This content was published on June 8, 2022 – 15:58
By Benoit Nyemba
KINSHASA (Reuters) – Belgium’s King Philippe on Wednesday reaffirmed his deepest regret for the exploitation, racism and acts of violence during his country’s colonization of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but again abstained to officially apologize.
Philippe became the first Belgian official in 2020 to express regret over colonization, and some Congolese hoped he would issue a formal apology on his first visit to Congo since assuming the throne in 2013.
“Even though many Belgians invested themselves sincerely, loving the Congo and its people deeply, the colonial regime itself was based on exploitation and domination,” he told a joint session of parliament. in the capital Kinshasa.
“This regime was a regime of unequal relations, unjustifiable in itself, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” he said.
“This has led to acts of violence and humiliation. 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.”
Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi and many politicians enthusiastically welcomed Philippe’s visit. A large number of ruling party supporters waved Belgian flags and a banner hung in parliament read: “A common history”.
But many Congolese were likely to be disappointed by the absence of an apology.
By some estimates, murder, starvation and disease killed up to 10 million Congolese in the first 23 years of Belgium’s rule alone, from 1885 to 1960, when King Leopold II ruled the independent state. of the Congo as a personal fief.
Villages that missed the rubber collection quotas were notoriously obligated to provide the severed hands instead.
“They left us isolated, abandoned. They plundered all our resources, and today you invite the king of the Belgians again? says Junior Bombi, vendor at Kinshasa’s central market.
Antoine Roger Lokongo, a professor at Joseph Kasa-Vubu University in southwestern Congo, said before the speech that he would wait to see if Philippe officially apologized.
“The mere regret you expressed is not enough,” Lokongo said.
Philippe arrived on Tuesday with his wife, Queen Mathilde, and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo for a week-long visit.
Tshisekedi said in a brief press conference earlier Wednesday with De Croo that he was focused on strengthening cooperation with Belgium to attract investment and improve health care and education in Congo.
Relations had deteriorated under Tshisekedi’s predecessor, Joseph Kabila, whom Brussels criticized for suppressing dissent and extending his term in power beyond legal limits.
“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.
Some Kinshasa residents said they hoped the visit would bring investment and renewed interest in the conflict in the east of the country.
“My feeling is that we should start having good Congolese-Belgian relations again, as before,” said Antoine Mubidiki. “Despite what the Belgians did to us during colonization, we are ready to forgive.”
Philippe also offered a traditional mask of the Suku people to the National Museum of Congo on “indefinite loan”. The mask has been held for decades by the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.
“I am here to return this exceptional work to you so that the Congolese can discover and admire it,” he said.
Belgium has traditionally said little about colonialism, and the subject has not been widely taught in Belgian schools.
But there has been the beginning of a historic balance sheet in recent years. During anti-racism protests sparked in 2020 by the US police killing of George Floyd, protesters targeted statues of King Leopold II.
The Belgian parliament set up a commission soon after to examine the historical archives. It will publish its final report this year.
Belgium will also hand over a tooth, believed to be the only remains of Congo’s first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, to his family this month. The Belgian government in 2002 assumed partial responsibility for Lumumba’s death in 1961.
(Reporting by Benoit Nyemba and Nellie Peyton; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alison Williams)