The magnanimity of Africans has been its ever shining light, yet it is this rare attribute which has led to its source of great pain.
Of European countries which participated in the carving up of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, Belgium walked away with the Congo and while on face value it may seem little compared to France, Britain, Portugal and Germany who had multiple African states.
Congo by its sheer size equivalent to 14 European countries combined without Russia, King Leopold II of Belgium from 1865 to 1909 made his great wealth from the country.
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Ghanaian historian, Prof. Albert Adu Boahen noted that while it is often supposed that the race for colonies began in 1882 or 1884, it rather started in 1879 when King Leopold of the Belgians and France sent out Stanley and de Brazza to conclude treaties with the rulers of the Congo basin which had seen some activity from the Portuguese.
And when Britain also saw sudden incursions in the Bights of Benin and Biafra by the activities in Porto-Novo and on the Niger by the French in the 1880s that the scramble for Africa began. He argued it was to extend protection to the German, British, French and Portuguese traders that the home countries annexed the African states to govern the race and avoid the possibility of open conflict that the Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck held the International Conference in Berlin, leading to the signing of the Berlin Act of February 26, 1885.
It was during and after the conference which had no African representative that European powers sent out more envoys, and soldiers who by persuasion, force or bribery got African rulers to sign agreements in which they ceded away in some cases innocently their territories. When most rulers later realized the full significance of these agreements achieved largely by deceit and rose in rebellion, such rebellions were violently crushed and the rulers either killed or exiled.
Leopold II who reigned for 44 years until his death regarded Africans as children who should be gradually educated much like the French.
Leopold II was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State also known as the Independent State of the Congo (French: État indépendant du Congo) a private project undertaken on his own behalf. With it, he ruled the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1885 to 1908 ruling it personally and not by the government of Belgium, of which he was the constitutional monarch.
While he claimed by wanting the Congo at the partitioning, he sought to improve the lives of the native inhabitants, he rather ran the Congo using the mercenary Force Publique for his personal gain. He extracted a fortune from the territory, initially by the collection of ivory, and after a rise in the price of rubber in the 1890s, he used forced labour on the native population to harvest and process rubber.
His true intent can be found in a 1888 letter addressed to his brother, Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders: “The country must be strong, prosperous, therefore have colonies of her own, beautiful and calm.” He had become king in 1865.
Leopold’s administration of the Congo was characterized by murder, torture, and atrocities, resulting from notorious systematic brutality. 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).
It is suggested nearly 10 million Congolese died from Leopold’s brutality forcing the Belgian government to take over the administration of the Congo In 1908.
To understand Leopold’s brutality, through Alice Seeley Harris in her book “Don’t Call Me Lady: The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris,” we are informed of a man, Nsala who was unable to make his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot.
But perpetuating such heinous crime against the five-year-old Boali wasn’t enough, so the Belgian officers killed Nsala’s wife too and to reveal their macabre nature cannibalized both Boali and her mother presenting a distraught Nsala with the detached hand and feet of his beloved child. Needless to say such cruelty killed the spirit of the father and husband and effectively ended his existence.
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 ruled aside commanding 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 labour, holding children ransom and burning of villages.
One junior European officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The European officer in command “ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades… and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross”. After seeing a Congolese person killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote: “The soldier said ‘Don’t take this to heart so much. They kill us if we don’t bring the rubber. The Commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service”.
The atrocities the African natives endued under the hands of the Belgian King, the loss of economic gain the country would have made from its resources – rubber, copper, manganese, coltan, gold, cobalt – as well as the perpetuation of violence and undermining the state even after the death of Leopold continued by the Belgian state. The foul undermining of the rule of elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba and his murder at the hands of Belgian security forces make it untenable that a mere apology from Belgium over its various crimes against Congo be accepted and crimes forgiven.
It’s time African states demand their pound of flesh as the European states do. In exchange for French recognition of Haiti as a sovereign republic, when France insanely demanded payment of 150 million francs reduced to 90 million francs, the Haitian state paid weary of another war.
France did not take an apology from Haiti instead of the compensation it demanded for former plantation owners who had lost their property to the war for liberation. Yet by making that payment estimated to be $21 billion, Haiti has been impoverished since leading to poor living standards for its nationals.
With the African states having to grapple with the legacy of slavery, colonialism and even neo-colonialism, the European states which made great wealth on the backs of these African states need to draw programmes to undertake social projects in these countries which will benefit the masses to be taken serious.
Germany apologizing for its genocide in Namibia will just be rhetoric unless they vigorously invest in social projects which can help lift the quality of life of the citizens and become competitive in the fields of agriculture, health, technology and others.
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. That he donated the private buildings to the state before his death puts responsibility on the Belgian state to with urgency pass policies to help atone for some of its crimes.
Belgium reserving the importation of certain products from the Congo, embarking on infrastructural projects like roads, hospital, schools and helping ensure that multinational companies which mine resources like coltan and cobalt for their products pay realistic prices for them will go a long way to mend the hurt.