Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Congolese diamonds for Belgian Queen Paola – What’s really the fuss?

It isn’t quite clear what the seeming controversy is all about in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe over Queen Paola’s receipt of a gift of Congolese diamonds during a recently concluded visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Paola had accompanied her husband, King Albert II, to represent Belgium at the Kinshasa commemorative festivities to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s so-called restoration of independence. The DRC’s head of regime Joseph Kabila gave Paola the priceless diamond set of necklace, bracelet and earrings, an impressively rich package indeed which led La Dernière Heure, the influential Belgian daily newspaper, to note, most pointedly: “a gift of choice and certainly with a high price”.

Some commentators in Belgium, the Netherlands and France are apparently surprised, with a few even “shocked” to learn of the Belgian royal family’s “acceptance of such (sic) expensive presents” from a country a Reuters’s and Agence France-Presse’s dispatches on the gift describe, respectively, as “impoverished” and “one of the poorest in the world”.

Really!? It is inconceivable that either Paola or Albert would have thought or would think that the central African country they visited a month ago is anywhere “impoverished” nor is it “one of the poorest [countries] in the world”. The Democratic Republic of Congo is overwhelmingly richer than Belgium and no one is better placed than the Belgian royal family, itself, to confirm this fact of comparative international economics. The family cannot but be aware that King Leopold II, their 19th century “illustrious” ancestor (some would differ by using the adjective “notorious” or even “bloody” to describe Leopold instead) wrestled that Congo basin of central Africa from Africa for the Belgian royalty and state. This was after an indescribably brutal campaign on the African population by Leopold’s private army and forces of the Belgian state during which 10-15 million Africans were murdered. In effect, Leopold’s army ravaged the Congo in search of diamond, rubber, ivory and the like, accumulating gargantuan wealth for the king (by the time Leopold dies in 1909, he had reaped a personal fortune of US$1.1 billion dollars [in early 21st century adjusted value terms] from the Congo genocide, making him one of the richest monarchs of his age) and transforming the nascent Belgian state into a modern European state.

To his credit, Leopold II made no secrets at all of the instrumentalist impact that the riches of the Congo would have on his poor Belgium. He had insisted all along: “I d[idn’t] want to miss the chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake”.

This African cake remains as scrumptious as ever for Belgium! Thirty-one years after Leopold’s death, Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, forcing the then Belgian royal family and government to flee to London on exile. Thanks to the inexhaustible wealth of the Congo bakery, the entire financing of the Belgian war effort including the expenses of the exiled royals and government, which totalled the grand sum of £40 million, was paid off comfortably. Thus, Belgium neither borrowed any money to pay for the war nor was its gold reserves used.

The historic effort made 15 years later by the irrepressible Patrice Lumumba, the young Congolese postal clerk and itinerant salesperson, to recover this bakery of his people for his people was violently suppressed by Belgian special forces and some of their foreign allies operating in concert with those Congolese hostile to the restoration of African independence. Lumumba was murdered and a Joseph Mobutu (or Mobutu Sese Seko) was ultimately installed instead to oversee the preservation of the bakery to its agelong exclusivist access, but with some modification in response to the exigencies of the epoch: Belgian royalty and government, the emerging “francophonie” constellation of states under French hegemony, Mobutu and his African cohorts. Yet, the Congo, Africa and the rest of the world will never forget Lumumba’s moving speech, addressed to his people and the Belgians, after being sworn in as prime minister on that 30th day of June 1960, part of which reads as follows:
… We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being; for it was a noble and just struggle and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force…

The “magnificent African cake”, so graphically expressed by Leopold II (he should know!), is indeed the metaphor at the crux of the Congo story, the Sudan story, the Nigeria story, the Burundi story, the-rest-of-the-Africa story...

It should now be clear that there is no such thing as “poor Africa”. The latter is an inexcusable obfuscation of language – and reality. Besides, it is an unpardonable slur on the humanity of African bakers who year in, year out, bake the cake that they are shut out from eating. Just as the Congo, Africans have been shut into anti-African caricatures of the state where they live, principally, to create incredible levels of wealth – not for themselves and their children and grandchildren and theirs, but for the continuing expropriation by extracontinental interests and their local African allies.

There is no future of African progress in the existing “Berlin states” of Africa. The inexorable logic of these states’ existence is to alienate Africans from their being and wealth. Africans have no other choice but break out of these states and create new states of organic sensibility where they are certain to not only bake their own nation’s cake but participate fully in the meal as well.

1 comment:

  1. Re-thinking Africa is precisely what you are doing, thank you Herbert. As you say, the Belgian royal family members are totally aware of the vast riches of Congo through their historical relationship to Congo, at least as the primary beneficiaries of its resources through shameless means. Whether this history is taught in Belgian schools I do not know. How interesting, as pointed out, that the newspapers felt the “high price” of the diamond jewellery was significant in relation to the poverty of a continent that has assisted the western and arab worlds in their own development both on and off the continent until now. It may also be surmised that the “high price” is a veiled reference to the so called “blood diamonds,” those owned by African people, failing to go through the ‘correct’ channels authorized by the registered foreign merchants whose allegiances have never been to Africa; and they have borne no guilt in relation to the countless people whose lives have been destroyed in the mining of these ‘killing’ stones.