DRC President Félix Tshisekedi. (Twitter/ Présidence RDC/Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty Images)
The world watches in horror as a convoy of Russian troops lumbers toward Kiev; in its wake, a tangled mass of destruction and despair. King Phillipe of Belgium is certainly aware of the gravity of the situation — and the subsequent threat on democracy, Belgian’s federal system notwithstanding.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine delayed King Phillipe and Queen Mathilde’s diplomatic visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa, which was scheduled for later this week. I humbly suggest that they use this added time to consider what messages their future visit will send to millions of Belgians and Congolese alike. For many people, the visit will not mark an acknowledgement of Congolese democracy, but rather, an abdication of it.
Just as King Leopold II established the Congo Free State in 1885 by seizing our land as his personal fiefdom, so too has Felix Tshisekedi illegally seized the Congolese presidency, using it to enrich himself and his political cronies. As has been widely reported, the 2018 elections in the Congo were stolen in a backroom deal between outgoing president Joseph Kabila and Felix Tshisekedi. How then, can a visit to Kinshasa be seen as anything short of legitimising a stolen election and a rejection of Congo’s democratic aspirations?
Speaking of Belgium’s colonial past in Congo, Princess Esmerelda recently stated: “Apologies are important to restart a balanced relationship” and that while “we are not responsible for our ancestors … we have a responsibility to talk about it.”
I, and millions of my Congolese brothers and sisters, wholeheartedly agree.
But restarting a balanced relationship requires more than apologising for the past; it also requires learning from the past and using that knowledge to do better in the present.
Make no mistake, in the time since Tshisekedi took office, he has done everything in his power to fortify his own brand of colonialism against democracy and the will of the people.
In May 2020, he declared a “state of siege” in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in an attempt to exclude voters in these provinces from voting in the 2023 elections.This state of siege has had disastrous consequences for the civilian population. The policy has also been used to violently repress citizens’ movements and pro-democracy movements such as Lamuka, including arrests of our members without cause.
Days ago, Congolese police violently arrested members of my political party ECiDé (Engagement for Citizenship and Development party), stripped them of their belongings, and quickly sentenced them to 10 years of penal servitude. They join other members of our party, who languish unjustly in prison, including our spokesperson in Ituri, Luc Malembe, and our party leader in Kinshasa, Luc Mulopwe.
And it’s not just members of my political party who are being targeted. Activists of the citizen movement Lucha are routinely arrested and sentenced in North Kivu without reason. Last month, Mumbere Ushindi, a young Lucha activist was shot and killed by members of the police force while peacefully protesting. This is amoral and unjust, while also planting the seeds of future unrest, instability and possible reprisals.
In this already worrying context, Tshisekedi has undertaken several actions to undermine the credibility of the upcoming 2023 elections. These include illegally appointing pliant and politically partial judges to the constitutional court, including the president of the court; attempting to establish single-party rule through the creation of the “Sacred Union of the Nation”, in direct violation of our Constitution; and subverting the independent and impartial process for appointing members of the Independent National Electoral Commission, including the powerful president.
On the positive side, the relationships between Belgians and Congolese citizens are greater and more equitable than those currently in positions of power. It is the power of citizens and our aspirations to be governed justly and fairly that unite us. As we have seen repeatedly on nightly news and on social media, citizens of Ukraine and Russia have united in common cause to stand up for the just principles that underpin our modern world.
It is in that spirit, more than 100 years after Leopold II, that I ask all Belgians — including King Phillipe and Queen Mathilde — to stand unwaveringly with the Congolese people on the side of humanity and justice. Do not legitimise Tshisekedi’s occupying regime and revive King Leopold’s ghosts. We deserve nothing less.