On his first visit to the former colony, Belgium’s King Philippe returned a traditional mask to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Wednesday, where many remain angry at Belgium’s failure to apologize for decades of brutal rule.
According to some estimates, killings, famine, and disease killed up to 10 million Congolese during Belgium’s first 23 years of rule, from 1885 to 1960, after King Leopold II claimed the Congo Free State as his personal fiefdom.
Villages that failed to meet their rubber collection quotas were notoriously forced to supply severed hands instead.
Philippe became the first Belgian official to express regret for Congo’s “suffering and humiliation” in 2020. But he did not apologize, and some Congolese have demanded that he do so during his first visit since taking the throne in 2013.
“They left us isolated, abandoned. They pillaged all our resources, and today you invite the Belgian king again?” said Junior Bombi, a salesman in Kinshasa’s central market.
Professor Antoine Roger Lokongo of the University of Joseph Kasa-Vubu in southwestern Congo said he would wait to see if Philippe formally apologized for colonial-era crimes.
“The simple regret that you have expressed is not sufficient,” Lokongo said.
Congo President Felix Tshisekedi and many other politicians have enthusiastically welcomed the visit, as have some residents who hope it will bring investment and a renewed focus on the conflict in the east of the country.
“My feeling is that we should start having good Congolese-Belgium relations again, like before,” Kinshasa resident Antoine Mubidiki said. “Despite what the Belgians did to us during colonisation, we are ready to forgive.”
Philippe offered the initiation 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.
“I am here to return to you this exceptional work in order to allow Congolese to discover and admire it,” Philippe said, standing next to Tshisekedi. “It marks the symbolic beginning of the reinforcement of the cultural collaboration between Belgium and Congo.”
The king arrived on Tuesday, accompanied by his wife, Queen Mathilde, and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, for a week-long visit that will include stops in the eastern cities of Bukavu and Lubumbashi.
Later Wednesday, he is scheduled to address a joint session of Congo’s parliament.
Historically, Belgium has said little about colonialism, and the subject is not widely taught in Belgian schools.
However, there have been signs of a historical reckoning in recent years. During anti-racism protests in 2020 sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in the United States, demonstrators targeted statues of King Leopold II.
Soon after, Belgium’s parliament established a commission to investigate the historical record. A preliminary report released last year called for a more accurate understanding of the colonial period, and the final report is set to be released this year.
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