Belgian king expresses ‘deepest regrets’ for abuses in DR Congo

Belgium’s King Philippe has reaffirmed his “deepest regrets” for his nation’s colonial-era abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but stopped short of formally apologising, again.

The king, who was in the DRC on his first official trip to the country, told its legislature on Wednesday that Belgian colonial rule was unjustifiable and racist.

“Even though many Belgians invested themselves sincerely, loving Congo and its people deeply, the colonial regime itself was based on exploitation and domination,” he told a joint session of parliament in the capital, Kinshasa.

“This regime was one of unequal relations, unjustifiable in itself, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” he said.

“It led to violent acts and humiliations. On the occasion of my first trip to Congo, right here, in front of the Congolese people and those who still suffer today, I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for those wounds of the past.”

His speech comes two years after he made similar comments on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, when he went further than any of his predecessors in condemning “acts of violence and cruelty” during Belgian colonial rule.

By some estimates, killings, famine and disease killed up to 10 million Congolese during the first 23 years of Belgium’s rule from 1885 to 1960, when King Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom.

Villages that missed rubber collection quotas were notoriously made to provide severed hands instead.

‘Regrets are not enough’

While some Congolese praised the Belgian king’s remarks as brave, others were disappointed by the absence of an apology.

“I salute the speech by the Belgian king. However, in the face of the crimes committed by Belgium, regrets are not enough,” Congolese opposition Senator Francine Muyumba Nkanga wrote on Twitter.

“We expect an apology and a promise of reparations from him. That is the price to definitively turn the page,” she said.

Nadia Nsayi, a political scientist specialised in the Congo, said she sensed “a lot of nervousness in Belgium regarding a formal apology as Congo might use it to demand financial reparations”.

Others called it a “distraction”.

“Belgium must ask for forgiveness from the Congolese people but also compensate them,” said Francis Kambale, a 26-year-old student living in Goma in the country’s east. “Our grandparents were beaten like animals, others were killed. But also many minerals and cultural goods were stolen by Belgium. This visit by the Belgian king is a distraction. Congo does not benefit in any way nor does it improve the economic conditions of the Congolese.”

Philippe arrived on Tuesday with his wife, Queen Mathilde, and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo for a week-long visit.

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi and many politicians have enthusiastically welcomed Philippe’s visit. As the king addressed legislators, large numbers of ruling party supporters waved Belgian flags, and a banner hanging from parliament read: “A common history.”

Tshisekedi said during a brief news conference with De Croo that he was focused on boosting cooperation with Belgium to attract investment and improve healthcare in Congo.

Relations had soured under Tshisekedi’s predecessor, Joseph Kabila, whom Brussels criticised for suppressing dissent and extending his time in power beyond legal limits.

“We have not dwelled on the past, which is the past and which is not to be reconsidered, but we need to look to the future,” Tshisekedi said.

Philippe earlier offered a traditional mask of the Suku people to Congo’s national museum as an “indefinite loan”. The mask has been held for decades by Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa.

Belgium has traditionally said little about colonialism, and the subject has not been extensively taught in Belgian schools.

By contrast, Germany last year apologised to Namibia for its role in the slaughter of Herero and Nama tribespeople more than a century ago, officially described it as genocide for the first time and agreed to fund projects worth over a billion euros.

There have been the beginnings of a historical reckoning in Belgium in recent years. During anti-racism protests sparked in 2020 by the police killing in the United States of George Floyd, demonstrators targeted statues of King Leopold II.

But there have been the beginnings of a historical reckoning in recent years. During anti-racism protests in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd by police in the United States, demonstrators targeted statues of King Leopold II.

Belgium’s parliament established a commission soon after to examine the historical record. A preliminary report published last year called for a more accurate understanding of the colonial period, and the final report is expected this year.

De Croo said Belgium was committed to an honest accounting of its past.

“We all know that, in that long relationship between the countries, there was a period that was painful, painful for the Congolese population,” he said. “I think it’s important to look at that straight in the eyes.”

Belgium will also hand over a tooth, suspected to be the only remains of Congo’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba, to his family this month.

The Belgian government took partial responsibility in 2002 for the death of Lumumba, who was assassinated by Belgian-backed secessionists in 1961.

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