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Belgium and the Congo: Mon Dieu

There’s something about feet metaphors these days when it comes to describing Belgium’s relations with the Congo.

First case in point: Karel de Gucht. Now, De Gucht is no longer Belgium’s foreign minister. But when he took the floor during a debate about the Congo at the European Parliament on December 17, he was seen by Congolese first and foremost as Belgian, not as the EU Development Minister. Here’s what got the Congolese government upset. Talking about all the money spent on the Congo, he said: “The problem is: what impact does all of this have at the end of the day, if you don’t have an appropriate interlocutor in the political arena.” The Congo has become “a huge waste,” a country where “almost everything has to be redone, starting with the reconstruction of the state, whose absence is at the heart of the problem.”

They say the Flemish Belgian don’t suffer from the same guilt complex as the Walloons when it comes to their colonial past. The colonial government was dominated by francophone Belgians, who made French the colonial language, even though according to the law Dutch had equal status. But the Congolese don’t discriminate – this attitude smacks of neo-colonialism for many of them. Lambert Mende, the Congolese information minister who is not known for his soft touch, hit back, saying de Gucht “is incapable of having normal, dignified relationship” with the Congo. Others accused him of racism, even Belgian politicians (Walloons) remarked that this was no way to talk about a country. Yes, it’s true that De Gucht was severe, and that language like that is not common when talking about foreign heads of state. It reminds Congolese of other remarks he made, in 2004, as Belgian foreign minister, after a trip to the Congo: “I did not find any convincing Congolese politicians.” (He made the comments in Rwanda, which he said “is well managed,” further infuriating the Congolese.) he has also been somewhat hypocritical, saying he has the right to criticize the Congolese (presumably because of the significant support the Belgians still provide), but would not scold the Chinese government for their human rights record on a trip to the country.

But as much as De Gucht has foot-in-mouth syndrome, usually his analysis is accurate and can help infuse some sanity in the otherwise overly prim debate. Even in Kinshasa, as much as popular opinion resents Belgian arrogance, many people sympathized with his sentiment.

The response was predictable. A few weeks later, when De Gucht was supposed to visit the eastern Congo to sign a new package of over $300 million in development funds, Kinshasa refused to give him a visa, prompting the EU foreign minister to summon the Congolese ambassador in Brussels.

Second case in point: “Belgian politicians are chewing the soles of their shoes, that’s how anxious they are to get their King to attend the Congolese 50th independence celebrations this year,” a friend told me a few days ago. It is true: King Albert II is expected to be a guest of honor in Kinshasa this year, when the country celebrates its independence. Does anybody else notice how bizarre this is? Any visitor to the Royal Africa Museum in Terveuren (Brussels) will remark that many Belgians are still in Lala-land with regards to their colonial past, buying the notion that Belgian had gone there to save the country from itself (at least in the post-Leopold period) – just look how much better off they were then than now! Mon Dieu. Despite some good efforts (even some nice exhibitions at Terveuren), there has been little critical reappraisal of the colonial government that ruled the Congo between 1908-1960. Just remember the outcry there was in Belgium when Adam Hochschild’s book “King Leopold’s Ghost” was published there.

So will Kabila behave like Patrice Lumumba in 1960, when he unexpectedly turned to King Baudouin (Albert’s older brother) and said: “Who will ever forget the massacres where so many of our brothers perished, the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were thrown?” I doubt it. But we won’t have sanity in the Congo-Belgian relations until both sides carry out some serious re-evaluation of their past behaviors.

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