KINSHASA – Belgium's King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” for his nation's abuses in its former colony Congo, telling lawmakers Wednesday on his first official trip to the country that Belgian colonial rule was unjustifiable and racist.
“Although many Belgians were sincerely committed to loving the Congo and its people deeply, the colonial regime, as such, was based on exploitation and domination,” the king told the national legislature in Kinshasa.
“This regime was that of an unequal relationship, in itself unjustifiable, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” he said.
“On the occasion of my first trip to the Congo, right here in front of the Congolese people ... I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for these past wounds,” Philippe said, emphasizing the theme of his six-day visit to the country.
His speech comes two years after the king made similar comments on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence when he went further than any of his predecessors in condemning “acts of violence and cruelty” during Belgian colonial rule.
While some Congolese praised the Belgian king's remarks as brave, others said the apology must come with financial reparations.
“Belgium must ask for forgiveness from the Congolese people but also compensate them,” said Francis Kambale, a 26-year-old student living in Goma in the country’s east. “Our grandparents were beaten like animals, others were killed. But also many minerals and cultural goods were stolen by Belgium. This visit by the Belgian king is a distraction. Congo does not benefit in any way nor does it improve the economic conditions of the Congolese.”
Belgium has faced a reckoning over its colonial past in recent years, particularly around the commemoration of Congo's 60th anniversary of independence in 2020. That year Belgium took down a statue in Ghent of King Leopold II, who had plundered Congo during his 1865-1909 reign and forced many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.
The early years after Leopold laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labor and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million Congolese dead, according to historians.
After Leopold’s claimed ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule the colony until the African nation became independent in 1960.
On Wednesday, Philippe also bestowed a top honor on the last known surviving Congolese veteran of World War II.
Former Corporal Albert Kunyuku, now 100, was decorated Commander of the Order of the Crown. Enlisted at 18, Kunyuku had fought in then-Burma on behalf of Belgium.
Associated Press writer Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro in Goma, Congo contributed.