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The ties that bind

Congolese President Joseph Kabila was in Brussels on Monday as part of a four-nation European tour. But as he seeks financial and political backing here, Belgian troops are already on the ground in Congo helping to train the country's new army. Katleen Maes and Khaled Diab investigate the still strong ties between Belgium and its former colony.


February 2004

Kabila junior – who inherited the presidency following the assassination of his father, Laurent-Désiré, in 2001 – is undertaking his first tour of European capitals as the leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's power-sharing transitional government that was formed last year.


Following visits to Paris, Berlin and London, DRC's young leader was due to arrive in Brussels on Monday for a three-day visit during which he will meet Belgian and EU leaders. Kabila is seeking European financial and political backing for his mineral-rich country's ongoing peace process, as well as investments by European businesses. “Circumstances have considerably improved with the return of peace, stability, the reunification of the national territory, and the setting up of transitional institutions,” Kabila told business leaders in Paris last week.


Many European leaders are cautiously hopeful that the younger Kabila can draw a line under five years of conflict – in what has been described as Africa's First World War – that have left some three million people dead, finally setting his nation on the path to peace and prosperity. “We are confident in the willingness and ability of the transitional government to lead the country toward sovereignty, development and democracy,” French President Jacques Chirac said following a meeting with his Congolese counterpart.


Kabila's three-year rule has already led to neighbouring countries pulling out their armies from DRC or reducing their support for rebel factions. Transitional institutions – including a Belgian-backed unified army – have been set up and rebel groups began sharing power with Kinshasa in an interim government formed last year on the back of the hard-won Pretoria peace accords struck in 2002. As part of this so-called Intercongolese Dialogue, the country is now supposed to go through a period of reconciliation and institution building, which should culminate in free elections in 2005.


Hard road to peace

With years of war, millions dead and the rule of two oppressive dictators – whose abuses led Belgium, and then other EU member states, to stop all direct aid in 1991 – to contend with, the healing process is proving to be long and painful. Ethnic fighting drags on in the northeastern part of the country. MONUC, the French-dominated UN force, has managed to restore some form of stability and bring a stop to the worst atrocities in the Ituri region.


The obstacles on the road to peace have led to massive delays in the transitional and reunification processes and many observers worry that Congo will not be ready for real democratic elections next year, partly due to a lack the funding, logistical support and more importantly an open environment. The young interim president has been trying to assure European leaders that, despite the delays, he and his country are on track for 2005. “There hasn't been any major crisis, and there won't be one,” he vowed. “The transition will run its course.”


Some critics have accused Kabila of embarking on this European tour merely to launch his 2005 election battle to extend his interim rule. This does not sit easy with former rebels-turned-ministers who claim that he is an autocratic ruler.


Brothers in arms

Despite such criticisms, European leaders decided to throw in their lot with Kabila junior. Following his father's death, the EU – following the intense lobbying of Belgium – rekindled its interest in DRC. Only three months after Kabila took centre stage, European Development Commissioner Poul Nielson freed up €120 million in frozen EU subsidies. Belgian aid to its former colony rose from €22.8 million in 1999 to €44.4 million in 2002.


Late last year, Kabila invited the Belgian armed forces to play a leading role in training and supplying DRC's new unified army – which brings together former foes from rebel factions and government forces. After receiving UN clearance, Belgian defence minister André Flahaut gave the green light saying that, “a country without an army will have no stability”. He personally dropped off 190 of his finest officers in the beehive of the Oriental Province.


In the coming six months, they will train approximately 3,500 troops to undertake peacekeeping missions. The force will be split equally between former government soldiers, Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma rebels and Ugandan-backed MLC rebels, as well as representatives from several formerly warring tribes. Once the Congolese recruits have completed their training, they will reinforce the 4,500 MONUC troops in the Ituri region and help gradually to re-establish government control in the region.


Although Belgium has agreed to lead the training mission, it has been a staunch opponent of contributing troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC. This is partly out of a recognition that its colonial past in the country might bring up some uncomfortable – if unintentional – associations, and lead to the targeting of its peacekeepers, as occurred in Rwanda in 1994 where 10 Belgian blue berets were killed. This precipitated the withdrawal of UN troops leaving the subsequent genocide to go unchecked.


Since the beginning of the 1990s, Belgian policy has been to play what it sees as a more productive role: providing logistical support for international missions and to use its African expertise for humanitarian purposes. Belgium focuses its development and aid programme on countries with which it enjoys extensive ties – 13 of its 18 partner countries are African – and which often have large immigrant communities living here, such as Morocco and several central African states. The second distinctive pillar in Belgian foreign policy books is the promotion of human rights and peace through education.


If this initial mission is a success, it might increase Belgium's appetite for this kind of intervention. Foreign Minister Louis Michel has already hinted that the training mission might take on a longer-term form. "We could envision going further," he admitted, underlining that “other countries should complete the puzzle when they see the Belgian approach is a success.” This strategy – which focuses on building self-help capacity – seems to make sense because it builds a multi-ethnic and indigenous peace keeping infrastructure.


Since Kabila junior's rise to power, Belgium has seen a window of opportunity to stem the bloodshed in its former colony. It has capitalised on its strong historic ties with DRC and its position in Europe to advance Congo's stalling peace train. A peaceful and prosperous Congo is not only good for its people but it is good for Belgium's political and economic standing in the region. 


This article appeared on Expatica in February 2004. ã2004 Katleen Maes and Khaled Diab.




ã2004 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.