KINSHASA - Portraits of the four presidents who led the Democratic Republic of Congo through 50 years of corruption and conflict glowered down Wednesday on world leaders marking the African nation's independence anniversary.
As they waited for a grand military parade, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, King Albert II of Belgium and a host of African leaders could look up and see Joseph Kasa-Vubu (1960-1965) who was ousted in a coup, Joseph Mobutu Sese-Seko (1965-1997) who robbed the nation of billions before he was forced out, the assasinated Laurent Desire Kabila (1997-2001) and his son Joseph Kabila, who now struggles to establish government authority.
A giant banner near the official tribune read: "The giant awakes, DRC, heaven on Earth".
About 15,000 soldiers and 400 tanks and military vehicles, and UN peacekeepers, and even representatives of Chinese companies helping to rebuild DR Congo, waited to take part in the parade along Kinsahsa's refurbished Boulevard Triomphal.
Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who only reconciled with Kabila in 2009, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon were among 18 Africa presidents at the event.
Kinshasa society turned out in their best suits and dresses though many members of the DR Congo establishment have publicly professed their disappointment at the country's achievements.
"As far as we are concerned the DRC has moved backwards more than forwards," Congolese bishops wrote in a text to mark the anniversary.
The "dream of a beautiful Congo" has been destroyed, they said.
King Albert represented the former colonial power, whose then monarch Leopold II annexed the vast African country in 1885 as his own personal property and is credited with its wholesale plundering long before independence in 1960.
Today, though endowed with vast reserves of gold, copper, cobalt and diamonds, it is one of the world's poorest nations, scarred by the 1996-2003 war that cost some three million lives.
Four years after the 2006 election of Kabila brought some stability, two-thirds of its 60 million inhabitants still scrape by on 1.25 dollars (about one euro) a day.
Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated former rebel-leader father and ruled for an interim period before his election, is fighting off criticism of his record on governance, human rights and the economy. In April, the International Crisis Group accused him of "showing a clear authoritarian trend".
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The United Nations says armed groups are expanding as are the recruiting of child soldiers and violence, especially sexual, against civilians.
It has also said the country is going through "one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world" with people in some areas facing acute malnutrition.
The outlook is not much brighter on the economic front, despite a pledge by creditor nations to cancel a large part of the DRC's debt, estimated at 11 billion dollars.
Kabila's development plan, focused on infrastructure, health and education, energy, jobs and housing, has had little impact.
The United Nations has the world's largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation in the country, numbering more than 20,000 personnel, although it has agreed to pull out 2,000 troops.
Amnesty International said it was "nothing short of hypocritical for Congo to throw nationwide celebrations without acknowledging the appalling state of human rights in the country today."
Amnesty warned that human rights activists in DR Congo were increasingly under threat.
The celebrations come just days after the funeral of Floribert Chebeya, the countrys most prominent human rights activist, whose body was found the day after he was summoned to attend a meeting with Kinshasa police.
The funeral was held on the International Day for the Victims of Torture, at the wish of his family, who believe he died as a consequence of torture.
Chebeya was the executive director of a large rights organisation and had been working on a number of sensitive affairs involving the head of police, General John Numbi. His body was found in his car early on June 2.
The activist had previously told Amnesty International that he felt he had been followed and that he was under surveillance by the security services.