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Thursday, 18 January, 2001, 14:53 GMT
Belgian wealth squeezed from Congo
Brussels grew rich from its African colony
By Colin Blane in Brussels

In the mystery over what happened to DR Congo's leader, Laurent Kabila, many of the early facts were first confirmed by the Belgian Government.

Brussels would have been a very different city without its Congo connection

The Belgian foreign minister broke the news that Mr Kabila had been shot, and the prime minister was quick to announce he would be sending troops to the region, although not to DR Congo itself.

Belgium was, of course, the colonial power in Congo until 1960, and links between the two countries remain strong. Each has helped shape the other.

But while Belgium prospered from its African connection, Congo's story has been one of chaos and decline.

Rich rewards

Belgium's capital, Brussels, would have been a very different city without its Congo connection. There is a Congo flavour in music and food and Congo exiles can be found plotting in Brussels' bars and hotels - some still referring to their homeland by its former name, Zaire.

Brussels shopping arcade
A far cry from DR Congo's conflict
But it is the wealth that Belgium extracted from colonial Africa which changed the face of the modern-day capital.

Two of Brussels' most elegant thoroughfares, Avenue Louise and Avenue Terveuren were laid out with money raised from Belgium's adventures in the Congo basin, and many of the city's most grandiose buildings were funded from the proceeds of rubber, timber and ivory.

Even the district largely rebuilt with European Union offices is dominated by an imperial Arc de Triomphe - a rival to the one in Paris. Bureaucrats and politicians see it every day as they whizz round the Schuman roundabout. It is an eye-catching centrepiece for an elegant park.

But once again, the money to pay for this symbol of grandeur was squeezed from the Congo.

African prize

More than in any other of the European colonial powers, one man was responsible for Belgium's grip on a vast chunk of central Africa: Leopold II.

Even by the standards of the day, Leopold's attitude to his colony was ruthless and exploitative

He outfoxed his European competitors, pretending to set up an international society to supervise the Congo basin, before taking over - as his own private holding - territory 80 times the size of Belgium.

Leopold - as king of a small, newly-formed European country - told his advisers that Belgium must have an empire and by 1885, he had one.

DR Congo soldiers
DR Congo is gripped by civil war
"I don't want to miss the chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake," he said in a letter to one of his ambassadors.

And that was how he viewed the raw materials and the people of the Congo - as a prize to be consumed. But even by the standards of the day, Leopold's attitude to his colony was ruthless and exploitative.

The scandal which eventually shamed the Belgian Government to bring to an end Leopold's 20 years of despoiling the Congo was the discovery that his agents had been using forced labour to harvest rubber - a highly sought-after commodity at the time. Villages which resisted paying the rubber-tax were punished.

Accounts of atrocities reached London and Brussels - including one which described how Leopold's enforcers had collected baskets of severed hands to prove they had been doing their work.

History repeats

In the end, Leopold's own ministers took his private fiefdom from him and his vast territories became the Belgian Congo - to distinguish them from the French colony on the other side of the Congo River. But by the time Leopold was stopped, the damage was done.

Perhaps Congo is too big a country to be governed as a single state

His personal fortune was enormous. For the millions of dollars he took from the Congo - without ever visiting Africa himself - his rule destroyed thousands of villages and left an estimated three million people dead.

In Brussels, Leopold left his mark in stone - in monuments and buildings. But in Congo his influence was much more malign. The years of terror broke down traditional communities and created a long-lasting pattern of plunder.

Laurent Kabila
Laurent Kabila promised elections that were never held
The inheritor of Leopold's methods nearly a century later was President Mobutu. I met him as his powers were failing, but in many ways he had matched the old king for avarice. Zaire - as Mobutu named Congo - could have been Africa's wealthiest country with rich reserves of copper, diamonds, cobalt and gold. But when I went to see Mr Mobutu he was deep in crisis.

Africa's most rapacious modern leader had failed to pay his soldiers and there had been a spasm of rioting and looting. From the far bank of the Zaire River, looking across Stanley Pool, Kinshasa seemed almost like a normal city, the glass of its tall tower blocks reflecting the evening sun.

Up close, though, Kinshasa's pretensions were unravelling. Young men in combat trousers stood by the roadside selling looted goods - tennis rackets, a toilet bowl, a fish tank. Under Mr Mobutu, as under King Leopold, theft was becoming part of the mainstream economy.

Mr Mobutu invited journalists to witness him swearing in a new batch of ministers, a new collection of snouts at his government's trough.

With his leopardskin hat and his throne, the old manipulator still looked the part, but in a country the size of western Europe he was losing control. Others were looting the economy on an extravagant scale - even the embassy buildings in Japan were said to have been stolen.

Perhaps Congo is too big a country to be governed as a single state. Mr Mobutu held it together while there were assets to spread around, but his successor Laurent Kabila had a more torrid time right from the start.

For the last three years, six countries and at least three rebel groups have been at war, squabbling over Congo's remaining mineral wealth, diamonds and oil.

Curiously, Laurent Kabila did come to Brussels to meet the present Belgian King, but the days of European intervention in Congo's affairs are over.

King Leopold and his European rivals created the conditions for chaos in Congo a century ago, the most the former colonial powers will do now is withdraw their nationals and stand well back.

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17 Jan 01 | Africa
Belgium prepares Congo evacuation
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