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Pertinent Issues on the War in Tigray

9 min read.

The Ethio-Eritrean war against the people of Tigray has entered a new phase, following the decision of the Government of the National Regional State of Tigray to redeploy its forces to the borders of Tigray, announced by the leadership on December 19. For the people of Tigray, it is fundamentally a war for survival.

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Pertinent Issues on the War in Tigray
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December 24, 2021

The aims of the leadership of Tigray in the war in Ethiopia are, first, to save the people of Tigray from a genocidal onslaught including forced starvation and, second, to establish an all-inclusive government for Ethiopia as a whole. There is no intention to install a government in Addis Ababa led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Instead, we want the people of Tigray to govern themselves within a multi-national federal system.

Eleven months ago after the first round of fighting in which, the people of Tigray were facing a coordinated campaign of destruction from the governments in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the leadership of Tigray, including the TPLF and others, met together to decide how to respond. The Central Command was established to serve as the highest decision making body with regard to the war effort. The Central Command under the regional government of Tigray is leading the whole war effort including the activities of the TDF (Tigray Defense Forces) up to now.  I am a member of the Central Command but the views I am expressing here are my personal views and should not be taken to reflect the views of the Tigray Government and Central Command.

In June, after our forces liberated most of Tigray, the Central Command issued an eight point proposal for talks with the Federal Government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which we hoped would lead to a ceasefire and a peaceful settlement. Abiy did not respond to those proposals and continually rejected the efforts of international interlocutors. He refused to meet our non-negotiable precondition which is ending the war crime of starvation by permitting humanitarian aid and restoring essential services.

Although the starvation of our people is not on your television screens, it is real. Every day, children and their mothers are perishing of hunger. Our people are dying needlessly from treatable diseases because our hospitals have no medicine. Abiy made it perfectly clear that he intended to crush the sprite of resistance to subjugation in Tigray through a starvation siege. In this context the Central Command took the decision to pursue the war, joining forces with other groups to establish a United Front. This includes organizations from Oromo, Somali, Afar, Agaw and others. The biggest of these groups is the Oromo Liberation Army. There was and still is a desire to include other political forces including Amhara political forces as well.

We are fighting to protect the principles of the Federal Constitution of Ethiopia, starting with the cherished affirmation that sovereign legitimacy resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Abiy, on the other hand, is fighting to overturn the constitution. The Amhara elites continually talk about an Ethiopia that is greater than its people. They are ready to kill for this ideology and they are sending thousands of young people to die for it. These elites claim legitimacy for their group only, looking backwards to the era when Ethiopia was an Amhara-ruled empire. We have experienced this kind of ultra-nationalism in the past and it neither secured national territorial integrity nor protected the central government from collapse. Instead, the project of a centralized Ethiopian empire led to war and destruction in all corners of our country. This was why the 1995 Ethiopian constitution, which remains in place today, defines the country as the voluntary unity of its peoples within a federal system.

The Tigray Central Command pursued the war in order to compel the government to negotiate on equal terms and, failing that, to replace it with an all-inclusive Transitional Government. Foreign and domestic political forces were apprehensive of a “repeat of 1991”, referring to the military victory of the TPLF and its coalition partners in that year. We made it clear that the political landscape both in Tigray and Ethiopia have changed so much so that there is no option for such a scenario. Moreover, Tigray cannot shoulder the responsibility for reconstituting the Ethiopian state, especially so without any agreed domestic political arrangement and clear international support.

Our political discussions within the United Front and other political forces which were yet to be part of the coalition were proceeding more slowly than our military advance, which reached the outskirts of the city of Debre Birhan, just 145 km from Addis Ababa. The prospect that we would march into the capital city caused panic mainly among the internationals and to some extent Ethiopians as well. We understand that fear. We also want those who are dismayed about the   safety of the capital to understand the intolerable suffering and the threat of continuing genocide that the Tigrayan people are living under every day.

This was the reason for our decision to march towards Addis Ababa.  We hoped the political developments, both international and domestic, would catch up by then as well. This did not happen.

We appreciate that many around the world, including the U.S., the European Union, and the international media, have exposed the grievous violations against our people and demanded that they stop. We were hopeful that the matter would be raised at the UN Security Council which would act on its obligations to uphold fundamental norms about humanity and act energetically to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But China and Russia consistently blocked any efforts. It appears to us that they did so because they saw the war in terms of the balance of geo-strategic power, and sacrificed principles for political point-scoring, abandoning people to die out of their narrow mindedness.

Regrettably, Western nations’ actions did not go beyond rhetoric. They appealed for a cessation of hostilities and for humanitarian access, but in practice these were empty gestures. They did not use the diplomatic and economic tools in their hands. Worse, the rhetoric of western governments and the silence of the African Union gave Abiy the pretext to adopt slogans of anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism which in turn allowed China and Russia, along with Iran, Turkey and the UAE, to sell arms. Tigray got words, Abiy got weapons.

The best that can be said for those supporting Abiy is that his backers believe they are protecting the Ethiopian state from collapse. They are misinformed. They are saving a government in name only. Our forces encounter this on the battlefield: the Ethiopian National Defense Force is kitted out in uniforms and has modern equipment, ranks and units, but it fights like a rag-tag horde of feudal levies, backed by an air force and drones supplied by foreigners. Administrative structures have collapsed across the country. Salaries are not paid, schoolchildren are sent to harvest the fields. The foreign ministry has been replaced by campaigns on Twitter and Facebook. The peace and security architecture for the Horn, which was painstakingly built by Ethiopia’s diplomats and peacekeepers in partnership with the African Union and United Nations, has been summarily demolished.

In fact, Abiy is implementing the blueprint of Isaias Afwerki, dictator of Eritrea. This is to build a trio of autocrats: Isaias, Abiy and the Somali president Mohamed Farmaajo. For Ethiopia this means a dictator in Addis Ababa ruling over a weak and fragmented state, all under the heel of Eritrea.

The Ethiopian state under Abiy Ahmed and his Amhara interlocutors is being used as a Trojan Horse for the unbridled and oversized ambition of Isaias Afewerki, who he himself is serving as an agent of the Middle Eastern countries. I would like to make one thing clear, if the resistance in Tigray is crushed by the combined forces of the Ethiopian federal government, Amhara forces, and their backers in the Middle East (Turkey, UAE, and Iran) the floodgates for Isaias to implement his blueprint will be open. The region of the Horn of Africa will be run as per the dictat of the Eritrean dictator. Is the international community, Africa and the region willing to live with the impending scenario? If the answer to the question posed is no, the time to act is now.

The Ethiopian government has begged and borrowed and sold its assets to get arms from foreign powers who have little knowledge about the country and less goodwill. No amount of jingoistic rhetoric can conceal that Abiy has made Ethiopia into a beggar. Those who are putting coins on his plate today will want him to sing for them tomorrow.

Where Middle Eastern powers have poured in their weapons and money, and the international community has recognized a government in name only, we do not see stability. In Libya, Syria and Yemen we see the reality of state collapse. The government becomes a client of its biggest paymasters and the country becomes locked in unending conflict. We need to save Ethiopia from this fate.

The U.S. government expressed its serious concern over the maintenance and continuity of the Ethiopian state. It stated its intention to bring a rapid resolution to the war through negotiation. Washington DC openly opposed the advance of the TDF to Addis Ababa, threatening the government of Tigray with sanctions if our forces approached the city. On the other hand, the U.S. expressed no strategy (at least to us) to end the war except appeasing Abiy Ahmed with flattery. The policy of appeasement has not brought any solution before and it will not bring fast resolution of the conflict and save the Ethiopian state either.

In my opinion the fastest way to end the conflict has now evaporated.

In this context, the TDF is fighting absolutely alone. It has no international allies and no military or other material assistance from abroad. Tigrayan people do not even receive humanitarian aid. The Tigrayan people are few, impoverished but gallant and with a strong sense of identity. We have a long and proud history of fighting against invaders of our land and we are repeating the heroic feats of our predecessors.

Our forces did not advance on Addis Ababa. In the last two weeks, the effects of swarms of drones on the TDF advanced positions and supply lines has been substantial. Personnel of Eritrean armored divisions are in daily combat within the ranks of the ENDF. Eritrean forces still occupy substantial parts of Tigray. In these circumstances, with long and vulnerable supply lines to our forces, and no effective international political process for a negotiated settlement, the Government of regional state of Tigray through the Central command decided to withdraw to defensive positions to consolidate our forces. A withdrawal under drone fire is a difficult military operation which we have accomplished successfully. We are undefeated.

Over the last few days, the Ethio-Eritrean coalition forces attempted to penetrate our lines, from south, west and east. They were repulsed with heavy losses. After these setbacks the regime in Addis Ababa announced that it had completed “phase one” of its operation and would not be continuing its attacks. This statement, coupled with the previously announced position of the National Regional Government of Tigray for a ceasefire, opens an opportunity for the international community, led by Kenya, to press for a cessation of hostilities and initiate peace talks.

If this does not happen, the war will continue not only in Tigray but in other places in Ethiopia as well. There will be more loss of lives; economic destruction and whatever political and social fabric that might have persisted up to now will be destroyed which means saving the Ethiopian multinational federal state as we know it becomes very difficult.

Now the regime of Abiy Ahmed could be preparing to initiate an “inclusive dialogue” controlled and monitored by itself. He is trying hard to make the world believe him he has “defeated the rebels” and would offer them to be part of this inclusive dialogue, as individuals not as the TPLF. Some in the international community might support his idea as well.

This process will not work. Any inclusive dialogue should be done by neutral bodies with the participation of the major political forces in Ethiopia sponsored and supported by the international community. The mechanism could be worked out with the assistance of experts on the field. We hope that African countries will rise to the challenge of hosting and facilitating the conference.

There must be a political solution to the war in Ethiopia. Whether this includes Abiy or not is secondary. What is important is that the human crisis facing the Tigrayan people is averted and that the settlement to this war should usher in stability, democracy and development.

My vision for this is as follows.

Tigray must stand on its feet and must have cast iron guarantees that the genocidal assaults of the last year will never, ever happen again. We shall rely on ourselves, as we have shown we can do, but we also rely on Africa and the international community to ensure that we are not alone if we ever again face enemies determined to destroy us.

Ethiopia is a nation of nations, and the only way forward for the country is to recognize this. There can be no return to empire-building or the domination of one group over another

Tigray is an ancient civilization, a place where Christianity has deep roots and where the peaceful coexistence and symbiosis between Muslims, Christians and Jews goes back fourteen centuries. Recognizing and preserving this is the foundation stone for stability for Ethiopia, our neighbors in the Horn of Africa, and the countries on the other shore of the Red Sea.

Tigray is an African nation. We have contributed to the birth of African civilization and we have contributed to the vision of an Africa that is stable, secure and independent from external powers, whether they be Europe, America, the Middle East or Asia. Tigrayans are proud of our contribution to Ethiopia’s diplomacy and peacekeeping which was a pillar of stability and development in the Horn of Africa region. We are proud of our contribution to regional economic integration including water, electricity and transport infrastructure joining neighboring countries.

The entire international community, including Russia, China, and all the countries in the Middle East, have a responsibility to humanity that should override whatever policy differences they may have with America and Europe. That same common responsibility extends to protecting a cultural heritage, by halting the war against a people who have been the custodian of this unique intersection of faiths and cultures.

The Horn of Africa is a region where the world’s great powers all have legitimate interests. The world needs maritime security, seeks to stamp out violent extremism, and wants to avert the specter of massive distress migration driven by conflict, famine and state collapse. We in Tigray recognize this. Given our proximity and history we want to be constructive player by securing our national interest and legitimate national interest of other player in the sub region. The world should not allow a repeat of Syria, Yemen or Libya in the Horn at the western flank of the Red Sea. This is not a zero-sum game. Ethiopia should be the place where these international and regional interests converge in a multilateral pact.

All Ethiopians need a ceasefire and political negotiations. Our political goals are clear and we have reiterated our proposal for a ceasefire. This may start with a freeze in combat—a cessation of hostilities. It must then develop into a full and permanent ceasefire, which is a complicated military operation requiring professionalism on both sides. An essential component of a ceasefire is third party monitoring and verification. Africa has extensive experience in this and we are confident that our African brothers will be able to provide the necessary expertise and capacity.

Ethiopia is unique but it is also an African country where Africa’s principles and wisdom are much needed. Over the last thirty years, beginning when I had the honor of serving as chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Ethiopia has become an integral part of Africa’s peace and security architecture, extending our services in diplomacy and peacekeeping across the continent in a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity. We now call on our African brothers to reach out their hand in that same spirit.

Thank you

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Gen. (Ret) Tsadkan Gebretensae was the Chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (1991-2001) and member of the Central Command of the National Regional State of Tigray.

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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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