As DR Congo marks 60 years of independence from brutal colonial ruler Belgium, some are lamenting how little progress has been made since in a country caught in a “vicious cycle of instability and poverty”.
Belgium’s King Philippe took the unprecedented step this week of expressing his “deep regrets” for the abuses suffered under his country’s yoke until the Democratic Republic of Congo broke away on June 30, 1960.
But many leaders in DRC have given a damning appraisal of what has happened in the country since.
“After 60 years of independence, the assessment is without doubt: we have shamefully failed. We have not been able to make Congo a more beautiful country than it was before,” said Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, in a country where the powerful Catholic Church has been deeply critical of the government.
In a sermon on the 60th independence anniversary, the cardinal also lambasted “the succession of autocratic regimes”, “the culture of impunity” enjoyed by those in power, and the poverty suffered by many in DR Congo.
“We have collectively failed,” he summed up.
– ‘Mafia’ political class –
President Felix Tshisekedi gave a speech on Monday in which he said that “over 60 years, we have gradually allowed our political class to turn into a sort of mafia”.
“The average Congolese has lost 60 percent of their wealth in the last 60 years,” he said.
“Our road network is only 10 percent of what it was in 1960 and the rail network 20 percent.”
He also denounced a “political class which is struggling to tear this nation out of a vicious cycle of instability and poverty.”
Belgium meanwhile has been riven with debate over its colonial record during the worldwide anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death in police custody in the United States. Protesters have graffitied or torn down several statues of Belgium’s colonial-era king Leopold II in recent weeks.
Looking to redress the historical imbalance, the Belgian city of Charleroi on Thursday named a street after Congolese independence icon Patrice Lumumba.
His son Guy-Patrice Lumumba told AFP that it was a “balm for the heart, it’s a recognition of our father’s fight”.
Lumumba, who became the country’s first prime minister on June 30, meanwhile had an entire town named after him — Lumumbaville — in central DR Congo.
Belgium’s colonisation was considered brutal even by the 19th-century standards, with historians saying that millions of Africans from areas in what is now DRC were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they worked on rubber plantations belonging to Leopold, king from 1865-1909.
The scars remain, with two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line.
“I want to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past whose pain is reawakened today by the discrimination still present in our societies,” Philippe said in a letter to Tshisekedi on Tuesday.
– Reparations call –
Tshisekedi on Monday paid tribute to Philippe, “who, like me, seeks to reinforce ties between our two countries without denying our shared past”.
He also sought to soothe tensions regarding Belgium returning Congolese cultural artifacts such as masks and statues that were looted during colonisation.
Not all were so conciliatory.
Prominent grassroots group Lucha (for “Struggle for Change”) said that DRC is still waiting for “an official apology and concrete action to restore as much as possible of the looted heritage, to carry out material and/or symbolic reparations, and teach the true history to new generations.”
The call for reparations was echoed by Lambert Mende, the spokesman of Tshisekedi’s predecessor, ex-president Joseph Kabila.
“People should be willing to repair the damage in terms of investment and compensation with interest. That’s what we expect from our Belgian partners,” he said.
A group of pro-democracy activists published a “Manifesto for a New Congo” on Tuesday saying that “successive regimes and leader have proven to be new predators”.
They also pointed to the complicity of “neo-colonialists and imperialist forces” siphoning up the country’s vast mineral riches.