A shy son in Congo's hot seat

After his father's funeral today, Joseph Kabila becomes the official president.

He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't like going out to dinner, doesn't have a large wardrobe, doesn't have a lot of good friends, and doesn't speak the languages of the people he's going to govern. In fact, he doesn't say much at all.

In so many ways, Joseph Kabila, the newly chosen president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is not his father.

Whether that will make him a better - or worse - leader remains to be seen.

The shy, eldest son of slain President Laurent Kabila's 10 children is expected to be inaugurated as president today. He takes the helm of a nation as large as Western Europe and as fractured by war as any place on the planet.

Born during his father's years in exile in East Africa - according to two separate versions either in 1968 or 1972 - the young Kabila spent most of his life outside the DRC. He completed his primary and secondary education in Tan-zania, received basic military training in Rwanda in 1995, and had just begun university in Uganda in 1996 when his father called him to help in the rebel war against then-President Mobutu Sese Seko.

After Mr. Mobutu was toppled, Joseph Kabila was sent by his father to China for more military training, returning from there three months later and soon promoted to the rank of major-general. Since his 1997 return, Joseph Kabila has served as chief of the armed forces.

"He is and always was a military man," says Gen. Yavh Nawej, one of the DRC's top Army commanders who is close to Kabila. "The new president knows about discipline and knows about action. He is a man of few words - true, but all great men are such.... He is accepted by the military because of his abilities, and I am sure of his capacity to rule."

Asked whether the young Kabila will be accepted by the people of DRC, the general's eyes open wide, and he emphasizes, "Absolutely."

Kabila speaks English and Swahili fluently, however is not as comfortable with Swahili, according to his cousin, Lungange Juvenal-Noblesse. Lingala, the tribal language that is spoken by most Congolese, is foreign to him. "He used to speak English to his father even when there were non-English speakers around," attests Mr. Juvenal-Noblesse.

Kabila's best friend, say those who know him, is a Tanzanian businessman known only as Jimmie, who comes to visit often. "He's a shy guy, Joseph," says another friend, Lubunga Bya'obe, who has known the young Kabila for four years. "We never really go out together. Mostly he is working, or when relaxing, he is just at home watching American basketball on TV, listening to the BBC, or working on the stationary bike.... When Jimmie comes to visit, they have a good time joking around and laughing, but otherwise, I have rarely seen him letting loose." To let off steam, says Mr. Bya'obe, Kabila goes for long drives in the countryside.

The new president will soon pack his bags, get in his Jeep Cherokee, and drive off to live in one of the official palaces. Until today, he has been living in a modest villa in the downtown military compound he shares with the heads of DRC's allied Zimbabwe and Angolan forces.

Although not married, Kabila lives with his girlfriend - a young, attractive woman named Olive from Gome, whom he reportedly met when she came with her aunt to complain that the Army had requisitioned their family home. The two have a child together, one-year-old Josephine.

Kabila has a twin sister, Jane, who is studying journalism in the US; and one blood brother, Saide. They are widely believed to be the children of Kabila and a woman from Rwanda's Tutsi minority. Their mother, Mrs. Sifa Maanya - one of the late Kabila's three wives - lives in the marble palace to this day, but has never spoken to the public or the press.

In a country where tribal politics is everything, and where the Rwandan Tutsis are accused of supporting the anti-government rebels, even rumors that one is a Tutsi can be harmful. The government adamantly denies the rumors, claiming that Kabila's mother is from the Bango-Bango tribe.

Little has been seen of Kabila in the days since his father was killed. He has met privately with representatives of various social, commercial, and religious groups in the country, as well as with foreign diplomats. However, he has yet to address the people.

The people, in turn, seem not to know what to expect. As Laurent Kabila's coffin was driven through the streets of Kinshasa Sunday, many cried out for the "Mzee," or the elder statesman. But none mouthed his son's name.

"We don't know him at all, and we don't know what sort of leader he will be," said one bystander, Laetitia Lakumbu. "We are not against him, but he will wait and see."

Some within Kinshasa, however, seem less patient and are more blunt in their criticism of the new president, arguing primarily that the DRC is not a kingdom, and that it was wrong to pass the leadership to the son of the former president.

"As capable as he is, Congo is not a monarchy," says Ngwarsungu Chiwengo of the Christian Social Democratic Party, one of the myriad of opposition parties suppressed by the elder Kabila's regime.

It's not a monarchy, but this vast, resource-rich land certainly has a history of being run by strongmen. Arguably the biggest bully of all was King Leopold II of Belgium, who used the Congo Free State as his personal fiefdom and whose brutal reign led to the deaths of 10 million people, according to historians. Soon after its 1960 independence, Mobutu came to power in a coup.

Laurent Kabila's rebel army ended Mobutu's 32-year repressive regime in 1997, but introduced a government just as corrupt and brutal.

Members of the government, although some of them may well have designs on the position themselves, have until now displayed a united front. They say that considering the tense situation after the assassination, they believed it was better to choose a new president whom all could trust to assure continuity and calm in the country. "You cannot deal with the assassination of the president in the morning, and have elections in the afternoon," said Minister of Justice Mwenze Kongolo.

According to military sources, however, several of the ministers are anxiously waiting to make their own bids for power - and the ministers would not have agreed to the installation of Kabila had it not been for the insistence of the military.

While reportedly not particularly loved by the common soldiers, Kabila is well respected by the generals - many of whom owe their jobs and thus their allegiance to him. It was the generals, according to these sources, who demanded that Kabila be appointed president. "And over here, it is the military that decides these things," said one source.

"Ambition is not missing here, but it is no crime to dream of becoming president," says Juvenal-Noblesse. "However, one must also have the capacity and the support. There is no one in this country now, besides Joseph Kabila, who has that. We are a democracy, yes, however legitimacy comes in many forms. And in this case, it has come from the support of the military and the acquiescence of the government. If the people choose to say no, that is a different question - but that has not happened."

Mike Crawley contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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