King Philippe of Belgium, in a historic visit to Congo, said on Wednesday that his country’s rule over the vast central African country had inflicted pain and humiliation through a mixture of “paternalism, discrimination and racism.”
In a speech outside Congo’s parliament, Philippe amplified remorse he first voiced two years ago over Belgium’s brutal colonial rule — an era during which historians say millions died.
“This regime was one of an unequal relationship, in itself unjustifiable, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” Philippe said, speaking in French.
“It led to abuse and humiliation,” he said.
The king noted that many Belgians had been sincerely committed to Congo and its people, however.
Philippe landed in Kinshasa on Tuesday afternoon for a six-day visit, billed as a chance for reconciliation between Congo and its former colonial master.
Belgium’s colonization of Congo was one of the harshest imposed by the European powers that ruled most of Africa from the late 19th into the mid-20th centuries.
King Leopold II governed
King Leopold II, the brother of Philippe’s great-great-grandfather, governed what is now Congo as his personal property between 1885 and 1908, before it became a Belgian colony.
Historians say that millions of people were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they were forced to collect rubber under his rule. The land was also pillaged for its mineral wealth, timber and ivory.
As Congo headed to its 60th anniversary of independence, Philippe wrote a letter to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in 2020 to express his “deepest regrets” for the “wounds of the past.”
The king’s speech Wednesday went further in expressing regret, but it fell short of an apology for colonial-era crimes.
Earlier Wednesday, Philippe visited Congo’s national museum in Kinshasa, where he handed over a mask the ethnic Suku group use in initiation rites.
The ceremonial mask is on “unlimited” loan from Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, he announced.
The Belgian government last year set out a plan for returning artworks looted during the colonial era, a sensitive topic in Congo.
“The colonizer hauled away our artworks. It’s right that they should be returned to us,” said Louis Karhebwa, 63, a businessman.
Prince Pungi, a young civil servant, agreed. “Congo is changing, moving forward,” he said. “It’s time to take back what belongs to us.”
Philippe is due to address university students in the southern city of Lubumbashi on Friday.
On Sunday, he will also visit the clinic of gynecologist Denis Mukwege, co-winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against sexual violence, in the eastern city of Bukavu.
His trip comes as Belgium is preparing to return to Kinshasa a tooth — the last remains of Patrice Lumumba, a hero of the anti-colonial struggle and short-lived first prime minister of the independent Congo.
Lumumba was murdered by Congolese separatists and Belgian mercenaries in 1961 and his body dissolved in acid, but the tooth was kept as a trophy by one of his killers, a Belgian police officer.
The Belgian sovereign’s trip also comes at a time of heightened tension between Kinshasa and neighboring Rwanda over rebel activity in the conflict-torn eastern Congo.
The Congolese government has accused Rwanda of backing the resurgent M23 militia, an accusation that Rwanda has denied.
At a news conference Wednesday in Kinshasa, Tshisekedi told reporters that he saw security support as a priority in Congo’s relationship with Belgium.
“There is no development without security,” the president said.
Congo, a nation of about 90 million people, is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Over 120 groups roam the country’s volatile east, many of which are a consequence of regional wars more than two decades ago, and civilian massacres remain common.
Philippe, in his speech Wednesday, also said the situation in eastern Congo “cannot continue.”
“It is the responsibility of all of us to do something about it,” he added.