Impoverished Congo Marks 50 Years Of Independence

Up to 20 African countries mark 50 years of independence from Europe this year. That includes the Democratic Republic of Congo which marks its anniversary Wednesday. Since 1960, Congo, which is potentially one of the wealthiest countries on the continent, has lurched from rebellions and military coups to dictatorship and back-to-back civil wars.

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1960 marked the year that many African countries gained independence from Europe. They include the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony that turns 50 today. Congo has the resources to be one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. But it has lurched from rebellions and coups to dictatorship and civil war. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on a country still hoping to realize its potential.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Picture one of the most richly endowed countries on earth, with its rainforests and endless deposits of diamonds, uranium and coltan, the mineral used to manufacture your cell phone and laptop. That's Congo. Yet, this nation has little piped water and no reliable electricity supply for its 68 million people.

On a ramshackle barge heading down river from Mbandaka in the north to the capital, Kinshasa, karate instructor Justa Mbongbo(ph) marked his 50th birthday, complaining that neither he nor 50-year-old Congo had much to celebrate, and that annoyed him.

Mr. JUSTA MBONGBO (Karate Instructor): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Mbongbo told me he was lucky to have a job, but he had a family to feed and every day was a struggle. So what sort of legacy was that for future generations in Congo, he asked.

(Soundbite of song, "Independence Cha-Cha")

QUIST-ARCTON: Joseph Kabasale's "Independence Cha-Cha," a song that was all the rage in Congo 50 years ago. Then, the hopeful and newly independent nation straddling the heart of Africa was celebrating.

(Soundbite of song, "Independence Cha-Cha")

QUIST-ARCTON: But Congo got off to a troubled start. Within a year of independence, Patrice Lumbuba, its first leader was assassinated - reportedly with CIA involvement. Congo became a Cold War pawn. Under a kleptocratic dictatorship, Washington's ally, President Mobutu Sese Seko, looted state coffers.

By the time Mobutu was driven out of power in 1997, Congo was an impoverished, underdeveloped giant - the size of Western Europe, but with barely 300 miles of paved road to its name.

Mobutu's departure unleashed civil wars, which sucked in nine neighbors and claimed more than five million lives. Despite the presence of the world's biggest United Nations peacekeeping force, rebellions continue in eastern Congo, dubbed the rape capital of the world.

In recent weeks, though, as Congo prepared to celebrate its 50 anniversary, strains of "Independence Cha-Cha" are again floating around Kinshasa.

(Soundbite of singing people and machinery)

QUIST-ARCTON: And the sounds of construction fill the air while the shabby city was spruced up to welcome guests. Chinese laborers have given Kinshasa's once tree-lined June 30th Boulevard a complete makeover.

Congo's President Joseph Kabila came to power after his predecessor and father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in 2001. Four years ago, Kabila won disputed elections, made Congo's development his priority, and signed a $9 billion agreement with China - whose economy is now fueled, in part, by Congo's minerals.

The Congolese Information Minister, Lambert Mende Omalanga, insists the deal is a win-win.

Mr. LAMBERT MENDE OMALANGA (Congolese Information Minister): We are selling our wealth to China in exchange of infrastructures: hospitals, schools, university, railways, roads; it is what our people need.

(Soundbite of a rally)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of chanting)

QUIST-ARCTON: But Congolese are struggling to survive and long for their country's moment of promise. These aging independence fighters gather to chant rallying cries dating back to the brief era, 50 years ago, when Belgian Congo threw off its colonial shackles and stood ready to become a leader in independent Africa.

Disillusioned Congolese say that dream failed and they hope for a brighter future.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Kinshasa.

(Soundbite of singing)

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