Belgian King Philippe’s visit to DR Congo stirs hope for a ‘win-win partnership,’ historian says


It’s been a historic week of reckoning in Democratic Republic of Congo as Belgium’s King Philippe paid a visit to the former Belgian colony in Central Africa. 

“This regime was that of an unequal relationship,” King Philippe said on Wednesday. He called it unjustifiable and said it was marked by paternalism and racism.

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The Belgian rule over Congo was brutal. By some estimates, up to 10 million people were killed by atrocities, famine or died from introduced diseases from 1885 to 1908, when the territory was personally owned by Belgian King Leopold II. But from the Western perspective, Congo was a place to exploit. 

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There is a lot to understand about Belgium’s colonial rule in Central Africa and how modern Democratic Republic of Congo reconciles the past and sees its future.

Charles Tshimanga-Kashama, an associate professor in the history department at the University of Nevada, Reno, joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss the visit and its implications for the future. 

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“For the Congolese people, this is historical, because the last visit from a Belgian king, it was a long time ago between the two countries,” Tshimanga-Kashama said. “This is a really big event and especially in the context of what’s going on right now.” 

Marco Werman: How is Belgium’s colonial rule remembered today in Congo?

Charles Tshimanga-Kashama: So, in Congo, we have a generation of people who have not known about Belgian colonialism. But for most Congolese, they remember the brutality of the Congo free state, which was led by King Leopold II. And they expect King Phillipe to apologize for the past, for the brutality of that regime, for the exploitation of the Congo. But since his visit, yesterday, King Philippe, he said it once again that he was presenting his deepest regret to the Congolese people. So, so far, he has not apologized.

King Philippe this week in Congo said he deeply regretted what happened, but has not apologized. I mean, that’s the monarchy and the Congolese are still waiting. But has Belgium’s government done enough to acknowledge that history? 

Following the death of George Floyd here in the US in 2020, there is ongoing debate in Belgium. So, the Congolese diaspora living in Belgium launched a debate, they began asking the Congolese government to revisit Belgian colonialism in the Congo. So, as we speak, there is a commission, a special commission working with a number of experts, trying to get a good understanding of what’s happened in the Congo at the time of Belgian colonialism. So, I’m one of the experts working with them, giving them my feedback. So, as we speak, there is this ongoing debate. 

So, Charles, you’ve recently joined a special Belgian parliamentary commission working to recognize Belgium’s colonial past in the Congo. What are your hopes for this commission?

My hope is that this is not just something that is used to kick the can down the road. My hope is that we can, after the work is done, [that] recommendations made by experts would be followed by legislations and [there would be] new ways of doing business between the two countries. That’s my hope. And I have to emphasize the word hope.

So, how do you see Belgium and Congo moving forward from here?

Here is my expectation: I hope to see some changes. I want the paradigm to shift. You know, the Congo is one of the places with so [much] raw material. Most of the tools that we use today are from the Congo. Cobalt, which is used to make batteries for electric cars, coltan, which is used to make cell phones, laptops and so on, [are] from the Congo. Going back to even King Leopold II, the Congo has been seen mostly as the place you can go, dig, get raw materials and to use them to make many of the manufactured goods that we are using in the Western world.

So, the Congolese president says this: If you want to go to the Congo to do business, we want a kind of a win-win partnership, which means we don’t want you to just come and dig, get the raw material, but we also want you to help the Congolese government build some plants in the Congo, so that this can also create jobs and help Congolese people to continue moving forward. What do you think it will really take for Belgium and Democratic Republic of Congo to work together as equals, because Belgium has not left the Congolese on equal footing?

Yes. So, that’s why I think that the pressure coming from the ground, the pressure coming from the diaspora, the pressure coming from the academic world, I hope that this maybe [will] lead Belgium to be making some needed adjustment. I’m not foolish. I understand that relationships between states are based on interest. And as we speak, Belgium is more powerful than the Congo. So, it’s up to the Congolese to work hard to become really equal partners with Belgium.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.