As a son of an African journalist, the BBC World Service tends to act as my alarm clock. And so on Thursday morning, I woke up to the sounds of a bizarre story:
A statue of former Belgian colonial King Leopold II has been re-erected in the centre of the Democratic Republic of Congo capital, Kinshasa.
Now it seemed clear to me that I must have been in the middle of a dream and so I thought nothing better of it. In the afternoon though, my curiousity stirred, I checked their news site and found to my amazement that indeed, it was true: Leopold’s statue was back up.
King Leopold II set up the Congo Free State in 1885 as his personal possession and left arguably the worst legacy of all the European colonial regimes… He turned the country into a massive labour camp, made a fortune for himself from the harvest of its wild rubber, and contributed in a large way to the death of perhaps 10 million innocent people.
Culture Minister Christophe Muzungu said people should not just see the negative side of the king – they should also look at the positive aspects.
“We are restoring the history of our country because a people without history is a people without a soul,” he said.
I sputtered and struggled to find the appropriate historical analogue to this decision. It was as if the Chechens had decided to put up Stalin’s statue in Grozny – he who had decimated their ranks 60 years by deporting all of them from their lands in forced marches to Siberia – or perhaps as if the mayor of Gaza took it to his head to erect Ariel Sharon’s statue (or a new monument to Saddam in Kurdistan?).
Leopold’s depradations were so grotesque and occured on such a scale that even the other colonial powers had to take pause in their scamble for african loot. The Belgian behavior was the kind of thing that would queer the whole colonial enterprise and indeed the twentieth century’s first significant talk about human rights was on the Congo issue. In much the same way, the images from Abu Ghraib prompted a (slight) sense of unease in the recent US empire building. More to the point, the colonial experience under Leopold set Congo on a downward path that it has never been able to escape.
Now I’ve read King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild’s highly recommended study of that macabre period and was justifiably horrified at the historical record that he laid out: greed, megalomania, mixed with atrocious labour camps, summary amputations, decapitations and outright larceny all covered in the bromides of a missionary humanitarianism. Almost any page of that book would be a rejoinder to that Minister of culture’s words. 10 million people died for God’s sake and he stole everything from you!
Perhaps the only decision Mobutu ever took that proved to be in the interest of his country was to tear that statue down early on in his reign, even though this measure did coincide with his self-interest as was the norm in everthing he did.
If Mobutu’s reign was to be the farcical followup of the Leopold’s tragedy, one had hoped that whatever followed would begin to restore that country to some sense of sanity. Instead, in the Kabila interludes (first the elder, and now the hereditary son), Congo remains the site of a second Scramble for Africa (see here also).
Congo is so rich in natural resources that even normally sober Texan oilmen or South African diamond monopolists hyperventilate when they talk about it. It has copper, gold, diamonds, tin – you name it. It has uranium (if you wanna go nuclear) and even that rare tantalite that’s in your cell phone.
At one point in the past decade, it was said that the armies of 13 countries were on its soil, not to mention Russian mercenaries and the usual cast of malfeasants – Africa’s World War it was called. The resultant human cost of the ongoing Congo troubles, 3 million and rising, is approaching Leopoldian dimensions. The notion that a government would make such gestures says everything about the dysfunction of the country and tone-deafness of the opportunists who pass for politicians there.
The next day however, it appeared that the outcry had grown too large and the statue was removed: Leopold reigns for a day in Kinshasa
Residents of Kinshasa could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
First, a statue of the late Belgian king Leopold II, whose rapacious colonial rule of Congo caused the death of millions of Africans, was reinstated in the heart of the Congolese capital.
Then, less than a day later, it was gone again, mysteriously removed by the same workmen who had erected it.
Officials were at a loss to explain the comings and goings at the end of June 30 Boulevard, the street named in honour of the date of Congo’s independence from Belgium.
First indications from the government were that it might be part of a historical restoration. There are plans to erect a statue of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who stole billions from the country during a 30-year rule that ended in 1997.
“We are restoring the history of our country, because a people without history is a people without a soul,” said Christophe Muzunge, the minister of culture. He added that the six-metre (20ft) Leopold statue had been brought back to remind the people of their country’s colonial past, so that “it never happens again”.
But later there was no comment on why Leopold had been removed. Certainly the sudden apparition was not popular with onlookers.
“Look at what they did in Iraq,” Mputu Melo said. “They destroyed the statue of Saddam Hussein. This shouldn’t be in a public square.”
King Leopold, who never set foot in the Congo, controlled the vast country as his personal colony from 1885 to 1908, when it was handed over to Belgian government rule.
During those decades his agents enslaved its people to harvest rubber, beating workers with a hippo-hide whip known as the chicotte and severing the hands of men, women and children who failed to meet their quotas.
As many as 10 million Congolese are estimated to have died as a result of executions, unfamiliar diseases and hunger.
While I am happy to see that this decision was reversed, do note the crucial line I emphasized above: there are plans for a Mobutu statue.
Pity the poor Congolese, first King Leopold’s ghost returns to haunt them, now they’re going to have to endure Mobutu again!