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DR Congo marks 50 troubled years of independence

President Joseph Kabila called Wednesday for a “moral revolution” in the Democratic Republic of Congo at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium.

Congolese should put an end to “attacks on human life and dignity” and in particular the widespread rape that has become a feature of the guerrilla conflicts racking the vast nation, he said.

Kabila also singled out “tribalism, regionalism, favouritism, irresponsibility, theft, embezzlement of public property and everything else contrary to values.”

He was addressing an audience including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Belgium’s King Albert II and more than a dozen African heads of state at a grand military parade of about 15,000 soldiers to mark the day.

In April, Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, called DR Congo the “rape capital of the world,” and urged the Security Council to end impunity for perpetrators of such crimes.

Also taking part in the parade along Kinsahsa’s refurbished Boulevard Triomphal were 400 tanks and military vehicles, UN peacekeepers, and even representatives of Chinese companies helping to rebuild DR Congo (DRC).

Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who only reconciled with Kabila in 2009, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon were among 18 Africa presidents at the event.

A giant banner near the official tribune read: “The giant awakes, DRC, heaven on Earth”, while giant images of the nation’s former presidents looked on.

Joseph Kasa-Vubu (1960-1965) who was ousted in a coup, Joseph Mobutu Sese-Seko (1965-1997) who robbed the nation of billions before he was forced out, the assasinated Laurent Desire Kabila (1997-2001) and his son, who now struggles to establish government authority.

Kinshasa society turned out in their best suits and dresses though many members of the DR Congo establishment have publicly professed their disappointment at the country’s achievements.

“As far as we are concerned the DRC has moved backwards more than forwards,” Congolese bishops wrote in a text to mark the anniversary.

The “dream of a beautiful Congo” has been destroyed, they said.

King Albert and his wife Queen Paola represented the former colonial power, whose then monarch Leopold II annexed the vast African country in 1885 as his own personal property and is credited with its wholesale plundering long before independence in 1960.

Later in the day, Queen Paola — known in DR Congo as “Mama Paola” — visited the National Institute of Arts, where she was greeted by contortionists and dancers dressed in sorcerer’s masks.

Today, though endowed with vast reserves of gold, copper, cobalt and diamonds, it is one of the world’s poorest nations, scarred by the 1996-2003 war that cost some three million lives.

Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated former rebel-leader father and ruled for an interim period before his 2006 election, is fighting off criticism of his record on governance, human rights and the economy.

In April, the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, accused him of “showing a clear authoritarian trend”.

The celebrations come just days after the funeral of Floribert Chebeya, the country’s most prominent human rights activist, whose body was found the day after he was summoned to attend a meeting with Kinshasa police.

Chebeya was the executive director of a large rights organisation and had been working on a number of sensitive affairs involving the head of police, General John Numbi. His body was found in his car early on June 2.

The activist had previously told Amnesty International that he felt he had been followed and that he was under surveillance by the security services.

Amnesty on Wednesday said it was “nothing short of hypocritical for Congo to throw nationwide celebrations without acknowledging the appalling state of human rights in the country today.”

As the formal commemoration wound down, Kinshasa neighbourhoods prepared to mark the historic day.

“Tonight we will party in the city,” said Marc Thomas d’Aquin, who was six years old when DR Congo achieved independence.

The Congolese radio and television commentator meanwhile announced a spectacular fireworks display for the evening, telling residents of the frequently violence-wracked city: “Just don’t panic!”