Kabila & The "Kingdom of the Congo"
By Tom Kamara
Jan 22, 2001
When Laurent Kabila, in 1997, stormed Zaire, seized it and renamed it "The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)" as an indication of his preference for colonial symbols, it was clear this was a misnomer. He should have declared it "The Kingdom of the Congo". His record and the recent transfer of power from an assassinated father to son speak more of an absolute monarchy than a "democratic republic."
Events in the DRC (and I reluctantly use the name since it is the opposite of itself apart from my preference for its African name, Zaire) amplify Africa's dilemma. Lacking political institutions needed to ensure non-violent political continuity, there is a heavy reliance on gunmen whose only credentials are that they are capable of shooting human beings, squandering wealth, and ensuring poverty for their helpless masses. The culture of coup d'etats, and now rebel wars glorifying and enriching rebel leaders, points to the vacuum of institutions. And yet somehow, the belief is that under such a scenario, peace and development, along with democracy can be fostered.
But the swearing-in of his son as President tells us that Kabila, as head of this "democratic republic", was running the country without a constitution, without political institutions just as his predecessor (Mobutu) who ran it for almost 4 decades single-handedly. And since there was no constitution, his son, a fly-by-night Army General, became the next President. It is not clear whether Joseph Kabila has a son, for if he falls like his father, there is a need for monarchical continuity in this Kingdom of the Congo.
The DRC succession model is anxiously being watched on a continent lacking institutions and searching for them. Other Kabila-like leaders around the Continent may be preparing to adopt the Kabila model. Liberia's Charles Taylor, who in 1997 warned his opponents to realize that he was in contact with Kabila, a warning meant to psychologically disarm his rivals and establish his invincibility, may be perfectly set to copy the Kabila model. Fearing to be next in line, since the presidency of such men in effect means they are on death roll, Taylor has announced that "Liberia has serious concerns about what happened" in the DRC, although he would have been right if he said he has more concerns, since most Liberians don't know Kabila nor share his problems. Taylor nevertheless claims Kabila's assassination was carried out by "big hands". His foreign conspiracy theory is however understandable because after butchering tens of thousands for power and invading other nations, he imagines the presence of the CIA or British Intelligence every second in his bedroom. But like Kabila's, his son Chuckie Taylor Jr., has already gone through the necessary stages for leadership role. As head of the notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit in 1998, he led troops that gunned down hundreds of people from the Krahn ethnic group in the center of Monrovia as 18,000 others fled. He is said to be more ruthless than the father, although he has allegedly taken leave to run a "business" between the US and Liberia.
Hopes for better days in the DRC heightened after the super kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko left the scene. Hundreds of thousands Congolese danced, danced and danced to greet the "glory" that "Papa Kabila, Mzee Kabila" was bringing. And this is the curse of African leaders. They readily read the dancing and singing as stamp of personal approval, failing to realize that when hungry and traumatized people dance and sing, they are doing so believing an end to their suffering is in the hand of the new, self-proclaimed messiah. Dancers and joyous singers greeted every coup maker on the continent who later intensified their agony.
In the DRC, the myth was that Kabila was now the man who would ensure an end to poverty and build a great nation, which is the size of Western Europe, rich in minerals and other resources but one of the poorest around. Promises of brighter and greater days ahead were endless as big Kabila stormed the country waving a liberator's hand. But the only promise kept was continued war, with about 1.5m people killed in the contest for power fuelled by regional political interests of Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Uganda. In the haste to see Mobutu go, Kabila was sworn in as President without an election. He soon adopted a winner takes all posture, feeling there was no need for compromises or reconciliation with his political opponents who correctly doubted his legitimacy. Kabila knew that peace would raise the political and leadership questions to democratic levels, which entail elections. He was comfortable being President as long as his allies were fighting the war for him.
However, rebellion is now a contagious disease in Africa. Rebel movements following his footsteps sprang up to challenge his rights to power. In the end, his death was as sudden as his rise from a businessman operating between Tanzania and Uganda after his failed attempt, working with the legendary Che Guevara, to oust Mobutu in the 1960s.
Perhaps the DRC's history would have taken different trends had a different personality emerged on the political scene after Mobutu. But in Africa, where leaders see institutions as anathema, linking everything to themselves, cronies and family members, institution building is a far fetch idea. Kabila hated Mobutu only to copy the man. Like Mobutu, he stuffed state structures and businesses with cronies, and family members. Like Mobutu, he decimated the political opposition. But one of his worst mistakes was biting the hands that fed him. He turned against his Ugandan and Rwanda allies and discovered new friends in the confusing, changing regional politics of the Great Lakes.
Kabila's meteoric political rise would have been difficult
without the backing of Museveni and Rwanda's Paul Kagame, who
served as a General in Musevini's Army before leading his uprising
in Rwanda after the Hutu genocide. Backed by the Banyanmulenge,
(rich Rwandese farmers who settled in Zaire but denied citizenship
under Mobutu), Kabila was set to recover from his 1960 failure
in unseating Mobutu, since Rwanda needed to neutralize the Interahamwe,
the youth-wing of the ruling Hutu political parties, were striking
into the country from refugee camps. Uganda, too, saw threats
as the Interahamwe linked up with former Idi Amin operatives.
Angola, which had suffered immensely from Mobutu's support of
Unita, rejoiced that Zaire as a corridor of Unita operations was
now a contested ground. Even as the corrupt dictator was losing,
he was asking his Unita allies to save him, particularly his palace
in his town, Gbadolite - Zimbabwe and Namibia would later join
From the onset, Kabila had no intentions of erecting any foundation for democracy. President Clinton's Special Envoy, Bill Richardson, recalls that during an encounter with Kabila, he concluded the man had no idea of running a government. This was soon made clear when he blocked UN investigation of horrendous massacres allegedly committed by his rebels. Like Taylor, Kabila did not want to be reminded about human rights, consensus, reconciliation or democracy. "People die", a standard Taylor answer, was Kabila's response to rising concerns about his human rights record. Again like Taylor, all he wanted was financial aid to "rebuild" the country. But unlike Taylor who has never been questioned by the international community for his horrific atrocities, the world began to question Kabila, unveiling his mask of tyranny.
The man was far from popular. Uganda's President Museveni realized that although Kabila had seized Kinshasa via Rwandan soldiers, he had not seized the hearts and minds of its 7 million inhabitants. Upon arriving in Kinshasa, Museveni recalls that he noted how empty its 80,000 capacity stadium in Kinshasa was during Kabila's installation ceremonies. Thus one would have believed that a man with such burdens of winning over his opponents would have extended a hand of friendship in humility. He did not! His became a hand of hostility even towards his Ugandan and Rwandan masters. As the antagonism between him and his allies grew, he became more ruthless. In the midst of his orchestrated xenophobia against Rwandans and Ugandans, Banyamulenge soldiers in the Army were systematically rounded up and shot. Museveni makes it clear that Uganda's involvement in DRC was not out of "altruism" since his own bandits were now finding a home in the DRC. Then Kabila sought new friends in Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, telling them that his former friends who made him wanted to rule him. There are men who believe they can always succeed, survive through games and intrigues. This is always not true.
After his death, Kabila's allies met to discuss their military involvement in the DRC as anti-Kabila forces stepped up their military offensives. Joseph Kabila may be the new President of the DRC. But in the end, it will be like the case of the Pope and Stalin. When the latter was told that the former had declared war on him, he reportedly asked, "How many battalions does the Pope have?" Thus without continued military support of his father's allies, Joseph Kabila's survival is tied to the answer to Stalin's question. Meanwhile, it is Zaire... oh no mistake... the DRC that burns as Africa cries.