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Wed Aug 27 18:59:19 SAST 2014

A baby strangled at birth

Mark Ashurst | 29 June, 2010 23:240 Comments

The Big Read: Your Majesty,Fifty years today, your predecessor, King Baudouin, stood on the steps of the Palais de Justice in Leopoldville to mark the independence of Belgium's only colony.

That ceremony remains vivid in the collective imagination of most Congolese, though the vast majority were not born as the new state spiralled into the chaos that has scotched so many of the hopes vested in independence.

Inevitably, your presence in Kinshasa, Congo, will be the central act in the celebrations hosted by President Joseph Kabila.

Your speech today is a delicate assignment, your majesty. King 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, can your majesty say today? Last week, I put this question to the "Great Guys Club", a social club of aspirational Congolese people who meet every Sunday in Kinshasa to practise speaking English.

None expected a spectacle of contrition for the past. Neither 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, though the exact circumstances are not known. The UN waived a curfew on night flights for the plane which carried the kidnapped prime minister to the copper-rich southern province of Katanga.

With the support of foreign powers, 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, though 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 from the founding charter of the African Union.

Under a system of peer review, members vet one another's 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 mordent jokes doing the rounds in Kinshasa is: "Independence? Will it be over soon?"

A few gracious words from your majesty would go a long way towards reassuring the long-suffering people of Congo that the mistakes of the past have been understood.

Under King 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 20000 troops who have kept the peace since 1999.

A new debt write-off will be announced under an International Monetary Fund programme. Their largesse is part of a new, worldwide scramble for Congo's vast reserves of copper and cobalt.

Your majesty might be tempted to offer more advice, couched perhaps in the new platitudes of "good governance" and "international development". But the refurbished parliament, the 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 are distracted by the passions of the soccerx World Cup in South Africa - a spectacle that trumps even Muhammad Ali's 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, in Kinshasa. In the Congolese dialect of Shi there is a phrase, Luvu luholo - meaning a pile of hot embers. It has become a metaphor for Congo's fragile state: grey ash on the outside, burning on the inside.

  • Ashurst is director of the Africa Research Institute, London
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