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Congo, brutalized under Belgian colonizer, still suffering 50 years after independence

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Fabulous minerals. Magnificent music. Great cuisine. A landscape that stretches from lush rain forest to Swiss-looking mountains. And a people still mired in violence and misery a half century after independence from Belgium.

Congo's government is marking the 50th anniversary on Wednesday with pomp and circumstance, and the invited guests include Belgian King Albert II and the U.N. secretary-general.

But people in this vast Central African nation who are struggling to survive are asking "Why?" Some are even boycotting the celebrations in the country's east, where brutal armed rebellions have forced a quarter million from their homes and at least 8,300 rapes were committed last year.

The man in charge of the big 50th anniversary bash, Gen. Denis Kalume Numbi, says it's a time to draw lessons from the past and set new goals to improve life for the Congolese people.

"It's an occasion for us to reflect on why the country has not developed," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We are gathering officials of our government's services to identify why each has failed to deliver on the development of our country and what they can do to change that situation."

A sign of that underdevelopment is that the massive country the size of Western Europe has only 300 miles (500 kilometers) of paved road. In a major push toward development, Congo's president has signed a $9 billion deal with China offering mineral rights in exchange for roads, a railway, hospitals and schools.

At independence in 1960, landline telephones and postal service worked. That's no longer the case in Congo, which has the potential to be Africa's wealthiest country but instead offers citizens little but sorrow.

"I have never seen people living in a worse state," U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said in a recent interview.

Congo's history is one brutal and tragic tale.

The country was created in 1885 by Belgium's King Leopold II, who recruited the British-born American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to make a secret expedition to carve out a state in the heart of Africa — one that was nearly 80 times the size of Belgium.

The Congo Free State was unique among colonies in that it was the private property of the Belgian king. His memory is forever stained by the depredations committed by companies that made him a millionaire. Congo first provided ivory, then latex from wild rubber trees that was much in demand after the creation of the pneumatic tire.

The companies' method to boost rubber production was savage: Villagers were given higher and higher quotas and, when they were not met, villages were set ablaze, families butchered and hands of survivors severed.

Pictures of mutilated Congolese have become a mark of Leopold's reign, with the companies ensuring their militias enforced discipline without wasting ammunition by chopping off hands.

It's not known how many millions were slaughtered and maimed. In his book "King Leopold's Ghost," historian Adam Hochschild puts the dead at between 4 million and 8 million. The resulting scandal forced Leopold to surrender the country in 1908 to the Belgian government, which called it the Belgian Congo.

But the controversy persists: As recently as this week Belgian Louis Michel, the former EU development commissioner, scandalized many by praising Leopold as a visionary.

"Leopold II was a true visionary for his time, a hero," he told Belgium's Belgian P-Magazine. "And even if there were horrible events in the Congo, should we now condemn them?"

Leopold II never set foot in Congo. The first Belgian monarch to visit was King Baudouin (Baldwin), who came for the 25th independence anniversary. Now Congolese are anxious to hear what Albert II will have to say to them.

Even now, 50 years on, many Congolese blame Belgium for the state of their country.

The colonizers continued to meddle after independence, blamed along with the CIA for the 1961 assassination of Congo's first democratically elected prime minister. The socialist-minded Patrice Lumumba was slain because he planned to kick out the Europeans and their exploitative mining companies.

Belgium finally apologized for its part in Lumumba's death 41 years after the fact.

Lumumba's killing ended democracy in Congo for nearly a half century. Both Belgium and the United States supported a 32-year dictatorship set up by Mobutu Sese Seko, a pro-Western leader seen as a bulwark against communism.

Mobutu managed to control the country he renamed Zaire, but amassed a personal fortune estimated at $5 billion while entrenching corruption that continues to damn the country.

In 1997, an alliance of rebels invaded and overthrew Mobutu. Laurent Kabila, the father of Congo's current president, took power.

Then neighboring Rwanda's genocide spilled over the borders and a regional battle began over control of Congo's vast resources. They include 30 percent of the world's cobalt and 10 percent of its copper. In the 1990s, country after country plunged into the war — Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola all sent troops to support Kabila in return for mining concessions.

Four million people died, mainly from strife-driven hunger and disease, and left the country in such disarray that, even now, the International Rescue Committee estimates some 45,000 people die each month, mainly from hunger and diseases like AIDS and malaria.

Kabila was later assassinated and replaced by his son Joseph, who is still in power after winning a landmark election held in 2006.

The world's largest U.N. peacekeeping force has been in Congo for more than a decade in an effort to stabilize the country. But Congo's president wants them all out before September 2011. Earlier this month, the U.N. started a nominal withdrawal of peacekeepers.

Mwahila Tshiyembe, director of the Pan-African Institute for Geopolitics in Nancy, France, says the Belgians alone cannot be blamed for Congo's woes. Congo's leaders since independence have been marked by corruption and bad governance and have needlessly sought to blame their former colonizer, he said.

"That is why these elites put the blame on the role of Belgium in Congo — to cover up their bad practices," Tshiyembe said.

Ilunga Katumba, 74, remembers earning a salary that allowed him to have a decent life back in 1960, when he was married with three children. Today he makes just $40 a month as a driver and is still supporting five children on that wage.

He says he is not providing them with enough food, and that three of them aren't in school because he can't afford to pay for their studies.

"Life today is worse because many people are not working," he says. "And those who are working don't make enough to live decently until the end of the month."

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Associated Press Writer Michelle Faul reported from Johannesburg.