Introducing Digicoljust News

Towards a new research project

DIGICOLJUST is coming to an end, long live DIGICOLJUST-2!

The project’s team is happy to announce that BELSPO (and its BRAIN-be 2.0 scheme) has decided to fund a new project introduced by the team of coordinators (Pierre-Alain Tallier for the State Archives, Amandine Lauro for the ULB and Benoît Henriet for the VUB) for 4 more years, starting from February 2023. The project DIGICOLJUST-2 – “Military Violence and its (Dis)Contents in Colonial Congo: Sharing the Records, Writing the History” will allow us to recruit one PhD candidate and two postdoctoral researchers.

Building on the promising results of the pilot project DIGICOLJUST and on the track-record of the team of coordinators in colonial archival heritage and history, the project DIGICOLJUST-2 “Military Violence and its (Dis)Contents in Colonial Congo: Sharing the Records, Writing the History” aims at renewing the archival, scientific and societal knowledge of the history of military crimes and of their repression in Colonial Congo (1885-1908-1960). Based on a combined input of heritage science and scholarly expertise, this project responds to political and historiographic debates on the contested heritage of Belgian colonial archives and on the violent history of Belgian imperialism. Pursuing the uncovering of a long-considered lost collection of more than 5,400 courts records encompassing 70 years of testimonies of colonial military crimes, DIGICOLJUST-2 will allow for the development of state-of-the-art solutions designed in collaboration with Congolese archivists for further sharing this heritage, and for the production of innovative historical research. It will offer new insights into the deployment and escalation of armed violence in colonial Central Africa (i.e. the “content” of military violence), as well as into the complex relationship of Belgian colonial (military) authorities to impunity and soldierly misconduct (i.e. the “discontent” with this violence embodied in the judicial process).

The results produced by the initial phase of the DIGICOLJUST project have confirmed the crucial interest of the records of colonial courts-martial. In 24 months, the project’s team has been able to map the archival materials, to retrace their history, to conceive a format of online access, both user-friendly and scientifically sound, for the already-completed digitization of the pilot program (1,147 case files/27,650 scanned pages from the military court of Léopoldville, 1891-1956), and to build an effective partnership with the INACO in DRC. In spite of the impediments caused by the Covid-19 and by the time-consuming decontamination and transfer of more than 5,400 case files to the State Archives, the main objectives of the project will be met by the end of 2022. DIGICOLJUST-2 will therefore offer a full return on this investment by pursuing a complementary series of key objectives: (1)Digitization and online publication of the ca. 4,200 remaining case files; (2)Building an advanced relational database allowing for an improved accessibility to a highly relevant collection for scholars and stakeholders interested not only in colonial armed forces but also in the social history of Belgian colonialism; (3)Developing the praxis of sharing archival/digital heritage between Belgium and Congo in a bilateral dynamic of conservation and research, notably through a collaborative research guide connecting the military court records kept by the AGR with the Force Publique‘s files kept by the INACO; and (4)Researching the history of military violence and justice through thematic case-studies (on military violence in Leopold II’s Congo and its legacies, on gender-based violence, and on what was specifically “colonial” in wartime colonial military justice), also conceived as ground-breaking contributions to the international historiography of colonial policing and armed forces.

More about the final results of our first project and the research to come soon!

Introducing Digicoljust News

Sharing and discussing DIGICOLJUST with Congolese scholars and archivists

The “Journées de l’Histoire. Re-penser l’enseignement de l’histoire du continent africain et de la RDC” took place at the Cercle Elaïs in Kinshasa. The event was organized by the NGO Coopération Éducation Culture (CEC),the University of Kinshasa (UNKIN) and the Free University of Brussels (ULB), with the support of ARES & other partners.

Two of DIGICOLJUST’s promotors, Benoît Henriet (VUB) and Amandine Lauro (ULB) were in Kinshasa between 28 October and 3 November to present the project and discuss its uses and relevance with the community of Congolese archivists and historians.

Presenting DIGICOLJUST at the “Journées de l’Histoire”, 29 October 2021.

Henriet and Lauro first presented DIGICOLJUST at the Journées de l’Histoire, a two-day symposium on the challenges and opportunities of history teaching in the DRC. During this event, Congolese and foreign scholars exchanged views with secondary school teachers, activists, journalists and politicians, including Caroline Désir, Education minister of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. You can find an enthusiastic review of the Journées de l’Histoire and of our project under the pen of Congo-expert Colette Braeckman in Le Soir.

Colette Braeckman in Le Soir, 2 November 2021.

DIGICOLJUST’s promotors then also met extensively with the project’s Congolese partners, including Jean-Bedel Iyoka, general-director of the National Archives (INACO) and historians Christian Chiza (ISP Bukavu), Kiangu Sindani (UNIKIN) and Donatien Dibwe dia Mwembu (UNILU). The digitization of the Conseils du Guerre’s archives is a fantastic chance to deploy new research synergies between Congo and Belgium based on this shared archival heritage, and to provide Congolese students with primary sources they could mobilise for their undergraduate and graduate thesis.

The Institut National des Archives du Congo (INACO) in Kinshasa.

Many possibilities for further collaboration were sketched out during those meetings. Prof. Dibwe for instance mentioned that those archives could be used not only by historians, but also by criminologists. Jean-Bedel Iyoka suggested potential future research projects using both the Conseils de Guerre and archives of the Force Publique held in Kinshasa. Furthermore, the digitized records of colonial martial courts could serve to broaden the scope of primary sources available for history students in Kinshasa and beyond.

More about these exciting opportunities in the months to come!

Introducing Digicoljust News

Archival specialist Tommy De Ganck presents DIGICOLJUST on YouTube

The State Archives of Belgium have produced a series of videos to present the results and challenges of the ongoing transfer of the “African Archives” from the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs (where archival records from the Belgian colonial administration have previously been kept). In one of these short clips, archivist and postdoctoral researcher Tommy De Ganck presents the main lines of the DIGICOLJUST project and what it implies for the State Archives. The video was shot one year ago and the project has seen many advances since then: more information about these in the forthcoming weeks!

Introducing Digicoljust

Past and Present: Soldiers on Trial in Times of War and Peace in (Colonial) Central Africa

In this first of a series of blogposts introducing our project, Amandine Lauro reflects on the topicality of the colonial history of military justice and martial violence in the Belgian Congo in the light of current international debates about impunity and the (non)prosecution of crimes committed by the military in present-day Eastern Congo.

L’intervention de D. Mukwege au Parlement Européen a mené au dépôt d’une résolution parlementaire attirant l’attention sur les menaces dont le médecin-gynécologue est victime et appelant le Conseil de sécurité des Nations unies à demander la création d’un tribunal pénal international pour la RDC.

En août dernier, le célèbre médecin congolais Denis Mukwege, Prix Nobel de la Paix 2018, appelait le Parlement Européen à s’engager en faveur de la justice à l’est de la République Démocratique du Congo (RDC), une région déchirée par des conflits armés depuis la deuxième moitié des années 1990. Évoquant l’impunité persistante des auteurs de massacres et d’atrocités contre les civils, Mukwege plaidait notamment pour la mise en place par l’ONU d’un tribunal pénal international pour la RDC. Relayé par plusieurs grands titres de la presse internationale, ce plaidoyer s’inscrivait dans un calendrier “anniversaire” particulier : celui des dix ans de la publication du rapport “Mapping” du Haut-commissariat des Nations unies aux droits de l’homme sur les crimes commis en RDC, qui avait lui aussi appelé en son temps (et en vain) à la mise sur pied de mécanismes judiciaires spécifiques pour juger ces crimes. Quelques semaines plus tard, Denis Mukwege signait d’ailleurs avec Louise Arbour, l’ancienne Haut-Commissaire des Nations unies aux droits de l’homme qui avait précisément porté le projet “Mapping”, une tribune dénonçant à nouveau une justice absente face aux violences armées et une “délinquance intégrée dans les forces de sécurité et de défense”, menant à voir “des promotions […] accordées à ceux qui devraient pourtant répondre de leurs actes devant la justice nationale ou internationale.”[i]

Soldats de la Force Publique de l’Etat Indépendant du Congo, photographiés par les missionnaires Teofil Ceder et Per Markus, ca. 1908, coll. Etnografiska Museet (Suède).

Les propositions du Rapport “Mapping” comme celles de Mukwege ont donc en commun de reposer sur une disqualification de la justice militaire congolaise, dont les défaillances structurelles sont présentées comme étant à la source de la culture de l’impunité régnant au sein des forces armées. En cela, elles mettent en débat des questions et des images qui s’inscrivent dans une séquence historique plus longue que celle des derniers conflits qui ont déchiré l’est de la RDC. Il y a plus d’un siècle déjà, la brutalité des soldats, la faiblesse d’une discipline militaire de façade, la violence d’un appareil répressif partie prenante d’un ordre colonial qui se présentait pourtant comme “pacificateur”, et les persistantes inquiétudes des autorités politiques au sujet de la loyauté de leurs intermédiaires en armes constituaient aussi des questions brûlantes – débattues qui plus est sur la scène internationale, globalisation des polémiques autour de la colonisation belge oblige.

Ce sont également des questions qui sont au cœur du projet Digicoljust. Celui-ci entend porter un regard historique sur l’exercice de la justice militaire au Congo et sur ses multiples acteurs, au premier rang desquels les justiciables africains, issus des “corps habillés” mais pas seulement. Une des particularités du système colonial belge était en effet de permettre aux Cours militaires, en cas de “troubles” politiques ou sociaux, de se déclarer compétentes pour juger ceux – y compris les civils – dont on estimait qu’ils avaient contrevenu à l’ordre colonial, dans des procédures qui n’étaient dès lors pas susceptibles d’appel. L’exemple le plus célèbre est sans doute celui du procès de Simon Kimbangu (1887-1951), prédicateur à l’origine d’un mouvement messianique de vaste ampleur annonçant notamment la “libération de l’homme noir”, condamné à mort pour sédition par une Cour martiale en 1921. Ce tour de passe-passe juridique a néanmoins aussi été mobilisé pour d’autres cas de figure sans doute plus modestes dans leurs échos, mais également révélateurs des dynamiques répressives du pouvoir colonial.

Au début des années 1970, le célèbre peintre congolais Tshibumba Kanda Matulu a peint plusieurs tableaux représentant Simon Kimbangu lors de son procès en Cour martiale (ici dans une huile sur toile « (Simon) Kimbangu », ca. 1970-1973, coll. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts).

Ces usages d’ “exception” des Cours martiales témoignent de la grande porosité entre le militaire et le civil, présente dès la conquête à la fin du XIXe siècle, et qui a pu persister dans les contextes coloniaux bien plus longtemps qu’en Europe. C’est aussi la manière dont ces usages s’articulent à une autre forme de porosité qui rend ces contextes si spécifiques – et peut-être aussi si intéressants : la distinction entre les temps de “guerre” et les temps de “paix” se révèle régulièrement floue en situation coloniale, et les frontières entre pratiques guerrières et pratiques de maintien de l’ordre incertaines. Digicoljust interroge précisément le continuum de ces séquences et de ces pratiques au sein d’une armée bien plus conçue comme une force de gendarmerie que comme une force de défense du territoire. Les archives des Conseils de guerre reflètent d’ailleurs bien la primauté de la principale vocation de la “Force Publique” congolaise : les procès menés en temps de “paix” contre des soldats affectés à des missions de police, de “pacification” ou simplement casernés dans leurs camps constituent la majorité des dossiers. Les procès menés dans le cadre des conseils de guerre dits “en campagne” (principalement lors des deux guerres mondiales, qui engagent la Force Publique sur plusieurs théâtres en Afrique de l’est et de l’ouest, au Moyen-Orient, et jusqu’en Birmanie), aussi uniques qu’ils soient, ne peuvent d’ailleurs se lire que dans la continuité de l’activité “régulière” des Cours martiales de la colonie belge. Continuité réciproque à bien des égards cependant : au début des années 1950, les soldats-policiers de Kinshasa (alors Léopoldville) disent, pour décrire leur travail quotidien dans les rues de la capitale : “nous faisons la guerre tous les jours.”[ii]

Durant la Première Guerre mondiale, la Force publique combat sur plusieurs fronts hors des frontières du Congo, en Afrique centrale et orientale, comme le rappelle le film « Les campagnes belges en Afrique » (1918, 23 min.) mis en ligne par la Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique.

Des travaux récents montrent qu’une part importante des procès militaires actuels menés à l’est du Congo visent des délits/crimes qui relèvent moins de cas d’abus commis contre des civils que de cas de désobéissance ou d’insoumission.[iii] C’était aussi ce qui ressort des premiers dossiers explorés par l’équipe de Digicoljust : de nombreux procès donnent ainsi à voir une violence exercée à la fois par et sur les soldats (à commencer par celle de leur recrutement, dans bien des cas forcé), dans un continuum de contrainte qui interroge les contours multiformes de la violence coloniale. Il ne s’agit pas bien sûr de comparer le passé avec le présent ou de postuler des continuités linéaires entre la temporalité coloniale et celle des conflits actuels. Mais les archives de ce premier exercice de la justice militaire dans la région des Grands Lacs peuvent peut-être nous aider à réfléchir en d’autres termes à l’histoire longue de rapports tendus entre les gardiens de l’ordre, ceux qu’ils sont censés servir, et la population civile, ainsi qu’aux ambivalences de certains précédents en matière de lutte contre l’impunité et la violence des soldats.

Amandine Lauro

[i] Louise Arbour & Denis Mukwege, “Il est indispensable de rendre justice pour briser le cycle des violences et de l’instabilité en RDC”, Le Monde, 30 sept. 2020.

[ii] Cité dans/cited in Amandine Lauro, “Suspect Cities and the (Re)Making of Colonial Order: Urbanization, Security Anxieties and Police Reforms in Postwar Congo (1945-1960)”, in Campion J. & Rousseaux X. (eds.), Policing New Risks in Modern European History, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2016, p. 58.

[iii] Maria Baaz Eriksson et Judith Verweijen, « La ‘mère des armées’ n’est pas encore morte. Des pratiques de justice (in)formelle dans les Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo », Politique africaine, vol. 129, no. 1, 2013, pp. 62-63.

D. Mukwege’s intervention in the European Parliament led to the tabling of a parliamentary resolution drawing attention to the threats to the medical-gynecologist and calling on the United Nations Security Council to support the creation of an international criminal tribunal for the DRC.

Last August, the famous Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, called on the European Parliament to commit to justice in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a region torn by armed conflict since the second half of the 1990s. Referring to the persistent impunity of perpetrators of massacres and atrocities against civilians, Mukwege advocated, among other things, for the establishment by the UN of an international criminal court for the DRC. This plea – which was covered by several major international media outlets – marked the tenth anniversary of the publication of the “Mapping Report” by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the crimes committed in the DRC; in its time, the report had also called (in vain) for the establishment of specific judicial mechanisms to judge these crimes. A few weeks later, Denis Mukwege signed with Louise Arbour, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the initiator of the “Mapping” project, an open letter once again denouncing the lack of justice in the face of armed violence and of the “integrated delinquency in the security and defence forces,”, which led to “promotions … granted to those who should answer for their actions before national or international justice.”[i]

Soldiers of the Force Publique of the Congo Free State, photographed by missionaries Teofil Ceder and Per Markus, ca. 1908, coll. Etnografiska Museet (Sweden).

The proposals of the Mapping Report, like those of Mukwege, are therefore based on a disqualification of Congolese military justice, whose structural failings are presented as being precisely at the source of the culture of impunity reigning within the armed forces. In so doing, they bring into debate issues and images participating in a longer historical sequence, stretching further in time than the recent conflicts tearing the eastern DRC apart. Already more than 100 years ago, the brutality of soldiers and the violence of a repressive apparatus concealed behind the weak façade of military discipline, were characterizing the colonial order in Central Africa. Although the Force Publique – the colonial army in Congo – presented itself as a “peacemaker”, political authorities were persistently concerned with the loyalty of their armed intermediaries. Because of the global polemics surrounding Belgian colonization, all these burning issues were also already debated on the international scene.

These questions are precisely at the heart of the Digicoljust project. Digicoljust intends to take a historical look at the exercise of military justice in the Congo and at its multiple actors. It will focus first and foremost on African stakeholders, whether belonging to the armed forces or not. Indeed, one of the peculiarities of the Belgian colonial system was that it gave military courts, in the event of political or social ‘disturbances’, jurisdiction to prosecute those who were considered to have contravened the colonial order, including civilians. These proceedings were not subject to appeal. The most famous example thereof is undoubtedly that of the trial of Simon Kimbangu (1887-1951), a preacher at the origin of a vast messianic movement announcing the “liberation of the black man”. Although a civilian, Kimbangu was sentenced to death for sedition by a court-martial in 1921. This legal sleight of hand was also mobilized for other cases, more modest in their echoes, but nevertheless as revealing of the repressive dynamics of colonial power.

In the early 1970s, the famous Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda Matulu painted several paintings depicting Simon Kimbangu during his court-martial trial (here in an oil on canvas « (Simon) Kimbangu », ca. 1970-1973, coll. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts).

These “exceptional” uses of courts-martial testify to the great porosity between the military and the civilian, present since the conquest at the end of the 19th century, and which may have persisted in colonial contexts much longer than in Europe. Colonial territories were also characterised by another specific form of porosity: the distinction between times of “war” and times of “peace” appeared regularly blurred in colonial contexts, and the boundaries between wartime and “ordinary” policing practices often remained uncertain. Digicoljust questions precisely the continuum of war and peace, of conquering and policing by and within an army that was more conceived as a police corps than as a territorial defence force. The archives of the military courts also reflect the primacy of policing as the main vocation of the Congolese Force Publique: the majority of trial records are court cases conducted in ‘peace’ time against soldiers assigned to police missions, ‘pacification operations’, or simply confined to their camps. Trials conducted in the framework of field Courts-martial or Conseils de guerre en campagne (mainly during the two World Wars, when the Force Publique was mobilised in several theatres of operation in East and West Africa, the Middle East, and as far as Burma), as unique as they are, can only be grasped in the continuity of the “regular” activity of the Belgian colony’s courts-martial. In many respects, the continuities between war and peace went both ways: at the beginning of the 1950s, the soldier-policemen of Kinshasa (then Leopoldville) described their daily work in the streets of the capital as such: “we make war every day. “[ii]

During the First World War, the Force Publique fought on several fronts outside the borders of the Congo, in Central and East Africa, as recalled in the film « Les campagnes belges en Afrique » (1918, 23 min.) made available online thanks to the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique.

Recent studies show that a significant proportion of the current cases judged by military courts in eastern Congo concern soldiers’ disobedience or insubordination, rather than crimes perpetrated against civilians.[iii] The first documents studied by the Digicoljust team lead to similar observations. Many trials thus show that violence exercised both by and on soldiers (starting with their recruitment, in many cases forced) existed in a continuum of coercion that questions the multifaceted nature of colonial violence. It is not our goal, of course, to compare the past with the present, or to postulate linear continuities between colonial temporality and that of current conflicts. However, the archives of this first exercise of military justice in the Great Lakes region can perhaps help us reflect on the long history of the tense relations existing between the guardians of order, those they are supposed to serve, and the civilian population, as well as on the ambivalence of some historical precedents in the fight against impunity and violence by soldiers.

Amandine Lauro

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