BELGIUM’S King Philippe is on his first visit to former colony Democratic Republic of Congo, where many remain angry at Belgium’s failure to apologise for decades of brutal rule.
Reuters have compiled some facts about Belgian rule and the two countries’ difficult bilateral ties since.
* As many as 10 million people are estimated to have died in Congo from killings, famine and disease between 1885 and 1908 after Belgian’s King Leopold II declared the vast territory his personal property.
Under the mantle of propagating Christianity and trade in Africa, Belgium exploited Congo’s riches, including rubber.
Severed hands became the infamous symbol of the colonial state where officials brutally maimed those failing to deliver harvest quotas.
Forced labour, corporal punishments, kidnapping, and slaughtering of rebellious villages were among other atrocities recorded during the period.
* As international condemnation grew, the Belgian state took Congo over in 1908. The country achieved independence 52 years later, in 1960.
A Belgian parliamentary investigation into the assassination in 1961 of Congo’s independence hero Patrice Lumumba, the free country’s first prime minister, concluded at the beginning of the 2000s that Belgium was ‘morally responsible’ for his death.
In 2002, then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt apologised on for Belgian involvement. The country is yet to return to Congo a tooth, suspected to be the only remains of Lumumba, after his body was dug up by Belgian police in Congo and disposed of.
* In 2020, Belgium’s current king, Philippe expressed deep regret for the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted on Congo during its 75 years under Belgian rule.
It was the first time a reigning monarch of Belgium expressed such regret, although he stopped short of formally apologising. He reaffirmed his profound regrets on Wednesday.
‘I sense a lot of nervousness in Belgium regarding a formal apology as Congo might use it to demand financial reparations,’ Nadia Nsayi, a political scientist who specialises in Congo, told Reuters.
Belgium has struggled to come to terms with its colonial past and its government has never expressed regret the same way King Philippe has done although in 2020 a Congo committee was established in the wake of the global anti-racism protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
* Belgium is yet to return thousands of Congolese art works including statues, elephant ivory masks, manuscripts and musical instruments looted by Belgian and other European collectors, scientists and explorers during the colonial era.
Apart from returning looted art, Nsayi said reparation policy could also cover updating Belgian school curriculums and trade treaties that benefit Congolese people.
With limited education about Belgium’s rule in Congo, there is little awareness of the brutality of its colonial past in the broader society.
Some Belgian families still remember their relatives who served in Congo and the tradition of ‘Black Pete’ – a clownish servant portrayed by white people in Blackface, helping St. Nicholas bring gifts to children – remains popular though is increasingly seen as discriminatory.