The Democratic Republic of Congo rid itself of European colonisers, but their legacy and misrule still haunts the country.

What did independence actually mean? This is one of the questions I am asked almost religiously every June 30th as Grand Kalle’s “Independence Cha Cha,” the first Pan-African hit, plays on a loudspeaker in the background. 

Does it mean sovereignty?

As the sun rose on Thursday, June 30, 1960, my beloved Democratic Republic of Congo — Europe’s most significant and geostrategic colony — broke free from 75-years of Belgian rule. My grandfather, a World War II veteran, was one of the 14 million Congolese who celebrated.

A historic video of this watershed moment on YouTube shows Patrice Lumumba, the 35-year-old man who co-led the fight for independence, on stage in Palais de la Nation exhorting Congolese who prayed and toiled, died and wept, and fought and resisted for independence. 

King Baudouin of Belgium, the great-grandson of the infamous and monstrous King Leopold II, sat directly before him. In the audience was also Colonel Frederic Vandewalle — the Belgian officer who would in less than seven months play a notorious role in Lumumba’s assassination; the most important assassination of the 20th century.

"I ask all of you […] to mark this June 30, 1960, as an illustrious date that will be ever engraved in your hearts, a date whose meaning you will proudly explain to your children, so that they in turn might relate to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren the glorious history of our struggle for freedom,” Lumumba declared.

With this evocative phrase, Lumumba framed the purpose and higher cause of independence that would continue throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Maybe even 22nd. Whenever I watch that video, or reread his speech, it's an emotional experience.

The first European colonists to establish a presence in 'Kongo', as it was then spelled, were the Portuguese in 1482, ten years before Christopher Columbus had ‘discovered’ the United States. 

The Belgians (first their king, Leopold II, and then their state) began to dominate Congo in 1885 after the Berlin Conference. And, in my opinion, the 75-years of Belgian rule in Congo as well as its after-party did more harm to Congo then the 400 years of the slave trade.

Between 1885 and 1908, King Leopold’s agents in Congo Free State killed 10 million Congolese in an attempt to gain control of Congo's rubber and ivory. That was equivalent to half of Congo’s population as well as to the 11 million souls historians say Africa lost to slavery between the 15th and 19th century. Half of them, too, came from 'Kongo'. These figures never fail to shake me. In fact, they are one of the reasons I always mark Independence Day.

Yet, whilst the country they died for, the place Leopold still haunts, might be “independent,” it’s still clearly not free – and certainly not at peace; stalling both Congo and Africa’s development and prosperity.

In fact, over the past 60-plus years of self-rule, many of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Lumumba alluded to, have become exiled like me, or internally displaced because of wars over access to or control of Congo’s resource rich eastern provinces which – thanks primarily to Paul Kagame – killed over 5.4 million Congolese between 1998 and 2008.

Or facing famine and malnutrition – barely surviving from selling bananas, peanuts and local staple cassava on street corners – in a country where it rains 9 out 12 months. This is partially why the proportion of Congolese living below the poverty line — $1.25 per day — now stands at 90 percent. If not, then living in dire poverty — a new form of bondage whose end doesn’t seem to be on the horizon — because of looting, the central objective of the Belgian colonial state.

Unemployment now stands at anywhere from 70 to 84 percent. The few who still have “work” are often unpaid. When director-general of the National Railway (SNCC), Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, was promoted to prime minister in May 2019, he left many of his employees unpaid for 150 months. Which explains why corruption is so widespread.

Of course, we did not arrive at this point by accident. Joseph Mobutu misruled the country for over 32 years of the 20th century. Joseph Kabila turned the country into a family enterprise, costing the lives of countless Congolese to maintain his control over every sector of the economy.

As Congo begins its seventh decade of independent statehood, I find myself wrestling, perhaps grappling, with the hard meaning of independence. Even about its future and direction of Congo and Africa as a whole. 

Is Congo a success as it turns 60? Are we free if we still depend on the US, UK, EU and now Chinese donations or IMF grants to survive? Can the current Congo survive to 2060, or even for just another 20 years?

If even one of the answers to these questions is “no,” then we must also ask: what can I do about it with what I have and where I am – right now. 

Frantz Fanon did not mince words when he reflected that “Africa is shaped like a gun and Congo is the trigger.” 

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