King Philippe of Belgium has made a historic visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this week. Two years ago the monarch expressed in a letter addressed to the Congolese president, Félix Tshisekedi, his “deep regret” because of “the wounds of the past”, referring to the genocide of nearly ten million Congolese (an approximate figure, since never the real number will be known) perpetrated during the colonialist stage. We recall that the Congo was the property of King Leopold II between 1885 and 1906, who used its rich forests for the extraction of rubber and the creation of a fabulous fortune that positioned him as one of the richest men on the planet. When the international community became aware of the atrocities committed, from the hunts with human beings as prey to the amputations of fingers and limbs as a form of punishment, the monarch had to cede the Congo to the Belgian Administration, which simply continued with the previous methods until it was the turn of Congolese independence in 1960.
At a ceremony held this Wednesday in Kinsasa, King Felipe declared that “the colonial regime was based on exploitation and domination. It was a regime of unequal and unjustifiable relations marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism, which led to violent acts and humiliation. On my first trip to the Congo, in front of the Congolese people and those who still suffer today [por lo sucedido]I wish to reaffirm my deepest regret for those past wounds.
In the absence of a “sorry”
This is the first visit to the DRC by the Belgian monarch since his coronation in 2013. As expected, the Congolese have taken two opposite positions when considering the visit of Philip of Belgium: some embrace this opportunity as the beginning of a new stage of cooperation between the two countries, while others point out that it is only a strategy to whitewash colonialism and avoid paying fair compensation for the “looting” committed by the Belgian monarchy and administration. Congolese newspapers even criticize the monarch for not having explicitly “asked for forgiveness” in his speech, and Corporal Albert Kunyuku’s statements are especially revealing. Kunyuku is the last living Congolese member of the “Belgian Public Force” who fought against the Germans during World War II. After being decorated by King Felipe in an emotional act, he commented to the press that “the king has just made promises to me. He is very good. Now we have to materialize them”.
The wounds generated by Belgium in Congolese society are very deep and still bleed today. For this reason so many eyebrows are raised in disbelief at the Belgian monarch’s visit. No one has yet forgotten that the first president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated by Belgian mercenaries and separatists from Katanga with the collaboration of the CIA. The body of Lumumba, a man who was destined to lead the country into prosperous waters during the difficult years after colonialism, was dissolved in acid after he was executed in the jungle. One of the Belgians involved in the murder took home a tooth of Lumumba as a souvenir, and now Felipe has promised to return to the Congolese the last remnant of their most longed-for hero, this tooth.
Congo’s share of Belgian wealth
Jean Malanda, a social worker from Kinsasa, has spoken by phone with LA RAZÓN to express the feeling of anger that persists in his country: “Imagine that the French or the Americans assassinate your president, dissolve him in acid… and sixty years later they give you back a single tooth and without asking for forgiveness or paying you compensation ”. He assures that everything “seems like a joke in bad taste”. He accuses Belgium, like so many other Congolese, of having collaborated in the past with the United States to keep the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in power, of establishing border lines that have led to the endless conflict in Katanga (a separatist region where most of the natural resources of the DRC) and a string of other crimes, although they are increasingly older crimes. He acknowledges that “King Felipe is not to blame for all this” but regrets “that he has not been more firm in his position.”
The dilemma is not so much about asking for forgiveness or not asking for forgiveness, but rather it lies in the economic compensation that the Congolese think is justice that they receive. Congolese deputy Geneviève Inagosi expressed her disappointment at the lukewarmness shown during King Philippe’s visit and recalled that “money from the Congo also built Belgium.” As for this, it is estimated that King Leopold made a fortune of 220 million Belgian francs (1,100 million euros in current currency) thanks to the sale of Congolese rubber and ivory, becoming one of the richest men of his time. . As an added fact, it should be noted that nearly 40,000 Congolese fought with the Belgian army during World War II, while 85% of the financing of the Belgian government in exile came from the Congo throughout the conflict. It has even been recognized that the creation of the first atomic bomb would not have been possible without the uranium exported from the Belgian Congo to the United States.
In the book titled colonialism and imperialismthe historian Gustau Nerín recalls that “the Belgian paternalistic system considered that black education was a matter that would take generations, so they were only trained for rudimentary tasks. When independence was granted, there were hardly any graduates in the country, or people capable of managing the state and the economy.”
England, Germany and Italy have indeed apologized for their colonial past and have offered financial compensation, while other countries such as Spain, France and Belgium have not yet reached this point.
In memory of Henry Stanley
A reminder of infamy. British explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley became famous for leading the expedition to search for Dr. Livingstone in present-day Tanzania, and for uttering the famous phrase upon finding him: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” But less well known is his association with King Leopold in setting up a brutal system to run the Congo. This man, who was accused by his own peers of “shooting blacks like monkeys”, was hired by King Leopold with instructions specifying that no form of political power be granted to the black. Stanley was in charge of negotiating the land concessions with the tribal chiefs before erasing them, of building a series of roads along the Congo River that would facilitate the export of products from the country and of building, in short, the complex framework of misery and sorrow that allowed Belgium to suffocate the Congolese for almost eight decades.