June 9, 2022

Belgian king offers ‘regrets’ but no apology for colonialism in Congo

King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets” for abuses committed during the country’s colonization of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday, but he did not offer a formal apology.

The king made the remarks during his first visit to the central African country since he took the throne in 2013. He also handed back a wooden ceremonial mask brought to Belgium during the colonial period.

“This [colonial] regime was one of unequal relations, unjustifiable in itself, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” he told the country’s parliament in Kinshasa, the capital, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “On the occasion of my first trip to Congo, right here, in front of the Congolese people and those who still suffer today, I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for those wounds of the past.”

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Philippe and his wife, Queen Mathilde, received a warm welcome in Congo, where supporters of the ruling party waved Belgian flags and a banner hanging from parliament celebrated a “common history,” according to Reuters. Congo’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, greeted the monarchs on a red carpet rolled out at the Kinshasa airport Tuesday. But some politicians and residents called for Belgium to go further to atone for the atrocities and discrimination their ancestors suffered.

At a news conference alongside Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who traveled with the king and queen, Tshisekedi said he hoped stronger ties with Belgium would bring investment to Congo and improve health care. An estimated 73 percent of the Congolese population lives below the international poverty line, according to the World Bank.

“We have not dwelled on the past, which is the past and which is not to be reconsidered, but we need to look to the future,” Tshisekedi said, Reuters reported.

De Croo hailed the six-day trip as a “historic moment.”

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Belgium’s King Leopold II took power of Congo in 1885, when European leaders carved up Africa into imperial holdings. The king was given personal control over a swath of land he called the Congo Free State.

Some 10 million Congolese died from violence, famine and disease under Leopold’s direct rule, according to some estimates, and gruesome accounts emerged of the dismemberment of children in villages that did not produce enough rubber to satisfy their colonial overlords. Leopold’s rule was so bloody that it drew condemnation from other European leaders, and the government of Belgium later took over administration of the colony.

After the killing of George Floyd in the United States in 2020, protesters in Belgium vandalized statues of Leopold. Philippe’s comments this week echoed those he made in a letter to Tshisekedi that June, on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, when he became the first Belgian official to voice regret for the country’s imperial abuses.

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European countries have made some efforts in recent years to own up to their colonial pasts, as activists at home and in former colonies demand a reckoning over historical atrocities. In 2021, Germany apologized for massacres by German colonial forces of the Herero and Nama people in Namibia, which Germany has acknowledged as genocide. Dutch King Willem-Alexander apologized for the “excessive violence” the Netherlands used when it colonized Indonesia.

But most countries have not gone that far. French President Emmanuel Macron has launched efforts to probe France’s colonization of Algeria but ruled out issuing an official apology. Scars still run deep in both France and Algeria from the colonial period and the brutal war that ended it.

Some European nations have also moved to return artifacts looted from their former colonies. Philippe on Wednesday handed back to Congolese authorities a five-foot-tall Kakungu mask, which had been used in ceremonies by the Suku people in Congo’s southwest. The object was included in an inventory of 84,000 objects taken from Congo during the colonial period that the Belgian government gave to the Congolese government in February. Many are housed just outside Brussels, at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa.

The mask is on “indefinite loan” to Congo, since Belgium does not have a legal avenue for donating works held in federal collections, according to Belgium’s VRT news site. Belgium’s legislature is weighing a law that will create a legal framework for the restitution of colonial-era artifacts.

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Belgium also plans to return a tooth — the last remains of Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Lumumba — who was killed in 1961 after a Brussels-backed coup.

For some in Congo, the gestures are not enough. Responding to a statement from De Croo on Twitter on Wednesday that the countries would pivot their focus to the future, Congolese opposition senator Francine Muyumba Nkanga wrote, “We will never turn toward the future without apology and reparations from Belgium.”

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