Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Shadow Cast Over DRC Independence Anniversary
Fifty years ago this week, the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, joined a small but growing band of African countries that faced the challenging task of building a new independent nation.
“Your task is immense and you are the first to realise it,” warned Belgium’s King Baudouin, according to media reports at the time, as he symbolically handed over the running of the country to Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected prime minister of the DRC, on June 30, 1960.
The Belgian king highlighted what he saw as the principal dangers of self-governance: the inexperience of the new administration; persistent tribal rivalries; and greedy foreign powers eager to take advantage of the country’s vast mineral resources.
Half a century on, dozens of foreign dignatories and heads of state this week arrived in the DRC to join the Africam nation in celebrating this major milestone.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame and United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon were just some of the high-profile invitees who flew into Kinshasa to witness a lavish display of military parades put on by the Congolese army.
But many ordinary Congolese, both inside and outside the country, feel that there’s not much to celebrate, given that war, torture and corruption have, for many, become a part of everyday life in the country.
“The assessment [of the last 50 years] has largely been negative,” pronounced Nkuba Luletsi, a teacher in the eastern town of Goma, the capital of North Kivu. “We have not had a credible leader in the last 50 years. People’s mentality must change and they must vote for change in the forthcoming elections.”
Over the last 15 years, Goma has seen some of the worst fighting in the country, as dozens of rival militias clashed in a bitter struggle for control over the region’s mineral resources.
Although a semblance of peace has now returned to the area, the spectre of violence is fresh in the minds of many.
Goma has traditionally been a stronghold of the government, with the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, winning more than 90 per cent of the vote there in the 2006 elections.
But since then, support for Kabila has slowly started to give way to frustration over how the country is being run.
Many ordinary people are concerned about government inefficiency and mismanagement.
Civil servants are rarely paid in DRC and many are thought to engage in corrupt practices in order to get by.
The government has been criticised for spending tax money on free beers during the independence celebrations, while primary school teachers go without a regular income.
“The government has not spent anything on my education. Why should I go to a government rally and engage in celebrations when I have nothing for myself?” said one local.
Today, two-thirds of the 60 million Congolese live on less than 1.25 US dollars a day, according to the UN.
Recent human rights abuses in the country have also overshadowed the festivities. On June 2, celebrated activist Floribert Chebeya was found dead in Kinshasa, in murky circumstances, prompting the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, an opposition party, to announce that it would not participate in the commemorations.
Despite widespread disappointment with Kabila’s government, Goma residents recognise that there have been important improvements in the region. Today, Goma is the safest it has been in years, and infrastructure and businesses are starting to develop.
“I have just created an association for hoteliers in Goma, in order for us to develop our businesses in the coming years,” said Katembo Kikandau, a hotel manager. “These days, there are lots of NGOs working in the town. Our hope is that, soon, it will be tourism that brings us clients.”
Ban Ki-moon recently told Radio Okapi, the UN radio station in the country, that much has been accomplished since the arrival in 1999 of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, “especially the pacification of a large part of the territory, democratic elections, and the creation of state institutions.
“The country has now entered a phase of consolidation and stabilisation.”
Such sentiments, however, overlook Kabila’s attempt to force MONUC out of the country altogether, which has been viewed by some an attempt to keep foreign observers from the country’s elections next year.
MONUC will stay for now, but a symbolic 2,000 troops – out of the total 20,000 – left on June 26, just four days before the anniversary celebrations began.
Nonetheless, Goma’s mayor, Roger Rachid, is optimistic about the future of his town.
“Our mind is not set on looking back at what we could not do,” he said. “Our goal is to look forward with force, courage, and objectivity. Our challenge is to find peace, cohabitation and love for one other. Once we do this, we will have the most beautiful town in the DRC.”
Six thousand kilometres away from the dusty streets of Goma – in Brussels, the capital of the former colonial power that once administered the day-to-day running of the African country – a group of Congolese expatriats gathered to protest at the participation of Prince Albert II at the independence celebrations.
The protesters said that it was wrong for Belgium’s constitutional monarch to attend the event, since this only served to legitamise what they describe as the corrupt and repressive DRC government.
"Since Kabila's power was legitimised in the election in 2006, he's become more arrogant," said Henry Muke, one of the organisers of the protest and president of the campaign group the High Counsel for the Liberation of the Congo. "No one can speak in the country, journalists are being assassinated."
Two years ago, Jean-Pierre Bemba, the head of the MLC opposition party, was arrested in Belgium and sent off to The Hague, a two-hour train ride, to stand trial before the International Criminal Court, ICC, for war crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic. Bemba’s trial is expected to start on July 14.
This week, the protesters in Brussels said they want to current Congolese officials in court next.
"We are stunned to see [Bemba] at the Hague, while the others are in Kinshasa continuing to commit crimes," said Samson Cibayi, president of Dynamique du Combat, a Congolese association in Brussels.
An anti-Rwandan sentiment permeated the small protest, attended by about 150 people, with banners suggesting that the DRC is under Rwandan control.
There is widespread speculation that support from Rwanda was instrumental in helping Laurent Kabila, the father of the incumbent president, wrest power away from Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
But many lament the division between Rwanda and the DRC.
"I wish we could have a more objective reading of this, and think that not all Rwandans are bad, just like not all Congolese are good," said Dunia Sendwe, one of the protest organisers.
There are an estimated 16,000 people of Congolese origin in Belgium, a community which has turned its back on Kabila because of his perceived failure to provide for his people.
Muke estimates there has been one anti-Kabila protest every two months in the past few years in Belgium.
"It's the Congolese community here that feeds part of the country's population," said Muke. "We send money to our families."
Melanie Gouby is an IWPR journalist in Goma and Tiffany Stecker is an IWPR intern.
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