There are certain people whose personalities are accurately depicted by their physical features. One such person was Laurent Desiré Kabila, the leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
You saw that thick, shaved head of his, with its no-neck fixture, and you immediately thought: this must be a very hard-headed man. And was he stubborn!
I remember Kabila refusing to act gracefully towards Nelson Mandela, when the former president was trying to negotiate a bloodless end to the rapacious rule of Mobutu Sese Seko in April/May 1997. So lacking in grace was Kabila that almost all who befriended him later turned against him.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (who created the army with which Kabila marched successfully to Kinshasa) sought to topple him, as did President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. The “Kabila curse” even descended on Kagame and Museveni themselves: they had gone to Congo ostensibly to act together to help Kabila, but later their armies turned on each other.
As if that was not enough, the presence of Uganda and Rwanda on the side of the forces ranged against Kabila provoked the deployment of troops to Kabila’s side by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia. Now, these are countries ruled by people who can be credited with a knowledge of Marxist politics. Had they not read Che Guevara’s diaries, one wondered?
During his adventures in Congo in the late 1960s, Guevara had attempted to make a revolutionary army out of the rabble led by Kabila and based in Tanzania. But Kabila often failed to turn up at jungle rendezvous arranged with Guevara; and sometimes he turned up quite drunk. Despite having such an illustrious ally, Kabila had not quite given up his business activities, which included running a brothel and other “tourist” facilities in Tanzania.
Guevara also discovered, to his chagrin, that Kabila was given to drinking muti potions that he believed would protect him from bullets. If Robert Mugabe, Sam Nujoma and José Eduardo dos Santos had read Guevara’s revelations, how could these “revolutionary” leaders commit military and economic resources — from countries that are struggling to fulfil the expectations of impoverished populations — in support of a ruler with such an engagingly primordial view of life? Even worse, where did these leaders think Kabila was heading?
He would go through tortuous negotiations with the Congolese “rebel” groups, aimed at achieving a ceasefire. He would then sign an agreement, as he did in Lusaka in August 1999, but nothing would come of it. The democracy that every Congolese desired after the horrendous years of Mobutu never materialised.
Kabila wouldn’t allow people to form the political parties they wanted to form, and the elections he had promised for April 1999 became a distant dream. Kabila retained power to throw into prison those who dared to demand that he fulfil his promises. And he used this power very often.
Meanwhile, inflation rose to 520% a year — though how this figure was determined in a country whose second name was chaos beggars the imagination. Even more miraculous is the fact that someone was actually able to calculate that the gross national product was falling at a rate of 11% a year. Such figures might be figments of economists’ fantasies, but the story they told was real enough for the 50-million people of the Congo.
A crumbling infrastructure, a free-falling currency and, consequently, a hideously fast-eroding standard of living were the ”benefits” they had reaped from the much-vaunted defeat of the vile Mobutu. According to one United Nations agency, 16-million people — a number almost equal to the population of Ghana — are in dire need of food in Congo. The UN asked donors for $74-million in aid, but it received barely half of that.
The UN also wanted to send troops to keep peace in Congo, but the world body couldn’t do so until the Lusaka agreement was implemented. It isn’t fair, is it? Don’t the people of Congo deserve better? Especially as their country is one of the best-endowed nations in Africa? Copper, uranium, diamonds — you name it, you can find it in Congo. All that is needed is a political arrangement that can allow the resources to be tapped under secure conditions, sold and the profits used to make life better for the people.
But who cares? Did Kabila care? Do any of the dozens of people who want to take his place in the marble palace in Kinshasa care? Earlier this week some of Kabila’s acolytes were insisting that he was still alive. How I wish this was true. For, sometimes, there is nothing better than a near-death experience to awaken a man to his responsibilities.
Yes, it would be a good thing for Kabila to be able to ask himself: “Suppose I had died, what would have been the meaning of the life that I nearly lost?” That assumes, of course, that Kabila would be capable of self-analysis. Which, I admit, seems somewhat optimistic. For if Kabila had such faculties, wouldn’t it have occurred to him by now that by being so greedy for power and failing to come to an accommodation with his competitors, he has been legitimising, in retrospect, all the horrendous things that Mobutu did in Congo?
Mobutu always claimed that he was a dictator because without dictatorship Congo would fall apart. Well, Kabila seemed, by his own actions, to be agreeing with Mobutu in retrospect. And can there be any crime against the Congolese people worse than providing comfort to those who assisted Mobutu in his nefarious Congo enterprise of 40 good years’ standing?