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Belgium gambles on Tshisekedi

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Barbara Moens is a trade reporter at POLITICO Europe.

KINSHASA — The Belgian royals’ visit to Congo, which ended earlier this week, was an attempt to grapple with Belgium’s grisly colonial past.

But as a consequence, Brussels also ended up embracing — and aiding — Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, who came to power in an election the European Union found questionable.

Congolese officials had declared Tshisekedi the winner of the 2019 race, dismissing several independent assessments that concluded opposition candidate Martin Fayulu was the rightful winner. Fayulu alleged the vote was rigged in a deal struck by Tshisekedi with outgoing President Joseph Kabila, and he challenged the result in the Constitutional Court, but to no avail.

Western powers reluctantly accepted how things played out in Kinshasa, limiting themselves to grumbling about an unfair democratic process but, in fact, happy to be rid of Kabila and relieved to see the first peaceful transition of power in the Congo, since it became independent from Belgium in 1960.

However, last week’s handshakes, official meetings and press conferences in the Congolese President’s palace, and on the grounds of the country’s parliament, went much further than simply marking an acceptance of Tshisekedi.

The trip had been delayed several times because of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, pushing it closer to Congo’s scheduled 2023 presidential election. And King Philippe, on his his first visit to Congo since ascending the throne in 2013, alongside Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, handed Tshisekedi ammunition to counter criticism from his political opponents.

Tshisekedi’s been striving to gain even greater sway over Congo’s Constitutional Court by packing it with handpicked loyalists. Just last month, he sacked the court’s president, his opponents fear, in preparation for the 2023 election.

For the Congolese president, the political gains of improving ties with Belgium are clear. So, too, are the economic ones.

China has been investing less in Africa — especially since the coronavirus pandemic. Keen to step in, the EU has pledged €150 billion in funding for major projects in Africa.

Tshisekedi’s hoping some of that cash will be heading to Congo, which he can also use to help convince banks to loan him the money he needs to fire up his country’s lagging economy, which contracted by 3.5 percent last year.

“Belgium needs Congo and Congo needs Belgium,” Gilbert Fitula Kishiba, head of the University of Lubumbashi, said when introducing the King to thousands of students waving Congolese and Belgian flags.

And it’s true, Congo can certainly do with Belgium’s practical help. But why Brussels is so eager to renew ties is more complicated.

On the one hand, Belgium, like many other former Western imperial powers, is trying to confront a dark colonial past, against a backdrop of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.

The period under Belgian King Leopold II was the most notorious: A brutal, forced labor system led to a likely 10 million Congolese dying during his reign from disease and abuse. Workers were subjected to horrific punishment for failing to meet quotas on the monarch’s rubber plantations, including the amputation of limbs.

Belgium’s colonial rule throughout was “unjustifiable, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism,” King Philippe said in Kinshasa last week. His speech went even further than the 2020 letter in which he’d expressed his “profound regrets” but shied away from issuing formal apologies, which officials feared could lead to demands for reparations.

Congo’s place in the world is also changing, as according to De Croo, it’s now a key regional player in international efforts to curb climate change and combat deforestation. Through inviting dialogue and by attaching strict conditions to development money, Belgium’s hoping to improve the daily lives of the Congolese — one in three of whom suffer from acute hunger.

Congo’s also poised to benefit from the massive copper and cobalt boom under way. And as the world’s top producer of cobalt — crucial for electric batteries — and Africa’s leading resource for copper, Congo’s economic importance has increased dramatically since Ukraine’s invasion by cobalt and copper-rich Russia.

King Philippe addressed Congo’s mineral wealth in a speech in Lubumbashi on Friday: “The opportunities for development in Congo are real and vast. And it is no small thing to say this here, in the capital of the copper region. Moreover, copper is a good example of the continuity of the economy over time, since, in addition to its own value, it retains cobalt, the metal that has become essential to the new technologies that will shape the world of tomorrow.”

But he emphasized: “It is for you to get the most value out of these riches, in your country, to the benefit of the Congolese people.”

Amid these shifting dynamics, Belgian diplomats and officials acknowledge their embrace of Tshisekedi walks a fine line. But after years of frozen diplomatic relations, Belgium has decided to take a bet on the Congolese president, hoping he can rebuild a country, one of the poorest and most corrupt in the world.

Last week, De Croo said he’d rather try to change things by getting in the game than just shouting from the sidelines. “Not much will happen in that case,” he said. “That’s not why I entered politics.”

He also said Belgium’s ready to take up a role in the conflict in east Congo, where the regime is currently increasingly engaged in fighting with the rebel March 23 Movement. Congolese officials say the rebels are “supported by soldiers and artillery from the Rwandan army” — an accusation denied by Kigali.

Like Ukraine, the Congo has the right to defend its borders, the Belgian prime minister said during the visit. The Belgium monarch echoed the point, saying “there’s no development without peace.”

Speaking up so publicly about east Congo is another bet that Belgium’s making, as violence is rapidly increasing in the region. If the conflict escalates into a full-blown war and Congo calls in its favor from Brussels, Belgium will risk facing even more difficult questions — this time about sending its military back into the Congo.

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