Belgian king returns mask to Congo during historic visit

DAKAR, Senegal – The King of Belgium presented the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo with a large wooden mask on Wednesday, ...


DAKAR, Senegal – The King of Belgium presented the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo with a large wooden mask on Wednesday, one of thousands of objects brought to the European country a long time ago from its former colony.

King Philippe, on his first visit to the country since assuming the throne in 2013, said handing the mask over to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi was an important symbolic step.

But for many Congolese, speaking out social media, it was not enough. They demanded an apology for the notorious crimes committed against their ancestors in order to enrich the king’s ancestor, Leopold II, who claimed the territory as his personal fief in 1885 and plundered it for more than two decades.

The return of the Kakungu mask, used by the Suku people in the southwest of the country during ceremonies and purchased by a Belgian scientist in 1954, was not a full restitution. It is an “indefinite loan”, the king said.

“I am here to return this exceptional work to you so that the Congolese can discover and admire it,” he said.

It was a small symbolic moment in Belgium’s growing recognition of its exploitation of the Congo, now plagued by violence and poverty despite its wealth of natural resources.

The return of looted works is one of the priorities of the king’s six-day visit, which coincides with ongoing parliamentary debates in Belgium on legislation that would pave the way for the return of certain objects.

In February, Belgium submitted to the Congolese authorities an inventory of more than 84,000 works taken to Belgium before the independence of the Congo in 1960. These objects constitute 70% of the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, at the gates of Brussels. The Belgian Parliament is expected to approve by the end of the month a law that will pave the way for the restitution of works on a case-by-case basis.

According to the Belgian plan, which still needs to be approved by the Congolese authorities, the Congolese government would make individual requests for each work it wants returned. A mixed commission of Congolese and Belgian experts would then examine each request.

“Belgium no longer looks at Africa in the same way”, Thomas Dermine, the Belgian official who oversees the return of objects to Congo, told Africa Report last week.

But some Congolese citizens took to Twitter to say the king had not gone far enough. “The King of the Belgians is not welcome in the DRC,” said one, Roger Kakul. “He just needs to apologize to the Congolese people.”

King Leopold II spilled his private fortune on the backs of the Congolese people, forcing them to hand over quotas of rubber and ivory using torture and murder in what Congolese professor Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja called “the Congo Holocaust”. While funding anti-slavery conferences in Europe, he encouraged slave raids in Central Africa.

He was forced to give up the Congo as his personal possession in 1908, and it became a colony of Belgium, under which the brutality subsided but the oppression and system of economic exploitation remained.

King Philip expressed regret for Belgium’s crimes in a letter to President Tshisekedi in 2020, on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, but refrained from apologizing. He echoed that sentiment in a speech to the Congolese parliament on Wednesday afternoon.

“Colonial rule was based on exploitation and domination,” the king said in his speech. “This regime was one of an unequal relationship, in itself unjustifiable, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” he added. “On the occasion of my first trip to Congo, here, in front of the Congolese people, and those who still suffer from it today, I want to reaffirm my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past,” he said. .

Later this month, Belgium is also expected to return the remains of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Congo, assassinated in 1960 following a coup d’etat supported by the Belgian authorities. All that will be returned to him is a gold-capped tooth ripped from his mouth by Belgian police before his body was dissolved in acid.

Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Belgian king returns mask to Congo during historic visit
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