By Jean-Pierre Afadhali*
Nearly 60 years after Independence- Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are demanding reparations from German and Belgium, their former colonizers over the brutal colonial past that also sparked post-independence conflicts in the Great Lakes of Africa.
The former colonies are now demanding financial reparations and repatriation of cultural property looted by European countries that colonized Africa in the 19th century, a period that was characterized by dehumanization of locals, divide and rule policies and plundering of cultural artifacts as well as natural resources.
Burundi was first colonized by German in 1880 in what was then called ‘German East Africa’ that included Rwanda and Tanzania until the end of World War l. After the First World War the defeated Germany was stripped of its colonies in favor of Belgium that ruled Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo until 1962. In 2018, the Burundian Senate set up a commission of historians and anthropologists to examine the impact of colonialism in the Great Lakes country.
Gitega appears to be more pragmatic in reparations issue by setting a price. The Great Lakes country has recently demanded $ 43 billion from Germany for colonial crimes. The amount was calculated by referring to a fine that was imposed on the Burundian king by the Germans in 1903, which forced him to hand over 424 cows for resisting German rule.
According to Burundi’s special commission on the colonial past, the current value of those cows would be $43 billion. There are reports that German is not willing to pay the price amid similar reparation request from Namibia its former Southern African colony over genocide crimes.
Aloys Batunganayo, a Burundian Historian and doctoral researcher from Lausanne University said that current Burundian political challenges are linked to Belgium’s colonial past in a decree by Belgian King Albert l that classified the population in three ethnic groups.
“It is this decree that has led to conflicts in Burundi and the region because some of the population was excluded from the ruling class because of the decree,” Dr Batunganayo was quoted as saying.
Since its independence in 1962, the East African country has experienced ethnic conflicts that led to large scale civil war in 90s and various massacres.
Similarly, neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has also called for reparations after the Belgian King Phillippe expressed “deepest regrets” over his nation brutal colonial legacy in the central African nation. King Phillippe expressed shock on 30 July 2020, the Independence Day in DRC.
According to Brussels’ media reports, King Phillippe is the first reigning Belgian Monarch to qualify as “acts of violence and cruelty” committed under Belgian colonial past led by King Leopold ll in current DRC. His majesty Philippe also expressed sympathy with Kinshasa over “suffering and humiliation” experienced by Congolese people under colonization.
However, Kinshasa’s officials say this is not enough and are now calling for compensation over brutal colonial past. Mr. Andre Lite, Minister of Human Rights was quick to react on Belgian King’s comments saying that Brussels should compensate the victims of colonization.
In an interview with a local news website ‘7 Sur 7 CD’, Lite said that the regrets about abuses of human rights by some Belgium officials about their country’s colonialism are not enough. “The regrets of certain Belgian officials will never be enough in the face of their obligation to grant reparations to the victims of colonization and their relatives. It is contradictory or illogical to claim to be part of the respectful state and pretend not to know anything about serious crimes that were committed in the past,” the minister of Human Rights was quoted as saying.
According to Historians, many well-documented crimes were committed in ‘Congo Free State’, current DR Congo, the then colony under the personal rule of Belgian King Leopold ll. One of the serious crimes committed under Belgium colonization was called “red rubber system”- a forced labour created to maximize the collection and export of rubbers. Workers who refused to supply their labour were coerced with “constraint and repression”.
Meanwhile, Belgium has set up a commission to examine the Belgium colonial past in DR Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. Rwandan parliament welcomed the commission but denounced one of its members without mentioning name who it called a genocide “denier”.
While the increasing reparations calls from African countries to former colonizers has attracted interests from activists, media across Africa and scholars around the whole. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the USA; Anna Kirstine Schirrer, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University wrote in her recent paper titled “On reparations for Slavery and Colonialism” that neither reparative logic nor appeals for mass reparations are new.
“What is new, however, is the conversation about material reparations occurring within governmental and international organizations, and the proliferation of various reparative rationales across multiple scales.” The scholar wrote in an article published in June.