained in the hands of this tiny clique of Africans, mostly former colonial collaborators, and those settlers who chose to stay on after “independence”. These are the people who still own the big tracts of land in Kenya, together with an ensemble of crooks and tenderpreneurs.

Control over the land and its abundant resources gives them the economic power that most of them use to purchase political power that they then use to consolidate their economic power in unscrupulous fashion. Others prefer to remain anonymous, but wield considerable power behind the scenes, flexing their economic muscles every once in a while to keep the political landscape in tune with their interests and those of their masters across the ocean—those same masters of misery who just a few decades ago perpetrated the exploitation and subjugation that Mau Mau and other liberation heroes sought to confine to the dustbin of history.

Enter the Kenya-US Free Trade Agreement

In February 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta met US President Donald Trump in Washington DC to push forward a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two nations. In July 2020, the two countries began negotiations on the FTA, with Kenya especially going against the regional protocols and collective trade deals it had ratified via the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Despite the uproar from the region, Kenya went full steam ahead with its plans. (Upon conclusion, Kenya will become the second African country to sign an FTA with the United States, after Morocco in 2006.) The voices of Kenyans who could see that the deal only served to entrench extractive and exclusionary colonial patterns of economics were either ignored or drowned out by the public relations campaign that followed. The ruling class had again smothered voices from below.

Similarly, in early 2021 Kenya and the UK, Kenya’s former colonial masters, signed a trade deal that gives British companies that have been extracting since the colonial epoch a 25-year tax holiday despite opposition from small-scale farmers and Kenyans in general. The people had no say about it.

According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, Kenya and the United States traded US$1.1 billion worth of goods in total (two-way) trade during 2019, with the US importing goods worth US$667 million from Kenya. In the same year, the US imported edible fruits and nuts worth US$55 million (KSh5.5 billion) from Kenya.

A joint statement released on July 8 2020 to signify the start of negotiations partly states that ‘’Increasing and sustaining export performance to the United States requires a trade arrangement that is predictable and guarantees preferential market access for Kenyan products’’.

But whose products? Who has the capital and technological know-how to meet the stringent standards set out in such deals and reinforced by ridiculous legislation like those highlighted at the beginning of this article? Certainly not the small-scale farmers who account for over 70 per cent of Kenya’s agricultural production. It is the class that ensures political power is subservient to its economic power. The Kenya-US Free Trade Agreement is an economic partnership of the bourgeoisie. It prostrates our collective existence as an untapped market, and is aimed at extracting resources for the insatiable consumerism of America. Locally, it only serves to entrench the hegemony of the elite.

There is nothing new under the sun

The neo-colonial state is full of wonders and oxymorons. It has adapted and perfected colonial tools of political and economic domination for continued extraction. It has equally been moulded in the punitive nature of empire, crushing those who stand in the path of primitive accumulation of wealth, and especially land.

The capitalist system behind it continues to thrive using slave labour as it has done for the last four centuries, this time through wages that leave workers struggling to put a single meal on the table, let alone pay a myriad of bills.

The Kenyan elite have perfected use of the state and its organs to meet their personal interests, negating the common wants and demands of the motherland. They have further perfected the art of moulding law, culture, ideology, religion, et cetera to serve and defend their economic interests.

Kenya and the UK, Kenya’s former colonial masters, signed a trade deal that gives British companies that have been extracting since the colonial epoch a 25-year tax holiday.

What is the difference between last year’s eviction of Korogocho residents who possessed valid land ownership documents and the land alienation perpetrated by the British colonial empire of the early 20th Century? What is the difference between the colonial laws that limited what crops black African farmers could grow, and these new laws that today aim to criminalise our people, their daily work, their produce and means of sustenance?

The difference is the same.

Although the basic structure of the exploitative system remains the same, today’s agents of neo-colonialism do not blatantly criminalise production. They only restrict access to the large and lucrative international trade in select goods for small-scale farmers and peasant producers. That is why the state has put minimal effort into enabling the millions of existing small-scale producers to increase production, carry out local value addition through their cooperatives, or meet the standards demanded by external markets. It is instead focussed on criminalising their toil, sweat and produce. With an abundance of young jobless Kenyans, labour remains cheap. The seemingly frivolous laws serve this purpose.

There is nothing new under the sun.

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Sungu Oyoo (@Sungu_Oyoo) is a writer, Community Organiser and member of Kongamano la Mageuzi. Mwalimu Mutemi wa Kiama (@MutemiWaKiama) is a Community Organizer and a member of the Kongamano La Mageuzi Movement.

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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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