Kabila Shooting Causes Confusion - Leadership Up For Grabs


By Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
January 17, 2001

The Democratic Republic of Congo - and several other African countries - have been thrown into a tailspin by news that the Congolese leader, Laurent Désiré Kabila, was shot on Tuesday. The news prompted total confusion and uncertainty, which continued into Wednesday.

The authorities in Kinshasa had still not confirmed by early afternoon on Wednesday, whether Kabila had survived or succumbed to the bullets fired, apparently, by one of his personal guards.

Conflicting reports say the bodyguard fired at the president, around lunchtime on Tuesday, after Kabila had a quarrel with senior military officers at his presidential residence, known as Le Palais de Marbre, the Marble Palace. More information trickled out piecemeal through the evening and overnight.

The former colonial power, Belgium, was the first to announce the death of Kabila on Tuesday evening, followed by Britain and France on Wednesday morning. Kinshasa initially refused to confirm or deny his death, saying nothing to the nation. Kabila,s cousin, the Interior Minister Gaetan Kakudji, then announced on state radio that the president had been shot.

Kakudji was reported to have said that the president had been taken to hospital and had given him orders to impose a curfew and close all land and river borders and the international airport at Ndjili, outside the capital.

Later the official line changed. While Brussels, Paris and London continued to report the death of Kabila at the hands of his bodyguard, the Kinshasa authorities announced that Kabila was still alive and had been flown 'abroad, (to Zimbabwe) for emergency treatment. Zimbabwe is one of the six African nations that has been sucked into the murky war at the heart of Africa, backing the Kabila government. Angola and Namibia also sent military help to Kabila to counter a well-armed and well-financed rebellion.

Uganda and Rwanda, formerly Kabila allies who helped him march to Kinshasa and topple Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997, are now his arch-enemies. Both have been supporting an array of rebels in the east and north of the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998.

Reports from Harare confirmed that Kabila was being flown to Zimbabwe, but a government spokesman said the Congolese president had died on the way. Kinshasa was meanwhile still insisting that Kabila was alive and that his son, Joseph, would be taking over the running of the country in the interim. Most commentators conclude that the government in Kinshasa has been desperately trying to buy time and avoid a power vacuum.The implications of the departure of the man, once hailed as a saviour of Congo and as swiftly scorned a despot thereafter, from the political scene in central Africa are staggering.

Kabila swept to power on a wave of elation, relief and optimism in 1997, booting out Mobutu and earning himself the gratitude of Zaire, as it then was, and the outside world. This product of the cold war, a small-time guerrilla warrior and diamond smuggler-turned-rebel leader, with his distinctive shaven football-shaped head and rotund stature, had almost everyone at his feet for an historical moment. But many years earlier, the Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevara, who in the 'sixties trained dissidents in the eastern Congo, is reported to have dismissed Kabila as a worthless womanizer who would never make a guerrilla.

Kabila changed back the name of the country, the currency and the river from Zaire to Congo and switched back to the old national anthem - symbolic, surface reforms. But the new democratic style of government that everyone had hoped for under Kabila never happened.

The Congolese leader had squandered local and international goodwill within a year and fell out with his western allies and the regional friends who had helped him march on Kinshasa.

As one analyst put it, there was a huge gap between expectation and reality. Kabila condemned Mobutu for systematically robbing his potentially rich country of all its wealth. Kabila,s detractors accused him of continuing the trend and of abusing human rights in a manner that paralleled Mobutu,s violations. As it became clear that Kabila was not going to be malleable and cooperative in Kinshasa and pay back their support, his onetime backers in the region, Rwanda and Uganda, lost patience and switched their allegiance to Kabila,s Congolese foes. His neighbours accused Kabila of reneging on a deal to secure all Congo,s borders and ensure that his territory would not be used by rebels from bordering countries to launch attacks. An embattled Kabila was saved by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who sent in back-up troops and military hardware, helping the Congolese leader fight off the rebels. Namibia also came to the rescue. Angola too took up Kabila,s cause, as part of efforts to ensure the Angolan opposition UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi would no longer get help on the Congolese side of the border.

In 1999, a peace accord was signed in Lusaka, Zambia by most of those who mattered in the Congo conflict, barring some rebels. But the deal was doomed and has remained in limbo, unimplemented. Although the foreign troops in the Congo all agreed to withdraw their forces, they have not done so and the rebels have continued their march towards Kinshasa although they continue to find it difficult to collaborate with each other, despite efforts by their backers to broker a merger.

Zimbabwe may now do well to throw in its lot with the rebels. Harare, and its military, are known to have sewn up lucrative mineral and other deals with Kabila. Whether any new administration in Congo will honour these is doubtful.

Angola will no doubt be strategically assessing how best to manage a tricky and volatile situation without strengthening Unita. Namibia may be relieved that it can pull out and calm criticism at home.

Rwanda and Uganda, the two allies who spectacularly quarreled and fought out their dispute on Congolese soil, can choose two routes. The neighbours can continue the nightmare of trying to secure a military solution in Congo or harness the opportunity of Kabila,s death to look for peace.

The rebels, especially Jean Paul Bemba who heads the MLC, Movement for the Liberation of Congo may scent victory. Analysts believe his forces could reach Kinsha, travelling by river, within a few days and he may well decide that now is the time to strike and try to wrest the capital - and the power - from a leadership much weakened without Kabila.