Watershed moment for DRC

The swearing in on Wednesday of Joseph Kabila as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) first freely elected leader may be a turning point not only for this war-ravaged nation of 60-million but for all of Central Africa.

If the 35-year-old president-elect has the will and the skill to fulfil his campaign pledge of becoming the leader “of all the people, without distinction”, it could help bring peace to a devastated region and pave the way for the development of his country’s fabulously rich natural resources.

Elected in an October 29 run-off with a commanding 58% of the vote, Kabila will rule with the backing of a solid coalition majority in a newly reconstituted National Assembly.

A legal challenge to the election results by rival candidate and former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was knocked down by the Supreme Court last week, removing the last obstacle to gaining office.

But if Kabila fails to reign in various armed movements in the east and heal political rifts that continue to erupt into bloodshed violence, the DRC will more likely remain stymied in sectarian conflict and crippling poverty.

An estimated three million people in the sprawling nation, almost the size of Western Europe, have perished since 1998 through war, disease and outright starvation.

Kabila’s investiture will unfold in the presidential palace in the capital, Kinshasa and will be attended by thousands of invited guests, among them at least thirty heads of state, mainly from Africa.

The delegation from Belgium alone, which ruled the country as a colonial power until independence in 1960, includes Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and three senior ministers.

Many of Kabila’s allies during the conflict, dubbed “Africa’s world war”, which tore apart Central Africa from 1998 to 2003 will be on hand to usher him into office, including Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Even many of his enemies who supported rebels battling first Kabila’s father, president until his assassination in 2001, and then Kabila himself, have sent representatives: Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

A special place has been reserved for South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, chief architect of the Congolese transitional government set up in 2003—and headed by Kabila—after five years of debilitating conflict.

The United Nations, whose 17 600 peacekeepers are the largest United Nations force deployed anywhere in the world, will be represented by Deputy Secretary General Jean-Marie Guehenno.

And the European Union, which has invested more than $800-million in the DRC over the last three years, will most likely send its development commissioner Louis Michel.

“It is an epic moment for the DRC, which is finally turning the page of 45 years of political crisis,” commented one diplomat in Kinshasa.

“We do not know what Kabila will do with this legitimacy,” said another, clearly concerned that the president—the youngest head of state in Africa—will “not be able to resist the temptation of nepotism and plundering”.

Yet another diplomat pointed out that the DRC was saddled with enormous foreign debts, and Kabila could immediately find himself faced with international banks anxious about large debt.

“He must gain the confidence of creditors,” he said.

Most of the country’s 60-million inhabitants live in crushing poverty, three-quarters subsisting on less than a dollar a day. Yet the DRC is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, harbouring 34% of the world’s cobalt reserves, 10% of copper reserves, and as yet unknown quantities of uranium, gold, wood, and oil.

With the planet’s fourth largest estimated potential in hydroelectric power—more than 80 000MW—the country has the capacity be one of the continent’s engines of economic development.

During his campaign, Kabila outlined five policy priorities: health, education, access to water, electricity supply and road construction.
He has also pledged to reverse decades of corrupt and opaque mismanagement of the nation’s natural resources.

One of his greatest challenges will be quelling violence in the eastern part of the country, where conflict has disrupted the economy and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Kinshasa—where election-related violence has flared three times since August, leaving several dozen dead—continues to be heavily patrolled by the army and police.—Sapa-AFP

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