KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi vowed to root out the corruption and impunity that has hindered the country since its independence from Belgium as the nation marked its 60th anniversary amid a global reckoning over racial inequality.
While the milestone was commemorated in Belgium with gestures of atonement, Congolese reflected on the struggles that have engulfed the nation in the decades since independence and how to move forward.
Among the statues being removed around the world as countries confront legacies of slavery and colonialism was one being taken down Tuesday in Belgium of King Leopold II, Congo's brutal colonial ruler.
A letter sent to Congo's current president stopped short of an official apology, but Belgium’s King Philippe conveyed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted during the colonial era.
The vast, mineral-rich country in Central Africa suffered decades of oppression after it was annexed by Belgium in 1908. After independence in 1960, Congo soon fell under the repressive rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who ruled for 32 years.
The first leader after Mobutu's death was assassinated, and his son Joseph Kabila then took over and headed the country for 18 years.
Tshisekedi, whose father led Congo's largest opposition party until his death, took office last year but only after long-delayed elections were finally held. In a televised speech late Monday, Tshisekedi pledged to root out impunity so that the country could move forward.
“From independence to the present day, the main effect of our political policy has been to dilute efficiency, to dilute responsibility and ultimately to do disservice," the president said.
Because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday's milestone took place without the fanfare and public commemorations that marked the 50th anniversary a decade earlier in Kinshasa. Congolese, though, still used the occasion to reflect on the challenges facing the country.
"Sixty years after independence, can we Congolese be proud of our country? I don’t think so," political researcher Paulin Mbenza told The Associated Press.
“Congo can rise from its ashes ... but this depends on the will of the politicians because they are more concerned with the personal interest than the general interest,” he said.
That criticism was echoed by Tapie Lutunu, a political analyst in Kinshasa.
“Education, employment, health, infrastructure — nothing works because of the poor management and mediocrity of the Congolese political class,” Lutunu said. "We need a new class of elites motivated by love of their country.”