Philippe became the first Belgian official in 2020 to express regret over the colonization, and some Congolese hoped he would issue a formal apology on his first visit to the Congo since taking the throne in 2013.
“Despite the fact that many Belgians genuinely loved the Congo and its people, the colonial regime itself was based on exploitation and domination,” he said at a joint meeting of parliament in the capital Kinshasa.
“This regime was a regime of unequal relations, in itself unjustified, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” he said.
“This led to acts of violence and humiliation. On the occasion of my first trip to the Congo, right here in front of the Congolese people and those who are still suffering today, I want to once again express my deepest regret for those wounds of the past.”
Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi and many politicians enthusiastically welcomed Philip’s visit. A large number of supporters of the ruling party waved Belgian flags, and a banner hanging from the Parliament read: “A Common History.”
But many Congolese were probably disappointed by the lack of an apology.
By some estimates, up to 10 million Congolese died as a result of murder, starvation and disease in the first 23 years of Belgian rule from 1885 to 1960 alone, when King Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State as his fiefdom.
Villages not meeting rubber harvesting quotas have been known to bring severed hands instead.
“They left us isolated, abandoned. They plundered all our resources, and today you again invite the Belgian king? said Junior Bombi, a vendor at Kinshasa’s central market.
Antoine Roger Locongo, a professor at Joseph Kasa-Vubu University in southwestern Congo, said before speaking that he would wait for Philippe to issue a formal apology.
“The mere regret you expressed is not enough,” said Lokongo.
Philip arrived on Tuesday with his wife, Queen Mathilde, and Prime Minister Alexandre de Croo for a week-long visit.
Tshisekedi said during a brief press conference earlier Wednesday with De Croo that he is focused on expanding cooperation with Belgium to attract investment and improve healthcare and education in the Congo.
Relations soured under Tshisekedi’s predecessor, Joseph Kabile, who was criticized by Brussels for stifling dissent and extending his tenure beyond legal limits.
“We did not dwell on the past, which is the past and which is not subject to revision, but we need to look to the future,” Tshisekedi said.
Some residents of Kinshasa expressed hope that the visit would bring investment and re-focus on the conflict in the east of the country.
“I feel that we should have good Congolese-Belgian relations again, as before,” said Antoine Mubidiki. “Despite what the Belgians did to us during colonization, we are ready to forgive.”
Philippe also offered the traditional mask of the Suku people to the National Museum of the Congo as an “indefinite loan”. The mask has been kept in the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa for decades.
“I am here to bring back this exceptional work to you, to let the Congolese discover it and admire it,” he said.
Belgium has traditionally spoken little about colonialism and the subject was not widely taught in Belgian schools.
But in recent years, historical calculations have begun. During anti-racism protests sparked by the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in the US, demonstrators targeted statues of King Leopold II.
Shortly thereafter, the Belgian Parliament set up a commission to study historical documents. This year she will publish her final report.
This month, Belgium will also donate a tooth believed to be the only remains of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, to his family. In 2002, the Belgian government claimed partial responsibility for Lumumba’s death in 1961.