Belgium and DR Congo: working together for the future

The visit by His Majesty King Philippe and Her Majesty Queen Mathilde to the Democratic Republic of Congo in June 2022 has been the subject of much commentary in the Belgian press. But what makes the visit so significant? We put some questions to Stéphane Doppagne, Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of the FPS Foreign Affairs.

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Palais du peuple

Our royal couple on the stage in the Palais du Peuple in Kinshasa. On the left, Prime Minister De Croo and his wife; on the right, President Tshisekedi and his wife. © Serch Carrière

With the visit of our royal couple to DR Congo from 7 to 13 June 2022, Belgium took a major step forward towards renewed relations with the former colony. The essence of the visit was an effort to reconcile after the dark colonial past and build a hopeful future together.

After all, the Congolese people have a right to a good life in a country that respects human rights and democratic principles. In addition, with its forests and minerals, Congo has considerable assets to help tackle global challenges. Belgium and DR Congo need each other, just as Europe and Africa need each other, hence the great importance of renewed, close cooperation between Belgium and DR Congo.

Paternalism, discrimination and racism

'We are experiencing a pivotal moment,' says Stéphane Doppagne, Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region. 'But if we really want to move forward, we must first be able to look that colonial past squarely in the eye, including its dark and painful aspects.'

The royal visit has already made a substantial contribution to this. In his speech in the 'Palais du Peuple' (People's Palace) in Kinshasa – the seat of the Congolese parliament and senate – H.M. the King made express reference to these dark aspects and expressed his deepest regret, and this was the first time this has happened on Congolese soil.

'Although many Belgians at the time in the Congo gave their best, sincerely loved the country and its people, the colonial regime as such was based on exploitation and domination,' our monarch said. 'That regime was founded on a – in itself unjustifiable – relationship of inequality. It was characterised by paternalism, discrimination, and racism. And it gave rise to misdeeds and humiliations. (...) I insist, here, before the Congolese people and all those who still suffer today as a result, on reiterating my deepest regret for those wounds of the past.'

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Congolese war veteran

By decorating 100-year-old veteran Albert Kunyuku, the King acknowledged the sacrifices made by the Congolese people during the two world wars. © Serch Carrière

Congolese veteran

H.M. the King also presented and unveiled at the National Museum a very rare giant mask of the Suku, from the collection of the AfricaMuseum. He also presented an award to the last Congolese veteran of WWII, 100-year-old Albert Kunyuku. As such, he acknowledged the sacrifices made by the Congolese people during the two world wars. Moreover, he acknowledged the significant contribution that Belgians of Congolese descent have made to the social, economic and cultural landscape of our country.

'All these gestures form part of an in-depth exploration of the colonial past that Belgium is currently engaged in,' clarifies Doppagne. 'And not only within the parliamentary commission that is examining the colonial past in depth until the end of this year, but also in the process that we initiated to make it possible to return illigitimately acquired cultural objects. In addition, we have already made sound progress in addressing the justified complaints of the 'metis'. Not to mention the fact that the remains of former Prime Minister Lumumba were officially returned to his family at the Egmont Palace on 20 June 2022.'

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King admires giant mask

The indefinite loan of a giant mask heralded the symbolic start of stronger scientific and museum-based cooperation between Belgium and DR Congo. © Serch Carrière

AfricaMuseum

On the fringes of the European Union-African Union summit in February 2022, Prime Minister De Croo had already handed over an inventory of 84,000 art and cultural objects to Congolese Prime Minister Lukonde, all from the collections of the AfricaMuseum; a law concerning that would be voted soon after. It is also the intention to work out a treaty between Belgium and DR Congo in order to be able to return the illigitimately acquired objects if DR Congo requests it. Congolese experts will be very closely involved.

It is estimated that 1% of the AfricaMuseum's collections originating from DR Congo were looted, 60% were legitimately acquired while the remaining 39% have yet to be examined to ascertain how they came to be in Belgium. The indefinite loan of the legitimately obtained giant mask also heralded the symbolic start of stronger scientific and museum-based cooperation between Belgium and DR Congo.

The AfricaMuseum has already made efforts in the past: during its renovation between 2013 and 2018, it thoroughly reimagined the representation of the colonial past, working closely with African scholars and the African diaspora in Belgium.

In addition, communities are reviewing their teaching about the colonial past. A project is also underway to help schools in DR Congo teach history more accurately themselves with the aim of boosting the self-confidence of young people.

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Congolese ‘pagne’

The Queen in conversation with the Premiere Dame of Congo at a 'marché de pagne'. © Royal Palace

Young people and women

It is clear that the view of Belgium and the Royal Household towards the colonial past has evolved. 'But as essential as it is, we can't keep focusing on it,' Doppagne stresses. 'We must now turn our gaze to the future and the young. The Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi has also expressed the same sentiment. While the new generation is obviously entitled to an accurate, considered and pacified memory of our shared past, that is only the starting point for addressing today's challenges. And this must happen in a spirit of respect, equality and dialogue, with a strong will to work together and enrich our relationships.'

Young people were therefore the focus of the royal visit. In his speech to the students at the University of Lubumbashi, H.M. King Philippe said: 'Through you, I address all the youth of the Congo (...) The future belongs to you. (...) I do not hesitate in saying that you, the youth, are the real wealth of the Congo, with your perseverance and enthusiasm. (...) Because a mine can be exhausted. The talent and willpower of youth, however, its thirst for knowledge, are inexhaustible.' Over 68% of the Congolese population is under the age of 25.

A great deal of attention was also devoted to women: our royal couple participated in a round table discussion on women's rights and they also visited a large clothing market run by the 'mamans', dynamic saleswomen who account for a significant portion of the Congolese economy. The market offers the colourful, typically Congolese 'pagnes': light clothing consisting of a single rectangular piece of fabric draped around the waist.

Moreover, the new governmental development co-operation program (2023–2027) will invest primarily in women and young people so that they can be self-reliant. The budget is being substantially increased compared with previous programmes. It should be mentioned that this comes in addition to the non-governmental and multilateral cooperation.

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Round table with women

Our royal couple also participated in a round table on women's rights. © Royal Palace

No development without peace

Needless to say, security is also crucial. Doppagne explains: 'The King said it clearly before the 7,000 students in Lubumbashi: there is no peace without development, and there is no development without peace. In recognising this, we cannot ignore the bloody conflict in the Eastern Congo that has plagued the local population for nearly 30 years. The royal couple's visit to South Kivu, not far from the conflict zone, was therefore highly appreciated. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Denis Mukwege called it a strong humanitarian act that demonstrated exceptional courage. The visit also broke through the international community's indifference to the terrible tragedy in the Eastern Congo.'

Many women in the Eastern Congo are victims of horrific rapes. This is why Dr Mukwege took the initiative to "rehabilitate" them and established the Panzi Hospital in Kivu for them, with Belgian support. In addition, our country has made many efforts to accommodate the victims. The Belgian development agency Enabel, for example, developed a holistic approach: legal assistance and reintegration into society, alongside medical and psychological follow-up.

'However, the causes of the conflict also need to be addressed,' says Doppagne. 'In his speech in Kinshasa, the King referred to the impunity that too often prevails in the Eastern Congo. He also stressed that the preservation of the Congo's territorial integrity is a major concern.'

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Panzi hospital

Our royal couple with Dr Mukwege at the Panzi hospital. © Royal Palace

Military cooperation

To remedy this, Belgium is making considerable efforts. For example, our country supports the will of the Congolese authorities to set up a mechanism of 'transitional justice' that can contribute towards reconciliation and the fight against impunity. Our country is also urging others to step up support in this challenge at international forums (EU, UN, etc.). To support this kind of mechanism, our country donated 1.5 million euros to the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) for Congo.

Belgium has also resumed military cooperation with the Congo. Since April 2022, around 30 Belgian instructors have been active in Kindu and four Congolese officers will be training in Belgium. Our country has also worked to develop a holistic vision of the security sector with European partners: police – army – justice – prisons. Within this framework, Enabel will support the reform of the Congolese police in cooperation with the federal police.

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Coffin draped with flag

The descendants of former Prime Minister Lumumba lay a Congolese flag over the coffin containing the mortal remains (Egmont Palace). © Serch Carrière

Business climate and natural resources

For DR Congo to actually get on the right track, the business climate must also improve; corruption remains a common problem. Belgium is also devoting attention to this, including through the exchange of expertise. In addition, Belgium is providing financial support to a programme of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that aims to strengthen the anti-corruption structure in DR Congo.

And then there is the matter of the wealth of natural resources that Congo possesses. 'Congolese minerals such as cobalt are hyper-important for the world's urgently-needed green transition,' says Doppagne. 'But then the exploitation of these resources must benefit the Congolese themselves.' This is why Belgium is supporting the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to encourage greater transparency and good governance in the mining industry.

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Medical institute INRB

Our royal couple also visited the INRB medical institute. In the centre: director Dr Muyembe, co-discoverer of Ebola. © Royal Palace

Creativity and vigour

What is striking is that, despite the immense problems, the Congolese people continue to testify their strong creativity and vigour. And our royal couple had the opportunity to experience that for themselves, when, for example, they visited the National Institute of Biomedical Research (INRB) in Kinshasa where Ebola was discovered. Also on the programme was Silikin Village, a hub for entrepreneurship and innovation that is already home to several start-ups. Belgium's TEXAF was instrumental in its creation.

In his speech in Lubumbashi, the King referred to the recent establishment of the Centre of Excellence for Advanced Battery Research. This is intended to ensure that Congo itself processes its cobalt into batteries needed for electric cars and renewable energy.

So, Congo does have a great deal of capacity, it is just a matter of supporting it. Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, Director of the INRB, expressed it as follows: 'We clearly see that when the Congolese are placed in decent conditions, they can be top performers.'

Tropical forests

A final important aspect of the royal visit was the reference to climate change and the biodiversity crisis. Congo not only has much-needed minerals to help the world to address climate change with technological solutions, it also has relatively intact tropical forests. Doppagne explains: 'The tropical forests of the Congo Basin form the second largest lungs in the world, after the Amazon rainforest. It is crucial to protect them, but that can only be done if poverty is also combated.'

In this context, our royal couple visited a project of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Katanga village in the Miombo woodlands. To combat overexploitation, local communities are learning how to generate an income from the woodland without degrading it. Projects include tree nurseries for reforestation, and the production of non-timber products such as honey and a local drink made with the roots of the Munkoyo plant.

On an equal footing

In summary, the royal visit touched on all aspects in the speeches and the programme that showcase our aims, and that has gone down well with local people. The important thing now is to move forward with the same momentum, on an equal footing and with mutual respect.

'As a small country, Belgium cannot present huge programmes but it can leverage international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF,' says Doppagne. 'And we just know the region. Where matters of the Congo are concerned, people listen to us. Countries like the U.S.A regularly ask us for advice.'

'Belgium has the strong will to support the Congo in its process of stabilisation and democratisation,' Doppagne concludes. 'We are on the side of the Congolese people, who are demanding respect for the rule of law and democratic principles, good governance and progress in the area of human rights, especially for women and young people. The royal visit represents a pivotal moment that offers hope and confidence in the future. Because Belgian and Congolese young people are brimming with ideas and talent and are open to others and each other. We must now finally leave the dark chapter behind and write a new, promising one.'