Congo marks 60th anniversary of independence from Belgium

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.

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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.”

FILE - In this June 30, 1961 file photo, Congo celebrates the first anniversary of independence from Belgium with a large military parade in Leopoldville, the capital before it was later renamed in 1966 to Kinshasa, in Congo. On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 Congo is marking the 60th anniversary of achieving independence from the colonial rule of Belgium. (AP Photo/Horst Faas, File)
FILE - In this June 30, 1961 file photo, Congo celebrates the first anniversary of independence from Belgium with a large military parade in Leopoldville, the capital before it was later renamed in 1966 to Kinshasa, in Congo. On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 Congo is marking the 60th anniversary of achieving independence from the colonial rule of Belgium. (AP Photo/Horst Faas, File) (Horst Faas)
FILE - In this July 22, 1960 file photo, an unidentified Congolese citizen removes a portrait of Belgium's King Baudouin, at the N'Djili Airport in Leopoldville, the capital before it was later renamed in 1966 to Kinshasa, in Congo. On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 Congo is marking the 60th anniversary of achieving independence from the colonial rule of Belgium. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this July 22, 1960 file photo, an unidentified Congolese citizen removes a portrait of Belgium's King Baudouin, at the N'Djili Airport in Leopoldville, the capital before it was later renamed in 1966 to Kinshasa, in Congo. On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 Congo is marking the 60th anniversary of achieving independence from the colonial rule of Belgium. (AP Photo, File) (Uncredited)
FILE - In this July 4, 1960 file photo, first Prime Minister of the Congo Patrice Lumumba, left, shakes hands with Belgium's ambassador Jean van den Bosch, right, at a farewell dinner for press representatives who covered the Congo independence ceremonies, in Leopoldville, the capital before it was later renamed in 1966 to Kinshasa, in Congo. On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 Congo is marking the 60th anniversary of achieving independence from the colonial rule of Belgium. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this July 4, 1960 file photo, first Prime Minister of the Congo Patrice Lumumba, left, shakes hands with Belgium's ambassador Jean van den Bosch, right, at a farewell dinner for press representatives who covered the Congo independence ceremonies, in Leopoldville, the capital before it was later renamed in 1966 to Kinshasa, in Congo. On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 Congo is marking the 60th anniversary of achieving independence from the colonial rule of Belgium. (AP Photo, File) (Uncredited)
FILE - In this June 30, 1960 file photo, first Prime Minister of the Congo Patrice Lumumba, left, signs the act of independence of the Congo, with Prime Minister of Belgium Gaston Eyskens, right, in Leopoldville, the capital before it was later renamed in 1966 to Kinshasa, in Congo. On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 Congo is marking the 60th anniversary of achieving independence from the colonial rule of Belgium. (AP Photo/Jean Jacques Levy, File)
FILE - In this June 30, 1960 file photo, first Prime Minister of the Congo Patrice Lumumba, left, signs the act of independence of the Congo, with Prime Minister of Belgium Gaston Eyskens, right, in Leopoldville, the capital before it was later renamed in 1966 to Kinshasa, in Congo. On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 Congo is marking the 60th anniversary of achieving independence from the colonial rule of Belgium. (AP Photo/Jean Jacques Levy, File) (Jean Jacques Levy)
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 9, 2020 file photo, a bust of Belgium's King Leopold II is smeared with red paint and graffiti in Tervuren, Belgium. For the first time in Belgium’s history, a reigning king has expressed regret for the violence carried out by the former colonial power when it ruled over what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a letter to the president of the DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, published Tuesday June 30, 2020 — the 60th anniversary of the African country’s independence — Belgium’s King Philippe conveyed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted on Belgian Congo. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 9, 2020 file photo, a bust of Belgium's King Leopold II is smeared with red paint and graffiti in Tervuren, Belgium. For the first time in Belgium’s history, a reigning king has expressed regret for the violence carried out by the former colonial power when it ruled over what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a letter to the president of the DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, published Tuesday June 30, 2020 — the 60th anniversary of the African country’s independence — Belgium’s King Philippe conveyed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted on Belgian Congo. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File) (Virginia Mayo)