KINSHASA – The remains of Congo’s independence hero and first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba were laid to rest in Kinshasa Thursday amid honors including a procession through the capital, military salutes and music in front of thousands of people.
Congo’s President Felix Tshisikedi saluted Lumumba, calling him a humanist who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
“Today, the Congolese people are able to understand how and why he fought the oppression of the time without fear or trembling,” said Tshisikedi.
Lumumba was interred in a Chinese-built mausoleum topped by a towering statue in a central square in Kinshasa. The ceremony was attended by diplomats and dignitaries including President Denis Sassou N’guesso of the neighboring Republic of Congo who mingled in the courtyard in front of the mausoleum. Lumumba was buried with a military salute and then his family was given time alone with him.
The ceremony was held on Congo’s Independence Day, marking when the country became independent from Belgium in 1960. Lumumba is widely hailed as the nationalist activist who helped to end colonial rule. He became the country’s first prime minister and was assassinated within a year in 1961.
The ceremony comes after Lumumba's remains — a gold-capped tooth — were returned from Belgium and taken around the country to allow citizens to pay their respects, including at his birthplace in Onalua village in Sankuru province.
For many in Congo, Lumumba is a symbol of the positive developments the country could have achieved after its independence. Instead, it became mired in decades of dictatorship that drained its vast mineral riches.
After agitating for an end to colonial rule, Lumumba became newly independent Congo’s first prime minister in 1960 and appeared to be one of Africa's most promising new leaders.
But historians say he was a victim of the Cold War. Lumumba promoted leftist policies and when he reached out to the Soviet Union for help in putting down a secessionist movement in the mineral-rich Katanga region, he quickly fell out of favor with Belgium and the United States.
A military coup toppled Lumumba who was arrested, jailed and later killed. Lumumba’s assassination by separatists in January 1961 cleared the way for the rise to power of Mobutu Sese Seko who with support from Western powers ruled the country, which he later renamed Zaire, for decades until his death in 1997.
Even though Lumumba’s killers were Congolese, questions have persisted over the complicity of Belgium and the United States in his death because of his perceived Communist ties.
Immediately after his killing, Lumumba’s body was dismembered and dissolved with acid in an apparent effort to keep any grave from becoming a pilgrimage site. All that remained was a tooth that was kept by the Belgian police commissioner who oversaw the destruction of Lumumba’s body. In 2016 the tooth was seized by Belgian officials from the police commissioner’s daughter.
The relic of Lumumba was returned to Congo after the visit earlier this month of Belgium’s King Philippe who expressed regrets for his nation’s abuses in Congo when it was a Belgian colony.