Five decades after it ended its reign as a feared ruler in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Belgium is still coming to terms with its shady past and cannot quite decide whether to embrace or lecture its old colony.
In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of Congo’s independence on June 30, Belgium spent weeks debating how far it should go in celebrating the event or showing support for President Joseph Kabila, particularly after the mysterious death this month of Congo’s top human rights activist.
It decided in the end to send its king, queen and acting prime minister to the ceremonies, but its troops will not participate and King Albert will not make a speech.
The first visit to Congo by a Belgian monarch in 25 years marks an easing of tensions. Two years ago, Congo withdrew its ambassador to Belgium after Belgium’s then foreign minister criticised Kinshasa over corruption and human rights.
But the run-up to the visit has served as a reminder of crimes and indiscretions that Belgium has yet to put to rest.
A week ago, a son of Congo’s first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, said he would seek the prosecution for war crimes of 12 Belgian officials suspected of aiding his father’s assassination in 1961.
Meanwhile, a Congo-born student is arguing in a Brussels court that the Belgian cartoon album “Tintin in the Congo” is racist and should be banned. The English-language version of the 1930s cartoon, about a globe-trotting boy reporter, now includes a warning that readers should take it in context.
Leopold a hero?
More controversially, Belgian politician and former European commissioner, Louis Michel, argued last week that King Leopold II should also be viewed in context.
Congo was Leopold’s personal fiefdom from 1885 to 1908. Adam Hochschild, the US author of the best-selling book “King Leopold’s Ghost”, concludes that about half the local population perished under the Belgian monarch.
Villages that did not meet their rubber collection quotas were made to pay the debt by providing severed hands. But according to Michel, saying genocide was carried out in Congo or likening Leopold to Hitler is unacceptable.
“I think that Leopold II was a true visionary for his time,” Michel, a former EU development chief, told P-Magazine.
Historians should evaluate the monarch within the context of the era, Michel said. Other nations, such as Britain, had also sought to maximise profits during their colonial pasts.
“Instinctively I feel that Leopold II was a hero, a hero with ambition for a small country like Belgium,” he said.
In Congo, ill will towards Belgium appears to centre more on post-colonial issues, from a refusal to grant visas to a sense that Belgium helped prop up Mobutu Sese Seko, whose iron rule lasted from 1965 until his overthrow and death in 1997.
“The Belgians have played a considerable part in the mess caused by Congolese politicians,” said Jose Yambe, working in a shop in the central market of capital Kinshasa.
Still, most were happy that the Belgian king was coming, saying his absence might have cast a chill on relations.
“However, the king must understand that 50 years after colonisation, those relations must be adult. We aren’t children anymore,” said Kinshasa restaurant owner Laure Yandibene Sita.
Elsewhere, there are signs of movement.
Just outside Brussels, the palatial Royal Museum for Central Africa houses spears, masks and stuffed animals collected and pillaged in the colonial era. Even the curator says its permanent displays have not moved on in half a century.
“We’re very dated and that’s why people often call us the last colonial museum in the world,” Guido Gryseels said. “Forty to fifty thousand children visit… every year and this is often the first impression they get of Africa.”
The museum will close in 2012 and reopen two years later after a renovation.
Pic: President Joseph Kabila of the DRC