Zaire Table of Contents
Belgo-Zairian relations have been on a roller coaster throughout the Mobutu years, in part because of disputes involving the substantial Belgian commercial and industrial holdings in the country. Also contributing to the tumultuous relationship were the numbers of Zairian students who continue to congregate in Belgium and the persistent symbols of the former colonial relationship, which remain highly charged for both Zairians and Belgians. The coup of November 1965 was interpreted by some observers as having been actively supported by Belgian military officers in Mobutu's entourage. Others noted that the coup was a loss for Belgium in that it prevented the return to power of Moïse Tshombe, the most reliable defender of Belgian interests in the ex-colony.
In any case, Belgo-Congolese relations were cordial until Mobutu raised the question of revising the Convention of February 6, 1965, which supposedly settled the contentieux belgocongolais , i.e., the bundle of disputes concerning assets and debts of the former colony. Belgium rejected the demand to revise the convention but agreed to reopen negotiations, because it had some unsatisfied demands of its own. When bilateral negotiations failed to produce substantive results, the Congo acted unilaterally on July 13, 1966, breaking off the negotiations, freezing the assets of certain Belgian organizations, and seizing a number of their properties in Kinshasa.
Relations with the Belgian-controlled mining company UMHK also deteriorated in early 1966. On June 7, the government ruled that the headquarters of all enterprises operating in the country must be transferred to the Congo and promulgated a law, called the Bakajika Law, which in effect cancelled concessions granted before independence. All titleholders wishing to continue in the country were given thirty days in which to introduce a request for renewal of title.
Discussions with the Belgian government and UMHK continued until December 1966, when the Congo decided to break off the talks. On December 23, when UMHK announced its refusal to transfer its headquarters to Kinshasa, the government suspended copper exports and blocked the transfer of the mining company's funds. On January 2, 1967, Kinshasa authorities announced formation of the stateowned company, General Quarries and Mines (Générale des Carrières et des Mines--Gécamines) to replace UMHK. In February 1967, Gécamines signed a technical cooperation agreement with a sister company of the former UMHK, and copper exports were resumed. Although the matter of indemnities for UMHK properties remained in suspense, the accord marked a turning point in relations.
Belgium subsequently took a number of steps to ensure closer relations with the former colony. In early June 1968, President Mobutu and his family were received as houseguests of the Belgian king and queen, the first such visit by statesmen from the new nation since 1960. The two governments signed a convention for scientific and technical cooperation on August 23, 1968, and the minister of state for foreign affairs and foreign trade announced the release of certain Belgian funds that had been blocked in the Congo since 1960. During a return visit by King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola in June 1970, a treaty of friendship was signed.
In the early 1970s, the relationship periodically soured over various issues. But starting in 1976 both sides made efforts to move closer. A new cooperation agreement was signed in March, and Zaire promised to compensate Belgians who had lost assets under the Zairianization policy. Zaire later allowed foreigners whose property had been expropriated to recover 60 percent of their assets, leading to a Belgian renewal of interest in investment. Improved relations notwithstanding, Mobutu complained that students and exiles hostile to the regime were allowed to publish and be active in Belgium.
During the second Shaba invasion in 1978, Belgium sent paratroopers, as did the French, to rescue the stranded Europeans at Kolwezi. Planning to negotiate with the FLNC rebels, the Belgians proceeded cautiously, landing their forces at Kamina, more than 200 kilometers away. Their hand was forced, however, when the French preceded them by landing directly at Kolwezi and counterattacking. Fearing the extension of French influence in their former domain, the Belgians promoted the formation of a joint African defense force to repel future attacks by Zairian dissidents.
Despite such support, by 1989 Zaire apparently was closer to a total break with its former colonial ruler than at any time since the crisis at independence. In November 1988, Belgium had offered to postpone for ten years the due dates of state-to-state loans and to make new arrangements concerning Zaire's guaranteed commercial debt to Belgium. However, this relatively liberal stance toward Zaire was criticized in the Belgian parliament and especially in the press, where Mobutu was depicted as an autocrat who had led his country into economic ruin. In response, Zaire renounced all measures of reduction of its debt undertaken by Belgium. All Zairians with property in Belgium were to dispose of it or transfer it out of Belgian territory. By the end of the academic year, every Zairian studying in Belgium would have to leave.
Zaire then escalated the conflict by terminating the treaties governing Belgian aid to Zaire, calling for an inventory of all specific aid agreements and termination of all those that did not contribute to the development of Zaire, and reopening the contentieux belgo-congolais. Belgium replied that the contentieux had been definitively settled and that it was suspending cooperation with Zaire, although pending aid projects would be completed.
The Francophone Summit held in Dakar in late May 1989 provided Zaire with considerable debt relief and also brought its dispute with Belgium nearer to resolution. The highlight of the meeting was French president François Mitterrand's announcement of the cancellation of US$2.6 billion of debts from thirty-five African states. Attracting less attention, but of more direct importance to Zaire, which accounted for 80 percent of the US$500 million of guaranteed debt owed to Belgian banks by developing countries, were the debt relief plans announced by Belgium's premier, Wilfried Martens, at the summit.
Suddenly, in July, the crisis was over, and Belgo-Zairian relations were back to "normal." During a ceremony in Rabat on July 26, President Mobutu and Premier Martens signed an agreement that formally ended the dispute between the two countries. The accord wrote off nearly US$277.7 million in commercial and government debt and rescheduled the remaining commercial debt of US$296.7 million. Relations between Belgium and its former colony were cordial once more. They stayed that way for about a year, then worsened again over the killings at the University of Lubumbashi in May 1990, in the aftermath of which Belgium cut off all but humanitarian aid. Mobutu retaliated by expelling 700 Belgian technicians and closing all but one Belgian consular office in Zaire. In October 1991, Belgium dispatched troops to Zaire to help restore order and protect foreign nationals following a mutiny and rampage by paratroopers in Kinshasa in September 1991. But Belgium increasingly began to voice criticism of the Mobutu regime's human rights abuses and lack of democratization. Moreover, there was a growing consensus among most Belgian politicians in favor of the departure of President Mobutu from office.
In late 1992, Belgium, along with France and the United States, expressed official support for the Tshisekedi government, despite fears that its power was more apparent than real. Belgium also showed some cautious interest in resuming aid to Zaire if democratization continued and it Zaire received IMF and World Bank backing for its economic program. But no such resumption appeared likely at the end of 1993.
In response to another wave of violence in Zaire in early 1993, Belgium again sent troops to Zaire to evacuate its nationals. However, Mobutu refused to permit the Belgian forces to enter Zaire, forcing them to remain in Brazzaville. In the aftermath of the violence, in February 1993, Belgium joined France and the United States in voicing continued support for the Tshisekedi government and democratic forces in Zaire. The three nations demanded that Mobutu live up to his agreement and transfer power to the Tshisekedi government. They subsequently refused to recognize the rival Birindwa government appointed by Mobutu in March 1993. Nevertheless, Belgium, France, and the United States have stopped short of taking stronger action to oust Mobutu, such as confiscating his assets abroad--a measure advocated by the European Parliament in early 1993--or imposing economic sanctions on the regime. In July 1993, Belgium did send a pointed diplomatic message to Mobutu by not including him among those invited to attend the funeral of King Baudoin I, with whom Mobutu had enjoyed a good relationship prior to 1990.
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents