Belgian King Returns Mask to Congo in Landmark Visit

But so far, the monarch has not apologized for decades of brutal Belgian rule during which up to 10 million Congolese people died.

DAKAR, Senegal — The king of Belgium on Wednesday handed over a large wooden mask to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of thousands of objects taken long ago to the European country from its former colony.

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 on social media, it was not nearly enough. They asked for an apology: for the notorious crimes meted out to their ancestors in order to enrich the king’s forebear, Leopold II, who claimed the territory 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 country’s southwest during ceremonies, was not a full restitution. It is on “indefinite loan,” the king said.

“I am here to return to you this exceptional work in order to allow Congolese to discover and admire it,” he said.

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

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

Belgium handed the Congolese authorities an inventory in February of more than 84,000 artworks taken to 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 restitution of art objects to Congo, told the Africa Report last week.

But some Congolese citizens took to Twitter to say that the king did not 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 on the backs of the Congolese people, forcing them to hand over quotas of rubber and ivory using torture and murder in what the 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 it became a colony of Belgium, under which the brutality subsided but oppression and the system of economic exploitation remained.

King Philippe expressed regret for Belgium’s crimes in a letter 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 the occasion of my first trip to Congo, here, in 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 the remains of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister, who was assassinated in 1960 following a coup supported by the Belgian authorities. All that will 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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