THE (DIS)ORDER OF LEOPOLD: An Honour Most Unbefitting for Elumelu

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By Onuwa Lucky Joseph

Tony Elumelu displaying his medal while standing alongside the Belgian Ambassador to Nigeria, Daniel Bertrand.

The most reviled character in African history is not Idi Amin, not Jean Bedel Bokassa, not Charles Taylor, not Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, not Foday Sankoh of the RUF in Sierra Leone, not Mengistu Haile Miriam, not Sani Abacha, not Hendrik Verwoerd, not Pieter Botha and the Boers of South Africa and their hideous apartheid policy. The single worst figure in African history is King Leopold of Belgium, a man who “acquired” the Congo Basin, turned it into his personal estate and killed about 10 to 15 million Congolese,  approximately twice the number of Jews gassed and shot by Adolf Hitler  in World War 2.  

We cannot here detail the full extent of his atrocity from 1885 to 1908 and much longer thereafter; but suffice it to say that he treated the Congolese people like disposable chattel. Operating under the scam of a ‘charitable organisation’, (much like some of today’s foundations), that was supposed to help bring humanitarian assistance and ‘civilization’ to the natives, Leopold cobbled together an amalgam of frontier ventures businesspeople who took their own individual slices of what was supposed to be a buffer zone between English and French controlled colonies. They milked the place for ivory, rubber and forced the native population to work for cheap and most times for nothing.

It might be the case that Foday Sankoh’s brutal limb-chopping of his victims was copied directly from Leopold’s enforcement style in the Congo. Natives who didn’t meet up with their work quota or proved recalcitrant had their hands chopped off. And in some situations, children’s limbs were chopped off as a consequence of their parent’s inability or unwillingness to meet with their deliverables.

That was the system that eventually produced a Mobutu Sese Seko who was used by the CIA and Belgian authorities to topple Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first Prime Minister who seemed clearly desirous of breaking the Belgian and Western yoke once and for all. That system begun by King Leopold II is the reason Congo has never really known peace. Individual state and private actors are forever swooping on the country for its inestimable wealth of minerals buried underground and covered by the thick and vast tropical forest canopy.

Any Belgian honour named after a King Leopold ought therefore to be regarded by conscious Africans as anathema.  It matters nothing if the honour is declared traceable to Leopold the First. Any Belgian King known as Leopold should be treated leprously by Africans. That name, for as long as it comes from Belgium, ought to be referenced only in infamy.

An African business leader of Tony’s pedigree ought to know better. A man in the forefront of a modern Pan African movement that is powered by his self-described Africapitalism ought to be aware that today’s young African is hyper sensitive to issues of colonialism especially one executed with such wanton brutality. And to make matters worse, Belgium has never apologized for its actions in the Congo. The most the current King, Philippe Léopold Louis Marie (yes, he has a Leopold in his name) could do sometime this year, was to express regret; no apologies.

There’s no waffling over this: this is one honour Tony Elumelu can do without. We expect him to return the medal in respect of the millions of Africans killed by King Leopold and the genocidal policy which his successors have shown no real remorse over

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