By Benoit Nyemba
KINSHASA -Belgium’s King Philippe returned a traditional mask to Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday on his first visit to the former colony, where many remain angry at Belgium’s failure to apologise for decades of brutal rule.
By some estimates, killings, famine and disease killed up to 10 million Congolese during just the first 23 years of Belgium’s rule from 1885 to 1960, when King Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom.
Villages that missed rubber collection quotas were notoriously made to provide severed hands instead.
In 2020, Philippe became the first Belgian official to express regret for the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted on Congo. But he stopped short of issuing an apology, and some Congolese have demanded he does during this first visit since taking the throne in 2013.
“They left us isolated, abandoned. They pillaged all our resources, and today you invite the Belgian king again?” said Junior Bombi, a salesman in Kinshasa’s central market.
Antoine Roger Lokongo, a professor at the University of Joseph Kasa-Vubu in southwestern Congo, said he would be waiting to see if Philippe formally apologised for colonial-era crimes.
“The simple regret that you have expressed is not sufficient,” Lokongo said.
Philippe arrived on Tuesday with his wife, Queen Mathilde, and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo for a week-long visit. He is due to address a joint session of Congo’s parliament later on Wednesday.
Congo President Felix Tshisekedi said during a brief news conference with De Croo that he was focused on cooperating with Belgium to attract investment and improve health care and education in Congo.
“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,” he said.
Some Kinshasa residents said they hoped the visit would bring investment and a renewed focus on the conflict in the east of the country.
“My feeling is that we should start having good Congolese-Belgium relations again, like before,” said Antoine Mubidiki. “Despite what the Belgians did to us during colonisation, we are ready to forgive.”
Philippe offered the initiation mask of the Suku people to Congo’s national museum as an “indefinite loan”. The mask has been held for decades by Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa.
“I am here to return to you this exceptional work in order to allow Congolese to discover and admire it,” Philippe said, standing next to Tshisekedi. “It marks the symbolic beginning of the reinforcement of the cultural collaboration between Belgium and Congo.”
Belgium has traditionally said little about colonialism, and the subject has not been extensively taught in Belgian schools.
But there have been the beginnings of a historical reckoning in recent years. During anti-racism protests sparked in 2020 by the police killing in the United States of George Floyd, demonstrators targeted statues of King Leopold II.
Belgium’s parliament established a commission soon after to examine the historical record. A preliminary report published last year called for a more accurate understanding of the colonial period, and the final report is expected this year.
De Croo said Belgium was committed to an honest accounting of its past.
“We all know that, in that long relationship between the countries, there was a period that was painful, painful for the Congolese population,” he said. “I think it’s important to look at that straight in the eyes.”