New row over colonial past as Congo marks independence
Leigh Phillips in Brussels
Wednesday 30 June 2010
50th anniversary triggers rancorous debate as Belgians may face charges over Lumumba killing
King Albert II of Belgium will today join African leaders including Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe at a ceremony in Kinshasa to mark the 50th anniversary of Congo's independence. The capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has received a facelift for today's military parade, but the anniversary has triggered a rancorous debate about the colonial record of Belgium, where a campaign is under way to prosecute ageing civil servants over the 1961 murder of a Congolese independence hero. Thousands of Congolese lined the streets to cheer the arrival of "their" king on Monday night , according to Le Soir, Belgium's bestselling Francophone daily, which refigured its masthead from blue to leopard print and renamed itself Le Soir de Kinshasa for a day.
The Belgian monarch will not be making speeches while in Congo, however. He is keen to avoid any echo of his brother's notorious farewell speech in 1960, in which he saluted the "genius" of Belgium's colonialism. The Belgian government is also anxious that the visit should not be seen as endorsing Congo's poor human rights record under President Joseph Kabila. Meanwhile, a team of Belgian, American and German lawyers is preparing to file criminal complaints relating to the assassination in January 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first post-independence prime minister.The legal team is targeting 12 former civil servants who worked in the Belgian colonial administration.
Led by Christophe Marchand, the lawyers represent Lumumba's three sons and are basing their case on a Belgian parliamentary investigation in 2001 into the country's involvement in the assassination..The parliamentary commission found that Belgium was morally responsible but not legally responsible," Marchand said."We analysed the documents, the facts established by the commission, and found there were international legal consequences. "The events of 1960-61 occurred at a time of international armed conflict. This means there is no statute of limitations, as these constitute war crimes."
The complaint will be filed in October against individuals Marchand declines to name and who are now in their 80s and 90s. "It's going to be a hard case, for sure. The defence will be very tough," Marchand said. "The descendants of Belgians in Congo want to avoid trials at all cost.They will argue that this is not the right jurisdiction, that the statute of limitations does apply, and that this does not count as an international conflict. And there is still a strong taboo in Belgium about discussing this subject."
Louis Michel, Belgium's liberal ex-foreign minister and until last year the EU's development commissioner, caused controversy last week by declaring Leopold II "a true visionary for his time, a hero", and a man who "brought civilisation". Michel, now an MEP, said: "The Belgians built railways, schools and hospitals and boosted economic growth. Yes," he said, "maybe colonisation was domineering, but at a certain moment, it brought civilisation."
Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghosts, about the Belgian Congo, said that sections of Belgian society were still unwilling to address the past: "Leopold's aim was quite open: to extract as much wealth from the territory as he could. In today's money, this amounted to $1bn in profit over 23 years. He did so by putting much of the male population under forced labour. Between 8 and 10 million Congolese died."
Leopold pioneered particularly brutal forms of forced labour for rubber extraction. To make sure the Congolese men did not run off, the Belgians held their women hostage until they came back."The men were worked to death and the women raped and starved. Quite how this can be hailed as the delivery of progress and civilisation is a mystery to me," said Hochschild.
Belgium still boasts a Royal Belgian Overseas Union which aims "to restore the image of the Belgian colonial period, and to combat all libel and disinformation against the Belgian colonial era."In the Matonge quarter of Brussels, home to Belgium's many Congolese immigrants, posters denounce the royal visit and Belgian "neocolonialism".
At the Bana Congo barber's, Masudi Serge said the royal visit was unwanted."We are not happy, not happy at all. Leopold was a Hitler. There have never been any real inquiries here, any trials. How can we be happy when they are still profiting from Congo?
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