Belgium’s Trail of Colonial Injustice: From the plight of the Metis, Lumumba’s tooth to rising Tutsi Phobia
“Je suis le souverain d'un petit pays et de petites gens. J'ai passé ma vie à vouloir leur faire du bien; ils m'ont traité de voleur, d'assassin!’’ King Léopold 11, 1907.
King Léopold 11 never set a foot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but his daunting ghost still haunts the country and its neighbours today.
A result of the enduring impact of the merciless genocidal plunder he presided over – in which millions of Congolese would be massacred.
That small country, “petit pays” and small people “petites gens”, still bears heavy political responsibility for the trail of historical destruction, that has followed the King’s deeply entrenched political mischief in Africa.
Writing his last letter to his wife Pauline, from Thysville prison, the first democratically elected Prime-Minister of the DRC, Patrice Lumumba, whose brutal assassination Belgium is still to take full responsibility, said: “the day will come when history will speak. But it will not be the history which will be taught in Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations…Africa will write its own history and in both north and south it will be a history of glory and dignity”.
Indeed! A history of ‘glory’ and ‘dignity’ being told in Africa, but, in order to allow for closure and healing – exposing perpetrators, deniers and revisionists is key.
Belgium’s dark colonial history that is today, woefully manifesting in multi-dimensions, including the escalation of violence against the Tutsi in the Eastern DRC, disturbingly reminiscent of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda – when the international community made the famed and oft-repeated pledge ‘Never Again’.
‘Never Again’ is empty rhetoric when the structures of violence (guns, machetes, hate speech) that fuel ethnic hatred are still in place, as they are horrendously playing out today in the Eastern DRC, Rwandans In DRC Live in fear where the majority of the perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide fled and regrouped.
It is therefore, demonstrably foolhardy, for humanity to once again, silently watch the events preceding the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, chillingly echo themselves so methodologically.
A conflict that has often been framed as one of Hutu vs Tutsi, ‘tribal warfare’ and ‘ancestral enmities’, Eurocentric narratives devoid of the wicked role the Belgians played in the consolidation of the divisionism based caste system during the colonial era.
Furthermore, engineering and manipulating those differences creating a system that would serve Genocide perpetrators so well in identifying their victims through physical features and identity cards which revealed their Tutsi Identity – making them game for slaughter.
Therefore, instructive in contemporary politics that the plight of the Tutsi, ‘toxic other’, the xenophobia in the DRC also places a greater responsibility on the African leadership, to start decolonising our borders, by radically dismantling the Berlin consensus, as leading academics have previously proposed, “muster the ingenuity to negotiate new arrangements that reflects their own current realities better, (Sabelo Ndlovu Gatsheni, Brilliant Mhlanga, 2013.)
A trilogy of Belgium’s well documented mischief in Africa continues.
We go back in history, to King Léopold’s rapaciousness, extracting fortunes in the form of ivory and rubber, from the Congo his ‘personal territory’, shipped back to Belgium – which would be catalyst in the scramble for Africa leading to the Berlin conference in 1884 – the partitioning of Africa.
Belgium was built on a massive debt to the people of Africa, curious enough even King Leopold’s statues are unashamedly built with material from the DRC – in the glorification of Belgium’s colonial conquests – carved in stolen stones from Africa.
We further read in the article COLONIAL EXTRACTIVISM AND EPISTEMIC GEOLOGIES IN THE CONGO ( Sammy Baloji,2021) that “It is a capitalist system, and shortly after the Congo’s independence, the industry wanted to keep this autonomy and suddenly financed this secession and hired soldiers for what was then called the Katangese armed force. It also enlisted mercenaries who came from Belgium, France, South Africa, to form this army around the figure of Tshombe, the leader of the secession. Just like that, Katanga was independent for four years and maintained relations with Belgium. Money was even indexed on the Belgian currency: a Katangese franc was equal to a Belgian franc. This funding was a way for Belgium to be in control of this rebellion.”
Paving way for massive capitalist exploitation on the African continent, with the creation of three zones of economic exploitation, by the eight European imperialist powers, (Samir Amir 1972) – cash crops zone, extractive colonial plantations and the third one of labour reserves.
Inculcating according to Walter Rodney, ‘a relationship of exploitation which allowed capitalist parasites to grow fat and impoverished the dependencies.’
Consequently, colonialism was not just a random episode in Africa’s history, but rather, by design it continues to perversely manifest in other forms in present day life – presenting a liberation dilemma.
In this analysis we encounter the conundrum in the coloniality of power being a prevailing problem, the paradox of stalled decolonisation, between Belgium and her former colonies – the Congolese are free – still held in chains.
It is therefore, not coincidental that the first black Prime-Minister of the DRC, Pan-African revolutionary, Lumumba was assassinated, furthermore, most intriguing in that successive Congolese governments, were rendered useless, failing to decisively deal with the underlying governance issues – underpinnings for peace, security and stability.
Failure to deal with endemic corruption, ethnic strife, poverty, rebel movements, to rescue the vast African country (85 million people) from the perpetual, debilitating cycle of conflict and poverty.
Tragic-comedy, that decades later, Lumumba’s gold-crowned tooth, has at last arrived back home in the (DRC), from Belgium where it was being held.
For the Belgian government, this gesture, of releasing Lumumba’s tooth, they forcibly held against the wishes of his family, country and Africans is a sign of benevolence – ‘Responsabilité morale.’
Further intrigue in that, King Leopold’s descendants, Belgium’s King Philippe was last month on a ‘historic’ visit to the DRC, where he would ‘regret’ the pain caused by colonialism, ‘ “plus profonds regrets” pour les “blessures, les souffrances et les humiliations” causées par la Belgique durant la période coloniale, évoquant des “actes de violence et de cruauté” lors de la première période de colonisation (1885-1908).
However, the sincerity in these public apologies is measured on many other fronts.
The Brussels Times has just published a rather deeply heart-wrenching article Five metis children appeal against the acquittal of the Belgian state, on the plight of the Belgian ‘metis women’ who are appealing against a court decision that the Belgian government is is not guilty of crimes against humanity, in their forcible removal from Africa.
Some background. In order to understand the wickedly, pervasive colonial mentality at the time, metis (mixed race) children are those who were ‘unlawfully’ and ‘immorally’ born to white Belgians and black women from the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi.
In order to hide the shame of this ‘colonial incest’, Belgian authorities would between 1948 and 1961, forcefully kidnap all the mixed race children, who were stigmatised as an ‘aberration of nature’.
It was an afront to notions of racial superiority that white men were living (ménagere) with (concubines) black women, even though it was encouraged for their ‘mental health’, as they had left white women back home (Budagwa 2014.)
The plight for reparations Post Colonial Belgium and Reperative justice : The case of the colonial métis by the mixed race children born during colonial times, in Africa and Europe, is again another example of Belgium’s messed up history.
Problematic once again in this story, is that like many other situations, Belgian politicians have apologised – it ends there- the injustice can only be corrected by giving access to the mixed-race population, full records of their roots, and reparations for stealing them from Africa.
King Léopold’s ghost can be purged, his enchanting power broken, only when those in Belgium, who have followed his footsteps, show a little more political will in righting colonial injustices, this goes beyond just public apologies.
Grace Kwinjeh is a journalist. She can be contacted on [email protected]