Belgian King Philippe begins his first official visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday, to relaunch the partnership with President Tshisekedi and continue the work of memory on the colonial period, still omnipresent in people's minds.
This six-day trip, at the invitation of Félix Tshisekedi, has a strong symbolic significance, two years after Philippe expressed in a letter to the Congolese head of state his "deepest regrets" for the "wounds" of the colonization, a historic first.
The sovereign who has reigned since 2013 had regretted the "acts of violence and cruelty" committed at the time when his ancestor Leopold II had made the Congo his personal property (1885-1908), before the half-century of presence of the Belgian state.
In the former colony, Philippe will be accompanied by his wife, Queen Mathilde, and members of the Belgian government, including its leader Alexander De Croo. Three stages are planned and the sovereign must make a speech at the first two; in Kinshasa on Wednesday during a ceremony with Mr. Tshisekedi in front of the headquarters of the Congolese Parliament, then on Friday in front of students from the University of Lubumbashi.
"There will also be a reference to the colonial past," said the royal palace, without further details.
Twelve years after the last visit of a Belgian sovereign (Albert II in 2010), this one also aims to mark the warming of a relationship which was difficult during the end of the presidency of Joseph Kabila (2001-2018). The latter has been criticized including by Brussels for having remained in power beyond his second term, in violation of the Constitution of his country. Cooperation was temporarily suspended.
But members of the Belgian government returned to Kinshasa after Mr. Tshisekedi came to power, including former Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès in early 2020, and the king wants to contribute to the "new breath" given to the partnership since 2019, underlines t - we at the palace. This is to “encourage reform efforts”.
Initially scheduled for June 2020 for the 60th anniversary of the independence of Congo (formerly Zaire, now the DRC), the visit was postponed three times due to the coronavirus pandemic and then the war in Ukraine.
It comes in a context of renewed violence in North Kivu, where the DRC accuses the neighboring country, Rwanda, of supporting armed rebels opposed to the Congolese authorities. Belgium has called for an "immediate" end to the fighting, which is causing the exodus of thousands of civilians.
In this huge country, where the per capita GDP is one of the lowest in the world despite the mineral wealth, the East has been shaken by massacres and violence for nearly 30 years, a consequence of the genocide of the Tutsi in 1994 in Rwanda, some of whom perpetrators fled to the DRC.
The royal couple will show their solidarity with these bruised populations, in particular women victims of rape. The last leg of their journey is scheduled for June 12 in Bukavu, in the clinic of gynecologist Denis Mukwege, co-winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against sexual violence.
Health, education, training, forest protection: Philippe and Mathilde will have during their visit an overview of the sectors where development aid is exercised in the DRC, of which Belgium is a key partner, the giant's fourth donor African after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.
A stop on Wednesday at the National Museum in Kinshasa will also allow us to address the question of the return of works of art to the former colony, for which the Belgian government has defined a roadmap in 2021.
Reflection on the colonial past has suddenly accelerated in Belgium in 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement linked to the murder of African American George Floyd. After angry demonstrations by Afro-descendants, and the unbolting of statues of Leopold II by several municipalities, Parliament set up a special commission to "shed light" on this past.
It was also in the summer of 2020 that the children of Patrice Lumumba obtained the return by Belgian justice of a tooth attributed to the murdered hero of the anti-colonial struggle, who was ephemeral first Prime Minister of the independent Congo. After several postponements, the restitution ceremony is scheduled for Brussels on June 20, the starting point for commemorations in the DRC.