By John Ikani
Belgium’s King Philippe will on Tuesday begin a historic visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a region cruelly exploited by his ancestors, as tensions rise in the volatile east.
The Belgian monarch will be accompanied by Queen Mathilde and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and other members of the Belgian government.
The six-day trip, at the invitation of President Felix Tshisekedi, has strong symbolic significance, coming two years after Philippe expressed to the Congolese leader his “deepest regrets” for the “wounds” of colonisation.
Historians say that millions of people in the Belgian Congo were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they worked on rubber plantations belonging to Leopold II, Belgium’s monarch from 1865-1909 and the brother of Philippe’s great great grandfather.
The growth of the Black Lives Matter, initially a reaction to police violence in the United States but now a broader anti-racist movement, has seen several colonial-era statues removed in Belgium.
King Philippe had previously planned to visit the DRC in June 2020, but the trip was postponed first because of Covid 19, then most recently following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The visit of the Belgian sovereign, twelve years after that of King Albert II, is seen by the DRC and Belgium as a sign of the normalisation of relations between the two countries, after the European state froze cooperation at the end of Joseph Kabila’s tenure.
“This event will mark, once again, the excellent quality of bilateral relations between the Kingdom of Belgium and the DRC,” DRC President Félix Tshisekedi’s office said.
Three stops are planned and the sovereign will deliver a speech at the first two: in Kinshasa on Wednesday during a ceremony with Tshisekedi at the Congolese parliament, then Friday before students at the University of Lubumbashi in the south of the country. He will also visit Bukavu, (in South Kivu province, eastern DRC).
For the royal couple, the Bukavu stopover is also a great symbol. It is the city where renowned gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner, lives.
King Philippe and Queen Mathilde are expected to support Dr Mukwege in his efforts to fight against women violence and his advocacy against impunity in war crimes in the eastern DRC.
Belgium has also agreed to return to the Congo artefacts looted during the time of King Leopold II, when the Congos were under colonisation. In February 2021, Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre de Croo handed over to his Congolese counterpart Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde a list of works of art to be returned to the DRC, which have been kept for more than 100 years in the Royal Museum for Central Africa at Tervuren in Flemish Brabant, near Brussels.
A week after the visit, Belgium is expected to return former DRC prime minister Patrice Lumumba’s tooth to the slain hero’s family, as part of handing over his remains. This will be marked by several ceremonies beginning June 20 and ending on June 30 in Kinshasa, the day of the commemoration of the country’s independence.