Unbolted Statues: And Meanwhile, In Kinshasa

Anti-racist protests rekindled after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the United States have given rise worldwide to the debunking or the degradation of several statues of controversial figures.

The statue of the ex-king of the Belgians Leopold II in Antwerp, with his long beard and his epaulette jacket, was vandalized last week, like several others in Belgium. It was partially burned and covered with red paint, symbolizing the blood spilled by the Congolese, colonized by the Belgians.

On Tuesday, she was removed from a square to be transported to the reserves of a museum, where her condition must be “examined”. And another statue was unbolted by activists on the night of Thursday to Friday in the Brussels municipality of Auderghem.

For the perpetrators of these acts, Léopold II embodies the violence of the colonial system in the Congo (where the sovereign has never set foot): forced labor, corporal punishment, severed hands. “He killed more than 10 million Congolese,” accused the Belgian group Reparation for History.

Read also DR Congo: “Did you say independence? “

Belgium more than the DRC facing its colonial past

None of this in Kinshasa, as 60 approachese anniversary of the independence of the former Belgian Congo, June 30. On the heights of Kinshasa, in a green and peaceful setting, a statue of the late Belgian king Leopold II overlooks the Congo River, far from the wave of destruction of colonial symbols in the West, which leaves the Congolese unmoved.

The monument to the memory of the Belgian monarch, who made the Congo his personal property between 1885 and 1908, sits next to that of his successor, Albert Ier, and the founder of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), the British explorer Henry Stanley.

The figures of this trio of colonial history are sheltered from urban agitation, behind the tall gates of the Mont-Ngaliema presidential park, a natural belvedere with panoramic views of the river between “Kin” and Brazzaville, the capital of the present Congo.

Open to the public, under the guard of the military, the park also houses a national ethnographic museum and the abandoned stelae of a cemetery of “pioneer builders of the Belgian Congo”.

The museum is closed due to coronavirus. Its few agents present on Wednesday barely heard of the protests against the effigies of Leopold II in Belgium.

“The statue of Leopold II, for us, it reflects a story, a memory. It is a benchmark for our children, ”says José Batekele, collection director at the national museum.

“If, in Belgium, they believe that they must destroy the monuments, because there is a strong African diaspora, we take note of it. It is a Belgian-Belgian affair that does not concern us directly, ”says historian Isidore Ndaywel. “In Congo, we have our priorities, which are different for the moment,” adds this respected voice of civil society, which cites the killings in the East and corruption.

Read also Slavery and (de) colonization of museums: how to overcome the debate?

Congolese concerned about other emergencies

“Compared to Leopold II, it will be said that it is the past, a past which has been traumatic,” comments Moïse Tangamo, a crossover banker in Gombe, the economic center of the capital. The young man, questioned by AFP, pleads for the teaching of “what really happened during slavery and colonization in Africa in general”.

Six meters tall, the green bronze statue of Leopold II did not always calmly survey the surroundings of the Congo River from the hills of Mount Ngaliema. Inaugurated in 1928 by Albert Ier, the work was first installed in front of the Palace of the Nation, the current presidential building.

The monument was removed in 1967 on the orders of dictator-marshal Mobutu Sese Seko, at the height of his African “return to authenticity” policy.

Forgotten for almost forty years, the statue reappeared in the city center, on Boulevard du 30-Juin, one fine morning in February 2005. This statue “is part of our heritage. I decided to rehabilitate it, as I will do for others, ”declared the Minister of Culture at the time, Christophe Muzungu.

A year before, before the Belgian Senate, the very young Congolese president Joseph Kabila had paid a surprising tribute to the Belgian missionaries and civil servants “who believed in the dream of King Leopold II to build a state in the center of Africa”.

But the rehabilitation of the statue was very brief: for obscure reasons, it had been re-unbolted after 24 hours.

“Frankly, we have more urgent problems to solve in the Congo than wondering whether or not the statue of Leopold has its place here,” said a young lawyer questioned by AFP. The statue finally reached the heights of the park, rehabilitated in 2010 with the help of the United Nations Mission in the Congo (Monusco).

The three statues of Léopold II, Albert Ier and Stanley stand next to it with a sculpture in memory of the Congolese soldiers of the colonial army. “The idea was to make an open air museum”, summarizes the historian Isidore Ndaywel.

Read also DR Congo: in Kinshasa, the national museum renews the thread of history

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