Belgian King Philippe and his wife Queen Mathilde recently led a delegation on a week-long visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The trip was billed as a chance to recalibrate the relationship between the two countries after a dark colonial past. We spoke to Julien Bobineau, who has researched the narratives around Belgium’s history with the Congo, about the visit. And if it could lead to a new partnership between the two countries.
What is Belgium’s history in the DRC?
There’s a dark history between Belgium and the DRC that started in the 19th century.
Between 1884 and 1885, there were a series of negotiations between European powers to formalise claims to territory in Africa. It culminated in the Berlin Conference. African stakeholders were not involved in the negotiations.
During the conference, Belgian King Leopold II obtained international legitimacy for the ownership of the lands in what is now the Congo.
From then on, he was the private ruler of the État Indépendant du Congo (Congo Free State), which was 80 times the size of his Kingdom of Belgium. Until his death in 1909, Leopold II never set foot in ‘his’ colony.
But he profited enormously from the Congo’s raw materials.
It is estimated that about half of the then 20 million inhabitants of the Congo lost their lives due to the conditions people had to endure to extract raw materials, mainly of rubber. Some historians refer to this as a genocide.
After international protests, Leopold II sold the private colony to the Belgian state in 1908. After the takeover, the country was renamed Congo Belge, but the interests remained the same. In southeast Congo, the Belgians discovered large ore deposits and exported copper, tropical wood, cotton, cocoa and coffee to Europe.
After slavery was officially abolished in 1910, Congolese workers received a wage for their work in the mines and on the plantations. However, this was much less than the payment Europeans received for the same work.
This colonial racism continued in everyday life until the middle of the 20th century. Cities were divided into ‘white’ and ‘black’ neighbourhoods. The Congolese were only allowed to visit the restaurants, bars and cinemas of ‘white’ Europeans with special permission.
From the 1950s, a broad movement formed in Congo Belge to protest against Belgian foreign rule. Belgian King Baudouin I finally relented and ‘released’ the DR Congo into independence on 30 June 1960. Joseph Kasavubu was elected the first president, with Patrice Lumumba as prime minister.
However, shortly after independence, there was a falling out between the independent government and Western powers, primarily the US and Belgium. They wanted to retain control over the raw materials in the Congo.
After only two months in power, Lumumba was deposed in September 1960. He was assassinated by his political opponents in Katanga in January 1961 with the help of Belgian and US secret services.
Belgium’s involvement in the political assassination was concealed until a commission of enquiry, launched by the Belgian parliament in 1999, found Belgium partially responsible for Lumumba’s death.
What’s happened to relations since independence?
There have been three major shifts.
The first is when Joseph-Désiré Mobutu came to power in 1965. An army commander, he seized power and established an autocratic dictatorship that lasted until 1997.
Belgian-Congolese diplomatic relations were characterised by ups and downs during Mobutu’s reign. On the one hand, Belgium wanted to maintain ties with the former colony for geopolitical and economic reasons. On the other, the Belgian government had to respond diplomatically to the countless human rights abuses committed by Mobutu’s regime.
This dilemma was exacerbated by two aspects. Firstly, Mobutu repeatedly pointed out Belgium’s moral responsibility to the country resulting from colonial rule, especially in crisis situations. Secondly, there was colonial nostalgia among the Belgian population. The colonial rule was romantically glorified in Belgium.
The second shift happened much later. In 2020, the AfricanMuseum changed its guidelines in dealing with objects from colonial contexts. The goal was to make negotiations on restitution possible.
The museum, in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren, was founded in 1897 by Leopold II at the height of colonialism. It served many Belgians as their first point of contact with the African colony. Racist images and colonial bias were constructed to justify foreign rule in the Congo.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnographic objects — mainly looted objects, but also ‘donations’ — were brought to Tervuren and are still stored in the museum today.
Following this general paradigm shift, in October 2020, the Free University of Brussels agreed to return human remains from Congo to the University of Lubumbashi. And in March 2022, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced the return of 84,000 Congolese artefacts.
The third shift is King Philippe’s letter to President Felix Tshisekedi on 30 June 2020, the anniversary of Congolese independence. In the letter, the king expressed his deep regret for the colonial injustices committed in the Congo. This was against the backdrop of the global Black Lives Matter movement in which protests against racism and the neglect of colonial history grew within the Belgian population.
It was the first time that a member of the royal family had addressed the Congolese people with such words. On the same day, then Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès also expressed her regret regarding Belgium’s colonial past. It was the first time a Belgian head of state had done this in that way – a paradigmatic turning point in the country’s historical policy.
What is Belgium’s proposed reparations plan?
In October 2021, the Belgian parliament set up a commission to deal with colonial injustice. Ten experts were tasked with discussing several issues, including possible financial reparations and a stronger anchoring of Belgian colonial history in education curricula and society.
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The commission is also to provide the basis for a reorientation of international relations with former colonial territories.
When it comes to the restitution of objects from colonial contexts, the Belgian government has allocated 2 million euros (about US$2.1 million) to research the provenance of the objects.
For many Congolese in the diaspora in Belgium and in the Congo, this doesn’t go far enough. They also demand an official apology for the colonial atrocities. The government and the king have so far only formulated a ‘regret’.
What are the possibilities of improved diplomatic ties?
For relations to truly improve, the Belgian state must acknowledge its historical responsibility more strongly. It must negotiate politically on an equal footing with its former colonies.
Reparations are also an important issue. Even if many Belgians believe that they cannot be held responsible for the crimes of their ancestors, the Belgian economy profited greatly from colonial exploitation – and in principle continues to do so today.
Congolese societies, in contrast, were deprived of the potential to ‘develop’ due to exploitation, slavery and genocide. The different current economic situations prove this historically generated discrepancy for which there must be a compensation.
The broad debate alone can only be conducted in Belgian society alongside Congolese actors.
Julien Bobineau, Assistant Professor, Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg