By Jimmy Hendry Nzally | Issue #22
Decolonisation discourse has resurfaced in contemporary debates. This is in light of the growing Afro-European presence and discrimination in Europe. The Afro-European population is estimated to be around 15 million. As of 2020, over 250,000 Congolese live in Belgium, the country I will focus on. Afro-Belgians are generally people of African descent, of the African diaspora and the people who were abducted by Belgium when they were children. Métis are mixed-race children (Belgian fathers and African mothers) who were abducted by Belgian colonisers and missionaries from the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
In 2019, the European Parliament voted to address structural racism faced by Afro-Europeans. As reported by Politico, ‘it was backed by 535 votes to 80, with 44 abstentions’. This is why this article offers a critical perspective on Afro-Europeans in the context of decolonisation in Belgium. To what extent are the decolonised involved in the decolonisation discourse?
What then is decolonisation? Simply put, it is ‘delinking’ from colonialism. For Jan Jansen and Jurgen Osterhammel, decolonisation brought an end to empire rule instituted by the colonisers and thus gave birth to independent states, put an end to the use of racial hierarchy as an accepted political ideology, and in turn gave birth to a new world order. Decolonisation is therefore meant to mark a new era for non-racial rule. As viewed by Achille Mbembe, it entails the experiences of the colonised countries. What is missing in much of the decolonial discourse, however, are the Afro-European voices.
There are notable attempts by Belgium to reconcile with its colonial past. The visit of the King of Belgium in 2022 to the Congo is a good example, in which he was widely quoted expressing his ‘deepest regrets’ (in a letter to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi from 2020). His visit was followed in the same year by the return of the tooth of the slain Pan-Africanist leader Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Congo. His dead body was dissolved in acid, and one of his teeth was kept as a trophy by a Belgian police officer. A square has been named in his honour in Brussels at the Porte de Namur next to Mantonge, known as the “African neighbourhood”.
Afro-Belgians, although in small strides, are getting recognition. Some notable examples included Pierre Kompany in 2009, the first elected black mayor in Belgium; Wouter Van Bellingen, a Belgian with a Rwandan background, who became in 2007 the first black alderman in Flanders; and in 2009, Assita Kanko, a Belgian-Burkinabe, was elected as a Member of the European Party. Yet still, as the 2022 Inter-Federal Equal Opportunities Centre Unia report underscores, Afro-Belgians suffer from the effects of colonial and postcolonial racism. This is because ‘skin colour is still all too often an issue in Belgian society’. Recently, after two years of work, the Belgium Parliamentary Committee on Belgium's colonial past failed to reach any conclusion, not even a recommendation for an apology or reparations.
There is undeniably evidence therefore that more needs to be done. Notably, there is a need to tackle the negative imagery about Africa as well as the lack of representation of Afro-Belgians. A salient point is the representation of Africans in the state-owned Royal Museum of Central Africa, which still perpetuates colonial stereotypes. The location of the museum itself is problematic. It is located in Tervuren, formerly where African villages were recreated for show as part of King Leopold II's brutal and inhumane colonial project.
The fact that there is no depiction of the horrors of King Leopold’s and Belgium's colonialism in the museum and Afro-Belgian’s lack of access hamper Belgium's full decolonisation. An activist underlined that ‘there are many art collections the Belgian state is keeping away from black people by restricting access’. Even the métis people have no access to the colonial archives and are thus prevented from knowing about their families and ancestries despite the passing of a legislative proposal from the Francophone Socialist Party.
When the museum was under renovation in 2013 and was expected to reopen in 2017, a committee was established, and some Afro-Belgian scholars were appointed, but they had to sign non-disclosure agreements. The committee later stopped meeting because their voices were not heard. If indeed this museum should speak to Afro-Belgians, how come they are denied access to their archival history? Decolonisation cannot happen until and unless the colonised share their own stories.
The museum holds ‘one of the world’s largest collections of African art’. It is documented that 80 percent of Africa’s heritage has been taken to Europe. Evidently, these artefacts and others were acquired largely due to the use of force in periods of colonisation and even in postcolonial times.
Decolonisation amplifies calls for justice and equality in Europe, America, and elsewhere. This is what gave prominence to the #BlackLivesMatter protest as a political and social movement that seeks to highlight subjugation. In Belgium, the #BLM protest brought to light Belgium's colonial past, and started a strong and open discussion about racism against Afro-Belgians, and calls for Afro-Belgian voices to be heard and represented. Afro-Belgians continue to face discrimination, a lack of job opportunities, and a lack of recognition in Belgium.
The #BLM protest was an important avenue for Afro-Belgians to speak up and be heard. As viewed by a policymaker (23 May 2023), ‘this protest highlighted our pain and sufferings and awakened the entire country of Belgium’. The protest in Brussels reportedly attracted 10,000 people. Concretely, it calls for the statues of King Leopold II to be brought down. These statues had already been the target of protests since 2004, but it was not until June 2020 that any were vandalised with red paint to symbolise blood on his hands.
This all demonstrates that there is a need for Afro-Belgian voices to be heard and amplified at the policy, political, and economic levels. The failure of Afro-Belgian representation in the curating of the museum is a good example. Afro-Belgians should be front and centre in narrating their own history. The museum must represent the oppressed, especially the Congolese people, who suffered at the hands of King Leopold II and Belgium. For meaningful progress to take place and to avoid any further #BLM escalation, issues of racism, discrimination, and even the statue of King Leopold II must be addressed. Afro-Belgians should be seen as an integral part of Belgian society and their history be taught. There should be more history lessons to teach about the role of colonisation in building Belgium as a country. Simply put, Belgium and Europe must not ignore their colonial past and legacies, as well as their ripple effects in contemporary western societies.
Jimmy Hendry Nzally holds a PhD in Political Science from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). His PhD research investigated “Explaining Democratic Change in The Gambia: Understanding the Fall of Yahya Jammeh in the December 2016 Elections”. His research interests include democratisation and regime, international relations, migration, postcolonial studies & literature. He teaches International Relations of Africa at the VUB- Brussel School of Governance.