The sword thief: Reflections on Congolese independence

Congo: Happy 51st anniversary of independence.

Instead of remembering Patrice Lumumba, Pierre Mulele or Simon Kimbangu, I’ll choose Ambroise Boimbo this time. His claim to fame? Stealing King Baudouin’ sword when the Belgian monarch arrived for independence celebrations in 1960. What was he thinking? Was he caught up in the delirium of independence, annoyed that he hadn’t been able to fight his way to freedom? Was he egged on by friends?

 

In my imaginary reconstruction of the event, I see Boimbo as a frustrated hero, a brave man posing a futile act of rebellion, who was robbed – like all Congolese – of a fair fight, who had to accept a fake independence on a silver platter.In a way, this lèse majesté symbolizes both the joy of being free, as well as the sad reality that the Congolese had neither proper preparation or a thorough decolonization. For how else can one explain the fact that the culmination of the struggle for independence was your previous colonizer parading down the main street in full military regalia? That even after Boimbo was caught, King Baudouin asked for him to be released, patronizing him?

The Belgians were letting the Congolese have their freedom, but – as the Congolese so often say – it was a poisoned chalice, as they had no one to rule their country, little national polity or political organization to speak of. There was only a handful of university graduates in the whole country, the highest ranking black officer in the army was a sergeant. Give me that sword, you who proclaim independence, when really that’s just another kind of oppression you are handing me.

The sword thief was brave, a bit foolhardy. I wish more people today could stand up to their leaders like this. But at the same time, he symbolizes the lack of true rebellion and freedom that June 30, 1960 brought.

Take ten minutes and look at this fascinating reconstruction of the event, Ambroise’s life and his sad end in the Kintambo cemetery in Kinshasa.