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DRC: Felix Tshisekedi in Brussels to turn the page on Kabila years

By Romain Gras
Posted on Tuesday, 17 September 2019 12:10

Felix Tshisekedi, during his visit to Bunia, eastern DRC, on 2 July 2019. DR / Presidency of the DRC Republic

The Congolese president landed in Brussels on Monday for a four-day state visit with a tight schedule.

After several years of tensions between Belgium and the DRC under Joseph Kabila, Félix Tshisekedi hopes take advantage of this move to mark a break with the positions of his predecessor.

While there were question marks over potential visit to Paris in mid-September, it is finally to Brussels – where he lived for a long time – that Félix Tshisekedi will make his first official visit to Europe as Head of State.

It has been greeted with great fanfare by the Belgian authorities. And shows the importance given by the Congolese president to his relations with the kingdom.

Royal Audience

The Congolese President’s programme, which runs until 20 September, includes a meeting on Tuesday with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, as well as with members of the government, including Cooperation Minister Alexander De Croo and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence Didier Reynders.

These interviews will be followed by an audience with the royal couple at the Palais before closing the day with a dinner at the Belgian-Luxembourg-Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture.

The rest of the trip will be divided between Antwerp and Wallonia for meetings with officials from the diamond sector and the Institute of Tropical Medicine – where the Ebola epidemic may well be discussed – as well as exchanges with entrepreneurs and members of the diaspora.

The visit will end with a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker and Federica Mogherini, respectively President of the European Commission and High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs.

“Disrupt the dictatorial system”

A thorough programme, therefore, and a strategically important visit for the Congolese President who, although only holding a minority in the Senate, the Assembly and the new government, is taking advantage of his travels abroad to mark a break with the positions of his predecessor.

In Washington, for example, in April, the head of state claimed to have come to power to “disrupt the dictatorial system that was in place”.

This is also a Félix Tshisekedi in search of diplomatic support – Brussels counts in the European diplomatic ballet in the DRC – as well as financial backing.

Since his inauguration last January, Félix Tshisekedi has stepped up his courting of the Belgian administration. During his trip to Washington, he was able to talk to Didier Reynders.

  • As a reminder, before taking note of the election of Félix Tshisekedi, the Belgian Minister, in the midst of the controversy over the election, asked for “the publication of the minutes”, considering “that a recount may be necessary afterwards”.

On the Belgian side, it is stated that the election page has now been “turned”, but it is specified that the two countries “are not starting from scratch” and that this visit is being organised “with a certain caution”.

Tumultuous relationships

The last four years between Kinshasa and Brussels have been tense. The pre-electoral crisis, which began with the demonstrations in January 2015 considerably cooled relations between the two countries.

  • Several Kabila administration officials are still subject to European sanctions as a result of the repression of those demonstrations.

The successive postponements of the presidential elections in 2016 and 2017, as well as Brussels’ attitude — considered “too critical” by the Congolese authorities at the time — had led to a suspension of military cooperation between the two countries in 2017.

  • Didier Reynders had notably considered that Bruno Tshibala’s appointment as Prime Minister of the DRC “departed from the letter and spirit of the New Year’s Eve Agreement”.

In the meantime, the Kabila administration had ordered the closure of Schengen House, which until then had served as a kind of consulate for the EU and which granted visas for several European countries under the supervision of Brussels.

  • The former Congolese president also considered that the Belgian development agency Enabel “no longer had any reason to be in the DRC”.
  • The diplomatic tension had finally culminated with the recall, in January 2018, of the Belgian ambassador in Kinshasa, Bertrand de Crombrugghe.

Positive signals

As a sign that times are changing, Belgium now has a new ambassador, Johan Indekeu, who arrived in Kinshasa on 18 August.

  • Indekeu has already met with the new Minister of Foreign Affairs Marie Tumba Nzeza, but has not yet officially presented his credentials to the Congolese President.

The resumption of military cooperation in May, the reopening of the Belgian Consulate General in Lubumbashi, the relaunch of bilateral cooperation by Enabel, or the return of the European Visa Centre (EVC), which has taken over from the Schengen House, are all positive signals that the visit of the Head of State will seek to build on before travelling to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, which begins on 17 September.

An awkward case

According to the Belgian media L’Echo and De Tijd, a preliminary investigation was opened by the public prosecutor’s office into Didier Reynders, related to bribes for several public contracts such as the construction of the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa.

  • According to both newspapers, a former State Security official visited the federal judicial police last April to report a series of allegations of corruption and money laundering involving the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence.
  • The minister has since denied all allegations through his lawyers.

 

This article first appeared on Jeune Afrique.

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