President Joseph Kabila wants to use today’s independence jubilee to buff up Congo’s troubled image, but armed rebellions, widespread graft and concerns over rights abuses are dampening the party mood.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Albert II, king of the former colonial power, Belgium, will attend 50th anniversary celebrations for which Congo’s capital Kinshasa is being given a last-minute makeover.
Congo is awaiting confirmation within days of an IMF-backed plan to cancel up to $8 billion of debt, while UN peacekeepers started this month to wind down their presence after pressure from Kabila, who is expected to seek re-election next year.
Yet even as Chinese labourers toil to install fountains outside parliament, where 500 000 Congolese are expected to parade today, the mood of celebration is dampened by a sense that Congo still has a long way to go.
“We have to mark the good and bad experiences of the past 50 years. We need to correct our history,” former interior minister Denis Kalume Numbi, the official heading up preparations for the anniversary, told Reuters.
“It’s a young democracy and it has its problems,” he said. “We want a renaissance. We need to use this time for reflection and where we are going in the next 50 years.”
“Celebration – or funeral?”
In Congo’s half-century of independence, it has been a Cold War playground, witnessed assassinations of leaders, suffered a looting of public coffers by President Mobutu Sese Seko and a 1998-2003 war in which five million Congolese may have died.
In 2006, it held democratic elections for the first time in four decades, but lobby groups say hundreds of people have since been imprisoned, tortured or killed in political acts.
The death of human rights activist Floribert Chebeya this month prompted a murder inquiry and triggered international alarm. Police chief John Numbi, who is not related to the former interior minister, has been suspended and several police officers arrested but the incident remains unexplained.
Canada’s First Quantum is among several aggrieved foreign investors, now seeking international arbitration after the government sealed up its $700 million Kolwezi copper tailings project following a review.
Oil contracts allotted to two companies — Britain’s Tullow Oil and South Africa’s Divine Inspiration Group — were handed out to two new entrants in a shock move this month.
Outgoing Dutch ambassador Ellen Berends-Vergunst complained last week of “huge legal uncertainty and massive corruption”, noting that Congo has fewer than 100 European businesses today, compared to 6000 at the time of independence.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper raised concerns over Congo’s business record at last weekend’s Group of Eight meeting in Canada. The cooperation of some of those countries will be necessary for Congo to enjoy the full fruit of a debt relief deal planned by the IMF and now expected in July.
Congo remains rich in some of the world’s most coveted resources — copper, cobalt, diamonds and prospects for oil, gold, iron and uranium look promising. But nearly 80 percent of the country’s 67 million people live on less than $2 a day.
“We might have copper and diamonds but it’s all so badly managed we never feel the benefit,” said Onesime Malembe, 26, an out-of-work electrical engineer. “We really suffer — even if you’re in work you don’t get paid.”
Rebellion in eastern Congo and unrest in the north are raising concerns over Congo’s stability even as MONUC, the UN’s largest peacekeeping force, gradually winds down.
In a May note, Standard Bank analyst Stephen Bailey-Smith noted the precarious security outlook but forecast debt relief would offer means to tackle poverty with the 2011 vote looming.
But for now, Congolese such as 46-year-old musician Jupiter Bonkondji question what there is to celebrate today.
“This moment represents a failure for our parents of the last 50 years,” he told Reuters. “Rather than a celebration, for me it is a funeral.”
Pic: President Joseph Kabila of the DRC