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France in Africa: New Face of Colonialism or a Repentant Posture?

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Aymar N. Bisoka, David Mwambari and Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni write about the recent Africa-France summit. The scholar Achille Mbembe was recruited to prepare a report for the summit by speaking to African youth. This blogpost asks what was the real meaning of the summit behind the official pronouncements.

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France in Africa: New Face of Colonialism or a Repentant Posture?
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At the beginning of 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron approached the Cameroonian historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe to prepare the New Africa-France Summit, which was to take place in Montpellier, France, on 9 and 10 October 2021. The most immediate context of a forthcoming election in France itself in which the French president might be using this occasion to win the Afro-descendant votes should not escape our minds. Unlike previous summits, this one was to welcome a new generation of young Africans from Africa and its diasporas to an open and direct dialogue with Macron. For the first time in history, the summit between France and African countries was held with no African head of state.

As part of the preparation for the summit, Mbembe had to lead a series of discussions in twelve African countries and the diaspora, ahead of the actual event, around themes of common interest. According to him, the aim of these discussions with African and diaspora youth was to “directly and openly question the fundamentals of this relationship [and] to redefine it together.”

Four days before the summit started, Mbembe submitted a 140-page report containing thirteen proposals for a ‘refoundation’ of relations between France and Africa. These proposals focus on an Innovation Fund for Democracy, a House of African and Diasporas Views, migration, employment, intercontinental economic transparency, the transformation of development aid, the voice of Africa on climate change, the narrative on Africa, the rethinking of the relations between Africa and Europe, the restitution of stolen works of art, among others. During the summit itself, twelve young people were selected to discuss with Macron and mount a critique on the issues arising from the proposals contained in the Mbembe Report. 

What is the real meaning of this summit beyond the organisers’ pronouncements? How can we understand the controversies and discourses that came out of it? Was this summit simply a way for France to improve its image that has deteriorated sharply over the past four years?

Placing the summit in its historical context

The historical context of this summit is firstly, colonial and neo-colonial (Françafrique) and secondly, a context of increased global connections in which the Afro-descendent population has increased with France and cannot be ignored. Thirdly, it is also a context of insurgent and resurgent decolonization of the 21st century, which has also seen the escalation of activism – by African youth – targeting colonial symbols of domination in general, and those of French interests in particular. Therefore, a key question arises: Was the summit organised to respond to recent events on the African continent or in France, and to push France to open-up to debates that are uncomfortable but essential?

On the African continent, Senegalese youth protests that vandalised French interests in March 2021 are still fresh in the minds of French policymakers. The youth on the streets spoke loud and clear when they attacked French shops, petrol stations, supermarkets and you can guess that their names did not feature on the French list of the desired invitees to dine with Marcon at the summit. The invited youth were mostly the educated, youth with a pre-existing and official platform and means. There were few, if any, of the young protestors like those who revolted against French interests.

Other recent events in Africa include protests in Mali against the French military presence and the move to hire Russian militias to combat terrorism where the French have failed. On the day the summit was to start in October, Mali’s Premier accused France of training ‘terrorist groups’ and summoned the French ambassador. Youth also attacked French interests in Northern Mozambique, resulting in the deployment of forces from the SADC region and Rwanda.

These are a few examples to show that popular pressure on France informed Macron’s choice of inviting young participants instead of the heads of state to the summit. Throughout his presidency, Marcon has also defended the establishment of the ECO to replace the controversial CFA currency that is part of the French colonial heritage that West African protestors have rejected. French monetary imperialism has been subjected to heightened opposition from African youth.

In addition, recent global events like the #BlackLivesMatter movement instigated debates amongst French intellectuals who aligned with their politicians to dismiss the claims by Afro-descendants in France to have racism directly confronted. These elites dismissed demands to challenge racism in France as irrelevant to France’s past or present, claiming that the French state is based on anti-racist ideals of republicanism. Macron himself declared these are ‘certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States’.

Other prominent intellectuals joined in to argue that contemporary theories on race, gender, and post-colonialism were a threat to the French identity of liberté, égalité, and fratenité.  These assertations were made ignoring a long tradition of French-speaking scholars like Aimé Cesaire, Léopold Sédar SenghorFrantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Françoise Verges or more recently Norman Ajari, Pape Ndiaye, Nadia Kisukidi, even the academic director of the summit itself, Achille Mbembe, and many others whose works on post-colonialism have critiqued French society.

In fact, debates on the question of identity in France have shown that non-white communities’ lived experiences show that liberté, égalité, and fraternité are empty slogans and merely a façade to the reality of French society. For instance, issues of police brutality against non-white communities, especially the Afro-diaspora, did not feature prominently in the summit, although they concern the community whom Macron might want to lure in next year’s elections.

The summit claimed to break ties with the colonial past, but it was hardly the case as the major problems that continue to strain the relationship between France and its African colonies were not even addressed. Yet, the voices of young people were present on stage and they asked questions, made arguments that have long existed in post-colonial literature. Articulating these views in front of the sitting president and in France was a significant moment. For example, there was a speaker from Burkina Faso civil society who asked Macron to stop patronising Africans, and that a change of vocabulary was needed to move from aid to partnership. Nevertheless, even partnership is not radical enough; the correct demand must be for reparations and restitution. Such a demand would constitute a total turn in what mainly were political and diplomatic debates.

The other unique feature of this summit was the fact that they asked Achille Mbembe to take on the task as intellectual scholar for the forum. Was this a radical gesture by the president to engage an African intellectual – a one-time outspoken critic of France’s policy in Africa, rather than another politician? Mbembe traveled around the continent to listen and record divergent voices about Africa’s relationship with France. Mbembe’s involvement in the 2021 summit leads us to ask three questions we explore below.

Firstly, the gesture to endorse an African intellectual with ties to France was intriguing. Was this a sign that the French establishment are taking African intellectuals seriously? It was indeed curious for Mbembe to accept this task with its high risks of being accused of doing the clean-up work for an imperial power which has never left Africa and is increasingly being exposed for its continued neo-colonial, exploitative relations with the continent.

Secondly, Mbembe’s involvement and young civil society activists who voiced criticism can also be viewed cynically as part of the French strategy to divert attention to real issues, namely CFA monetary coloniality, the presence of its troops in Mali and France interference with the monetary reforms spearheaded by ECOWAS. Or was it to collect data on the changing pattern of West African consciousness and capture the new vocabulary of African youth as part of an effort to monitor debates, listen to frustrations, then re-align French interests across the continent accordingly? Or can this be a case of a ‘cognitive empire’ needing data to sharpen its tools and recruit new allies? Doubtless, though, is a popular demand for Europe in general, and France in particular, to embark on de-imperialisation as part of an essential pre-requisite to redefine relations.

Thirdly, the much-publicised summit was held in France. The selection of these young participants was preceded by a preliminary consultation with France. Even if it is argued that these debates had started during previous meetings on Macron’s visits to the African continent, the summit in Montpellier was a platform to send a message to Macron’s electorate that he cares about minority issues, and to African youth that France cares where their governments have failed, and to other world powers competing for Africa’s resources, that France is in a leadership position and in touch with ‘authentic’ issues.

The counter-summit

The counter-summit was an eye-opener. A collective of associations, unions, and political parties organised a counter-summit to denounce the Françafrique (the term used to describe the continued and unabated influence of France, its government, and businesses, over its former colonies). Their objective was to unmask ‘the hidden face’ of the ‘New Africa-France summit’ and to challenge France’s policy in Africa. For most of the detractors, the summit was simply a publicity stunt to restore the image of France, which has deteriorated sharply in recent years, particularly in the eyes of African youth.

It is indeed true that several events of the last three years were behind the demonstrations against France in Africa and, therefore, Emmanuel Macron had an interest in a charm offensive to try and restore the image of his country in many regions of the continent.

The counter-summit registered the participation of significant political figures such as Mireille Fanon-Mendès-France, daughter of Frantz Fanon, and Miriam Sankara, the wife of the African hero, Thomas Sankara from Burkina Faso. For those attending the counter-summit, Macron’s announcements for a change in France-Africa relations over the past four years were being challenged as nothing but the usual operations of colonial seduction to give neo-colonial relations a new lease of life.

For example, the reform of the CFA franc, in favour of the future West African currency ECO, still guarantees a central role for France in the monetary policy of West African countries. Also, the announced end of Opération Barkhane is, like other previous military operations in Africa, part of a strategic redeployment towards maintaining French influence through military cooperation and the action of Special Forces.

Macron’s France has therefore never introduced a break in its African policy but, on the contrary, continues to increase its neo-colonial influence in Africa strategically to fight against growing criticism, particularly from young protestors. These are the reasons why this summit was considered as a symbolic renewal of old Franco-African summits, by using topics such as ‘Youth and actors from the diaspora, entrepreneurship, culture and sports’ to continue to revive the same colonial practices of France in Africa.

The counter-summit of a hundred organisations and supported by several political parties and unions  succeeded in organising itself around a message which clearly showed what the meaning of “putting an end to the coloniality of France-Africa” had to involve. The meetings, debates and events they organised on the side-lines of the official summit showed a great mistrust towards Macron, based on their deep knowledge of existing contradictions between France’s discourse and its actions in Africa.

It emerges from these debates that this is not the first time a French president has promised to put an end to France-Africa coloniality, including president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and president François Hollande (2012-2017). These presidents always talked about cosmetic change and a change of style in their relationship with Africa, but not the kind of rupture that the counter-summit participants were asking for.

An example of changing styles over time is how from President Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969) to Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), France had a personal relationship with African presidents, in order to maintain its influence on the African continent. The style then changed with Sarkozy and increased with Francois Hollande, with more emphasis and focus on ‘democratisation’, but still insisting on positioning a relationship with politicians and the Élysée (the official residence of the French president). More recently, the gradual disappearance of former dictators in some African countries has not allowed the Élysée to establish personal and deep relations with certain African presidents. Therefore, it was necessary to change the former way of doing things, in order to maintain, above all, the influence of France in Africa.

Sarkozy, who did not appreciate the need to change the old model of the France-Africa relationship, paid dearly in a lawsuit related to his relations with President Muammar al-Gaddaf. Macron thus had no choice but to try and refigure the relationship in a different way. Yet, this does not mean that the core of France-Africa coloniality has altered in any way.

This is what the counter-summit meant in demanding a sign from Macron, showing that there really was a will for radical change. This would consist of France’s commitment towards five very specific points: (a) ending its military presence in Africa, (b) ending the neoliberal trade policy of France and the EU in Africa, (c) stopping support to presidents who remain in power in an undemocratic manner and French interference in the internal political and economic affairs of African countries, (d) cancelling the odious and illegitimate debts of African countries, (e) respecting the freedom of movement and settlement of people as well as putting an end to expulsions of asylum seekers from France in accordance with international treaties.

Some post-colonial thinkers, including Mbembe, argue that we should not only see cynicism in France’s declaration of its desire to improve its relations with Africa. Sometimes the will is there, but differences still appear on the issue of what a healthy multilateral relationship means. Though, we would argue, that beyond cynicism, there is above all an issue of ideological and cognitive incapacity which is at stake in the official French political imagination.

For those who follow topical issues in French politics, there is still in its political world a kind of nostalgia for the French empire, power and influence in the world, which ultimately makes imperialism a criterion of the greatness of a state. According to Achille Mbembe, this deep rationality implies that “France is struggling to enter into the ‘decolonial’ world that is coming” . For this reason, the counter-summit argued that the official summit organised by Mbembe was unable to break with this imperialist baggage which is at the very foundation of the French state.

The empire and its technologies of domination

The cognitive empire sustains colonial relations. It continues to invade the mental universes of its targets. It maintains surveillance over new knowledge which is not informed by colonial and capitalist interests. What sense do we make of the fact that the summit took place within a context in which conservative politicians in alliance with conservative intellectuals were mounting a push-back against critical race theory, intersectionality theory, post-colonial theory, and decolonial thought? These are frameworks that emerged from the battlefields of history and struggles against racism, enslavement, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. It is these frameworks that the current insurgent and resurgent decolonisation of the 21st century is building on, with students, youth and other progressive forces at the forefront.

The new world now has a critical language with which to propose and imagine a future beyond racism, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. The counter-summit was inspired not just by rethinking but unthinking all toxic colonial relations. Summits have been well-known techniques of sugarcoating colonialities. The long history since the 1958 referendum in France has amply demonstrated that colonial relations do not need reform but abolition for any genuinely new relations between France and Africa. What is needed is a double rupture—which is simultaneously epistemic and systemic.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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Aymar N. Bisoka is a lawyer and political scientist and assistant professor at the University of Mons. He also teaches at the Catholic Univesity of Bukavu, Congo Democratic Republic of the Congo and is a Meaning-Making Research Initiative (MRI) fellow CODESRIA, Senegal. In addition, Bisoka is a researcher at the Conflict Research Group (CRG) at the University of Ghent, Belgium. David Mwambari is a Lecturer in African Security and Leadership Studies at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London and is a Meaning-Making Research Initiative (MRI) fellow CODESRIA, Senegal. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is the Professorial Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence University of Bayreuth. He is also Honorary Professor, School of Education (Education and Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal (October 2020-September 2023), South Africa.

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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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