Thursday, February 03, 2005

Stupidity in Kinshasa

Rhetoric against colonialism and neo-colonialism is standard fare in much of Africa. The Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] is same country that gave the world Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese nationalist who served briefly as the country's first prime minister. In 1961, Lumumba famously attacked Belgian colonial rule, especially the atrocious period during the reign of King Leopold II. He did so in the presence of Leopold's grandson King Baudoin who was in the capital Kinshasa (then called Leopoldville) for independence ceremonies. This touched off a diplomatic furor. Lumumba was assassinated later that year in a plot widely attributed to the Belgian government.

Chippla's blog points to a bizarre BBC story suggesting that attitudes in the capital might have changed. The Congolese interim government has re-erected in Kinshasa a statue of Leopold riding his horse, after spending 40 years where it properly belonged: in a garbage dump.

Leopold set up the Congo Free State in 1877 in what is now the DRC. Unlike most colonial ventures, the Congo Free State was not a Belgian colony, but was the personal property of the king. A land about the size of western Europe.

Congo Free State was Leopold's personal play thing for several decades until the Belgian state annexed it in 1908. Leopold's rule over the Free State exhibited a brutality that's hard to imagine now. Forced laborers were used mainly to extract rubber. Those who did not meet quotas had their hands chopped off.

"A people without history is a people without a soul," explained Culture Christophe Muzungu (whose surname means 'white man' ironically).

Leopold's era was surely the most soulless period in a land that's been cursed ever since. Why the descendants of his victims would want to honor this greedy terrorist with a statue is incomprehensible*.

Leopold's Congo was by far the most savage part of a not-very-pleasant European colonization of Africa. Estimates of those killed by the brutality of Leopold's forces vary widely, due to lack of numbers in early 20th century central Africa. However, estimates range from 5 million to 22 million.

Even conservative estimates put Leopold's Congo in the same league as Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR.

At least the peoples of the former Soviet states had the good taste to tear down Stalin's statues.

Recommended reading: King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild.

*-addendum: Perhaps not as incomprehensible as one might have originally thought. On the BBC World Service last night, Hochschild theorized that the bankrupt DRC government is trying to curry favor with Belgian donors. He noted that DRC President Joseph Kabila gave a speech before the Belgian Senate last year praising "the Belgians, missionaries, civil servants and businessmen, who believed in the dream of King Leopold II of building a state in the centre of Africa" referring to them as "pioneers." Pragmatic, perhaps, but appalling nonetheless.


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