The absence and its masks

By Aymar N. Bisoka, Prof. of Decolonial Anthropology, University of Mons.

The absence and its masks: Belgian parliamentary committees on colonisation and the problem of dignity

“The masks are not the most emblematic pieces in this museum. The Belgians looted almost all of them during the colonisation to adorn their museums. This is why our museums are almost empty. The only vestiges of the grandeur in this museum are outside there in the garden: prodigious frescoes which depict black slaves building a railroad under the surveillance of white colonists. There are also imposing bronze statues of Stanley and Leopold II, the two white people who are the provenance of our misfortune".

This is how Justin often introduces, almost automatically but always solemnly, each visit to the tiny Mont Ngaliema Museum in Kinshasa. As one proceeds to admire the fifty or so works of art distributed in the two cramped rooms that make up the museum, it is impossible to ignore one lacuna in this collection of artifacts. First, the absence of the Congolese masks and the vacuum that the colonial violence created. There is not much to see in the museum. According to Justin, you need to tour the Tervuren Museum in Brussels to have access to the masks. Second, there is the inherent violence expressed by the frescoes and statutes overlooking the garden. However, they are imposingly masterful, and one would be forgiven to think that they were designed to obscure the absence of the masks, a situation that Justin deplores.

As in the Mont Ngaliema Museum, the same colonial modus operandi is evident in the current Belgian Parliamentary Commission on its Colonial Past, created in 2020: the absence of the victim, shrouded by the domination of the executioner-judge as well as the rape of dignity. Because, "in several respects, the meeting between Africa and the West" has lived "under the figure of rape"; and the political rupture linked to decolonisation has never been able to give way to both recognition of guilt, reparation, and caring for the victim. Today, this rape is reflected in the blatant audacity of the former executioner to ensconce himself as the pilot of the conversations regarding his crime. It is he who christens the initiative (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and defines the terms (what will be discussed) and the modalities (how to proceed, whom to give the floor, and on whom the decision-making authority rests). It is he who defines, in his own language, the modalities of care and reparation.

This now introduces an enigma to contemplate, one that neither the legitimacy of historical expertise, nor the politics of memory and much less journalistic discourse, can help us grasp: how is it possible that yesterday’s executioner takes the initiative to claim justice, truth and reconciliation? In such a context, are care and reparation possible? How would we perpend this from the victim’s point of view and dignity? Absurd, you might say, at first glance. But everything suddenly becomes coherent when you understand two things: on the one hand, the paternalistic repertoire in which this initiative operates and, on the other, the colonial legacy linked to previous commissions formed to address the colonial issue in Belgium. The history of these commissions is a dismal reminder that any discourse can be tapered off to its sole instrumental dimension and eventually produce the opposite of the ideals it advocates for. It is from this pragmatic and radical perspective that the new commission should be tested.

The statutes and the colonial frescoes of Ngaliema represent the colonial grammar of executioner-judge who reproduces the absence of the victim in commissions which are nevertheless dedicated to him. This grammar should be seen as a strategy to rule the spectrum of race in Belgium and has the effect of eliminating any possibility of speech and existence of the victim. It anesthetises any possibility of resolute care and reparation. This glaring absence, however, reifies the duty to fight for the dignity of the victim.

Governing the spectrum of the race

 “[…] the current condition of the black race is defined by indignity. This dignity is what the white man tries to abolish when he exerts his violence on the black man. But this dignity is also what the white man deprives himself of when he exerts his violence on the black. Finally, this dignity is what the black man collectively reaffirms when engaging himself against white domination. […]. Dignity, therefore, becomes the capacity of the oppressed to stand up between the choice of life and death that is imposed on him by the oppressors."

In this regard, French philosopher Norman Ajari proposes the need to ruminate on the colonial question and its contemporary legacy, that is, what the Belgian Parliamentary Commission on colonisation will be concerned with. For Norman Ajari, colonisation and its legacy are based on indignity. To be undignified means to be denied, not only human rights above all, but the very status of a human being. But that which is inhumane is what human beings, the whites in this case, can then dispose of on a whim, say black people. But unlike a strictly pure thing, the black man’s status vacillates between extremes. He is that thing that we hope to transform into a man, a child that we promise to raise, a barbarian to civilise, an animal to humanise, a dead man to bring back to life, a victim to whom the executioner promises to bring justice. All these variations implying that, the black is unworthy in himself.

Thus, as with the masks of Ngaliema, the modus operandi of colonial violence is to render the black man absent, act in his place and ultimately against him. The status of the white person does not matter, whether he is a colonist or not, heir to colonial discourse or not. In the face of the dehumanised negro, ethics are ineffective. Indeed, it is only when the victim is no longer seen as a human being that the executioner can afford to become the judge. Only when caught up in narcissism and neurotic omnipotence can he convene commissions to rule on his own crime. However, it is at this exact juncture that the humanity of the executioner is found fractured, at the same time as that of his victim. This is why for close to a century, all the consecutive commissions that have been established to address the colonial issue in Belgium pose an acute problem: in their principle and modalities, they engender the same absence and the same indignity for the victims.

First, we find this situation in the Commission of Inquiry into the Abuses Committed in the EIC. Following international pressure and the fight for economic interests, this Commission was created on 23rd July 1904 on the heels of the “severed hands affair” which transpired at the beginning of the 20th century; owing to campaigns denouncing abuses committed by EIC agents and private companies against the Congolese. Ten million dead! Faced with the pressure, King Leopold II had no other choice but to set up this Commission.

Since the accused is also the judge, he then directs the Commission's mission as he sees it fit. The factors, social, economic and others, that enabled his crimes are the least of his concerns. Otherwise, he would be in agreement with those who at that time were fighting against colonisation, primarily blacks. He therefore refuses to admit that all this colonial violence is linked to the refusal of blacks to submit; and to the struggle for freedom and dignity. He decides that the commission should “investigate whether in certain parts of the territory, acts of ill-treatment were committed against the natives, either by individuals or by State agents [and] to report, if necessary, useful improvements” to the negro. The relevant witnesses are Belgians imbibed in colonial ideology. A few blacks also, incidentally and carefully chosen, must answer specific and leading questions. Ultimately, the Commission’s verdict is no less colonial and outrageous than the primordial reason for its formation: the Belgian government and the King are not responsible for the violence. The EIC becomes Belgian Congo. The negro remains colonised. Absence: after all, how can we imagine that Belgium would hastily dispense with colonisation, since this racial violence then made it prosperous?

Secondly, we witnessed the same pattern in the so-called Lumumba Commission of Inquiry set up on 23rd March 2000 following a scandal: the publication of the book "The Assassination of Lumumba" by Ludo De Witte which revealed the responsibility of the Belgian authorities in the assassination of the Congolese and African hero. Belgium had no choice but to set up a commission "to shed light on the matter". The institution was useful for Belgian public opinion, for Belgian-Belgian settling of scores but also as a guise get closer to the Congolese president, Désiré Kabila, who at the time claimed to be close to Lumumba. However, the initiative remained as one-sided, and the verdict as outrageous as the one passed almost a century earlier: The Kingdom had nothing to do with it. But faced with the evidence of the facts, something needed be found: a "moral responsibility" of "certain Belgian ministers and other actors". And since then, all Lumumba's family has received from that country that contributed to his death is an "authorisation" by a Belgian registration judge to release the relics of the Congolese hero. The Belgian justice system declared that it was finally ready to decide, what an ironic twist of fate! The affront of the executioner again went unpunished and the dignity of the colonised was once again trampled.

Thirdly, the anti-racist demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, murdered at the end of May 2020 by white police officers in the United States, led to a new Belgian parliamentary commission. Several statues of King Leopold II were targeted, vandalised or unbolted in Belgium as a clear message to this small kingdom also burgeoned through racism; that she could not easily relinquish her often ignored if not falsified past. Owing to this pressure, on the occasion of the sixtieth year of the DRC independence, the Belgian King expressed his "deepest regrets for the injuries" inflicted on the Congolese during colonisation. On 17th July 2020, the Belgian Parliament decided to make “peace with its colonial past” by setting up a special commission “to conduct an investigation and societal debate on this topic […], to bring together experts to set up a truth and reconciliation commission".

From this commission, yesterday's colonist desperately seeks to humanise himself by controlling the entire process that could lead to a full confession, and again in this action, dishonouring his victim. Such an initiative further evinces the inveterate combination of hyper narcissism and neurotic omnipotence. The executioner purports to have unilateral omniscience, thus the victim does not exist outside the peripheral space granted to him by the executioner. The victim has no say outside the language of the executioner, nor temporality outside that which is fixed by the latter. As Nadia Fadil illustrates with the Muslim issue in Belgium, a historical and critical feedback shows that this commission has been set up merely as a governance strategy of the racial question.

Faced with the grammar of the executioner-judge

“We have known the ironies, the insults, the blows that we had to suffer morning, noon and night because we are negroes. We who have suffered in our bodies and in our minds from the colonialist spirit, we say to you: all this is now over".

This is one of the phrases that Lumumba uttered in his memorable speech on 30th June 1960, the DRC’s Independence Day, and one that Belgium would never forgive him for, until his assassination. Lumumba was then perceived as an enemy to be annihilated because he considered it wrong to understand the decolonial event as the simplistic, amicable political alternation that the colonist wanted to make of it. For him, the colonisation was above all an era of defilement of the dignity of blacks to whom Ubuntu, Agaciro, Bushamuka, Bufasoni, Bushingantahe; no longer meant anything after so much violence and humiliation. Each one in its own way, these untranslatable words once sang the dignity and structured the worldview, the value system, and the normative framework in the Great Lakes Region. With the advent of colonisation, they lost their meaning: kings had been humiliated by petty colonial officials, women were raped, fathers of families were mutilated, and the sacred land and the sacred cow were soiled. And finally, the masks had been looted. The spirits no longer inhabited this land. The "vital force" was therefore withdrawn from life, which henceforth bore a semblance to death.

The colonial power was thus a “necropolitics” which, “in an act of permanent reversion, took death for life and life for death”. In a colony, living "is not yet building a common world. Living is only surviving, it is not dying. Existing is maintaining life". A dissociated individual, assigned to a race, "detached from his essence" and inhabiting "this separation as his true being", the racialised person has been compelled to hate "who he is and seeks to be who he is not". It is such an experience of a "lifelong struggle against atmospheric death" that has dragged on in post-colonial times for people of colour and that the dominant's point of view cannot capture.

The king of Belgians is therefore right to recall “sufferings and humiliations” and “acts of violence and cruelty […] which still weigh heavily”. But these acts are unspeakable to the colonist. Belgium can never talk about this unspeakable. And even less in his language, from his point of view, the unspeakable is not perhaps there to be said by Belgium but to be rather recognised. And once again, this is not a question of subscribing to a paternalistic pattern by proposing to "recognise the suffering of the other" as estimated by the Belgian Prime Minister. On the contrary, this is about recognising one’s own infamy, which does not necessarily require a commission. The unspeakable misdeed of colonisation lies in the flesh of the colonised, in his wounds and scars. He already says it every day through his tears, pen, music, dance, activism, tenacity and art which call for dignity, a pledge of the colonist humanity.

In colonial times, the dignity of the colonised people consisted in their ability to stand upright as their world collapsed around them. Today, this dignity consists in the refusal to speak the language of the executioner and the ethical requirement to unmask its manoeuvres and contradictions. As colonised and racialised people have experienced it, this language of the executioner has always been part of the monad modality, this consubstantial "Hellenic reason" of the "negro reason" and the "greedy reason”. It was through this "Hellenic-Negro-greedy" modality that Belgium went from severed hands to colonial crimes and humiliations; from Lumumba's assassination to the affronts suffered by his family and by Afro-descendants. It is actually the same modality which makes possible the illusion of the effectiveness of the committees’ expertise instead of the experience of the concerned people. In reality, however, these commissions are a metaphor for the power which, instead of healing and repairing the wrong done, manages a process which breeds impunity, indignity and the vicious cycle of "becoming-negro" to which the black man is unceasingly subjected.

In this negro, there is "something indomitable, fundamentally untameable, that domination – whatever its forms – can neither eliminate, nor contain, nor repress completely". Nonetheless, although standing on his feet, this “infantilised, acculturated, dehumanised” negro still carries within him a wounded body which struggles and claims its right to care and reparation. "Repairing means, etymologically, in Western culture, to return to the original state, therefore to deny the injury. In traditional, African, Asian, and even pre-modern Western societies, repairing meant showing that the wound had been treated, giving this”. Such work can only be designed and initiated by the victims who truly understand what colonisation was all about and what it continues to be in their daily lives.

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