Fifty years ago today your predecessor, King Baudouin, stood on the steps of the Palais de Justice in Léopoldville to mark the independence of Belgium’s only colony. That ceremony remains vivid in the collective imagination of most Congolese, although the vast majority were not born as the new state spiralled into the chaos which has scotched so many of the hopes vested in independence. Inevitably, your presence in the city now known as Kinshasa will be the central act in the celebrations hosted by President Joseph Kabila.
Any speech you might have made today – Belgian officials say you will not, according to the BBC – would have been a delicate assignment. Baudouin is a difficult act to follow – for all the wrong reasons. His speech 50 years ago, heavy with paternalism, is remembered today only for the swift rebuke from Congo’s first prime minister. In an unscheduled speech, Patrice Lumumba rose from his seat to claim victory in “a passionate idealistic struggle, a struggle in which no effort, privation, suffering, or drop of our blood was spared”.
Where Baudouin had described independence as a “generous gift” from Belgium, Lumumba insisted it was the birthright of every Congolese. The historian Ludo de Witte described Lumumba’s retort as “electrifying”. For most Congolese, listening on national radio, the prime minister’s riposte was the first time they had heard an African defy a European – let alone a king. Just over six months later, Lumumba’s assassination in January 1961 was a defeat of almost archetypal significance for the new generation of pan-Africanists led by Lumumba’s mentor, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana.
What then could your majesty have said today? Last week, I put this question to the “Great Guys” club, a social club of aspirational Congolese who meet every Sunday in Kinshasa to practise speaking English. None expected a spectacle of contrition for the past. Nor did they want le Cinquantenaire to disguise the serial failures of Congolese state institutions. It would be sufficient to acknowledge instead that the swift defeat of democracy in Congo prefigured many of the subsequent disappointments and betrayals in post-independence Africa. Congo, observed the writer Michela Wrong, was “a nation strangled at birth”.
Foreign powers were complicit in Lumumba’s assassination, although the exact circumstances are not known. The United Nations waived a curfew on night flight for the plane that carried the kidnapped prime minister to the copper-rich southern province of Katanga. With their support, army chief-turned-cold war puppet Mobutu Sese Seko ruled in megalomaniacal style for 32 years until 1997. At the Great Guys club, no one expected another apology from your majesty, although it was only in 2002 that the Belgian government issued a formal apology to Congo for its “improper interference in the affairs of a sovereign state”.
Among our gathering in Kinshasa were two schoolteachers, a doctor, a secretary, and several translators who craft a living from their hobby of speaking English. I cannot pretend that they are representative of others, but their concerns seem typical of many in Africa’s new middle class. The Great Guys, who include women, are keen democrats. For almost three decades, their social club has been run according to rules that might have been copied for the founding charter of the African Union. Under a system of peer review, members vet one others’ behaviour. Their elected president must answer to an elected commission for his decisions.
By common consent, the Great Guys would like Congo to be governed according to the same principles. The ideal of freedom remains a dream in Congo. One of many mordant jokes doing the rounds in Kinshasa is: “Independence? Will it be over soon?” A few gracious words from your majesty would have gone a long way to reassure the long-suffering people of Congo that the mistakes of the past have been understood. Under Baudouin and his government, control of a colony run by diktat from Brussels had passed abruptly to a fledgling state more notional than real: “We see that the intervening decades have not solved this problem,” said the doctor.
Freedom. Justice. Unity of the country. These are still the common refrains in Kinshasa, your majesty. Under cover of war, this vast country was partitioned by rebel militias, neighbouring armies and entrepreneurial soldiers from Rwanda and Uganda. The most entrepreneurial soldiers, including the Zimbabwean state, stayed on to loot the metals and minerals once coveted by colonial powers. Meanwhile, the UN mission in Congo – MONUC – will today begin a gradual withdrawal of the 20,000 troops who have kept the peace since 1999. A new debt write-off will be announced under the International Monetary Fund programme for highly indebted poor countries (HIPIC). Their largesse is part of a new, worldwide scramble for Congo’s vast reserves of copper and cobalt.
Your majesty might have been tempted to offer more advice, couched perhaps in the new platitudes of “good governance” and “international development”. But the refurbished parliament, Palais des Peuples, and the new eight-lane superhighway on Boulevard de 30 Juin, are the work of the Chinese. As politicians talk of sovereignty, the world’s media is distracted by the passions of World Cup football in South Africa – a spectacle which trumps even the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight victory in Kinshasa in 1974. In the Congolese dialect of Shi is a phrase, Luvu Luholo – meaning, literally, a pile of hot embers. It has become a metaphor for Congo’s fragile state: grey ash on the outside, burning on the inside.
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