The beleaguered people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are bracing themselves for more turmoil following the shooting of President Laurent Kabila.
Mr. Kabila - the larger-than-life former Communist who trained with Che Guevara - was reportedly shot about noon Tuesday, while meeting with top generals in the presidential palace. But conflicting reports emerged later that indicated he may have survived the attack.
The incident was being portrayed as simply a heat-of-the-moment assault, perhaps by one of Kabila's own bodyguards. Yet it could easily have been part of a plan to overthrow him. "This is Congo, so all things are possible," says George Bloch, a Nairobi-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Whether coup attempt or brawl, it plunges an already chaotic country into a period of even more uncertainty. Congo is at the heart of Africa's "first world war," as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls it. The conflict has drawn in six other national armies, at least four rebel groups, and more than 100,000 soldiers - many of whom are helping themselves to the country's rich diamond and gold mines. Two million people are displaced inside Congo, and civilians are suffering from widespread abuses. Neighboring countries are struggling to cope with outflows of refugees.
The extremely complex war is being fought for a bewildering variety of reasons: Congolese rebels want to overthrow Kabila, several countries want to improve their security by clamping down on Congo-based rebel movements, while others want control of Congo's natural resources.
On one side, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are allied with Kabila. And on the other, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi are fighting alongside the rebel troops inside Congo.
Two schools of thought are emerging about the implications for Congo if Kabila is dead. Some observers say it could help bring an end to the war by removing a stubborn obstacle to peace. Yet others argue that Kabila was simply a figurehead who would not have come to power were it not for the assistance of Rwanda and Uganda, and would not have stayed there without help from Angola and Zimbabwe. They say Angola - the key military backer - would simply replace Kabila with someone even more willing to do their bidding, perpetuating the conflict and the misery of the country's 50 million people.
"The Angolans have been sending all sorts of signals they were impatient with Kabila and his behavior and were soliciting all sorts of advice over who could replace him," says Mr. Bloch. "If this was at all planned, the Angolans would have played a part in it. It's hard to conceive of a putsch happening in Kinshasa without the support of the Angolans."
Bloch says Kabila would frequently disagree with his foreign backers on military issues, but that the next president will be one who meets with the approval of Angola. "What we're likely to see is a regime that is even less independent than he was, and that's not in the interest of the Congolese people."
Hannelie de Beer, senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies in South Africa, says there have been increasing signs that Kabila was losing the support of his generals. Any replacement for Kabila would be "a leader that agrees with the way the generals want to proceed. This conflict could just draw out and continue," she says.
The Congolese people have never been able to choose a leader freely. After a particularly brutal colonization by Belgium, the left-wing independence President Patrice Lumumba was overthrown with the support of Western powers. Coincidentally, yesterday marked 30 years since Lumumba was assassinated. That ushered in three decades of despotic rule by US-backed Mobutu Sese Seko, who changed the country's name to Zaire.
Mobutu took corruption to new heights with such antics as chartering Concorde jets to pick him up from a specially built runway deep in the interior, while his people struggled to make ends meet.
Kabila was the nominal head of the Rwanda- and Uganda-backed rebel movement that overthrew Mobutu in May 1997. But the real might lay in the hands of Rwanda and Uganda.
Any euphoria over Mobutu's departure was quickly erased by Kabila's reign, despite his attempts to portray himself as the democratic savior of the nation. He banned all political activity, cracked down on independent journalists, and put relatives and friends into key positions of power.
Within a year, Kabila fell out with his former backers. He rejected Rwandan attempts to influence politics in Kinshasa, while Rwanda grew livid at his dalliance with fighters responsible for the 1994 Rwanda genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
The current war began in August 1998 with Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi propping up new rebel movements in the east. Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia came to Kabila's aid, and the president commenced railing against the invasion of his country by the very countries who brought him to power. Rebels occupied nearly half the country by the time a cease-fire and peace accord was signed in July 1999. The war barely slowed.
Meanwhile, Kabila threw up roadblocks to the arrival of United Nations military observers and tried to freeze out the internationally appointed mediator, Ketumile Masire of Botswana. Just last month, Kabila and his allies suffered their most significant defeat since the accord was signed when Rwandan forces and Congoloese Rally for Democracy rebels overran the town of Pweto in the country's mineral-rich southeast.
This resounding defeat - and the accompanying loss of military muscle - may have been the final straw for Kabila's foreign backers, say observers.
On Tuesday evening, presidential aide Eddy Kapend appeared on television appealing for calm and announcing that airports and borders had been closed, yet said nothing about the shooting.
Senior officials from Belgium, the US, Britain, and France said yesterday the president died while being flown to Zimbabwe for medical treatment. His death was also confirmed by officials from Congo's military allies, Angola and Zimbabwe, and by Kabila's US-based spokesman, John Aycoth.
Despite that, Congolese government spokesmen insisted that Kabila was still alive early yesterday afternoon, Kinshasa time, more than 24 hours after the shooting. They said he had been flown to a hospital in another country, and that his son, Army boss Gen. Joseph Kabila, would temporarily take the reins.
The streets of the capital were mostly deserted, with only the occasional military vehicle seen moving and a few curious people milling about. The government's statements that Kabila was alive failed to quell speculation about the implications of his death. One scenario suggested that with Kabila gone, the nations involved in the Congo could agree to preserve the military status quo. That would leave Congo divided into spheres of influence.
"It may not mean an end to the war, and it also means the informal partition of the country," says Bloch. "The intervention of these external powers has done horrible things for the Congolese."
Others wondered if the rebel alliance would use the opportunity created by the power vacuum to launch a military push. Ugandan-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo has all but surrounded the Congo River city of Mbandaka, just a four-day march upriver from the capital. If Kabila is dead, Ms. de Beer says peace could in fact be closer. "His attitude toward the international community was really an obstacle to peace," she says, describing Kabila as "belligerent and rude." "Maybe a new president will handle this whole thing more tactfully. It will depend on who becomes the next president," de Beer adds.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society