KINSHASA — Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have agreed on a way forward for their relationship: Try not to talk about the past.
As the two countries seek to improve their ties, there’s just one thing standing in the way: a brutal colonial history.
Belgian King Philippe is visiting his country’s former colony for the first time this week, in what both capitals hope will be a new chapter in their relationship.
In a much-anticipated speech in the Congolese capital Wednesday, the king reaffirmed his “deepest regrets” for the country’s actions in the Congo — words he had previously written in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests when Congo marked 60 years of independence.
Addressing a crowd in front of the Congolese parliament, the king went further than he had before in condemning the colonial regime, saying it “was one of an unequal relationship, in itself unjustifiable, marked by paternalism, discrimination, and racism. It led to abuse and humiliation.”
But above all, he applauded Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi’s attempts to “write a new chapter in our relations and look to the future.”
Philippe’s great-great-uncle King Leopold II seized Congo as his personal fiefdom in the 19th century, in a rule that was characterized by forced labor, mass mutilation and the death of up to 10 million people.
The king’s comments echoed those of Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who earlier on Wednesday said that while the two countries have “to look the past in the eyes,” the focus of his conversations in Kinshasa have been very much on the future.
Standing next to De Croo in his official residence, Congolese President Tshisekedi’s also stressed turning the page in the distressed relations between the two countries, which had been troubled in the years before Tshisekedi came into power.
For those that might have missed the message, the Congolese parliament was draped with banners celebrating the two countries’ “common history” and calling on people to “look toward the future.”
The relationship with Brussels is key for Kinshasa, Tshisekedi stressed. For Congo, “the entry gate to Europe is Belgium,” he said. A senior Belgian official also stressed that “when Belgium talks about Congo in the U.N., everyone is listening.”
But even as Belgian and Congolese authorities sought to frame the king and queen’s weeklong visit as a way of turning the page, activists and NGOs stressed the king could have gone further by issuing a formal apology for the country’s colonial past.
“An expression of regret without an apology shows that there is still a long way to go towards recovery,” said the Congolese activist Tracy Tansia, who works for a Belgian coalition of NGOs and other organizations called 11.11.11.
Nonetheless, Tansia stressed the king’s expression of regret marked “a historic milestone” and was extremely important for an entire generation of young people in both countries.
Geneviève Kaninda, coordinator of the Collectif Mémoire Coloniale et Lutte contre les Discriminations, also said that by highlighting the racist nature of the colonial system, the king’s speech made a necessary step toward addressing the past before new relations could begin.
A formal apology by the king would have been politically delicate in Belgium, given that a parliamentary committee is looking into the colonial history and is expected to provide recommendations at the end of this year.
During a press conference after the speech, the Congolese president was asked repeatedly if Brussels didn’t need to go beyond regrets to formal apologies for its brutal colonial history. “It’s up to Belgium to think about this,” he said, adding that his focus was on the future.
To highlight the new chapter, the Belgian delegation brought a Congolese mask bought during the colonial period and offered it as an unlimited loan to the National Museum in Kinshasa. The Kakuungu mask, from the Suku ethnic group, is one of about 120,000 African items, mostly from the Congo, in Belgium’s Africa Museum. The country has started the process of restituting at least some of those artifacts.
“The bilateral contacts are more stable now, and the cultural path is an important part of that,” said Mumbembele Sanger, a history professor at the University of Kinshasa. “In that sense, this trip makes us reflect about the past to prepare for the future.”