Belgium’s King Followed the European Script for His Congo Visit

Belgium’s King Followed the European Script for His Congo Visit
King Philippe of Belgium greets 100-year-old Albert Kunyuku, the last surviving Congolese veteran of World War II, during a ceremony at the Veterans Memorial in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 8, 2022 (AP photo by Samy Ntumba Shambuyi).
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. In observing Philippe’s visit to Congo, I found virtually every part of his itinerary to be familiar, from the framing of the trip as an opportunity to “confront Belgium’s legacy in Congo” while also “taking a step forward,” to the obligatory addresses to political elites and university students. There were also references to a “shared history,” though one birthed in imperial violence and exploitation, and the awkward photo opportunities at cultural institutions.

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Forward-looking language is a regular staple of such visits, which are billed by European officials as an opportunity to turn the page on a “controversial” past. This emphasis on the future often finds approval with African elites. It was no different this week in Congo, where Tshisekedi said in a joint press conference that “… we do not dwell on the past, which is the past and which is not to be revisited … the past is both glorious and sad … we want to look to the future.” However, Tshisekedi does not speak for the millions of Congolese people at home and in the diaspora who would like to see Belgium take more significant steps toward restoring justice for historical and contemporary grievances. That would begin with offering a full-fledged, unequivocal apology, something many Congolese regard as the lowest-hanging fruit that Brussels could reach for in a sincere attempt at transparency and accountability for its imperial crimes in Congo. If Belgium, like other former European colonial powers, refuses to do so, instead offering only regrets and remorse, it is for fear that the acceptance of culpability could invite demands for financial reparations that many Africans reasonably believe they are due. At the outset of his visit, Philippe reiterated those expressions of regret for the “violent acts and humiliations” that Belgian colonizers inflicted on people in the Congo Free State, a territory created in 1885 by Leopold II—the brother of Philippe's great-great-grandfather—that comprises modern-day Congo. “On the occasion of my first trip to Congo … I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past,” Phillipe said. Shortly after his arrival, he saluted efforts made by Congolese conscripted into the Belgian army during World Wars I and II by decorating the last living Congolese veteran, Albert Kunyuku, who at the age of 100 was made a commander of the Order of the Crown. Phillippe also returned to Congo a ceremonial mask stolen during Belgium’s colonial rule, and a memorandum of understanding on cultural and museum cooperation was signed between the two countries during Phillippe’s visit to the National Museum in Kinshasa. The cooperation partnership will help implement the restitution of more than 84,000 Congolese cultural artifacts looted during colonization that Belgium has pledged to repatriate. During his visit, Phillippe delivered a speech to a session of the Congolese parliament attended by Tshisekedi as well as other government officials across the executive and legislative branches, in which the Belgian king spoke of a desire to “write a new chapter in our relations and look to the future.” Later during his visit, Phillippe addressed students at Lubumbashi University, where he again implored them to “look to the future” and take advantage of their country’s mineral wealth. According to some estimates, more than 10 million Congolese were killed under Belgian rule in what many have referred to as a “hidden holocaust.” The Congolese population declined significantly as a result of large-scale killings, starvation, disease and a plummeting birth rate, and the economic and environmental consequences of the exploitation and extraction imposed on Congo—first by Leopold, then later by the Belgian state—continue to have ramifications to this day. But in some ways, the fixation on apologies and expressions of “regret” are themselves the imposition of framings used in European discourses, as is the language used to express the willingness to “grapple with the past,” but above all the desire to “move on.” Rarely do African opinions make it into these narratives, even as Africans are forced to play by rules they essentially have not consented to. This framing of “turning the page” is consistent with ongoing attempts by European governments and institutions to suppress the truth and obfuscate historical traumas. European governments and publics regularly tout the “benefits” of colonization or the supposed sacrifices they made on behalf of Africans as a reason to refuse the payment of reparations, allusions Phillippe himself made during his Congo visit. The recurring references made by European officials to a “shared history” or for a desire to “reset” relations betray a stunning lack of awareness or regard for African opinions, to say nothing of history itself. Congolese people, like other Africans, will get on with their lives. For all the traumas they have experienced due to Belgian meddling in their affairs, many do not think much about Belgium today, and they are desirous of relations with other countries and parts of the world. But to mistake that for a Congolese desire to “move on” would be disingenuous. Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire.

Civil Society Watch

Nigeria’s electoral commission, the Independent National Electoral Commission, is partnering with civil society groups and the European Union for an awareness campaign intended to mobilize youths to register in time to be able to vote in the 2023 general election. As part of the initiative, thousands of Nigerians were encouraged to acquire the permanent voter’s card, which shows that the holder has registered to vote in next February’s general elections, at a free concert last Saturday in the commercial hub of Lagos headlined by celebrities including rapper Falz and singer Teni. Social media influencers have also been encouraging their followers to register to vote, as have religious leaders and celebrities. Viral videos have shown everyday people on buses, in their communities and at different random venues motivating others to register and get their permanent voter cards. Most of these efforts are aimed at the youth, many of whom will be first-time voters and who make up more than half of Nigeria's population of more than 200 million.

Culture Watch

The French Institute of Gabon will host events during this year’s International Dance Festival from June 29 to July 2. The festival, which will be held for the first time in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, aims to celebrate the inclusion of people with disabilities, in line with the theme of this year’s edition: “dancing our differences.” The events will feature workshops, lectures, panel discussions and dance performances.

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Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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