Brussels, Belgium, June 2020. A statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II, which had been defaced by protesters and then cleaned, was scrawled last week with fresh graffiti reading “Stop Cleaning Start Reflecting” in Brussels, where a campaign under the name “Let’s Repair History” (Réparons l’Histoire) has called for the city to remove statues of Leopold, starting with a monument in Place du Trône near the Royal Palace. As massive gatherings for racial justice gain momentum around the world, activists in Belgium are hoping the global movement may finally shift attitudes toward the colonial legacy of King Leopold II, the monarch whose tyrannical rule over the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) is blamed for the deaths of between 10-15 million Congolese. Belgium’s federal parliament on June 17 approved a proposal to create a commission that will examine the country’s colonial history while the city of Ghent has announced that a defaced bust of Leopold II in Zuidpark will be permanently removed on 30 June, the anniversary of Congolese independence. © Pamela Tulizo for Fondation Carmignac
Congo marks its 60th anniversary of independence on Tuesday at a time of global reckoning as countries are being forced to confront their histories of exploitation and racial injustice.
Amid global anti-racism protests sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, the world’s attention has turned toward powerful and hurtful symbols—most of them linked to slavery—that are now being removed from positions of prominence and prestige.
In Belgium, which inflicted one of history’s most brutal imperial legacies upon what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, several statues and monuments of King Leopold II have been vandalized and removed. More than 80,000 people have signed a petition to remove all remaining statues of the monarch whose tyrannical rule over the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1909 is blamed for the deaths of between 10-15 million Congolese.
On both sides of the Atlantic, countless statues and monuments have been torn down and defaced by protestors. In the USA, the use of the Confederate emblem has been banned at NASCAR and removed from the Mississippi state flag, while street and school names have been changed. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury even said the church should reconsider its portrayal of Jesus as a white man.
Belgium’s federal parliament approved a proposal on June 17 to create a commission to examine the country’s colonial history. The city of Ghent also announced that a defaced bust of Leopold II in Zuidpark will be permanently removed on June 30 to coincide with Congo’s independence day. And in the town of Denbigh in Wales, local councillors are discussing whether to remove a statue honouring Welshman Henry Morton Stanley, the controversial Victorian explorer who ventured into Congo at Leopold’s behest to establish the trading stations that eventually allowed the king to exploit the country’s natural resources and commit what were dubbed “the rubber atrocities”. Even in neighbouring Uganda, which gained independence from Britain in 1962, a campaign is now petitioning parliament to remove the names of colonial figures from streets and landmarks.
The response in Congo, however, has been decidedly muted. That’s because there’s no need for the widespread rejection of colonial vestiges currently underway beyond Congo’s borders. The anti-imperialist movement already took place here in late 1960s and early 1970s when the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko imposed his doctrine of “authenticity” to replace colonialism with a new national consciousness based on traditional African values. This movement half a century ago led to the obliteration of colonial names and symbols. Leopoldville, the former capital, was rechristened Kinshasa, Stanleyville became Kisangani, Elizabethville became Lubumbashi, and Congo became Zaire (before becoming the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997). Streets and neighborhoods were renamed, monuments and statues were removed and relocated, many of them to Mobutu’s private garden on Mount Ngaliema (formerly Mount Stanley), where they remain today at a Presidential Park that includes the Institute of National Museums of Congo.
Our independence anniversary celebrations traditionally involve visiting foreign dignitaries and an extravagant military parade along the city’s main downtown thoroughfare, the Boulevard du 30 Juin (previously called Boulevard Albert I). Due to Covid-19, the government this year scrapped public celebrations and announced the anniversary will instead take place “in meditation” with the anniversary budget redirected to containing the pandemic.
But with international debate raging over what to do with so many statues and monuments linked to exploitation and slavery, I paid a visit to the ones left behind by the Belgians. The Institute of National Museums of Congo is located on Mount Ngaliema, the hill where Stanley set up his first camp. It’s now a military zone and although the museum is a public institution, it is closed due to coronavirus. I had to negotiate with soldiers to gain access.
Once on the grounds, a six-meter statue of Leopold is cast in an identical pose to the one in Brussels at Place du Trone near the Royal Palace, although this one has a damaged right shoulder. While many countries were subjected to colonial exploitation, Congo was unique in that for many years it was the personal property of Leopold, who never set foot in it. Inaugurated in 1928 by Albert I, the statue was first installed in front of the Palace of the Nation, where the presidency is now located. Mobutu relocated the monument in 1967. It made a brief reappearance in Kinshasa’s city centre in 2005, but was removed within hours after people nearly rioted against the unwelcome reminder of colonialism.
A 4.5-meter statue of Stanley that was first erected close this location in 1956 was taken down in 1971, cut off at the feet, and left lying face up behind a building for decades. It was remounted in recent years as part of the museum grounds. The rusted remains from one of Stanley’s original steamers used for travelling along the Congo River can also be found near the water’s edge.
Other monuments here include Monument du Rail, a bronze bas-relief by the Belgian sculptor Arthur Dupagne, and Monument du Souvenir Congolais, a World War II memorial by Belgian sculptor Jacques Marin. Dupagne’s frieze was installed on the wall of city’s central train station in 1948 to mark the 50-year anniversary of the completion of the Leopoldville-Matadi railway line, the construction of which cost the lives of nearly 2,000 people, most of them Congolese labourers.
Marin’s bronze depicts a Belgian officer with a Congolese soldier and Congolese porter, representative of the thousands of Congolese who were drafted as part of the colonial armed forces and fought during World War II in East Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Congolese soldiers, known as the Force Publique, were racially segregated and never received any compensation for their contributions to the war, according to a complaint filed in Congo in 2018 by seven children of ex-combatants. The case was in court late last year, but no judgment has been made.
Both monuments were removed under Mobutu’s authenticity drive and have remained here, next to the overgrown Pioneers Cemetery, where Europeans who died in Congo in the 19th century are buried. The presence here of the monuments, stripped of power and influence, is fitting. They are relics of empire and belong in a museum, where they can stand as important reminders of Europe’s racist practices in Africa.
Our public spaces belong to us now and monuments depict our own leaders, such as Joseph Kasa-Vubu, our first president. The Tower of Limete, erected in 1974 along the Lumumba Boulevard linking Kinshasa’s airport to the city center, is a 210-meter monument to Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. At its feet, the statue of our first freely elected Prime Minister stands tall in a suit and spectacles, his right hand raised, as if still delivering his defiant speech at Congo’s proclamation of independence on June 30th, 1960.
“The law was never the same for the white and the black,” Lumumba said that day. “It was lenient to the ones, and cruel and inhuman to the others. We have experienced the atrocious sufferings… and (been) exiled from our native land: our lot was worse than death itself.”
He added: “We, who have suffered in body and soul from the colonial oppression, we tell you that henceforth all that is finished with.”
Less than a year later, on January 17, 1961, Lumumba was murdered with the help of the CIA and Belgium. He was 36. No one has been punished for a crime that has long haunted Congo.So yes, the 60th anniversary of our independence comes at a time of reckoning, but for Belgium, not for us. In Congo, we dealt with these symbols of imperial violence 50 years ago by removing them from positions of prominence and replacing them with our own monuments. It is our former colonial masters who must now catch up with the times and come to terms with their past.