Thursday 14 July 2022

Reparations for Belgian Colonialism in Africa

 On July 8, 2022, I testified (via Zoom) before a Belgian parliamentary committee investigating the question of reparations to Congo, Rwanda and Burundi for the establishment of the Congo Free State (so-called) ( and later colonialism in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.  I was asked to summarize my research on reparations to Africa and to make recommendations for reparations.  Below is my verbatim testimony.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me. My presentation is drawn from research I conducted for my book, Reparations to Africa, published in 2008; from related research on political apologies; and from my publications on reparations to African Americans and Canadians.

For Reparations to Africa, between 2002 and 2004 two research assistants and I interviewed 74 Africans in either English or French. Sixty-seven of the respondents lived permanently in Africa in 26 countries. Three were members of the Group of Eminent Persons appointed to investigate reparations by the Organization of Africa Unity in 1992; eight were ambassadors to the United States; twenty-two were academics; and forty-one were human rights activists or policy makers.

With the exception of the ambassadors, these individuals demonstrated a general sense of humiliation, betrayal, exploitation and abandonment by the West, covering the slave trade, colonialism, and even the post-colonial era. They objected to violent colonial conquest; to the division of their countries into competing ethnic groups; to the destruction of their traditional systems of authority; and to the theft of land, mineral resources, and other property. Colonialism was, to them, a system of organized looting.

Moreover, colonialism was an injury to the spirit. As one respondent from Central Africa said, “It hurts morally: it’s a moral subordination.” A scholar from Burundi said, “colonialism was brutal and did not recognize the value of the Other.” These quotations indicate the importance to their human dignity of recognition and acknowledgement of Africans’ historic and contemporary suffering.

Human dignity requires that all individuals have access to the truth about their and their ancestors’ suffering. Although the past cannot be undone, crimes (or what we would now call crimes) committed in the past must be acknowledged. It is important to recognize that Africans today live in conditions created in large part by the slave trade and colonialism. Western states are responsible for their part in creating current African underdevelopment, even if some Africans were and are also involved in causing it. It is impossible to undo these historic harms, but some symbolic recompense must be made.

First among these symbolic procedures are official apologies. For a Congolese activist we interviewed, it was imperative to recognize past events as wrong “because if it was not wrong that means that it might happen again.” For a South African lawyer, lack of apology meant that “black lives and black people are not…as important as white lives and white people.” Our respondents thought that acknowledgement of past harms and apologies for them could render relations between Africa and the West more equitable, and might also contribute to a psychological healing process both for offender and offended.

It might be advisable for the Belgian government to offer apologies for its colonial past separately to Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. Such apologies must be sincere, and must not be merely statements of regret. The apologies should be drafted in consultation with the intended recipients and should acknowledge and enumerate the vast list of harms imposed on the Congo Free State and on Belgium’s African colonies. The apologies should be offered in a ceremonial venue with appropriate audiences of dignitaries, members of the diaspora, and individuals representing the people of the former colonies, as well as officials of the three African countries. The apologies should be widely publicized both in Belgium and its former colonies.

Normally, an apology should be offered by one head of state to another. However, official apologies offered to contemporary African heads of state might help to buttress illegitimate and authoritarian rule. Authoritarian rulers can manipulate the politics of resentment to distract their citizens from their own unjust, rights-abusive policies. Thus, another method of apology might be necessary.

Official apologies would have to be based upon the findings of a truth commission. The long, written report of the special commission charged with examining Congo Free State and Belgium’s colonial past might be considered sufficient evidence of the truth without the need for another commission. Both Belgian and African public opinion might accept the finding of the special commission on Belgium’s colonial past, knowing that both Belgian and African commissioners were involved in its design and research, and agreed with the commission’s findings.

The findings of this special commission would, however, have to be summarized and simplified, perhaps with the assistance of professional writers and journalists, before being publicized, using media accessible to both Belgians and Africans.

Nevertheless, even a combination of a truth commission and apologies would probably not satisfy politicians, opinion leaders, and ordinary citizens of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. The Africans my research assistants and I interviewed insisted that a verbal apology alone was unacceptable. In their own cultures, apologies always had to be followed by some material compensation.  As a Tanzanian university lecturer said, “I am not interested in a verbal apology. I am interested in the economic apology.”

Several different types of symbolic material reparations could be offered, of which you are already aware. With regard to archives, I suggest that private entities such as Belgian corporations be strongly encouraged, or if necessary even compelled, to open up their own archives to researchers. I note that Union Minière de Haut Katanga has not yet opened up all of its archives. I am the author of a book on Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Ghana, published in 1978, based on 15 months’ research in Ghanaian and British archives. I encountered some resistance from holders of private archives, even though my research period ended in 1938. Yet some of the most important material I found was from the archives of Unilever, the successor corporation to the United Africa Company. 

Similar to corporations, it might be wise to strongly encourage, if not compel, Roman Catholic entities to open their archives if they have not already done so. In Canada today, there is much controversy because the Catholic Church, which ran many of the residential “schools”, so-called, in which Indigenous children were incarcerated, has refused to fully open its archives to researchers. I note that Belgian Catholic entities have already agreed to open up their archives to researchers investigating the institutions in which Métis children kidnapped from Congo were held.

Another symbolic reparative measure could be an annual national day of remembrance, during which all government and non-government institutions, including churches, corporations, schools and universities, would commemorate the colonial period and those who suffered during it. This should not be a national holiday whose significance citizens could simply ignore, but a designated day for ceremonies of remembrance within all institutions.

In this context, a national year of reflection might also be useful. During this year, all Belgian institutions and all government agencies could reflect on their role, if any, in colonialism, and on how they could offer symbolic restitution to both members of the diaspora and citizens of former colonies. Restitution could include special employment and training schemes, targeted scholarships, or support for research chairs within Africa on Belgian colonialism. Belgian universities and corporations might also partner with African universities in long-term collaborations to improve training in disciplines other than colonial history. These disciplines could include medicine or engineering, on the principle that colonialism contributed to Africa underdevelopment, which might be remedied in part by such training.

Part of the national year of reflection might be a year-long project to educate citizens about colonialism, and to commemorate those who resisted colonization and those who suffered from it. In 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of Britain’s slave trade, the British Heritage Lottery Fund paid for 280 projects in Britain and Africa supporting education about, and memorialization of, both Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade and the movement to abolish it. Belgium could institute something similar. Within Belgium, historic plaques could commemorate resisters to colonization, and inform the public about colonizers. For example, markers could be put on all public and even private buildings built or owned by King Leopold II or by subsequent colonizers. Within Africa, Belgium could support museums, public education projects, and the creation and maintenance of memorial spaces. Plaques commemorating individuals who suffered from colonialism might be particularly meaningful, like the Solpersteine in Germany commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

One further note on symbolic reparations: All of these ideas risk backlash from Belgians who might not agree that their country is obliged to repair relations with its former colonies, especially since even symbolic measures impose a cost on the public purse. Such backlash has occurred in other Western countries. It might be wise in outreach projects and educational curricula to distinguish carefully between guilt, shame, and responsibility. In the United States, those who oppose teaching about the history of American race relations in schools appear to think that such teaching will make white children feel guilty about the past, or ashamed of their skin color. Yet no one is guilty of anything except their own actions, and no one should feel shame about their skin colour, which is something over which one has no control.

Some Belgians might complain that neither they themselves nor their ancestors had anything to do with colonialism, so they have no responsibility to repair past harms. One way to answer this concern is to stress that just as individuals enjoy the benefits of citizenship, so they must share in its responsibilities, regardless of how long they or their families have lived in Belgium and regardless of the role—or lack thereof—that their ancestors might have played in colonialism. All are responsible for their countries’ policies and for trying to remedy past harms that their countries committed.

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to express my views.


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