Originally published in Fair Observer.
On June 8, 2022, Belgian King Philippe expressed his regrets for the exploitation, violence and racism during the colonization of the Congo Free State, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This followed years of denials and excuses by Belgian authorities.
The DRC, a territory 76 times bigger than Belgium, is the second largest country after Algeria in Africa and the 11th largest in the world. Today, it is torn by conflicts between armed groups that recruit children as soldiers.
To make matters worse, DRC’s security forces operate with impunity. They continue harassing, threatening, attacking, arresting and murdering human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition. Civilians are arbitrarily killed and abducted. Women and girls are systematically raped and subjected to other forms of violence. Communal violence and ethnic cleansing are widespread. Most minorities including Hutu, Tutsi, Hema, Lendu, Lunda, Luba, Mbororo, and Batwa live under continuous threat. The country remains the source and destination point for trafficking in children and women for prostitution. The country desperately needs humanitarian assistance.
The DRC’s problems are not entirely the fault of the Congolese people. Their roots can be traced back to Belgian King Leopold II and successive Belgian governments.
The Belgian King belatedly expresses regrets
Before his recent admission, Philippe denied Belgian atrocities and made excuses for Leopold II and Belgium for years. Despite pressure from his own country’s people along with that of the international community who were inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Philippe hesitated to take any action other than offer excuses for the last two years.
On May 27, 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke at the genocide memorial in Rwanda’s capital Kigali where many victims were buried. He asked Rwandans to forgive France for its role in the 1994 genocide. On May 28, 2021, Germany apologized for its genocide against Herero and Nema tribal people in Namibia and offered to launch projects worth over a billion euros as compensation. Even those apologies did not inspire Philippe to admit Belgian atrocities in the Congo.
Over a year later, increased Belgian and international pressures finally forced Philippe to face reality. When he finally spoke out, the Belgian king just expressed “regrets.”
Philippe stopped short of formally apologizing for Belgian atrocities during the colonial period. “This [Belgian] regime was one of unequal relations, unjustifiable in itself, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” he said before a joint session of parliament in the DNC capital Kinshasa. He went on to state: “I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for those wounds of the past.”
The toxic legacy of the past
Leopold II was a tyrant who pursued a brutal pogrom that resulted in the deaths of millions. His policies also led to the destruction of the livelihoods and cultures of the people of the Congo.
Leopold II came to power in 1865 and was determined to build an empire. Authorized by the 1885 Berlin Conference, he formed the Congo Free State, separate from Belgium but privately owned and controlled by himself.
Leopold II knew evangelization was the most effective way to dominate people. He took the view that if the Congolese converted to Christianity, they would become more subservient. This would allow Leopold II to plunder Congo’s valuable resources. So, this ruthless Belgian king brought in missionaries to convert the Congolese people to Christianity. He issued and enforced inhumane decrees that not only caused misery and death but also pushed the Congolese to convert to and practice Christianity.
To extract ivory, rubber, and minerals, Leopold’s men viciously used whipping, wounding, enslaving, beheading and severing body parts, including the penis. They routinely resorted to sexual violence against the Congolese people. They treated the Congolese as animals, exhibiting them in their zoos in Belgium.
Their atrocities are estimated to have caused the deaths of around 10 million people — then 50 percent of the Congolese population. This led to international scandal and outrage, forcing the Belgian government to take over the colony.
In 1908, under immense international pressure, the Belgian government took over Leopold II’s private estate and made it a Belgian colony, christening it the Belgian Congo. After 23 years of Leopold II’s rule, the Belgian government ruled Belgian Congo for another 52 years. The colony only gained its independence in 1960.
Under Belgian rule, genocidal actions reduced in number and severity but persecution and forced labor continued. The racism initiated by Leopold II continued. Africans were excluded from education, employment and other opportunities. Children of mixed race were abducted and sent to orphanages in Belgium.
After World War I, European and U.S. companies moved in and used the Congolese as indentured laborers to produce cotton, coffee, cacao, palm oil, rubber, copper, gold, diamond, cobalt, tin, zinc, uranium and other raw materials. They used forced labor to develop roads, railroads, utility stations, and other public facilities in Belgian Congo.
During World War II, the U.S. was heavily involved in mining uranium in the Congo. When postwar decolonization began, Belgium insisted that the Congolese were not mature enough to run their own country. Belgium stood firm on retaining its Belgian colony, forgetting that the Belgians had only recently wanted freedom from Nazi Germany themselves.
Under Belgian rule, Congolese education undermined critical thinking and ripped up the social fabric. Only a very few were allowed to get basic education by the government-paid Christian missionaries whose primary goal was to advance colonization and conversion to Christianity. It wasn’t until 1954 that a Congolese student was first admitted to a Belgian university to study a subject other than Christianity.
To this day, the DRC is hobbled by its toxic colonial legacy.
Independence is snuffed out, exploitation continues
Starting from 1919, the Congolese began fighting for their independence. Their revolts were regularly suppressed by the Belgian authorities.
In 1958, the Congolese formed their first political party. Riots broke out in 1959 with mobs demanding independence. A year later, Belgium capitulated, granting its huge colony independence. On June 30, 1960, the nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba became the prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu president. They put Colonel Joseph Mobutu in charge of the defense.
Backed by Colonel Joseph Mobutu, Kasa-Vubu soon removed Lumumba. In January 1961, the U.S. and Belgium backed a military coup. Mobutu murdered Lumumba. Mobutu went on to take over the presidency from Kasavubu in 1965. Backed by the U.S., he ran the DRC as a brutal dictator for 32 years, embezzling government funds at a gargantuan scale.
In 1997, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, Laurent Kabila took over the presidency and ruled for four years, causing over 3 million deaths. In 2001, he was killed and his son Joseph Kabila took over the presidency and ruled until late 2018, when opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi supposedly won an election that did not meet international expectations and was contested by the country’s dominant Catholic Church. He has remained in power as president to the present time.
U.S. colonial complicity
The U.S. has been complicit in Belgium’s colonial crimes from the earliest days.
In the 1880s, the U.S. was becoming a world power. Leopold II used the services of an American to survey the Congo. He also sought American recognition of his personal rule over Congo.
Some Americans were fearful of the power of Black Americans who were demanding equality and liberty. They saw Leopold II’s request as an opportunity to cleanse the U.S. of its black population by sending them to the Congo. In exchange for the favor, Leopold assured the U.S. that its citizens could buy lands in Congo and U.S. imports would be exempt from all customs duties. Leopold received recognition of his rule in Congo by the U.S., paving the way for him to earn recognition from European powers.
Leopold II’s deal with Uncle Sam also opened the gate for the U.S. to plunder Congo’s wealth.
The U.S. emulated Leopold II’s egregious abuses in minute detail, including displaying Congolese people in zoos in numerous cities across the country. As late as 1906, New Yorkers would rush to see a Congolese in the Monkey House at Bronx Zoo. This led to protests by Black Americans and became a national scandal.
Suffice to say, the U.S. has been exploiting Congo since Leopold II’s days. In particular, the U.S. has been extracting uranium from Shinkolobwe mine since the 1930s. This small mine in the southern province of Katanga provided most of the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today, U.S. mining companies backed by the American military continue taking cobalt, copper, zinc and other minerals from the DRC, giving the country peanuts in return.
The Belgian role in the Rwandan genocide
After World War I, the League of Nations transferred Rwanda and Burundi from Germany to Belgium. Taking a leaf out of its Congo playbook. Belgium yet again resorted to Christian evangelization and appointed white agents to dominate and control the new colonies. It also implemented a caste system, decreeing the minority Tutsis, a cattle-herding people, as superior to the majority Hutus, a farming people, and the native Twa, a pygmy people.
In Rwanda, the Hutu king was removed for refusing to convert to Christianity. Then, the religion was forcefully imposed on the masses. Imana, the local monotheistic religion, was wiped out. For centuries, it had been the cultural force unifying the community. To dominate Rwanda, Belgium offered the Tutsis access to education and designated them as superior to others. The Tutsis became subordinate agents of Belgian colonial administration.
Belgium authorized the Tutsis to impose forced labor and punishments on other communities. Belgian policies imposed by Tutsis caused several famines. Later, Belgian colonial authorities took the administrative step of issuing identification cards for each ethnicity.
That racial segregation policy along with the removal of their king angered the majority Hutus. To the Hutus, the Tutsis became known as “invaders.” In the late 1950s, the Hutu movement began to organize to oppose the Tutsis and expel Belgium. The Hutus also finally began to earn some sympathy from Belgians.
When Rwanda won independence in 1962, a Hutu campaign to incinerate Tutsi huts sent many Tutsis fleeing into exile. The Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana, known for his anti-Tutsi rhetoric, maintained a good relationship with Belgian King Baudouin.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana, Burundian President Cyprien Ntarvamira, and other high-ranking officials was shot down, killing all on board. Blaming the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Hutu extremists began the slaughter of Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers.
On April 7, 1994, Rwandan forces killed 10 Belgian officers. They threatened Belgium not to intervene in the ongoing genocide against the Tutsis. Belgium dutifully abandoned Rwanda to the Hutu killers. In April 2000, Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, went to Rwanda and said, “In the name of my country and of my people, I beg your forgiveness.”
French forces were also present in Rwanda during the genocide. They watched the massacres, but did nothing. The French government persistently denied this until recently. After 27 years of denial, France was finally forced by its own government commission to officially admit its complicity in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. As stated earlier, Macron asked Rwandans for forgiveness in May this year. He said, “Only those who went through that night can perhaps forgive, and in doing so give the gift of forgiveness.”
As in Rwanda, Belgium divided Burundi people into Tutsis and Hutus, which led to ethnic conflicts and civil war, causing the deaths of 300,000 people. In 2009, Belgium officially apologized for these atrocities.
Imperial powers must compensate their victims
In 2022, the time for reparations has come.
So far, the UN has proven impotent in the face of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The oppressed people of the Congo are still waiting for justice and reparations for Belgian atrocities that still haunt them. It is for good reason that Human Rights Watch observed, “Belgium cannot undo its colonial past, but it’s not too late to redress its contemporary fallouts to build a future based on justice and equality.”
Patrick Dewael, the speaker of the Belgian federal parliament, said: “apart from any apologies or excuses … anyone who makes a mistake, says our legal code, must compensate for the damage.” In 2001, the Belgian parliament found the nation morally responsible for the assassination of Lumumba and apologized for its role. Belgium has yet to make any reparations though.
The “Belgium’s Colonial Past” commission, founded in 2020, is still working on issues related to the pre-independence history of the country’s three former colonies: Belgian Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. To address the crimes of the past, Belgium must take these actions:
- Acknowledge all the past abuses, including genoide and crimes against human rights.
- Bring to justice all those individuals, living and dead, who perpetrated those egregious abuses.
- Make reparations to all three former colonies based on the harm done to the Congolese people from Leopold II’s personal rule as well as Belgian colonial exploitation. The reparations must meet the following criteria:
- It must correlate directly with all the economic profits Belgium earned from Congo.
- And it must ensure that reparations do not go to the coffers of DRC’s corrupt government but are spent to improve education and infrastructure, bringing them to Belgian standards within 10 years.
As we have seen above, the U.S. was Belgium’s accomplice in colonization of the Congolese people. Therefore, the U.S. must take the following actions.
- Acknowledge its collaboration with the Belgian authorities in the Congo regarding human rights abuses, including violence and genocide, and economic exploitation.
- Form a committee that brings to justice U.S. officials, living or dead, who abetted Belgian atrocities in the Congo.
- Make reparations to remedy the harms done to the Congolese people. The reparations must meet the following criteria:
- Include a bipartisan committee to evaluate all the economic profits earned by the U.S. from the Congo, from 1885 to today.
- Similarly, ensure that reparations do not go to the coffers of DRC’s corrupt government but are spent to meet human needs.
- Emulate Belgium and apologize for its role in assassinating the nationalist leader Lumumba,
None of these actions can destroy the hurt and pain from the past but they will make our world a kinder, gentler and more just place.