Herculean tasks for Congo leader

The new leader, to be installed Friday, faces a nation in collapse, as Angola sends in more troops.

It's night in Kinshasa, the day after Laurent Kabila's funeral, and the young Congolese sit around the trendy Kiambo quarter drinking Primus beer and talking conspiracy theories. The Israeli diamond dealers gather at their favorite pizza joint to discuss Russian women and Belgian food. The well-dressed government ministers and their attentive bodyguards pace the corridors of the Intercontinental Hotel, bumping into the equally well-dressed opposition members and the scruffy Ukrainian mercenary pilots alike. Angolan soldiers race through the dark potholed streets, looking for fun.

This is a sample of what faces the newly chosen president one of Africa's largest, most fragmented and embattled countries. Joseph Kabila has many tasks before him. But the major one - clearly - will be to try to unify a nation so divided that one needs a passport to travel from the western to the eastern side.

Mr. Kabila's resource-rich land of 905,000 square miles is host to the militaries of at least six countries and four different rebel groups.

Bringing peace to the Congo - or even appeasing all the fighting factions - will no doubt be a Herculean task. But it may likely be the only way he can stay in power, as the well as the reason he was named head of state.

Some diplomatic sources here say that the situation under Joseph Kabila can actually improve. Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, sweating profusely this week as he made a 72-hour swing through all the eight countries involved in the Democratic Republic of Congo war, said there is a chance for peace.

"We have reason to believe this is a good opportunity to begin all over again," confirms his spokesman, Olivier Alsteens.

Behind the scenes

There are a myriad of conspiracy theories swirling about over Laurent Kabila's demise. The government's official position is that a lone bodyguard shot Kabila, but that it is conducting a thorough investigation.

And it's clear here that many of the various fighting factions felt they had reasons to be rid of him. Most security sources here, however, say that the Angolans, Kabila's main backers, were most likely the masterminds behind his assassination.

Having come into the DRC at Laurent Kabila's request, the Angolans - unlike the Zimbabweans and the Namibians - are not primarily concerned with the Congo's vast natural resources. For them, the main reason to be involved in the DRC is to ensure that the government in Kinshasa does not support UNITA - the rebel group that has waged a bush war since 1975 for control of Angola's government - as happened under former dictator Mobutu Sese Seku.

Angola, according to security and diplomatic sources here, had in recent months begun to tire of the elder Kabila, believing he was not suiting their purposes anymore. Looking both at the increasing number of battles against the rebel factions that were being lost (and which were sucking in Angolan resources), and at Kabila's economic policies, which were, to put it mildly, not working at all, Angolans had begun to feel that Kabila would not be able to hold out much longer to challengers. Nervous, according to these sources, that the next leader may not be easy to manipulate or even work with, they decided to take control of the situation themselves.

Pick of the leaders

When Laurent Kabila was killed, Justice Minister Mwenze Kongolo attests, the top government advisers - military and political alike - sat down to agree upon a new leader. "Joseph," he says, "was the best man, as he is accepted by all sides."

This may well be correct, as Joseph Kabila, at least for the moment, does seem to fit the needs of all these diverse groups - the rebels, the military and government leaders, and the Angolans alike.

According to his acquaintances, Joseph is not as hard-line as his father, and is interested in resolving the long and difficult war.

Several years ago, when his father first came to power and the new Kinshasa government was working with the Rwandans (though now they are on opposing sides) Joseph Kabila served for a short time as deputy to James Kabarehe, a Rwandan who had been put in charge of the Congolese Army. The two shared a barracks, and reportedly would occasionally dine together at the downtown Pili Pili restaurant. Mr. Kabarehe is now the deputy chief of staff in Rwanda.

Moreover, although it is vehemently denied by the government and serves to harm him at home, the persistent rumors about Joseph's mother's Rwandan lineage might actually help him when it comes time to negotiate with the neighboring country.

Finally, young and inexperienced, even if Joseph Kabila is not particularly keen in moving forward toward peace, he is thought to be easy to guide. The Angolans have already sent in more troops, ostensibly to protect Kabila. But in probability, it is also to help begin this sort of guidance.

The Angolans are not only providing the guidance, but they are helping to hold back other rebel leaders vying for the control of Congo.

The one rebel leader considered strong enough to stage a coup is Jean Pierre Mbemba. He heads the northwest rebel group Congolese Liberation Movement, a Ugandan-based rebel movement that controls much of the northwest of the country. Mr. Mbemba is married to Mobutu's daughter and has a great deal of support among former Mobutuists, many of whom are waiting across the river in Brazzaville for a chance to reclaim some power.

Pressure to succeed

There is a lot of pressure on the young Kabila to move quickly. Mbemba, in particular, will not sit quietly if he does not see any movement toward a peace agreement, which he must believe will bring him a piece of the cake. Within the government, also, there are ministers - such as Interior Minister Gaetan Kakudji. He is a close relative of Kabila's and has a great amount of support from within the Katanga - Kabila's tribal region - who are willing to give Joseph some time to prove himself, but who may well attempt to take power themselves if they see him as ineffectual.

Living in a country that is so incredibly divided, considered a puppet by so many, and coming to power at a time that is so uncertain, Joseph Kabila - who is expected to be inaugurated today - has his work cut out for him.

In order to succeed, he must hurry and unite the ethnic, political, and foreign factions around him, while at the same time making sure not to lose the reins. True success, for Kabila, as well as for the people of this country would be not only to bring peace, but to reestablish a real center for the fractured Congo.

A wind blows up, scattering dirt this way and that, and the street kids, high on glue, tongues out, search for cover under store awnings. Beggars hold out their cupped hands in the darkness. For them and the rest of their scarred country, will peace ever dawn?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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