Belgium’s King Philippe offers ‘regrets’ but no apologies for colonialism in Congo

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Belgium’s King Philippe on Wednesday expressed his “deepest regrets” for abuses committed during the country’s colonization of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but he did not issue 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 returned a ceremonial wooden mask brought to Belgium during the colonial period.

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

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Philippe and his wife, Queen Mathilde, received a warm welcome in Congo, where ruling party supporters waved Belgian flags and a banner hung in parliament celebrated a “shared history”, according to Reuters. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi greeted the monarchs on a red carpet rolled out Tuesday at Kinshasa airport. But some politicians and residents have called on Belgium to go further to atone for the atrocities and discrimination suffered by their ancestors.

At a press 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 conditions. Health care. According to the World Bank, approximately 73% of the Congolese population lives below the international poverty line.

“We did not dwell on the past, which is the past and which should not be reconsidered, but we must look to the future,” Tshisekedi said, Reuters reported.

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

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Belgian King Leopold II seized power from the Congo in 1885, when European rulers divided Africa into imperial possessions. The king was given personal control of a strip of land which he called the Congo Free State.

Some 10 million Congolese died of violence, starvation and disease under Leopold’s direct rule, according to some estimates, and horrifying tales emerged of the dismemberment of children in villages that did not produce enough rubber. to satisfy their colonial lords. Leopold’s reign was so bloody that it drew condemnation from other European rulers, and the Belgian government subsequently took over administration of the colony.

After the murder 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 in June, on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, when he became the first Belgian official to voice his regrets for the imperial abuses of the country.

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European countries have made efforts in recent years to come to terms with their colonial past, as activists at home and in former colonies demand judgment on historical atrocities. In 2021, Germany apologized for the massacres by German colonial forces of the Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia, which Germany recognized as genocide. Dutch King Willem-Alexander has apologized for the “excessive violence” used by the Netherlands during the colonization of Indonesia.

But most countries haven’t gone that far. French President Emmanuel Macron has launched efforts to investigate France’s colonization of Algeria, but has ruled out issuing a formal apology. The scars are still deep in France and Algeria from the colonial period and the brutal war that ended it.

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

The mask is on “indefinite loan” in Congo, as Belgium currently has no legal route to donate works held in federal collections, according to Belgian news site VRT. The Belgian legislator is studying a law that will create a legal framework for the restitution of artifacts from the colonial era.

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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, gestures are not enough. Responding to a statement from De Croo on Twitter on Wednesday that countries would pivot their attention to the future, Congolese opposition Senator Francine Muyumba Nkanga wrote“We will never look to the future without an apology and reparations from Belgium.”

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