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Experts have exposed the fact that access to Belgian colonial archives is still partial and conditional. © Archives de l’État en Belgique

 

Belgium’s commission set up to shed light on its colonial past in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi still seems to be searching for a solution, which has dampened the initial enthusiasm it aroused. Two historians who helped draft the experts' report meant to serve as a basis for the commission's work have publicly expressed reservations about the success of this ambitious political project.

For more than a year, Belgium’s special commission on the colonial past has been working on its mission, which is to clarify the grey areas of colonial history and try to find out how the violence of colonization still creates suffering today. This mission has been welcomed everywhere. For the first time, a European state wants to face up to its entire colonial past, acknowledge its wrongs, apologize, make reparation, and compensate. However, after mandating ten experts to outline Belgium’s colonial history and suggest avenues for reconciliation, the commission does not seem to know where to start. While it still seems to be searching for a working method, two historians among the ten experts that wrote the initial report have expressed doubts publicly about the results of this parliamentary work.

Anne Wetsy Mpoma and Gillian Mathys participated on January 19 in a debate entitled “After colonization: seeking truth and reparation”. The event was organized by the Africa Museum in Tervuren, and moderated by writer David Van Reybrouck, author of “Congo: A History”. It was also attended by Nanette Snoep, director of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Germany.

For an hour and a half, the four specialists discussed the content of the experts’ report, the conditions under which it was prepared, its weaknesses and its usefulness.

NEED FOR A CULTURAL COMMUNITY CENTRE

Mathys, historian and researcher at Ghent University, thinks there wasn’t enough time to produce a more complete and well-crafted report. “We never got to see the latest version of the report and the text is not very accessible to a wide audience,” she says. “For historians, there is nothing new in this document. We’ve synthesized what’s already there. But for the public, I think the element that stands out the most is the structural violence that existed during and after Leopold II”, the Belgian king who personally acquired the Congo in 1885.

According to Mpoma, a member of Bamko, a centre for reflection and action on black racism, the most urgent recommendation for reconciliation and reparations should be creation of a cultural community centre, ideally in Brussels. “It would serve to organize meetings, debates, exhibitions, healing rituals, and house some of the despoiled heritage there,” she says. “I am convinced, as an art historian, of the power of culture to change mentalities.”

LACK OF ACCESS TO ARCHIVES

The two historians are especially sceptical about the commission’s chances of achieving concrete results. “I’m a bit worried that it will stop when it comes to establishing responsibilities,” says Mathys. “We need structural changes,” says Mpoma. “The risk of nothing concrete coming out of this is more than real. Just the word ‘consultation’ [the commission asked the experts to consult four diaspora representatives in preparing their report] is patronizing,” she says.

“I don’t think this is a body that will lead to decolonization,” says Mathys. “The commissioners want to do this exercise, but do they want to address structural change? This is an institution that is not designed to do that. Take, for example, the recommendations that were made after the Lumumba Commission [a parliamentary commission of inquiry, completed in 2001, into the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961] which were never followed up. Let’s hope that this will not happen again with this commission. To repair is also to change.”        

Another bad sign, according to the speakers, is the commission’s partial and conditional access to colonial archives. “Some of these archives are still classified. This is a problem for a commission that wants to shed light on the colonial past. Belgian researchers can obtain an exemption to have access to classified documents, but not Congolese, Rwandan or Burundian researchers,” explained the participants.

LACK OF CONCRETE ACTION

Since the submission of the experts’ report in October, the special commission has made little progress. It has heard from some representatives of the diaspora and psychologist An Michiels on how to interview victims of serious crimes. It has just published an appeal “to the diaspora, civil society and interlocutors in Belgium, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi” asking “on what issues they wish to be heard”. It has also launched a call for two or three experts “for the continuation of its work”. The “methodology” that it published, with an “overview of the planned work”, is not well substantiated and does not allow for a concrete understanding of how its mission will unfold.

Given both doubts about whether it will achieve real change and expectations of concrete action with a clear vision, the commission on Belgium’s colonial past runs the risk of tiring out the interest of the public and all those – researchers, members of the diaspora and victims of racism – who expect a lot from it.  , Justice Info

Scores feared dead after explosive blows up matatu in Mandera. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

Seven people have been killed and at least 13 injured after a matatu they were travelling in ran over an improvised explosive device (IED) in Mandera, northern Kenya, on Monday morning.

The passenger vehicle was travelling along the Arabia-Mandera highway.

Mandera Matatu Explosion

Residents flock the Mandera County Referral Hospital where victims of the explosion are admitted.

The victims were rushed to Mandera County Referral Hospital.

According to North-Eastern region police commander Bunei Rono, one suspect behind the attack has been arrested. The East African 

South Sudan President Salva Kiir
 

South Sudan President Salva Kiir has dispatched a team tasked with organizing for the voluntary return of South Sudanese refugees from neigbouring countries, a source said.

The first delegation, a source at the presidency told Sudan Tribune, was dispatched to Sudan’s region of Darfur, where a large population of South Sudanese refugees from Western Bahr El Ghazal State, fled.

 
He added, “There is no need to continue to stay in Sudan when security situation has improved, and the peace agreement is being implemented. There is no more fighting in the Raja area at the moment. Calm and tranquility had returned to the area and so people felt it is time they return home”.

Conflicts in South Sudan continue to cause hesitations among refugees to return to ancestral homes. Albeit, fighting has subsided, past experiences and prospects for inclusive settlement remain grim. 

According to humanitarian agencies, an estimated 2 million South Sudanese have sought refuge in neighbouring countries as refugees. At least 63% of South Sudanese refugees are reportedly under the age of 18.

The majority of South Sudanese refugees live in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, where their living conditions have deteriorated rapidly and pressure for their return is mounting. Yet, over the past five years, less than 269,000 “voluntary returns” have been registered, and the pace is not picking up. Doors to other countries are also largely shut.

Moreover, refugees in these neigbouring countries find themselves in a bind, between staying on in increasingly skeptical host communities or returning to an insecure future. In all of the major host countries for South Sudan refugees – Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan – hospitality is wearing thin, while an increasing share of refugees face economic deprivation.

On the other hand, however, returning to the world’s newest nation is fraught with risks – economically, socially and in terms of security – and rates of return, despite mounting pressure, have recently declined. By Koch Madut, Tower Post

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