Belgian King Returns to Mask in Congo in Landmark Visit

DAKAR, Senegal – The king of Belgium on Wednesday handed over a large wooden mask to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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

But for many Congolese, speaking out social media, it was not enough enough. They asked for an apology: For the notorious crimes meted out in order to enrich their ancestors, Leopold II, who accepted his language as his personal fiefdom in 1885 and plundered it for more than two decades.

The return of the Kakungu mask, used by the Suku people in the southwest during the ceremonies, was not a complete restitution. It is on “indefinite loan,” the king said.

“I’m here to return to this extraordinary work in order to allow Congolese to discover and admire it,” he said.

It was a small, symbolic moment toward Belgium’s growing acknowledgment of its exploitation of the Congo, which today is plagued by violence and poverty over its natural resources.

The restitution of the looted works is high on the king’s six-day visit to the agenda, which coincides with ongoing parliamentary debates in Belgium over a new draft law that would pave the way for some objects to be returned.

Belgium handed over Congolese authorities an inventory in February of more than 84,000 artworks taken from Belgium before Congo’s independence in 1960. These objects make up 70 percent of the collection in the Royal Museum for Central Africa, just outside Brussels.

“Belgium no longer looks at Africa in the same way,” Thomas Dermine, the Belgian official who is overseeing the restoration of art objects to Congo, told The Africa Report last week.

But some Congolese citizens took to Twitter to say that the king didn’t go far enough. “The Belgian king is not welcome in the DRC,” said one, Roger Kakul. “He just needs to apologize to the Congolese people.”

King Leopold II turned his private fortunes around the backs of the Congolese people, forcing them to hand over quotas of rubber and ivory to torture and murder in what Congolese professor Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja called “the Congo holocaust.” While funding antislavery conferences in Europe, he encouraged slave raids in central Africa.

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

King Philippe expressed regret for a letter in Belgium’s crimes to President Tshisekedi in 2020, on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, but stopped short of apologizing. He echoed that sentiment in an address to the Congolese parliament on Wednesday afternoon.

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

Later this month, Belgium is also scheduled to return to Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister, who was assassinated in 1960 following a coup supported by the Belgian authorities. All that would be returned is a gold-capped tooth pulled from his mouth by Belgian police before his body was dissolved in acid.

Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.

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