The calm in the eye of Congo

After three months of 'house cleaning,' President Kabila sets sights on peace.

This is a nation so ravaged by war that some families now eat cooked cow skin, bats, and caterpillars.

Here in the Democratic Republic of Congo, struggling to emerge from 3 years of civil war and foreign meddling, the other daily fare is confusion.

Ask the UN military commanders and diplomats here which of the six nations and two rebel groups are withdrawing from where, and they grimace, hunting through maps and folders for answers.

The only one who appears confident is President Joseph Kabila, who talks of creating a "social revolution" of hope. "We are trying to change a whole system of misery, give the Congolese people breathing space, and start with programs of recovery," he says. Finding himself unexpectedly in power after his father's assassination, the new leader has spent his first three months in office removing hard-liners and hangers-on, restructuring the government, and issuing promises to democratize the political process and liberalize the economy.

In a major break with his father's policies, Mr. Kabila has invited peace facilitator Ketumile Masire, the former president of Botswana, back into the picture to mediate among Congolese factions. And he has encouraged UN observer troops to take up their positions in the east of the country.

"There are no questions marks here," says Kabila, leaning back in his plush office armchair and sipping orange juice from a wine glass, "I know what must be done."

New atmosphere

The mood in Kinshasa, most here agree, has changed for the better since Kabila's arrival.

However, diplomats, opposition figures and others warn that this could quickly deteriorate - if the president does not follow up his many pronouncements with actions, if all the signs of progress do not translate into real change, and if life does not get easier for his 51 million exhausted citizens.

"At the end of the day, the Congolese care about their stomachs, and the question is how much more suffering can they endure," says one senior western diplomat. "There have been some positive signs, but we truly need movement."

"I always back my words with action," Kabila shoots back. "When I promise something I have to do it. That is what dignity is all about."

The 31-year-old former major general - who has no political experience - says he never wanted this job, "but I have to work for the people of the Congo as long as they have that confidence in me. The day I fail them, I will just ask forgiveness and vacate this seat."

In any case, he says there will be elections soon. "After 40 years what else can we give to the Congolese people as a present? It is their right to elect their president," he says, though he declined to specify when elections might occur or say whether he would consider running.

Meanwhile, he insists that he - and only he - is in charge. Brushing off suggestions that he is merely a temporary stop gap propped in place by strong ministers, or a puppet of one or both of the DRC's main allies, Angola and Zimbabwe, Kabila claims that he is completely and comfortably in control and ready to take on the problems of this vast and complicated land. So comfortable, he adds, that he has no intention of emulating his father's cult of personality. Huge billboards featuring his father's likeness became emblematic of the old dictatorship and still hang at every street corner.

"I am not my father," the younger Kabila states.

He sees his youth as an advantage. "Seventy percent of the Congolese right now are young folks, so I am always saying I should not let them down," he says. "This is their time and the future is ours. We should not look at the past for encouragement. There has always been misery. We should look towards the future for development and democracy."

New figures released last month by the International Rescue Committee show that close to 3 million Congolese lost their lives between 1998 and 2000. Many perished in the wars being fought out on Congolese territory between the various countries and rebel groups, but the vast majority, according to the report, died of starvation, disease and deprivation.

A recent UN report alleged that "mass-scale looting" and "systematic exploitation" had been committed by some of the foreign armies and rebel movements active in the Congo conflict.

In a country with staggering potential natural wealth, including diamond mines, the UN has estimated that at least a third of the country's citizens are vulnerable to starvation: Agricultural fields lie fallow or are pillaged by roving, unpaid soldiers; Transport routes have fallen into disrepair and movement is blocked. And hundreds of thousands of families have been displaced by either warring militaries or ethnic fighting.

In the capital the food markets are half empty. Manufacturing is down to almost nil. No investment is coming in. Beggars and orphans roam the streets.

The bus system has broken down due to fuel shortages. Car owners waiting for their quota of gasoline start lining up at the petrol stations the night before, sleeping on car hoods, blocking the roads and getting increasingly frustrated. The per capita gross domestic product is one of lowest in world at $100, inflation is at 500% and the economy, shrinking by 11.4 % last year and contracting every year for the past 10, is one of the globe's worst performers.

The economy, Kabila says, is going to be fixed, "but in a controlled way."

He has asked for IMF and World Bank teams to assess the situation and says he plans to work with them. "If you go about it in the wrong way you get very negative results, so we want to do it in slow phases," he explains. "What is really needed here," he continues, "is not aid but peace. The Congolese do not want to be beggars. If we have peace, we can develop ourselves."

"We have an investment code and a mining code in the pipeline," he says, "but I will be very blunt: No one will want to invest here if peace is not assured."

The president may sincerely want peace, says Michel Kassa, head of the UN's humanitarian coordination office in the DRC, "but if truth be told - he probably also knows there is no other choice." Kassa says the 60,000-strong DRC army is itself in disrepair, plagued by desertions and dissent and increasingly relying on child soldiers instead of trained fighters.

"Soldiers are raping those they should be protecting and have lost all sense of right or wrong. Control over them has been lost, and they are no longer really fighting for anything," Kassa says. "Signing a peace deal may therefore be the only way forward in this country."

A plea for patience

Over and again in the course of the hour-long interview, Kabila calls for patience. "What [former leader] Mobutu [Sese Seko] could not do in 37 years - with all the money and people he had - you cannot expect me to do in one week," he says.

Still, he is setting time lines for what he hopes to achieve. Within a few weeks' time, "this fuel problem will be gone with the wind," he says but refuses to elaborate. "It will never haunt us again." Within six months, he estimates, "you will find us building roads." And within a year's time, he promises, the country will altogether look and feel different. "There are plans, there are visions, there are expectations," he says softly.

"As far as I am concerned, the peace process is on track," says Kabila. "We were always accused of trying to block the process, but now we see we are keeping on track. And we are seeing some difficulties from the neighbors."

Indeed, the DRC, along with most of the other parties to the 1999 Lusaka accords - Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda and the Rwandan backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) rebel group- have all disengaged their troops 15 kilometers from the front lines as stipulated by the accords.

And while the Ugandan- backed Congolese Liberation Front (FLC) led by rebel leader Jean Pierre Bemba is proving difficult and has actually moved its forces forward and not back, it is widely believed that international pressure will prevail and that this stage of the process will be complete by the end of the month.

In the next phase, says David Meyer, chief of staff for the UN observer force in the DRC, foreign troops will be asked to withdraw altogether, and the situation along the border will be normalized. Alongside this, the intercongolese peace dialogue will commence and mechanisms for disarming militias and armed groups will be put in place. "It is going pretty well," he says, "broadly speaking we are on track and we are pleased."

"The Western powers always had a misconception of the problems of the Congo," asserts Kabila, who spent many of his first days in office traveling to foreign capitals to put forth what he calls "the truth" about the origins of the conflict in the DRC. "These governments thought we were preparing a genocide in Rwanda or such trash. That is completely not true. We have never gone beyond our borders - to look for what? It is we who have been invaded left and right." He is willing, he says, to sit down and discuss peace with anyone - including his greatest adversary Rwanda's President Paul Kagame.

"I believe there needs to be a regional conference in the Great Lakes area," says Kabila. "They (Rwanda and Burundi) cannot turn left and right and grab our land because of their internal problems..."

When he briefly met with Kagame in Washington DC earlier this year, Kabila says, they discussed many issues - however did not set up any date for an official meeting.

"I hope it will come," he says. "I am praying for peace. I am praying for the basic things - for peace and safety and development in this country. If I can get in my car and drive across this country from here to Bukavu or from the Kasai to Gbadolite then I will die a happy man," concludes the president.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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