The activist on a mission to return colonial-era art to Africa has recently been fined for his protests, but promises to continue.
Paris, France – Congolese activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza is on a mission to make France return artefacts that he says were “stolen” from Africa during colonial times.
The 41-year-old, who was born in Kinshasa and fled to France as a political refugee, has in recent months staged protests in museums across the country, including at the Louvre, in an attempt to draw attention to his call.
A 2018 study commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommended museums should return works if they were “taken by force, or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions”.
Last month Mwazulu Diyabanza, however, was convicted of attempted theft of a 19th-century Chadian funeral staff from the Quai Branly Museum – despite claiming he had no intention of stealing it when he live-streamed the act.
While he is appealing the decision, Mwazulu Diyabanza also faces a separate trial in Marseille later this month.
Here are excerpts from his conversation with Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera: What is behind your museum protests?
Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza: It is based on a politics of reparations in response to all of the crimes that have been committed against the people of Africa.
These reparations will be, for us, legal, monetary and sociocultural. It’s in that last aspect that – because of the wrong that was done to us – that we must recuperate our heritage. That’s why we have decided to engage in a combat to return all that was stolen from Africa. We believe that the first reparations must be sociocultural in order to allow the African people to reconcile with their past, with their history and with themselves.
But in order to achieve this, we have to carry out concrete actions that are different from the ones that have been carried out until now. So our approach is of “active diplomacy”, which consists of directly addressing the issue at hand. It also consists of going beyond the rules that prevent us from reaching the truth.
That is why we do these political, militant acts to recuperate our heritage and to directly trigger the process of restitution and to create a discussion over the injustices and the inequalities committed not only against the people of Africa but all oppressed peoples around the world.
Al Jazeera: How do you view the recent court ruling against you?
Mwazulu Diyabanza: It’s a political decision. The judge said several times he understood the political-militant nature of our actions. His decision was made to discourage us from doing our work – because, otherwise, that would be the end of the mafia, the end of all these museums. It’s a decision for us that has nothing to do with the judiciary.
I am appealing the decision. Clearly, I was not intending to steal these objects. I filmed everything.
You cannot separate our acts from the historical acts that preceded it. You cannot isolate them. Materially, we can’t prove [these colonial-era objects] were stolen. These thefts were based on fraudulent paperwork. But the decision will not dissuade us. It will only galvanise us in our mission to recuperate our heritage.
Al Jazeera: Do you believe France acts like a colonial power today, and if so, how?
Mwazulu Diyabanza: France is no longer a colonial power. But it is still a colonial country.
I don’t think France has the power to dominate Africa like it once did. France has shown that it is incapable of growing, to have a political and economic maturity that allows it to prosper in a way that doesn’t rely on the subjugation of others.
It is unable to sit at the negotiation table and make a fair argument. France is like a child that refuses to leave the breasts of its mother. That’s why we are trying to find ways to help this child psychologically. This nation needs to grow up and we will help it grow up.
Al Jazeera: Last week, the French Senate approved the return of 27 pieces of African heritage from the country’s national collections to their places of origin in Benin and Senegal within one year…
Mwazulu Diyabanza: It’s an insulting decision. This is a tiny fraction of what was taken. We shouldn’t need to ask thieves for permission to take back what they stole.
As an act of dignity and nobility, as a question of honour and justice, it is African countries who should decide the timings of the restitution. Western countries need to accept the principle of total, direct, immediate and unconditional restitution of the works that were taken.
After that, African countries can decide when, by what mechanism and in what quantity it will be done. But France needs to first accept the principle – because that means they will have recognised their errors and commit to never doing it again.
Al Jazeera: How would you characterise the comments made by French Prime Minister Jean Castex last week in which he said France should not “regret colonisation”?
Mwazulu Diyabanza: France is a country that refrains from change. It is incapable of looking at its own history in the face. Castex’s declaration, like those who have expressed similar views, is nostalgic for a time when they ruled over people across the world.
But that isn’t the case any more and the African people don’t need that. What we need these people to do is give back what was stolen and to leave Africa, in a gracious and honourable manner.
What Africa is waiting for is for these pedestrians leading France to accept their criminal and shameful past.