Make or break for Congo’s new Kabila

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s president Laurent Desiré ­Kabila died from gunshot wounds on ­either Tuesday or Wednesday, ­depending on who in this sorry saga you believe, though official confirmation of his demise is still awaited from what remains of the Congolese government.

No one who witnessed what really happened has talked so far, but a consensus has been ­building around the story started by the Belgian government that a member of Kabila’s armed inner circle shot the president, possibly after being sacked, or because he was related to someone who was, or because of his connection to ­soldiers recently executed on Kabila’s orders in the south-west front-line province of Katanga.

On the evidence so far, the main rebel groups fighting Kabila do not appear to have been involved in the shooting. If they had, there would have been an attempt on the radio and television stations, too, according to the ­rituals of the African coup; yet there was none. The main rebel leaders have all said they intend to wait and see what happens next, adding that if Kabila’s ­successor decides to implement the ­long-stalled ­Lusaka peace agreement, signed in 1999, all will be well; but if not, the war(s) will ­continue.

Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, whose troops helped keep Kabila in power for two years until the shooting, spoke out in anger at the news. On Tuesday, as news was breaking that Kabila might be dead, there were ­un­confirmed reports that Angolan troops in neighbouring Congo (Brazzaville), where they are ­propping up President Denis Sassou Nguesso, were ­crossing the Congo river into Kinshasa. Congolese television later announced the news that Kabila’s son, Joseph, would take over as interim president, while at the same time ­insisting that Kabila himself was still alive.

Joseph Kabila (31) is the head of the Congolese armed forces. Most recently he was in ­action in Katanga, presiding over the complete rout of the armed forces by the combined forces of the Congolese ­Rally for Democracy (RCD) and the Rwandan army. Apparently Joseph ­Kabila, who is rumoured by his opponents ­never to have won a battle, had a narrow escape in December from Pweto, a strategic town in the northern tip of lake Mweru, after it was captured by the RPA, having to flee by boat to safety at the last minute.

Joseph Kabila’s mother is said to be of ­Tutsi origin, and he has spent much of his life in the eastern Kivu provinces of Congo and in Tanzania. He appears to have little standing in ­Kin­shasa, but seems to have the backing of Angola.

Joseph Kabila’s first task will be to deal with whoever it is that killed his father. If, as seems likely, the killer and his associates are a dissident army faction, he must either purge or ­­co-opt them to maintain power. Purging is very risky, since that was ­pre­cisely what his father was engaged in when he was ­assassinated.

But attempting co-option could be riskier since the assassins, if they are still alive, know that they will always be in danger unless ­either they or someone they can trust is in ­power. Angola will almost certainly have to supply the presidential guard to keep their man safe until the matter is resolved.

Meanwhile, in what some are arguing is a fitting tribute to its Congolese intervention, Zimbabwe finds itself the custo­dian of Laurent Kabila’s corpse. The Zimbabwean govern­ment has invested heavily since 1998 in ­keeping Kabila in power, sending thousands of troops and deploying military hardware.

Zimbabwean intervention prevented ­Kabila from being defeated by rebels, and has paved the way for a variety of not-very-profitable ­Zimbabwe-Congo “joint-ventures”. Yet ­Kabila’s death in this manner underlies the fragility of even these meagre returns.

In the short term Kabila’s sudden demise is set to trigger an increased Zimbabwean ­deployment in Congo to guard against possible military opportunism from Congolese rebels and their backers, either against Katanga’s ­­capi­tal Lubumbashi, or from the north-west against Mbandaka and then Kinshasa itself by ­Uganda-aligned Jean-Pierre Bemba and his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC).

One of the major concerns of South Africa, and the United Nations Security Council, will be to try to ensure that neither the RCD nor the MLC attempts any such thing. The rebels may decide not to, though what will determine the issue in each case will be the balance of forces on the ground in each front line.

The other call from the international community is that whoever ends up as interim presi­dent in ­Congo should take the opportunity to move the ­Lusaka peace process forwards. This will mean dismantling Kabila’s hand-picked ­”parliament” in Lubumbashi, which has been in operation for the past few months, and instead allowing former Botswana president Sir Ketumile Masire to get on with his mandated task of ­arranging inter-Congolese political talks ­between the government, the rebels and the ­political ­opposition parties. It will also mean allowing UN military observers freedom of movement in Congo, and thus, perhaps, paving the way for an increased UN observer presence later on.

It may be that the interim president will find that his best chance of survival is to do just that and implement the accords, or at least say he will. Then the cry would go up that he should be ­given a chance for the sake of peace, and he would have earned himself some breathing space — provided he can find the right bodyguards.

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