A lonely statue of DR Congo’s independence hero Patrice Lumumba marks the spot where he was assassinated 60 years ago on Sunday, weeds encroaching on the unfinished and largely forgotten roadside memorial.
The neglected site does not reflect the adoration the country has for its first prime minister, but its incomplete state could symbolise the unfinished legacy of a man killed just months after taking office.
His family are still seeking justice, with a war crimes investigation in its final phases in former colonial ruler Belgium. DR Congo is also preparing for Belgium to return all that remains of Lumumba — a single tooth.
Young and charismatic, Lumumba was among the vanguard of pan-African leaders who led the charge to end colonialism in Africa in the late 1950s.
A charismatic speaker, he gained Belgium’s resentment on the very first day of independence, June 30, 1960, delivering a blistering indictment of the brutal colonial regime in a famous speech attended by Belgian King Baudouin.
Western powers needed little else to see the 35-year-old firebrand as a threat, particularly after he sought support from the Soviet Union.
Aiming to quickly neutralise him, Belgium and the CIA exploited the ambitions of other Congolese leaders, documents show.
They succeeded with a young army chief-of-staff named Joseph-Desire Mobutu, who led a coup that overthrew Lumumba in September after just three months as prime minister.
Later Mobutu would seize power in another coup and impose dictatorial rule from 1965-1997, renaming the nation Zaire and himself Mobutu Sese Seko.
After Lumumba was ousted, he was arrested and handed over for execution to the authorities in the mineral-rich southeast Katanga province, which seceded from the fledgeling nation months earlier with Belgium’s support.
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A plane carrying Lumumba from the capital Leopoldville — since renamed Kinshasa — landed at the airport of Katanga’s provincial capital Lubumbashi in early 1961.
A convoy carrying Lumumba and his fellow captives drove 55 kilometres (34 miles) towards the city of Kolwezi, before turning down a red grit track to stop in the middle of a savannah dotted with trees.
At the foot of one of those trees, a firing squad was waiting.
Lumumba and his two companions, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo, were shot dead by Katangese separatists and Belgian mercenaries after nightfall on January 17, 1961.
– ‘It was the Belgians’ –
Historian Guillaume Nkongolo stands at the foot of that tree, which his research shows is the exact place where Lumumba was killed.
“In the past, people said that the Congolese, and more especially, the Katangese, killed him,” he told AFP.
“But the archives have spoken: it was the Belgians who plotted the death of Lumumba and had him executed.”
On a nearby pedestal at the Shilatembo site, Lumumba’s red clay statue raises its right arm towards the sky.
Some distance away sits an old twin-engine DC2 plane, symbolising Lumumba’s last flight. But it was actually a DC4 that carried Lumumba on that fateful trip, Nkongolo says.
The site hosts a statue of another national hero, Laurent-Desire Kabila, the rebel leader who ousted and replaced Mobutu in 1997.
His statue is overgrown with branches and weeds.
Kabila was assassinated almost exactly 20 years ago on January 16, 2001, after which his son Joseph took over, ruling until 2019.
The memorial site was planned to also feature busts of “great figures in the liberation of their people”, such as Nelson Mandela and Burkina Faso’s soldier-president Thomas Sankara.
Work began in 2016, but Nkongolo, who was on a commission to develop the site, said it has since “come to a halt”.
– ‘Symbol of unity’ –
“Generally in the Congo, above all in Katanga, if you speak of Lumumba, people always tell you that it is a political issue, that it’s sensitive,” he said.
Katangese consider Lumumba’s execution “a point of dishonour” for their province, Nkongolo said. “Yet reality shows that the Katangese were manipulated by the Belgians.”
History teacher Jean-Marie Mwengwe laments that Lumumba’s story is only taught to students at the ages of 13 and 18.
“The history of our country is very badly known by us, the Congolese.”
The government has announced a tribute to Lumumba during independence anniversary celebrations on June 30 this year, when Belgium is expected to return his tooth, which a Belgian policeman took in 1961 while helping dispose of his body.
“Lumumba represents the symbol of unity in the Congo,” said his eldest son Francois Lumumba, who fled to Egypt and then Hungary after his father’s death.
“Moreover, he is the hero of independence.”