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The Return of the Taliban: What Now for the Women of Afghanistan?

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The American experiment in Afghanistan failed, but why should women and girls pay the price?

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There have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions – particularly from liberals – about the United States’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. Those who oppose US military intervention in foreign lands say the withdrawal couldn’t have come sooner – that invading Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington was a mistake and staying on in (“occupying”) the country was an even bigger mistake. They argue that US military intervention in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia and other places has been disastrous, and that these interventions reek of imperialism.

Well and good. But everyone who has something to say about the poorly planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the Taliban and President Joe Biden, has failed to answer these questions: What would the women of Afghanistan have wanted? Why were they not consulted before the US president made the unilateral decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan? And what gives Biden and the all-male Pashtun-dominated Taliban leadership the right to make decisions on women’s behalf?

I was in Kabul in 2002, some three months after the US invaded the country and ousted the Taliban from the capital city. I spoke with many women there who told me that they were relieved that the Taliban had left because life under the misogynistic movement had become unbearable for women and girls. Girls were not allowed to have an education so girls’ schools had to be run secretly from homes. The Taliban were known for barbaric public executions and for flogging women who did not wear burqas or who were accused of adultery. Theirs was an austere, cruel rule where people were not even allowed to sing, dance, play music or watch movies.

Twenty years of war, beginning with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent US-backed insurgency of the Mujahideen (mujahidun in Arabic—“those engaged in jihad”) in the 1980s (which later transformed into the Taliban movement), not to mention the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks, had left Kabul’s physical infrastructure in ruins. Entire neighbourhoods had been reduced to rubble and no one quite remembered any more whose army had destroyed which building. The only buildings still left standing were the mosques and the Soviet-built apartment blocks housing civil servants. In 2002, Kabul Municipality had estimated that almost 40 per cent of the houses in the city had been destroyed in the previous fifteen years. Solid waste disposal barely met minimum standards, and running water and electricity were luxuries in most homes.

After the Taliban fled the capital and went underground, an estimated 3 million girls went back to school. At that time, the average Afghan child could expect only about 4 years of schooling. By 2019, this figure had risen to 10 years. Today, more than 13 per cent of adult women in Afghanistan have a secondary school education or higher. Women’s participation in the political sphere also increased dramatically; in 2019, nearly a third (27.2 per cent) of parliamentary seats were held by women.

No wonder women around the world were shocked and dismayed to see how easily Afghan women and girls were sacrificed and abandoned by the world’s leading powers. “My heart breaks for the women of Afghanistan. The world has failed them. History will write this,” tweeted the Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad on 13 August 2021.

As Taliban fighters were gaining control of the capital Kabul on Sunday, 15 August 2021, an unnamed woman living in the city wrote the following in the Guardian:

As a woman, I feel I am the victim of this political war that men started. I felt like I can no longer laugh out loud, I can no longer listen to my favourite songs, I can no longer meet my friends in our favourite café, I can no longer wear my favourite yellow dress or pink lipstick. And I can no longer go to my job or finish the university degree that I worked for years to achieve.

There have been reports of Taliban fighters abducting and marrying young girls, and ordering women not to report to work. Afghan female journalists fear for their lives; many have gone into hiding. The sale of burqas has apparently skyrocketed.

The argument that women in other countries also suffer at the hands of men, and experience gender-based violence does not fly with many Afghan women who have been fighting for the rights of women for the last two decades. For one, there is no law in any country in the world, as far as I know, that denies women an education or bans them from working outside the home. Women in these countries may not yet be truly free, but at least they can rely on the law to protect them. All the gains Afghan women have made over the last two decades will now be lost. I do not for one second believe that the rebranded Taliban emerging in Afghanistan have become feminists overnight, despite their pro-women rhetoric at press conferences. Mahbouba Seraj, an Afghan women’s rights leader, told TRT World that what is happening in Afghanistan is “going to put the country two hundred years back.” “I am going to say to the whole world—shame on you!” she stated.

A series of failures 

That is not the first time the US has abandoned Afghanistan. After Russian forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the US pulled out as well, leaving the Mujahideen, which it had been funding, to its own devices. Yet, in 1979, when Russian forces entered Afghanistan, the US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had described the Mujahideen as “soldiers of God”, and told them, “Your cause is right and God is on your side.” The Mujahideen transformed into the Taliban, and imposed its severe rule on Afghans during the latter part of the 1990s.  It also became a den for terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda.  The US essentially created a monster that launched the 9/11 attacks 22 years later.

Afghanistan has had a long and turbulent history of conquests by foreign rulers, and has often been described as the “graveyard of empires”. But it has not always been anti-women. In 1919, King Amanullah Khan introduced a new constitution and pro-women reforms. The last monarch, Zahir Shah (1933-1973), also ensured that women’s rights were respected through various laws. But when Shah was overthrown in 1978, the Soviet Union installed a puppet leader. This gave rise to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, who gained control of the country in the 1990s and eroded many of the rights women had been granted.

There have been reports of Taliban fighters abducting and marrying young girls, and ordering women not to report to work.

There are many parallels with Somalia, which also enjoyed Russian support under President Siad Barre. When the Soviets switched sides and began supporting Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, the US gained more influence, but it could not install democracy in a country that had descended into warlordism after Barre was ousted in 1991. After American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu during the country’s civil war in 1993, the US withdrew from Somalia completely. Conservative forces supported by some Arab countries filled the void. When a coalition of Islamic groups took over the capital in 2006, they were quickly ousted by US-backed Ethiopian forces. Al Shabaab was born. As in Afghanistan, the US had a hand in creating a murderous group that had little respect for women.

After the US invasion in 2001, instead of focusing on stabilising and rebuilding Afghanistan, President George Bush set his eyes on invading Iraq on the false pretext that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda and was harbouring weapons of mass destruction. That war in 2003 cost the US government its reputation in many parts of the Muslim world, and turned the world’s attention away from Afghanistan. Bush will also be remembered for illegally renditioning and detaining Afghans and other nationals suspected of being terrorists at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay.  This ill-advised move, which will forever remain a blot on his legacy, has been used as a radicalisation propaganda tool by groups such as the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS).

The international community is now sitting back and doing nothing, even as it is becoming increasingly evident that the world is witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe that will have severe political repercussions within the region and globally. The international community of nations, including the UN Security Council, cannot do anything except plead with the Taliban to not discontinue essential services, which is a tall order given that three-quarters of Afghanistan’s budget was funded by foreign (mostly Western) aid. The Taliban was allowed to take over the country without a fight. And all the UN Secretary-General could do was issue statements urging neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to the thousands of Afghans fleeing the country.

The mass exodus of Afghans, as witnessed at Kabul’s international airport, is a public relations disaster for the Taliban. It shows that not all Afghans welcome the Taliban’s return. As the poet Warsan Shire wrote about her homeland Somalia, “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”. Afghanistan has once again become a failed state.

The longest war 

The impact of the Taliban’s capture of the country is already being felt.  The exodus of Afghans is creating a refugee crisis like the one witnessed in 2015 during the civil war in Syria. The US and its NATO allies have essentially created a refugee crisis of their own making. This will likely generate anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments in the US and Europe, and embolden racist right-wing groups. It is also possible that Afghanistan will become the site of a new type of Cold War, with Russia and China forming cynical alliances with the Taliban in order to destabilise the West and to exploit Afghanistan’s vast natural resources, which remain largely untapped. Girls’ education will be curtailed. No amount of reminding the Taliban that Prophet Mohammed’s wife Khadija was a successful businesswoman, and that his third wife Aisha played a major role in the Prophet’s political life will change their minds about women. Women and girls are looking at a bleak future as the Taliban impose punitive restrictions on them that even the expansionist Muslim Ottoman Empire did not dare enforce in its heyday. Afghanistan will become a medieval society where women remain voiceless and invisible.

The worst-case scenario – one that is just too horrific to contemplate – is that terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda will find a foothold in Afghanistan, and unleash a global terror campaign from there, as did Osama bin Laden more than two decades ago.

As in Afghanistan, the US had a hand in creating a murderous group that had little respect for women.

The irony the US having invaded the country two decades before, ostensibly to get rid of Islamic terrorists, Biden has essentially handed over the country to the very group that had harboured terrorists like Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. “President Joe Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan,” wrote David E. Sanger in the New York Times. (To be fair, it was not Biden who first opened the doors to the Taliban; President Donald Trump invited the Taliban to negotiations in Doha in 2018, which lent some legitimacy to a group that had previously been labelled as a terrorist organisation.)

Dubbed “America’s longest war”, the US military mission in Afghanistan has cost US taxpayers about US$2 trillion, one quarter of which has gone towards reconstruction and development, though critics have pointed out that the bulk of this money was used to train the Afghan military and police, and was not used for development projects. The military mission in Afghanistan has also come at a huge human cost; 3,500 soldiers and other personnel from 31 NATO troop-producing countries and 4,400 international contractors, humanitarian workers and journalists were killed in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2020.  Thousands of Afghan lives have also been lost. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan estimates that at least 100,000 Afghans have been killed or wounded since 2009.

Was the US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan worth it?  Should the US and NATO have stayed a bit longer until the country had well-functioning and well-resourced institutions and until they were sure that the Taliban had been completely routed out? I think so, because I believe that ousting the Taliban was as ethically correct as eliminating ISIS and defeating the German Nazis. The problem in Afghanistan is that the Taliban were never defeated; they simply went underground.

Women and girls are looking at a bleak future as the Taliban impose punitive restrictions on them that even the expansionist Muslim Ottoman Empire did not dare enforce in its heyday.

There is no doubt that the “liberation” or “occupation” of Afghanistan by the US-dominated NATO mission in Afghanistan brought about some tangible benefits, including rebuilt and new infrastructure,  the growth of a vibrant civil society and more opportunities for women. But the US’s support of Western-backed Afghan governments that are generally viewed as corrupt by the majority of Afghans may have handed the Taliban the legitimacy and support they seem to be enjoying among the country’s largely poor rural population, just as installing highly corrupt Western-backed governments in Somalia in the last fifteen years gave Al Shabaab more ammunition to carry out its violent campaign. The Taliban is also recognised by some neighbouring countries, notably Pakistan, which is believed to be one of its funders, and which receives considerable military and other support from the US. This raises questions about why the US is aiding a country that is working against its interests in another. This Taliban-Pakistan alliance will no doubt be watched closely by Pakistan’s rival India.

Afghanistan, unfortunately, is a sad reminder of why no amount of investment in infrastructure and other “development” projects can fix something that has been fundamentally broken in a country. Like Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, it may fragment along tribal or sectarian lines and revert to a civil war situation. Under the Taliban “government”, Afghanistan may become a joyless place where people are not allowed to listen to music, dance or watch movies – where enforcement of a distorted interpretation of Islam casts a dark shadow on the rest of the Muslim world. And Afghan women and girls will once again pay the heaviest price.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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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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