DR Congo: Celebrating 50 years of chaos

By Thomas Fessy
BBC News, Kinshasa

image captionFirst Congolese President Joseph Kasavubu was ousted in 1965

As the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrates 50 years of independence, President Joseph Kabila wants to use the occasion to overturn his country's image of chaos, endless war and bad governance.

A day before the celebrations, workers were still frantically repainting facades on the main boulevard of the capital, Kinshasa, despite starting the job 18 months ago.

And when one young man, covered in white paint, knocked on my door requesting access to the balcony, he begged for food as he had not eaten all day.

The Belgian King Albert II, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and other African heads of state in town for the anniversary will probably only see these revamped thoroughfares.

But for most residents of Kinshasa, Africa's third largest city, getting electricity and running water would have been a preferable gesture.

"A layer of paint will not give us food and salaries," one Congolese man said about the preparations.

image captionDR Congo is rich in gold, but much of it has been plundered over the years

Once the personal property of the Belgian king, DR Congo - a vast country two-thirds the size of Western Europe with huge mineral wealth - gained independence from Belgium on the 30 June 1960.

At a ceremony in the Congolese capital, then called Leopoldville, then-King Baudoin said, without a hint of irony: "Congo's independence constitutes the outcome of the work initiated by the genius of Leopold II, undertaken by him with a tenacious courage and continued with perseverance by Belgium."

The Belgian monarch did not expect the new charismatic Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, to offer a different view of colonial rule in a speech made on the same day.

"Who will ever forget the massacres where so many of our brothers perished; the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation were thrown?" said Mr Lumumba, who was murdered the next year, reportedly with US and Belgian complicity.

Educated elite

Fifty years on, many Congolese are asking whether the years of independence have been any kinder than 80 years of brutal colonial rule.

Since 1960, DR Congo has only had four presidents - only the first and last democratically elected.

Independence President Joseph Kasavubu was toppled in a coup by then army chief Mobutu Sese Seko in 1965.

Mobutu stayed in power for more than three decades until he was overthrown by rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001 and his son, Joseph Kabila, took over to lead a peace process and win elections.

Ntanda Nkere, a political scientist at the University of Kinshasa, says education could be seen as one success of the last 50 years, but it has not helped when it comes to leadership.

"When the country became independent, they were only nine people with university degrees. They are probably one million today," he says.

"But there has to be a clear commitment to changing this country. But that commitment is not there yet really," he says.

Eighty-year-old Justin-Marie Mbomboko, who was Congolese foreign minister in 1960, agrees.

"What has destroyed the country is the fact that there's been no political plan for the future," he says.

"Let's talk about mismanagement: Governance is not good. If the country isn't well managed, no matter what regime is in place, the country will fall in ruins."

image captionThe army has been accused of human rights abuses

The many ordinary Congolese grumbling about the jubilee put it in starker terms.

"Ever since we gained independence, happiness has only been for those close to the man in charge - they eat well and they are well paid. But a large number of people simply suffer," a street vendor in Kinshasa explains.

A woman nearby selling vegetables says: "It is all negative.

"Nothing works. The authorities don't care about the population, children cannot study properly - even human rights are not respected."

Blame game

The former colonial power acknowledges that it left Congo with pretty much no political arena.

"We have to recognise that Belgium did a tremendous job during the colonial period but we haven't produced sufficient elite to run the country," Belgium's Kinshasa ambassador Dominique Struye says.

"But it's also now up to Congo to take up its full responsibility and not always find an excuse in the past not to run their country properly."

The Congolese authorities also say they do not want to play the blame game.

"After 50 years of independence we are adult people. It's not the time to recall what happened during the colonial rule," Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba told the BBC.

"Fifty years later, we cannot say that if things are not going well in Congo, it's the fault of Belgium or of Leopold II," he says.

And both countries hail the occasion as a turning point their difficult relationship. However, tellingly, King Albert II will make no speech, according to Belgian officials.

His visit also sparked controversy in Belgium particularly when prominent Congolese human rights activist Floribert Chebeya was murdered at the beginning of June.


Analysts say that there has been a growing trend of repression against opposition members and rights activists since elections in 2006.

image captionMobutu Sese Seko ruled for more than three decades

After independence a UN force was sent to Congo to help maintain law and order after an army mutiny.

Security still remains a major problem in several provinces, especially in the east, the centre of what has been termed Africa's First World War in the late 1990s.

The country now hosts the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world.

Some blue helmets began a symbolic withdrawal this month even though Congolese security forces, blamed for repeated human rights abuses, are not ready to take over.

"It is very ironic: When we became independent, the UN was there to protect us. We celebrate 50 years of independence and the UN is here to protect us," says Prof Nkere.

"What does that reveal? That nothing has been done for the last 50 years."

Back in 1960, rumba singer Joseph Kabasale, sang the famous Independence Cha-cha - a tune known by all Congolese.

"We've gained independence; at last we are free," it said.

Baloji, a young Congolese-Belgian rapper, has recently adapted Kabasale's independence anthem, calling it "The Day After".

Like many Congolese, he is still waiting to taste the benefits of freedom.

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