Belgian king visits DR Congo marking 50 troubled years

29th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Belgium's king and other international leaders will on Wednesday mark the 50th anniversary of Democratic Republic of Congo's move to cast off colonial rule, even though the vast mineral-rich nation has since been through decades of war, corruption and poverty.

Sung for the first time on June 30, 1960, the Congolese anthem urged people to "rise up" and "build, in peace, a country more beautiful than before". Those hopes have been cruelly blunted.

DR Congo was bled dry by the kleptocratic regime of Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko, who came to power in a 1965 coup and ruled for 32 years.

Though it has vast reserves of gold, copper, cobalt and diamonds, it is one of the world's poorest nations, scarred by an eight-year war, which ended in 2003, that cost some three million lives.

Four years after the election of President Joseph Kabila brought some stability, two thirds of DR Congo's 60 million inhabitants still scrape by on 1.25 dollars per day.

Congolese bishops, in a joint text to mark the independence anniversary, wrote that the "dream of a beautiful Congo" had been "destroyed".

"As far as we are concerned the DRC has moved backwards more than forwards," they said.

King Albert II is making the first visit by a Belgian monarch in 25 years to its former colony. He will be joined by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, 18 heads of government and four monarchs, according to the Kabila.

Visiting leaders include several African presidents such as Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who agreed a peace deal with Kabila last August.

The centre of festivities will be a military and civilian parade on Wednesday morning on the Boulevard of June 30 in the heart of capital Kinshasa, which has been rebuilt for the occasion by Chinese companies.

South Africa has called the celebrations "a landmark for all Africa," but also voiced concerns about Kabila's failure to deal with instability in eastern DR Congo, where some 20,000 UN troops are deployed, the world's largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation.

The United Nations this month agreed to pull out 2,000 troops but Kinshasa has been pushing for the entire force to leave by 2011, even though UN officials say armed groups are expanding, recruiting more child soldiers and stepping up violence, especially sexual violence, against civilians.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende admitted "there are a great many problems", but he insisted that "these problems come from those who subjected us to slavery, to colonialisation, to bad government after independence."

"It is easy to throw stones at those who inherited the situation, when the problem dates from before."

Kabila is fighting off tough criticism of his record on governance, human rights and the economy.

In April, International Crisis Group (ICG) said the president had not kept his promises and accused him of "showing a clear authoritarian trend".

"Power is being centralised at the presidential office, checks and balances barely exist, and civil liberties are regularly undermined," it said.

The outlook is not much brighter on the economic front, despite a pledge by creditor nations to cancel a large part of DR Congo's estimated 11 billion dollar foreign debt.

A development programme focused on infrastructure, health and education, energy, jobs and housing has had little impact. For political analyst Alphonse-Marie Luzayamo, the plan "is turning out to be little more than a slogan".

"I strongly doubt it will be carried out," he said.

DR Congo's spotted record on human rights was underlined by the murder last month of rights activist Floribert Chebeya, who was found dead the morning after heading to a meeting with the national police chief.

The police chief has been suspended and a dozen officers arrested in a military inquiry into the death, which drew criticism from the United States and the European Union.

Rights groups in Belgium have criticised the king's visit in the light of Chebeya's killing.

DR Congo's ambassador to Brussels dismissed this as "an insult", saying: "In Africa, when you are invited to a party, you should feel honoured."

Relations with the former colonial master remain difficult. A Belgian minister's remarks about corruption in the former Zaire caused relations to be broken off last year.

The king's trip was also overshadowed when the sons of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba said this month they would seek war crimes charges against 12 Belgians they suspect of involvement in their father's assassination in 1961.

The four-day visit by the king and Prime Minister Yves Leterme has been kept deliberately low-key to minimise the risk of a diplomatic upset, with neither scheduled to speak in public.

© 2010 AFP

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