Mark Ashurst: An Open Letter to King Albert II

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mark Ashurst is director of the Africa Research Institute, London]

Your Majesty, Fifty years today, your predecessor, King Baudouin, stood on the steps of the Palais de Justice in Leopoldville to mark the independence of Belgium's only colony.

That ceremony remains vivid in the collective imagination of most Congolese, though the vast majority were not born as the new state spiralled into the chaos that has scotched so many of the hopes vested in independence.

Inevitably, your presence in Kinshasa, Congo, will be the central act in the celebrations hosted by President Joseph Kabila.

Your speech today is a delicate assignment, your majesty. King Baudouin is a difficult act to follow - for all the wrong reasons. His speech 50 years ago, heavy with paternalism, is remembered today only for the swift rebuke from Congo's first prime minister. In an unscheduled speech, Patrice Lumumba rose from his seat to claim victory in "a passionate idealistic struggle, a struggle in which no effort, privation, suffering, or drop of our blood was spared".

Where Baudouin had described independence as a "generous gift" from Belgium, Lumumba insisted it was the birthright of every Congolese. The historian Ludo de Witte described Lumumba's retort as "electrifying". For most Congolese, listening on national radio, the prime minister's riposte was the first time they had heard an African defy a European - let alone a king.

Just over six months later, Lumumba's assassination, in January 1961, was a defeat of almost archetypal significance for the new generation of pan-Africanists led by Lumumba's mentor, Kwame Nkrumah, in Ghana....

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