King Philippe of Belgium completed a “landmark” six-day visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday that was characterized by Brussels as an attempt to grapple with its brutal colonial past in Congo.
The “historic” trip, which marks Philippe’s first visit to Congo since he took the throne in 2013, came two years after the Belgian king wrote a letter to Tshisekedi to express his “deep regret” for the “wounds of the past” on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium. In doing so, Philippe became the first Belgian royal to express remorse for the Belgian atrocities committed in colonial Congo. This week’s trip—on which Philippe was accompanied by his wife, Queen Mathilde, and members of the Belgian government, including Prime Minister Alexander De Croo—was originally scheduled to coincide with the 60th anniversary independence festivities, but was postponed until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While much of the commentary around Philippe’s visit has understandably focused on Belgium’s colonial past, I was struck more by the discursive framework used to characterize this visit, but also most trips by European dignitaries to Africa. Having spent a considerable part of my career working in diplomacy on the African continent, including a brief stint serving as a political and economic officer for the government of Belgium, I have been part of the planning and choreography of countless diplomatic visits of senior military officers, ministers, presidents, prime ministers and royals, in a political affairs as well as a press and public affairs capacity.