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Belgium returns remains of slain Congolese leader

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A tooth returns to the Democratic Republic of Congo this week, bringing some closure to a gruesome chapter of European colonialism. Before we explain the significance of this tooth, we want to warn you the tale includes violence and murder. This small bit of bone and its shining golden crown are all that remain of Congo's first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. He took office when Congo became independent from Belgium in 1960. But just a few months later, he was taken hostage, tortured and executed, his body dissolved in acid. A Belgian police officer took the remaining tooth as a memento back to his country. In a ceremony today, Belgium's prime minister returned the tooth to Lumumba's family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a Congolese historian who participated in the independence movement led by Lumumba. He also serves as Congo's representative to the U.N. and he says Lumumba still holds deep importance for Congolese people today.

GEORGES NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Patrice Lumumba was a charismatic leader and person who could really mobilize people to fight for independence. He created the first all-Congolese political party and was a person who was very much committed to improving the livelihood of Congolese people. We celebrate that January 17 is Lumumba Day, so he's very well known.

SHAPIRO: What was it like for you to fight for independence as part of his movement in the late 1950s?

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Well, I was a young boy in high school, and we were all very, very excited by the struggle for independence and to hear leaders like Lumumba, who were really speaking what most people thought about then, who were not shy to say the truth in terms of the colonial oppression we went through. So it was a wonderful event.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to some of what his daughter, Juliana, said at today's ceremony in Belgium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIANA LUMUMBA: (Speaking French).

SHAPIRO: She's saying, "Father, how did you die? We don't know. When did you die? We don't know. Where were you assassinated? We don't know that either." And so tell us what we do know about why Lumumba was assassinated.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Because the West did not like him. President Eisenhower of the United States gave order to the CIA to assassinate him at the meeting of the National Security Council on August 18, 1960, by the simple expression, can't we get rid of that guy? But Allen Dulles, the CIA boss, understood exactly what the president meant.

SHAPIRO: What was their fundamental objection to him?

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Basically, it was the nationalists who wanted to use Congolese resources for the well-being and development of Congolese people.

SHAPIRO: As opposed to for the exploitation and use of the West.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Belgium's colonization of Congo was brutal. And a parliamentary inquiry found the Belgian government was morally responsible for the assassination of Lumumba. The Belgian prime minister and royal family have expressed regret but stopped short of a full apology. What do you make of that?

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Well, I would - personally, I'm not speaking for the government. I speak for myself. I would prefer that the Belgian government owes up to its political responsibility in the killing of Lumumba. He was sent to Lubumbashi by the government in Kinshasa on the request of the Belgians, and he was killed by a Belgian assassination squad. So Belgium has a responsibility in the killing of Lumumba, and they are to owe up to that responsibility.

SHAPIRO: Now, I said that the return of his tooth to DRC brings some closure to this chapter of history. How much closure is it really?

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: For the family, it's one thing that they have a place where they can go. Also for the Congolese people, we have a mausoleum where this tooth is going to be laid to rest. And this would be a very, very good thing in terms of having a place of remembrance, a place where Congolese can go and honor Lumumba.

SHAPIRO: That's historian and Congolese representative to the U.N. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. Thank you for speaking with us.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.