State visits by European monarchs are usually safe and measured affairs, full of long speeches, polite ceremonies and calls for closer ties. This week’s visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo by King Philippe of Belgium will be all that but security.
Philippe is an indirect descendant of Leopold II, the Belgian king who made the Congo his personal stronghold, one that became internationally known for a violent system of forced labor characterized by systematic revolution. Philippe will arrive as the DRC prepares for a presidential election next year.
The king’s challenge will be to navigate these political and diplomatic minefields, fostering relations between the two countries without offending or being drawn into the electoral politics of his country’s former colony. His challenge, in short, will be to make the trip boring.
Philippe’s state visit was not intended to be so closely tied to Congolese politics. The King and Queen’s visit comes after an invitation from Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi to celebrate 60 years of the country’s independence on June 30, 2020. Only because it was delayed by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine that it is getting so close to the 2023 presidential election.
The risk, according to some activists, is that the visit of the king – who will be accompanied by Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and other Belgian politicians – gives legitimacy to Tshisekedi, who came to power in 2019 in an election that the Union European has found. questionable.
“It gives a form of legitimacy to a president who came to power in a very controversial way,” said Nadia Nsayi, a political scientist specializing in Congo.
On Tuesday, Philippe will stand alongside Tshisekedi to deliver a speech at the Palais du Peuple du Congo — the seat of the Congolese parliament. In doing so, he will face another challenge: to avoid coming across as neocolonial.
Relations between Belgium and its former colony have been a political roller coaster, with a severance of diplomatic relations as recent as 2008.
When De Croo criticized Congo’s human rights problems during his 2015 visit as development minister, a Congolese spokesperson said the government was “tired of them coming to lecture us, especially from abroad.
Belgian criticism of the Congolese democratic process can be toxic, said Tanguy de Wilde d’Estmael, professor of international relations at Belgium’s UCL university. “It can create friction. … If we are too critical, we are thrown back into the past.
The past will be where the biggest pitfalls will be for Philippe.
Like many other European countries, Belgium is slowly beginning to grapple with its colonial past. In 2020, in the aftermath of global Black Lives Matter protests, Philippe broke his family’s silence on Belgium’s colonial misdeeds. He expressed his “deep regret” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” committed during the reign of Leopold II and during the period following Belgium’s official takeover of the Congo as a colony.
The protests also led to the creation of a new parliamentary commission to examine Belgium’s colonial history. Belgian MP Wouter De Vriendt, who chairs the committee, said there was a lot of international interest. “Others look to our country to lead by example in managing its colonial past because of our heavy historical responsibility,” he said.
While the king is likely to speak out on Belgium’s historic misdeeds, he will have to draw a delicate line between those who argue the monarch should stay out of the debate and those pushing him to go further. On top of that, Philippe and De Croo must also respect the ongoing work of the parliamentary committee, which is due to present its report at the end of this year.
Idesbald Goddeeris, a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain specializing in colonial history, acknowledged that the period under Leopold II was “a colonial regime of the worst scale”, but stressed how difficult it is to balance the accounts. “All the colonial powers had the same racist and Eurocentric discourse and focused on economic exploitation,” Goddeeris said.
For many members of the Congolese diaspora, Belgium’s brutal history is not limited to the past. A 2019 UN report that assessed the human rights situation of people of African descent living in Belgium said there is “clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium”.
“The colonization of the Congo officially stopped in 1960,” said Geneviève Kaninda, coordinator of the Collectif Mémore Coloniale et Lutte contre les Discriminations. “But colonial propaganda and stereotypes about people of African descent didn’t.”
Management of expectations
Aware of the difficult territory the king is heading into, Brussels officials have tried to manage expectations in recent weeks.
The purpose of the trip is to strengthen bilateral relations between Belgium and Congo, which have improved since Tshisekedi came to power. Belgium wants to highlight the relationship between Brussels and Kinshasa in the past and present, but especially in the future.
The week-long trip will also take the royal couple beyond Kinshasa to Lubumbashi, the country’s commercial heart, as well as the war-torn Kivu region, where the King and Queen will meet survivors of sexual violence in the Nobel Peace Prize Panzi Hospital. winner Denis Mukwege.
In other words, the king will have plenty of opportunities to make things interesting, whether he likes it or not.
Camille Gijs contributed reporting.