On his first official visit to Africa as the United Nations' secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon toured this war-torn capital Saturday, praising its people for holding their first elections and ushering in a fragile democracy.
"For my first official visit to the African continent, I chose the Democratic Republic of Congo because I wanted to directly pay homage to the courage and determination of the Congolese people," Ban told more than 300 parliamentarians gathered inside the country's national assembly.
Congo has known little but dictatorship and war since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960, but a peace deal signed by the government of Joseph Kabila allowed elections to move forward last year, the first in four decades. To maintain an uncertain peace, the U.N. has 18,000 peacekeepers in Congo, its largest mission in the world.
National Assembly President Vital Kamerhe said Ban's visit underscores his commitment to Africa as a whole. "His presence here just 45 days after he was sworn in as secretary-general shows his dedication to peace on the African continent," Kamerhe said.
The former South Korean foreign minister was sworn in Dec. 14, replacing Kofi Annan of Ghana, who served for 10 years.
Ban, who has called himself "a harmonizer and bridge-builder," vowed earlier that his first official tour as secretary-general would be in Africa, where one of his key priorities is resolving the Darfur conflict.
Instead of Sudan, however, Ban chose to make his first stop in Congo, a country the size of Europe whose decades of war and grinding poverty have not prompted the same international outcry as the killings in Darfur.
"Together we will fight back poverty, hunger, illness, illiteracy and the degradation of our environment," he told the assembled parliamentarians to a chorus of applause.
Asked by reporters if the Congolese government wishes to see an end to the large U.N. peacekeeping mission here, Kamerhe said there is "still a long road ahead" before Congo can stand on its own.
"What we would like the United Nations to understand is that although we have achieved the process of democracy, although we have put in place the institutions of democracy, for there to be real peace and real security, there is still a long way to go," he said.
Rich in cobalt, diamonds, copper, gold and coltan, Congo was ruled for 32 years by Mobutu Sese Seko, an iron-fisted dictator who plundered the country's mineral wealth, pocketing billions and doing little to develop the giant nation.
Laurent Kabila, Joseph Kabila's father, ousted Mobutu in 1997, but a rebellion a year later divided the country into rebel-controlled fiefdoms. The elder Kabila was assassinated in 2001, paving the way for his son to inherit power. Joseph Kabila helped negotiate the war's end in 2002.
In a run-off presidential poll in October, the 35-year-old Kabila won 58 percent of the vote in the country's first multiparty election since it severed its colonial ties to Belgium in 1960.
Ban is expected to tour a hospital in downtown Kinshasa, before heading across the Congo river to Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo where he is to meet its president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the current chairman of the African Union.
On Sunday, Ban is scheduled to fly to Kisangani deep in Congo's interior where he will meet with President Kabila.