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About the Author

Hanna Clarys
Student (Antwerp, Belgium)

Current Study: Political Sciences at Antwerp University. Likes: reading, writing and drawing. Activities: discovering the world step by step. Dream: becoming a war journalist somewhere in the distant future...

Post

NEITHER NOSTALGIA NOR ILLUSION: Congo Versus Belgium

Published 10th May 2010 - 16 comments - 5773 views -

At the end of next month - the 30th of June – the Democratic Republic of Congo will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence. But the relations between this anguished country and its former colonizer are still tense. Belgians still feel wedged between wounded pride and guilt. And the debate about whether His Majesty the King of Belgium should attend the festivities or not brought up all these feelings and doubts again.

 

Eventually the Belgian government announced it had accepted president Kabila’s invitation for king Albert II to visit the Congo on Independence Day and thus we can expect to see the latter showing up in the entourage of the first. Do We Have To Be Happy Now?

 

Even I, born 1990 - 40 years after the last colonizer moved out -, feel uncomfortable when talking about the Dark Decades in Belgian history. Everyone knows the stories about plundered resources, exploitation and severed hands; slavery and red rubber to provide the wealth and greatness that fitted into king Leopold’s megalomania.

 

Leopold II

Later however, in the days of king Baudoin, railroads were build and trains exported goods again, salaries were paid every month, education was provided through missionaries, etc. People could speak of progress. Now, progress is something belonging to the past. Factories, railway stations and harbours which were once filled with busy people and noises, which once provided work for thousands of families are now places of dust and rusty machines, train wrecks and sometimes a single fishing boat. But yes, we took their minerals and gave match rods in return.

 

So is Belgium responsible for Congo’s downturn? Partly, yes.

Do the Congolese bear guilt too? Of course.

 

But the question whether or not it was a good decision to let our king attend the festivities on the  day of the anniversary, side by side with president Kabila, I cannot answer for sure. If we had refused, the diplomatic relations between Congo and Belgium would have deteriorated again (and we just kind of restored them), but now it might give the impression we support a government known for its war crimes and corruption. Then again, does Belgium as the former colonizer and suppressor of the country has the right to demand good governance from Congo?

 

Kabila & Albert II

 (Main photo by Carl de Keyser)


Category: Politics | Tags:


Comments

  • Andrea Arzaba on 11th May 2010:

    Hanna!

    This is a very interesting perspective and a good question. Pfff…it is a though issue and I think that this situation can happen with any other country and its previous colonizers (India and the UK; Latin America and Spain; etc)

    The pictures of the congolese villagers are indeed heart-breaking.


  • Bart Knols on 11th May 2010:

    Good topic, Hanna. After I read Adam Hochschild’s ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ (a fantastic and highly recommended book; http://vimeo.com/5481034), in which he draws a comparison with Stalin and Hitler, and that in fact 10 million Congolese were massacred by the Belgians in the name of King Leopold, it wasn’t hard for me to make up my mind. Leopold killed more Congolese than Hitler killed Jews…

    But, why do we still find many statues of Leopold II in Brussels? Isn’t this strange? How would the world respond if there were statues of Hitler in Berlin? See a protest, where one statue was covered with paint: http://www.hln.be/hln/nl/957/Belgie/article/detail/410397/2008/09/09/Verfaanslag-op-Brussels-standbeeld-Leopold-II.dhtml

    Atrocities have been committed by colonial powers, those can’t be denied any longer. Now is the time to show regret, seek forgiveness, and admit that things were done horribly wrong in the past. Should this not be done face-to-face, in spite of knowing that contemporary powers commit similar atrocities?


  • Hanna Clarys on 11th May 2010:

    Thanks for commenting.

    Bart, you have a very good point concerning the statues. I myself find it very shameful that we still have statues of Leopold II on the streets, in a lot of cities and towns. There have been many actions (like the one with the red paint or when the statues got chained by some activists). Recently, with the anniversary of Congo’s independence coming up, many people are asking to remove the statues from their towns. Not always with succes (I do not know why) but in Ekeren, the little place where I live, the statue of Leopold standing right in front of the church has been removed several years ago.

    Belgium has excused its behavior in the past, but that is not what I mean… The debate about whether or not our king should go to Congo the 30th of June is not really about excuses. It is more about standing side by side with Kabila - known for his crimes - and by that supporting his governance. Or not going to show the world that Belgium does not agree with Kabila’s way of governing Congo, but by doing that Belgium risks to behave too paternalistic towards its former colony.
    It’s not an easy question…


    And Andrea, I always feel ashamed when looking at such pictures… But it needs to be known. Especially here in Belgium.


  • Clare Herbert on 11th May 2010:

    I thought that the recent meeting between Sarkozy and Obama was especially interesting for this reason. Sarkozy’s ancestors were colonizers and Obama’s were slaves - it certainly made for an interesting dynamic between the 2 leaders.


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 11th May 2010:

    Very interesting post, Hanna.

    My country was not colonized, but occupied by the USSR. Some years ago, our former president refused to participate in a parade in Moscow to celebrate the soviet victory in WW2 because it meant 50 years of occupation for us with all its consequences.


  • Aija Vanaga on 12th May 2010:

    You touch an important subject in international politics. I am also from former USSR country, so it makes world politics more difficult and complex.


  • Hanna Clarys on 12th May 2010:

    To Giedre: I totally understand your president. I think it was the right decision to make. It wouldn’t have been right towards the victims of the occupation. It asks a lot of time for such wounds to heal.

    To Clare: leaders of powerful countries always carry with them what happened in the past, and that is how it should be.


  • Hanna Clarys on 16th May 2010:

    I just read in the newspaper that some 100 Congolese people living in Belgium have been protesting againt king Albert’s visit to Congo. They feel it will give a wrong signal to the regime of president Kabila. They say that “the current Congolese government doesn’t succeed in getting order in the country and that it is still ripped apart by conflicts, corruption and political unwillingness, and that by going to Congo king Albert will give the signal he is supporting Kabila’s government’.


  • Mark on 18th May 2010:

    Super post there! Comprehensive and well collated material. Thanks for sharing.
    Wall Stickers


  • Hanna Clarys on 13th June 2010:

    Wanted to update you guys with some information, but it ain’t good stuff: a few days ago, the most famous Congolese human rights activist Floribert Chebeya was murdered in Kinshasa. Main suspect is John Numbi, general of the national police, whom Chebeya was supposed to meet that day. He never did.

    Protest against our king’s visit to Congo is strengthened again due to this event, while Numbi is a close contact of president Kabila. People have suspicions that it was a politically motivated murder, ordered from above.


  • Bart Knols on 13th June 2010:

    Awful, bloody awful. I wasn’t aware of this development, thanks Hanna.


  • Helena Goldon on 14th July 2010:

    Going back still to your remark, Bart - during our stay in Brussels I managed to visit the Museum of Africa. There was an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of Congo Independence.

    I was however very surprised to come across many euphemisms in the descriptions of the atrocities in Congo, let me give you an example:

    About Congo Free State: “This new structure BRINGS CHANGES to African societies, although the former political and cultural legacies manage to survive.” - that’s all about the international scandals and killings!


  • Bart Knols on 15th July 2010:

    @Helena. Such things continue to date - yesterday was the 14th of July and Sarkozy invited a group of African military people with highly, highly dubious backgrounds ref human rights…


  • Hanna Clarys on 15th July 2010:

    Back from my holiday in Slovenia, ready to comment again!

    Thanks everyone for continuing this debate; it’s really nice to hear opinions from non-Belgians on this issue.

    Indeed, Bart, the 14th of July in France brought up the same feelings as there were the 30th of June in Belgium. And just to mention it: Belgium’s queen received the most expensive diamonds from Kabila’s wife. What should we think of that?


  • Bart Knols on 15th July 2010:

    I would think that this is a disgrace - to give away diamonds, the value of which would be sufficient to build a small hospital or send hordes of children to school, is just a disgrace. Sorry, no other words for this…


  • Hanna Clarys on 15th July 2010:

    Totally agree with you, Bart, and no reason to feel sorry to say that. Not only the value of those diamonds, but probably also the origin of them make from this ‘present’ a disgusting one; they might be blood diamonds.

    Our queen should have rejected them, even if it would have caused a diplomatic scandal. It does either way; better to cause one by doing the right thing.


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