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Belgium Offers Regret—but No Reparations—to Congo

King Philippe stopped short of apologizing for colonial-era atrocities, angering the Congolese opposition and diaspora.

Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Belgium’s King Philippe shakes hands with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi as he hands over a ceremonial mask during a ceremony at the National Museum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Kinshasa on June 8.
Belgium’s King Philippe shakes hands with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi as he hands over a ceremonial mask during a ceremony at the National Museum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Kinshasa on June 8.
Belgium’s King Philippe shakes hands with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi as he hands over a ceremonial mask during a ceremony at the National Museum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Kinshasa on June 8. ARSENE MPIANA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Sudan’s pro-democracy groups hold talks with military leaders, a dispute escalates between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya reroutes power lines for environmental conservation.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Sudan’s pro-democracy groups hold talks with military leaders, a dispute escalates between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya reroutes power lines for environmental conservation.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


King Leopold II’s Ghost Still Haunts Congo

Belgium’s King Philippe has concluded a six-day visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was billed as a step forward after a brutal colonial past.

In a speech to Congo’s parliament, the king expressed regret for the “paternalism, discrimination, and racism” of the colonial regime. “I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for those wounds of the past,” he said. Members of the Congolese diaspora have criticized his speech for falling short of a formal apology.

“In the face of the crimes committed by Belgium, regrets are not enough,” Congolese opposition Sen. Francine Muyumba wrote on Twitter. “An apology and a promise of reparations are expected from him. It is at this price that we will definitely turn the page.”

King Leopold II, the brother of Philippe’s great-great-grandfather, claimed the territory as his personal property in 1885 during the Berlin Conference that carved up much of Africa and awarded territories to various European states; African leaders were not involved in the negotiations.

Leopold II violently plundered the country for more than two decades before it became a Belgian colony. He amassed great wealth from Congo’s raw materials. Yet, until his death in 1909, Leopold II never set foot in what he viewed as his colony—a territory that was nearly 80 times the size of Belgium.

It is estimated that more than half of the 20 million people then living in the Belgian Congo lost their lives due to atrocities committed by colonial authorities and forced labor. Limbs of children were severed as punishment when their parents did not meet ivory and rubber extraction quotas, and women and girls were pawned as sexual slaves to Belgian colonial agents as a way to force Congolese men into the forests to collect rubber.

Belgians also looted hundreds of thousands of Congolese objects, which were brought to Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, where they are still stored today, making up more than 80 percent of the museum’s collection.

Philippe visited Congo’s national museum in Kinshasa, where he handed over a large mask —known as Kakuungu—but rather than permanently returning it, he handed it back on “indefinite loan” to the country it was taken from. “I am here to return to you this exceptional work in order to allow Congolese to discover and admire it,” he said.

There have been important steps made in mending a fractious postcolonial relationship: During global Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, Philippe sent a letter to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi on June 30, 2020, the anniversary of Congolese independence, expressing regret for colonial injustices.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo gave Congolese authorities an inventory in February of 84,000 artifacts taken to Belgium before Congo’s independence in 1960. Belgium’s parliament is set to approve a law by the end of the month that will pave the way for returning looted objects, on a case-by-case basis, with 2 million euros allocated toward provenance research for Congolese objects in state museums and those from other former colonies such as Rwanda and Burundi.

This followed a decision in October 2020 to hand over, this month, the last remains of independent Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. After serving only two months in office in 1960, Lumumba was assassinated by Congolese separatists and Belgian mercenaries in January 1961 with the help of the CIA. There has also been talk of British intelligence involvement.

Lord Lea, a British Labour peer, claims Daphne Park—the MI6 station chief in Congo at the time—admitted before her death to having helped organize the assassination over fears that Lumumba would ally Congo with the Soviet Union. Belgium now plans to return Lumumba’s gold-capped tooth, which was preserved as a trophy by a Belgian police officer after the rest of his body was dissolved in acid.

As the diaspora and opposition politicians demand reparations, the Congolese government seems more focused on moving on. “We have not dwelled on the past, which is the past and which is not to be reconsidered, but we need to look to the future,” Tshisekedi said during a press briefing, adding that he was focused on boosting cooperation with Belgium.


The Week Ahead

Wednesday, June 15: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visits Egypt.

Thursday, June 16: Public sector workers prepare to go on strike in Tunisia due to the failure of wages to keep up with inflation.

Day of the African Child events will be held globally. In South Africa, the day commemorates the massacre of schoolchildren in Soweto by the apartheid regime in 1976.

Friday, June 17: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts his counterpart from Senegal, Aissata Tall Sall, in Washington.

Monday, June 20: The U.N. Security Council meets to discuss its mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Belgium plans to return a tooth that belonged to assassinated former Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba to his family at a ceremony in Brussels.


What We’re Watching

Protesters demonstrate against the British government’s intention to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda near the Brook House immigration removal center beside Gatwick Airport, south of London, on June 12.
Protesters demonstrate against the British government’s intention to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda near the Brook House immigration removal center beside Gatwick Airport, south of London, on June 12.

Protesters demonstrate against the British government’s intention to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda near the Brook House immigration removal center beside Gatwick Airport, south of London, on June 12.NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP via Getty Images

U.K.-Rwanda refugee plan. The first deportation flight from the United Kingdom to Rwanda was scheduled to leave Tuesday night, despite numerous unsuccessful legal challenges; the departure was cancelled at the last minute after the European Court of Human Rights intervened. A High Court judge refused on Friday to grant a temporary injunction to block the flight, and on Monday, the Court of Appeal in London upheld that decision. As part of a 120 million pound (about $144 million) deal with the Rwandan government, Britain will send to Rwanda migrants who crossed the English Channel illegally in small boats from Europe.

The British government says the scheme will act as a deterrent against human traffickers, but the U.N. refugee agency said the plan violates international law. When the plan was announced in April, Rwanda’s opposition leaders denounced Britain’s shamelessness as the country already struggles to host more than 127,000 refugees and asylum-seekers—90 percent of whom live in camps. Per capita, the country already hosts five times as many refugees as the U.K.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday floated a proposal to leave the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent flight departures being further obstructed by the courts. “The legal world is very good at picking up ways of trying to stop the government from upholding what we think is a sensible law,” he said. “Will it be necessary to change some laws to help us as we go along? It may very well be.”

Sudan meeting. The Forces of Freedom and Change—an alliance of Sudanese political parties and key protest groups that demand democratic rule—met with Sudan’s military generals on Thursday in the capital of Khartoum for the first time since a military coup on Oct. 25, 2021.

Talks were mediated by the Saudi Embassy and the U.S. delegation in Sudan and focused on resolving the current political impasse, according to the embassy statement. “They affirmed that they had the sincere will to end the coup,” pro-democracy leader Taha Othman said. The pro-democracy group had previously rejected U.N.-backed talks. 

Rwanda-Congo tensions. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda on Friday accused each other of firing rockets across their shared border. The alleged rocket attacks are part of an escalating dispute linked to a resurgence of offensives by the M23 rebel movement that Congo has accused Rwanda of supporting. Congolese military officials also accused Kigali of deploying around 500 special forces soldiers into its territory “in disguise.”

M23, a Congolese insurgency fighting against the government, had been dormant for almost a decade, but a fresh conflict in North Kivu has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. Kenya-led talks in April revived a proposal for an East African peacekeeping force in the region.

South Africa’s latest scandal. Arthur Fraser—a former South African spy chief and one of ex-President Jacob Zuma’s political allies—has accused President Cyril Ramaphosa of a cover-up and money laundering amid claims that more than $4 million in cash was stolen from Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala farm in 2020. Fraser claims the president never reported the incident to police and that he used the power of his office to cover up the theft.

Fraser himself faces corruption allegations from his time overseeing state security during Zuma’s tenure. Critics say Fraser is attempting to create a distraction from a soon-to-be released report on his own conduct. Last year, in office as head of the country’s prison system, Fraser granted Zuma medical parole just two months into a 15-month prison sentence.

For his part, Ramaphosa admits that a robbery took place but says a lesser amount was stolen. He said the cash came from “the proceeds from the sale of game.” (He is known to trade animals.) The scandal comes at a bad time, as the African National Congress struggles to shake off issues of corruption as it loses support among young and middle-class Black South Africans.


This Week in Tech

Kenya power lines. Kenya’s state-run electricity distribution company is reconfiguring power lines to prevent the electrocution of birds and conserve migratory birds such as flamingos, pelicans, and cranes. Kenya Power has rerouted a 33-kilovolt power line outside Lake Nakuru National Park, it said in a statement last week.

The park is about 100 miles northwest of the capital, Nairobi, in the Great Rift Valley, and work is ongoing to relocate a 132-kilovolt power line near the park to provide enough clearance for the birds as they take off or land at the lake. It has also installed reflector balls on some pylon tops, pole tops, and structures to prevent marabou storks from perching on them.

Kenya’s disappearing birds of prey have faced threats as the country upgraded its electricity network, replacing wooden poles with steel-reinforced concrete, which can be a conductive material. Inadequately insulated power lines also exacerbated the problem, according to conservationists.


What We’re Reading

Mining shutdown. A group of Malawian chiefs have forced six Chinese mining sites to close in northern Malawi, according to an investigation by the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi. A report by the Malawi Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative found that Malawi was losing around $25 million daily through illegal minerals mining taking place in four districts. Mines were opened without proper licenses or through entering into joint ventures with local firms that failed to involve local communities.

TikTok disinformation. In the run-up to Kenya’s August general elections, TikTok is being used to spread political disinformation, according to a report by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation. Kenyan researcher Odanga Madung identified 130 videos—which have collectively been viewed more than 4 million times—that pushed “widespread disinformation” and stoked “violent, ethnic discriminatory narratives.”

“TikTok is failing its first real test in Africa,” he writes. The company has reportedly removed several videos and suspended accounts.

Protocol service. In Foreign Policy, Anakwa Dwamena examines “proto,” the informal order that allows Ghana’s elite to circumvent procedures and gain quicker access to public services. “Ghana’s protocol system has exacerbated the divide between ordinary citizens and the government that supposedly exists for their benefit. … Last year, frustration with inequality and alleged corruption led to the #FixTheCountry protest movement,” Dwamena writes.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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