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Belgium takes small step toward returning artifacts to Congo

by editor

Belgium took a small but symbolic step toward addressing its colonial past on Thursday, with Prime Minister Alexander De Croo handing over to the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo an inventory of 84,000 Congolese artifacts dating from the colonial period.

But there’s still a way to go before the artifacts find their way home. 

Belgium’s Africa Museum, which was established in 1898 on the outskirts of Brussels, is home to some 120,000 items 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 “regret” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” that were committed in the 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 the relationship between the two continents. The Belgian PM said the move was part of building a shared future: “We must not be afraid to face the past and to do so in a transparent way.”

But handing over the inventory doesn’t mean that Belgium’s loot will quickly return to its home country, or to the Congolese population — and campaigners say the country has not gone far enough to compensate for its brutal colonial past.

Some campaigners argue the move is not transparent. Although the catalog of items will be available to the Congolese government and to a commission of Belgian and Congolese experts, it will not be published. Therefore, ordinary Congolese citizens cannot use it to make requests for artifacts to be returned to their country. 

For the 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 on the museum’s website? Why doesn’t the average person have access to these inventories?” she asked. 

Restitution row

Belgium’s historic Congo debate kicked up a notch in 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests led to the royal family speaking up and to the Belgian parliament creating a commission charged with investigating the colonial past. 

Legally, most of the colonial collections held in museums are the property of the federal state, meaning that their ownership cannot be transferred. At the end of January, Belgian ministers approved a draft bill to transfer illegally-acquired objects to the state’s private domain — and therefore making them transferable. As a result, these objects may be subject to restitution requests, though it will take several more months before the draft law becomes effective.

The restitution will be handled between governments, to avoid the risk of political interference. But for the Congolese writer and artist Sinzo Aanza, the Congolese authorities are not the appropriate party to deal with the issue, because they don’t address the “historical injustice” between Belgium and DRC. They “basically continue the work of exploitation of the country, and pursue it awkwardly,” he said.

François Makanga, a guide and lecturer at the AfricaMuseum and socio-cultural mediator, said an agreement between governments may exclude civil society from having a say on the pieces that have to be restituted as a priority.

“Will it be a policy centralized in Kinshasa? Will it be necessary to go to Kinshasa to see the objects, to request these objects, when these objects do not come from Kinshasa but from all over?” Makanga asked. “It will be according to the agenda of the Congolese government.”

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