Brussels looks for new name for road tunnel to find peace with colonial past

Brussels has asked its citizens to choose a new name for the King Leopold II road tunnel - a highway tunnel situated west of the city centre- in an effort made to find a compromise with Belgium’s colonial past and the issue of gender inequality after that many protests have swiped the city supporting the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM).

A statue of Leopold II - whose colonial rule at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries cost millions of lives in central Africa - was removed by supporters in Brussels in June amid the BLM protests. Now Brussels aims to rename part of its traffic ring road after renovations next year.

Image credit Reuters/Francois Lenoir

“We know that Leopold II is a very controversial figure in our history. We need to start a course of decolonisation of the public space,” the Brussels Minister of Mobility, Public Works and Road Safety, Elke van den Brandt, declared.

Therefore, the government said that an expert panel, who is also a specialist in colonial history and women’s rights - currently, only the 6% of streets in Brussels are named after women-, would select a shortlist of names for the tunnel.

Brusselites will then pick the new name from the list provided by the authorities, and the chosen name will be announced later in 2020. Yet, many Belgian people remain unaware of their country’s harsh colonial rule that used slave labour to harvest goods including rubber. The proceeds laid the foundation for the modern-era prosperity of Belgium, a country of 11.5 million people and home to the most important European Union institutions.

Image credit Reuters/Francois Lenoir

“This is a very good idea because we start being made aware in the school of the crimes that (Leopold II) committed. Changing to a woman’s name, I find that good for equality,” said a 17-year-old high school student, Romain Noppe. Rwandan nurse Theogene Fatakanwa, 49, who lives in Brussels and regularly uses the tunnel, added to this, saying: “If it is a matter of changing (the name) because of the history of Congo, then we are on a good path”.

However, not everyone agrees on Belgium’s capital decision. For instance, 71-year-old Brusselite Alain Moons stated: “Even if (Leopold II) has done things that are not right, that is no reason to erase history.”

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