It has been confirmed now for several weeks: the Belgian King Albert II will be the guest of honor at the 50th independence celebrations in Kinshasa on June 30th, 2010. Minister of Information Lambert Mende said that he was be "the first amongst our guests of honor."
This is a bit bizarre on several levels. First, the Congolese government has been building up these celebrations as "a return of sovereignty" with the departure of MONUC and the "pacification" of the eastern Congo. Why, then, make the guest of honor the descendant of King Leopold II (not direct - he was his great-great-great uncle), who devastated the country? It was Albert II's older brother Baudouin who handed independence over to the Congolese in 1960 with these words:
"The independence of the Congo is the crowning of the work conceived by the genius of King Leopold II undertaken by him with firm courage, and continued by Belgium with perseverance. Independence marks a decisive hour in the destinies not only of the Congo herself but- I don't hesitate to say-of the whole of Africa."
To which Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba answered:
Our wounds are too fresh and too smarting for us to be able to have known ironies, insults, and blows which we had to undergo morning, noon and night because we were Negroes. We have seen our lands spoiled in the name of laws which only recognised the right of the strongest. We have known laws which differed according to whether it dealt with a black man or a white. (The whole speech here.)
To get a feel of those celebrations 50 years ago, read this Guardian article.
Overall, I've been amazed by the lack of controversy this has stirred in the Congo and Belgium. Colette Braeckman, the best known foreign correspondent reporting on the Congo, seemed positively enthusiastic about the visit in her blog posting here. Why don't they just invite the Prime Minister, why the king?
A quick look at Queen Elizabeth's visits abroad indicates that she hasn't attended any independence day celebrations in India, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia or Zimbabwe, where the UK's colonization saw more violence than elsewhere. (However, the Brits are trying to repair a statue of Henry Morton Stanley that is in a Kinshasa museum.)
The backdrop is the Congo's desire to maintain good relations with one of its most important foreign partners. When Karel de Gucht was foreign minister, these relations suffered terrible setbacks due his persistent criticism of Kabila's government, but his successor Steven Vanackere has tried to normalize relations. The Defense Minister even went so far last week to invite the Congolese army to join a military parade in honor of Belgium's national day, which caused an outcry given the FARDC's abuses.
In other news, the organization committee has announced their budget for the 30 June festivities: $2 million. Bonne fete.