NEW YORK — Few individuals command attention like Laurent Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. His sheer physical size dominates the 28th-floor suite in the UN Plaza Hotel like a Tennessee Titan lineman. But his cherubic smiles evoke a feeling closer to Mister Rogers.
This soft-spoken man with warm, engaging eyes stands at the center of a maelstrom. Three of his neighboring governments support rebel groups that are trying to overthrow him. Fighting in his country has engulfed Africa's Great Lakes region and has erupted into "Africa's first world war," as US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls it.
During last week's gathering of seven African presidents at the United Nations, all eyes focused on this enigmatic man. Invited to the UN by US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the usually elusive Mr. Kabila embarked on a campaign to dispel his reputation as a strongman and to persuade the world body to intervene in his war-torn country.
"There was such a lot of media misinterpretations of our own position, says President Kabila. "We came to ask those people who invaded Congo and are still in Congolese soil to get out," he adds, referring to troops from Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.
But as the curtain falls today on a month of Africa at the Security Council, the UN still seems reluctant to pour significant resources into a country that has housed troops from eight neighboring countries this past year. And Kabila's debut on the international stage only reinforced his image as a man of many contradictions.
A former communist who trained with Che Guevara, Kabila now easily hobnobbs with industrialists, like diamond merchant Maurice Templesman, at the posh Metropolitan Club on Tuesday night. And at the Security Council open meeting, he denounced Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi -the very governments that helped bring him to power but have turned against him.
Emblematic of his self-contradictions, Kabila spent three decades trying to overthrow the brutal regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. Achieving this in 1997, he appointed himself president and changed the name of the country from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo. But today, the DRC is neither democratic nor a republic.
"The DRC state has already ceased to exist in the sense that there's no government that controls the national territory," says Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The reality is that Congo is divided into four parts."
Just three years ago, he emerged from obscurity and received cheers at home and around the world for overthrowing Mr. Mobutu. But the cheers have turned into protests as human rights activists wonder if Kabila is an improvement over his predecessor. He obstructed a UN inquiry into the massacre of refugees, allegedly by his forces. He then proceeded to ban political parties and jail journalists, at times inflicting cruel and harsh punishments, according to an Amnesty International report issued earlier this month.
Such strongarm tactics appear to contradict his demeanor in New York. Though coached by his publicists in the art of dealing with the international press, Kabila seems more than offended by the criticisms against him: He looks away, and becomes very quiet. Then he speaks very slowly and deliberately.
"Those former Mobutus - the ones we overthrew - they went into civil society [pretending] to be journalists, as you call them, but they are politicians," Kabila says. "We are the most tolerant regime. But in our country journalists have to face the law if they break the law" by making slanderous statements.
While Kabila has reason to believe that former government officials want to see him leave office, political analysts say his fear of losing power clouds his thinking.
"Kabila is Rip Van Wrinkle," says William Zartman at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington. "He came out of 30 years of experience as a rebel" and does not understand modern democratic institutions.
Observers say that Kabila must eventually open the political process to stop the 1-1/2 year rebellion against him and to persuade his neighbors to withdraw their forces. But a national dialogue among government officials, rebels, and civil society envisioned in a July cease-fire would likely result in power-sharing or even create a totally different government, analysts say.
"I would step down only if my people tell me to do so," Kabila says, insisting that he would win a free and fair election.
So far, Kabila has resisted open talks with the rebels. "Their masters were here - the Ugandans and the Rwandans," Kabila says. "[The rebels] are only the puppets of those using them. So it is better to discuss with the masters than the puppets."
With positions still far apart, the cease-fire agreement, known as the Lusaka accord, has failed to stop the fighting. Indeed, last Friday, an aid organization released video footage of a massacre in Blukwa, an area under the nominal control of Ugandan forces.
Kabila and the other African presidents meeting at the Security Council called on the UN to send in troops to enforce the cease-fire. While the US and other Council members consider sending in a 5,500-strong mission, they insist that a real cease-fire must exist before the world body can send in troops. Any attempts to muscle its way into a 900,000-square mile country would be doomed, they contend.
"You're talking about a country that's bigger than the United States east of the Mississippi," says Chester Crocker, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "You're not going to do peacekeeping with 5,000 guys."
The first order of business must be to resolve Congo's internal political problems, observers say. "In order to get the job done, one has to address the agenda that is most delicate, and nobody wants to talk about: the internal political environment inside the Congo," says Mr. Crocker.
The Lusaka accord - which Kabila and the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia signed - stipulates that a national dialogue must precede the withdrawal of those countries' troops and the entrance of UN peacekeepers. Only a stable government that results from this political process can persuade Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi to pull out of Congo.
Though at least the Ugandan forces have been profiting from Congo's rich gold and diamond mines, the Tutsi-led governments of Africa's Great Lakes region are mainly concerned with stopping Hutu militias based in Congo. The so-called Interahamwe militia - Hutus from Rwanda and Uganda - had launched a genocidal campaign in Rwanda that killed an estimated 800,000 people in 1994.
"One of the main concerns of the Rwandan government was the disarming of the Interahamwe militia," says Ms. Ottaway. "Kabila was not particularly interested in this. It was a thankless task and would have required a tremendous amount of manpower, which he did not have."
When Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi determined that Kabila would not disarm the Interahamwe, they turned against him. And Kabila, left with a skeleton force, turned to the Interahamwe for help.
"It is not true at all. This is part of a malicious propaganda against my government," Kabila says. "If you remember in 1997 they were saying that I was the butcher of the Interahamwe. So they can't be my friends."
His critics charge that Kabila would change allegiances and be willing to accept help from anyone in order to remain in power. "He does not have a sufficiently strong army," says Ottaway. "The easiest way to recruit people for the army was to turn to the Interahamwe. They were there. They had military experience, and they were looking for a way to support themselves."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society