On the 60th anniversary of DR Congo’s independence, championed by Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, who opposed the Belgians and was brutally assassinated for it, Belgium’s reigning monarch King Philippe has expressed his “deepest regrets” to the African nation for his country’s colonial abuses.
The letter to President Felix Tshisekedi expressed his “deepest regrets” for the “suffering and humiliation” his nation inflicted while it colonized the region, but stopped short of apologizing for his ancestor Leopold II’s atrocities.
Philippe is a descendent of Leopold II, who owned what was then called Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908.
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When Leopold II came to the throne, desperate for Belgium to become a colonial power, he convinced European powers and the United States to recognize a massive swath of Africa as his own privately-owned colony.
The Belgium state took the country away from its king in 1908 only because conditions and the atrocious acts against the locals had become so terrible, other countries condemned the atrocities. Those atrocities, according to historians led to the deaths of 10 million Congolese nationals.
Here’s King Philippe on the issue: “Our history is made of common achievements but has also experienced painful episodes. At the time of the independent state of Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory.”
By atrocities, Leopold II who reigned for 44 years until his death extracted a fortune from the territory, initially by the collection of ivory, and after a rise in the price of rubber in the 1890s, used forced labor on the native population to harvest and process rubber. The hands of men, women, and children were amputated when the quota of rubber was not met. These and other facts were established at the time by eyewitness testimony and on-site inspection by an international Commission of Inquiry (1904).
The ABIR Congo Company (founded as the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company and later known as the Compagnie du Congo Belge) was the company appointed to exploit natural rubber in the Congo Free State. ABIR enjoyed a boom through the late 1890s, by selling a kilogram of rubber in Europe for up to 10 fr which had cost them just 1.35 fr.
In his 23 years hold of the Congo, Leopold beyond the cutting of hands and feet of Congolese citizens, also saw to it that genitals were cut, while others were flogged to death. There was starvation, forced labor, holding children ransom and burning of villages.
“The colonial period which followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” the letter added, referring to the subsequent 52 years of rule by the Belgian state until Congo’s independence and the formation of the DRC.
Even here the Belgian state, the new torn in the flesh of the Congolese people will not relent. Bear in mind that Leopold II used great sums of the money from the exploitation of the Congolese people and its resources for public and private construction projects in Belgium during the period. He also donated the private buildings and funds to the state before his death.
But when prime minister, Lumumba, agitated for true independence for his country to rule their affairs politically and economically, the Belgian state marked him right from his independence speech which asserted the sacrifice including deaths suffered by the liberation fighters as opposed to the version peddled by the Belgian state as well as monarch of granting independence as a goodwill gesture. The Belgians, Americans, British, French and their allies favored Kasavubu and Colonel Mobutu to Lumumba who was intent on keeping the country unified, stopping the Katanga secession effort of Moise Tshombe, as well as, demanding right royalty payment from the many foreign companies mining the country’s minerals.
For these noble reasons, Lumumba only lasted seven months as leader of the country when he was arrested and brutally murdered with the look on of powers who claim to be champions of democracy. With the murder of Lumumba, the hope of DR Congo to be a developed state was snuffed.
So beyond acknowledging regret, King Philippe and his Belgium government indebted to the Congolese nearly for its developed status in Europe must lend its full weight behind the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which increased taxes on mining firms and increased government royalties from the industry, despite the fierce opposition from international mining companies including Belgian companies.
Despite being Africa’s biggest producer of copper and cobalt, a vital component in mobile phone batteries as well as gold, tantalum, tin, diamond, tungsten and cobalt, 75 million Congolese citizens lived below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day in 2012, according to the World Bank. As at 2018, 72% of the population, especially in the North West and Kasaï regions, lived in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.
The Belgium state key in the Katanga crisis of secession because of mineral deposits in the region mined by private armies of these foreign companies must be genuine with its regret by supporting the Congolese government to get its due from the mining industry as it is the country’s largest source of export income.
DR Congo provides more than 60% of the world’s cobalt, used in batteries of electric cars. There’s money to be made but unfair trade practices by Western countries against African states is well documented. It provides an opportunity for restitution from the Belgian state.
Given that much of the mining in the DRC is done by artisanal miners, who work using hand-held tools, receiving very little for the minerals they extract in extremely dangerous conditions which results in fatal accidents, there is need for reform. Especially when the minerals extracted by artisanal miners are ultimately sold outside the country to companies and countries. Such entities can play an important role in preventing human rights violations and abuses. Industrial mining often involving multinational companies is another wing which needs reform.
While Belgium’s crimes in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi have gone relatively unexposed and unpunished, the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death finally forced the country to face its gory past in Africa.
Protestors set fire to one statue of Leopold II, in Antwerp. Others, In Ghent and Ostend, were damaged or defaced. In the Brussels suburb of Auderghem, protesters took a sledgehammer to a bust of Leopold II, leaving it face down in the dirt and covered in red paint.
Noah, a 14-year-old Belgian of Congolese extraction set up an online petition to have Brussels’ memorials to Leopold torn down. He called it “Reparons l’histoire” (Let’s repair history). Already it has 80,000 signatures and counting.