DRC marks 50 troubled years of independence

The Democratic Republic of Congo marks 50 years of independence Wednesday with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Belgian
king among a host of world leaders attending the celebrations.

A highlight will be a large military parade in the capital where President Joseph Kabila will be joined by the UN chief, King Albert II from former colonial power Belgium, three other monarchs and 18 heads of government.

The national anthem, sung for the first time at the June 30, 1960 independence from 80 years of colonial rule, urges citizens to “build, in peace, a country more beautiful than before”.

But half a century on those hopes have been cruelly dashed, with the vast, resource-rich African nation blighted by war, corruption and poverty.

“As far as we are concerned the DRC has moved backwards more than forwards,” Congolese bishops wrote in a joint text to mark the anniversary.

The “dream of a beautiful Congo” has been destroyed, they said.

For much of its post-colonial history, the DRC was bled dry by the kleptocratic regime of Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko, who came to power in a 1965 coup and ruled for 32 years.

Today, though endowed with vast reserves of gold, copper, cobalt and diamonds, it is one of the world’s poorest nations, hobbled by a bloody eight-year war, from 1996 to 2003, that cost about three million lives.

Four years after the 2006 democratic election of Kabila brought some stability to the vast nation, two-thirds of its 60-million inhabitants still scrape by on $1,25 a day.

Kabila is meanwhile fighting off criticism of his own record on governance, human rights and the economy.

In April the International Crisis Group accused him of “showing a clear authoritarian trend”.

The United Nations says armed groups are expanding as are the recruiting of child soldiers and violence, especially sexual, against civilians.

It has also said the country is going through “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world” with people in some areas facing acute malnutrition.

The outlook is not much brighter on the economic front, despite a pledge by creditor nations to cancel a large part of the DRC’s debt, estimated at $11-billion.

A five-point development programme focused on infrastructure, health and education, energy, jobs and housing has meanwhile had little impact on the ground.

The United Nations has the world’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation in the DRC, numbering more than 20 000 personnel, although it has agreed to pull out 2 000 troops.

Kinshasa has been pushing for the entire force, which initially deployed in 2001, to leave by 2011.

Amnesty International meanwhile said it was “nothing short of hypocritical for Congo to throw nationwide celebrations without acknowledging the appalling state of human rights in the country today”.

“The Congolese people are trapped in a limbo between an unsatisfactory peace and the threat of further approaching crises,” said the London-based rights watchdog’s Veronique Aubert in a statement.

Amnesty also warned that the work of human rights activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo was becoming increasingly deadly.

The high profile celebrations come just days after the funeral on Saturday of Floribert Chebeya, the country’s most prominent human rights activist, whose body was found the day after he was summoned to attend a meeting with Kinshasa police.

The funeral was held on the International Day for the Victims of Torture, at the wish of his family, who believe he died as a consequence of torture.

Chebeya was the executive director of one of Congo’s largest human rights organisations and had been working on a number of sensitive affairs involving the head of Police General John Numbi.

His body was found in his car early on June 2.

The activist had previously told Amnesty International that he felt he had been followed and that he was under surveillance by the security services.

“Death threats against human rights defenders and journalists in the DRC are increasing at an alarming rate,” said Aubert. – AFP

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