Philippe, the king of Belgium, March 26, 2019. - JUNG Yeon-Je / AFP
- Philippe, the King of the Belgians, transmitted his "regrets" to the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the suffering inflicted during the colonization of the country.
- This painful past was revived by the death of George Floyd in the United States, and the demonstrations that followed in Belgium against racism.
- “Regret is just the beginning. The excuses will come later, "said Jean Omasombo, a Congolese political scientist and professor of political science at the University of Kinshasa.
It is a first in the mixed history of Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On Tuesday, Belgian King Philippe presented "his deepest regrets for the wounds" inflicted, during the colonial period, from 1885 to 1960, on the former Belgian Congo. The painful debate on this past has been revived by demonstrations against racism after the death of George Floyd in the United States. Critics have notably targeted King Leopold II, accused by some of having caused the death of 10 million Congolese.
What does this "historic" letter contain?
"At the time of the independent state of the Congo [from 1885 to 1908, before King Leopold II ceded the territory to the Belgian state], acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory ”, writes Philippe in a letter to the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, ex-Zaire), Félix Tshisekedi. “The colonial period that followed (until 1960) also caused suffering and humiliation. I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is now rekindled by the discrimination still too present in our societies, ”continues the sovereign. A letter greeted by the Congolese president, who celebrated this Tuesday the 60 years of independence of the country.
What is King Philippe talking about when he refers to "acts of violence and cruelty" committed by Belgium in the Congo?
In Belgium, the controversy over the colonization of the Congo was sparked, among other things, by the “Let's repair history” movement. His petition, which has collected more than 80,000 signatures, accuses Philippe's grandfather, Leopold II, of having "killed more than 10 million Congolese", even if this number remains disputed by historians.
Via concessionary companies, Léopold II used forced labor in the Congo to, in particular, extract the rubber. While he has never set foot in the Congo, he has installed a system marked by lashes, torture, burnt villages or severed hands for workers who are not productive… Many abuses have been documented by a special commission in 2001.
Are these regrets important in the history of Belgian colonization?
"Regret is only the beginning," said Jean Omasombo, a Congolese political scientist and professor of political science at the University of Kinshasa. “In Belgium, the colonial spirit has not disappeared. The fact that the king presented regrets is a step, that means that he accepts, on behalf of Belgium, that there has been violence. "For him," it also helps to rehabilitate Patrice Lumumba [first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo and icon of new anti-colonial activists, murdered at 35 with the complicity of Belgium in 1961]. For more than 20 years, in the Congo, we were not allowed to mention his name ”.
Next step, for Belgium: the creation, validated in mid-June by the Parliament, of a commission responsible for examining all aspects of the colonization of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Constituted with the aim of carrying out this work of memory, it should start its work from September. An approach that should take years. The apologies of King Philippe, claimed by some, "can only come after the work of this commission," said Jean Omasombo.
How can Belgium "fix history"?
Statues of Léopold II and Baudouin repainted or unbolted ... In Belgium, as in the United States and in France, the question arises whether or not these tributes are maintained. Jean Omasombo cites the Congolese model, which mixes the preservation of history and the rejection of colonization: "In 1971, President Mobutu decided on" recourse to authenticity ", a series of measures to erase the colonial past", explains he. In all the cities of Congo, public squares, streets and avenues Léopold or Baudouin are renamed, the statues moved… "Most of these monuments were broken, thrown into the water", says Omasonbo. “8-10 years ago, we picked up these monuments and put them in a park in Kinshasa, to remember. "
If the historic "regrets" of the King of the Belgians were greeted on Tuesday in the Congo, some actors are also asking for reparations. "This late repentance can only be accepted after substantial reparations for these atrocities which have enabled the personal enrichment of Leopold II and his friends," Hervé Diakiese, spokesman for the citizen movement, said. " "The troubled role played by Belgium in the aftermath of independence on June 30, 1960 to control the ores of the DRC must also figure among the matters to be repaired," he added. He also invited Belgium to restore the "Congolese cultural heritage which is in the museum of Tervuren".
For Jean Omasombo, it is essential to "identify the facts": "The history of the Congo remains very poorly written, for years we were made to believe that colonization was a good. This country still requires that we study it and see how it has evolved. It is a big building site which opens. "
Belgium: King expresses "regrets" for the colonial past in the DRC for the first time
Death of George Floyd: Wave of protests against racism sweeps across Europe
- George Floyd
- Democratic Republic of Congo