On Thursday, Belgium took a small but symbolic step towards resolving its colonial past, with Prime Minister Alexander De Croo handing over to the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo an inventory of 84,000 Congolese artifacts dating from the colonial period.
But there’s still some way to go before the artifacts find their way back.
The Belgian Museum of Africa, established in 1898 on the outskirts of Brussels, houses some 120,000 objects from Africa, mostly from the Congo when the central African country was a colony of Belgium.
Well over a year after King Philippe expressed his “regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” that were committed in Congo under Belgian rule, the move is an olive branch between Brussels and Kinshasa .
De Croo made the offer to his Congolese counterpart Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde before the start of an EU-Africa summit, which aimed to reset relations between the two continents. The Belgian Prime Minister said the move was part of building a common future: “We must not be afraid to face the past and do it transparently.”
But handing over inventory doesn’t mean Belgium’s loot will quickly return to its home country, or to the Congolese people – and activists say the country hasn’t gone far enough to compensate for its colonial brutality . pass.
Some activists argue that this decision is not transparent. Although the catalog of articles is made available to the Congolese government and a commission of Belgian and Congolese experts, it will not be published. Therefore, ordinary Congolese citizens cannot use it to request the return of artifacts to their country.
For historian Yasmina Zian, author of a report on the restitution of cultural heritage, the step is significant but should go further: “Why is it given to a member of the government, and why is this USB key not it not on the museum website? Why doesn’t the average person have access to these inventories? ” she asked.
The historic debate over the Congo in Belgium gained momentum in 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests led the royal family to speak out and the Belgian parliament to create a commission to investigate the colonial past. .
Legally, most colonial collections held in museums are federal property, which means their ownership cannot be transferred. At the end of January, Belgian ministers approved a draft law aimed at transferring illegally acquired objects into the private domain of the state – and thus making them transferable. As a result, these objects could be the subject of restitution claims, even if it will still be several months before the bill comes into force.
Restitution will be managed between governments, to avoid the risk of political interference. But for Congolese writer and artist Sinzo Aanza, the Congolese authorities are not the appropriate party to deal with the issue, as they are not addressing the “historical injustice” between Belgium and the DRC. They “essentially continue the work of exploiting the country, and continue it clumsily”, he said.
François Makanga, guide and lecturer at the AfricaMuseum and socio-cultural mediator, said an agreement between governments could prevent civil society from having a say in which coins should be returned first.
“Will it be a centralized policy in Kinshasa? Will we have to go to Kinshasa to see the objects, to ask for these objects, when these objects do not come from Kinshasa but from everywhere? Makanga asked. “It will be according to the Congolese government’s agenda.”