M23 rebels have announced that they are ready to disengage and withdraw territories they have occupied in eastern DRC after almost a year which ... has led to simmering tension between Rwanda president Paul Kagame and his DRC counterpart Félix Tshiskedi.
It is difficult to tell whether Roland Lumumba’s low tone of voice is an expression of his fatigue, relief or simply a certain weariness. Speaking in early June, the only thing that Patrice Émery Lumumba’s son seems struggling to hide is his impatience to bring his family’s interminable ordeal to an end. “It’s been difficult to get to this point,” he says, referring to the mourning his family has been deprived of – for lack of a body to bury.
To say that the road was long is an understatement. The construction of the mausoleum has been delayed, the family has hesitated, the presidential cabinet has fumbled, the event itself has been postponed many times… But this time, Roland Lumumba wants to believe that the outcome is close and that his father’s tooth, the only relic from the hero of Congolese independence assassinated on 17 January 1961, will finally return to Congo.
And it doesn’t matter if the initial format – a delegation led by the Belgian head of state – was abandoned in the end: “The main thing for us is to be able to bury him with the honours that he is due”.
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None of this would have been possible without the fight led in Belgium by Lumumba’s wife, Pauline, who died in 2014, and by his children. But will this repatriation, which finally took place on Monday 20 June, open the way for other returns?
The cases of Mobutu Sese Seko, whose remains have been resting in Morocco since his death on 7 September 1997, or of the former prime minister and president of the short-lived state of Katanga, Moïse Tshombe, who died in 1969 in Algiers and is buried in Belgium’s Etterbeek cemetery, have never been resolved. The return of the remains of these key figures from the dawn of independence is a real headache – both a burden for their heirs and a political issue for the various presidents who have since come to power.
Back in December 2007, the Congolese National Assembly adopted a resolution recommending the repatriation of Mobutu’s body. The context at the time was favourable: the war between Mobutu’s supporters and those of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who overthrew him, was over. Before his assassination in 2001, Kabila tried, through the intermediary of Wivine Moleka – the daughter of a close associate of Mobutu, Ignace Moleka – to establish contact with members of the former regime. And once in power, his son Joseph Kabila formed an alliance with Mobutu’s sons. At the head of a fragile transition, the young president saw this as a way to support the idea of “national reconciliation”.
Returning to the DRC in November 2002, Nzanga Mobutu, the son of Bobi Ladawa, Mobutu Sese Seko’s second wife, founded the Union des Démocrates Mobutistes – UDEMO (the Union of Mobututist Democrats) three years later. After an unsuccessful presidential bid in 2006, he joined the majority and his party won several ministerial posts. One of his brothers, Giala Mobutu – now a senator – held a seat in parliament.
But the alliance was not to the taste of everyone in the Mobutu family, some of whom refused to make a pact with the son of the man who brought down their father. “Even the least reticent, those who admitted that it could help recover some of his property and allow his body to be repatriated, were destabilised [by this alliance],” says a family associate. In any case, it did not last long. In 2011, Joseph Kabila dismissed Nzanga Mobutu from the government by presidential decree.
The promise of a return of Mobutu Sese Seko’s body was nevertheless put back on the table two years later, in 2013, at the end of the national consultations launched to assuage the tense political situation that had reigned since the last presidential election. And it would be brought up again in September 2019, at the initiative of Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, Félix Tshisekedi’s prime minister. “I have always found it rather vulgar to evoke the repatriation of our father’s body in this way,” one of Mobutu’s children said. “When Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba made his statement, we were not even notified beforehand”.
With the exception of Nzanga and Giala, Mobutu Sese Seko’s other children – most of whom grew up abroad – have not attempted any political adventures in the DRC. UDEMO itself does not carry much weight in the Congolese political arena, and its name alone has not saved the Mobutu family from being marginalised.
The same goes for the Lumumba children. Evacuated to Egypt with the help of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his emissary, Abdel Aziz Ishak, they grew up in Cairo. They stayed there for anywhere from ten to thirty years, the first of the children having returned to the DRC in the 1990s. Juliana Lumumba was briefly minister of information and then of culture under Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Roland, who was a member of parliament for several years, no longer holds an elective mandate, while François, the eldest, presides over the Congolese National Movement/Lumumba, a small party that he promises to revive for the 2023 elections.
Ditto for the Tshombes. Jean Ditend Tshombe, one of Moïse’s sons, returned to Zaire in the early 1980s and was a minister under Mobutu for a while, but died in 1993. Since then, only Isabel, who is now the DRC’s ambassador to France after having been the Francophonie representative under Joseph Kabila, has held senior positions. Ironically, she was deputy minister of social affairs in 1999, in the same government as… Juliana Lumumba.
Each one of the children has his or her own network, but their relative lack of political clout has prevented them from holding discussions about burying their fathers in the country. Moreover, families are often divided. This was again evident during the organisation of the return of Lumumba’s tooth. “Some people told us that it was better not to be part of the government, not to collaborate with President Tshisekedi, whose father, Étienne, was a collaborator of Mobutu’s,” says one of the former prime minister’s sons. “But it’s not about working with this or that person. It is the DRC paying tribute to him!”
This opinion is not shared by the family’s youngest son, Guy-Patrice, who has spoken out repeatedly over the past two years to denounce the risk of “political recuperation”. “He may protest, but what has he done to prevent any such recuperation?” asks one of his brothers.
Work together or not? The Mobutu and Tshombe families have also struggled to reach an agreement. The return of the remains of the former Katangese leader had been promised in 2013, during national consultations. At the end of the discussions, an emissary was even appointed by Kabila to follow the dossier, in the person of Celestin Tunda Ya Kasende. But the project never came to fruition.
The subject finally came up again in 2019, with the first speech by Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba. In September of the same year, Félix Tshisekedi, visiting Brussels, received several members of the family. But the case is still dragging on. “It has remained at the intention stage”, says a member of the Tshombe family, who explains that they want “to avoid this repatriation being presented as a trophy”. “Basically, the blockage has never really been political. It is above all a question of harmonising points of view, internally, and of timing”, says a source close to the two families.
These family divisions are often cited by various political powers to justify the delays. “The family is united in this matter,” responds one of the Mobutu heirs. “The truth is that the conditions have not been met. Our father would not have liked to be repatriated to Gbadolite under these circumstances.” Once renowned for its sumptuous palaces, “Gbado” is now in ruins. The Marie la Miséricorde chapel, whose crypt once housed the bodies of Mobutu’s first wife Marie-Antoinette, who died in 1977, and some of his children, has been desecrated, and the bodies had to be moved to a small cemetery nearby.
‘Yes to reconciliation, but not oblivion’
“Given this situation, it is easier for the family if he stays in Morocco,” confirms one of the Mobutu children, for whom the return of his father’s remains is inseparable from a rehabilitation of the former president’s legacy. “When our father died, he was turned into a political stumbling block,” he says. A source close to the family and a former associate of Mobutu’s explains, “In Morocco, the family has retained a certain status that is difficult to renounce, especially for the second generation who lived in Zaire.”
This rehabilitation is also at the heart of the Tshombe family’s demands. The children of the former president of Katanga state have put specific demands on the table, including the cancellation of a death sentence handed down in 1967. But these negotiations have been disrupted for several years by disputes over the management of the inheritance, which is the subject of legal conflicts between the Tshombe descendants.
“The repatriation of Lumumba’s remains is a step. If the others follow, we will be led to question the role that Mobutu and Tshombe played in his death or the role that Mobutu played vis-à-vis Tshombe, and vice versa,” says Congolese political scientist Jean Omasombo.
The Lumumba family, in the former prime minister’s yellowed residence on Boulevard du 30-Juin in Kinshasa, is already looking forward to this work of remembrance. From now on it is our priority,” says Roland Lumumba. “We want the truth to be told. Yes to reconciliation, but not to oblivion.”
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