President Joseph Kabila at his personal ranch near Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. He has been in office since his father’s assassination in 2001.CreditCreditJohn Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura
KINGAKATI, Democratic Republic of Congo — His favorite dish is Nile perch “à la Congolaise” prepared by a Flemish cook, on his farm in a private safari park populated by lions, rhinos and, rather incongruously, camels.
He enjoys watching the N.B.A. and gets on with little sleep. He reads “everything,” said an adviser, who nonetheless added slyly, “except Machiavelli.” He likes zooming around on his motorcycle in Kingakati, where his farm is, and is enthusiastic about legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country he has led for nearly two decades.
When asked recently whether he consumed any recreationally, President Joseph Kabila grinned playfully and replied, laughing: “Well, I’m not a Catholic.”
An interview with Mr. Kabila recently, along with other snatches of information, dished out sparingly by various members of his entourage, offered glimpses into the Congolese ruler’s inner world, a partial portrait, at least, of a man who, even after 17 years in power, still remains largely an enigma.
As he is forced by term limits to step down in an election expected to take place on Dec. 23, the first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960, the 47-year-old Mr. Kabila has so far been coy about his future. That has raised questions over his political ambitions, given the large fortune he has amassed over the years in this extraordinarily mineral-rich country. It is now widely expected that he will bide his time for five years before returning to power.
The president generally keeps his cards close to his vest, according to people who have dealt with him. He recently surprised a gaggle of Anglophone journalists, first by agreeing to be interviewed for the first time in about a decade, and then by letting slip that he could see himself returning to power in the future.
Congo’s constitution bars him from running for a third term in a row, a rule that he insists he has respected, even though he has already delayed the coming elections by two years.
“Well, I am not going to rule out anything in life,” he said somewhat cryptically, sipping water at a reception organized for the journalists in the presidential palace in Kinshasa, the capital. “As long as you are alive and you have a vision, you should never rule out anything.”
Supporters of the Congolese opposition candidate Félix Tshisekedi in Kinshasa last month. There are 21 candidates vying to replace Mr. Kabila.CreditJohn Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“Will I be active and wanting to achieve what is there to be achieved?” the president said. “Yes, definitely. I’d like to be available for my country. The job is not over at all.”
Outside, a statue of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a former rebel fighter turned authoritarian leader, rises in front of the sprawling complex, an index finger pointing at the sky as if he were about to sound a warning. Just a few days earlier, at least three people were killed in clashes with the police on the sidelines of an opposition rally, and a fire broke out in a building in the capital, where voting materials are kept. Around 8,000 of the 10,000 machines expected to be used for the city were destroyed, officials said, adding that the voting would go ahead anyway.
Earlier, Mr. Kabila had appeared suddenly in front of reporters, having kept them waiting for hours in a stifling hallway in the presidential palace. He sported a white-tinged beard and was a plumper, older, slightly more tired version of the broad-shouldered, clean-shaven man whose portrait hangs virtually everywhere here, from hotels to supermarkets. (“Do I have to lose a little weight?” he asked, patting his stomach.)
Over the summer, Mr. Kabila stunned the nation by naming as his favored successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former interior minister whose name resonates little beyond political circles in this country two-thirds the size of Western Europe. Mr. Shadary, considered to be a hard-liner, was said to have been chosen because he is malleable and has weak ties to the army and security services, two forces deeply loyal to Mr. Kabila.
Mr. Shadary, who was targeted by a fresh round of sanctions by the European Union last week for brutally repressing protesters last year, is one of 21 candidates seeking the presidency and a whopping 30,000 candidates scrambling for presidential, legislative and provincial seats throughout the nation.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Congo Research Group at New York University, Mr. Shadary trails the two leading opposition candidates. But he is expected to win, nevertheless.
The opposition has been severely weakened and divided by the defection of two prominent candidates who broke ranks to form their own ticket.
The ruling coalition, the Common Front for Congo, built by Mr. Kabila, has far more firepower and has co-opted enough members of the opposition to hold sway over the election, said an American diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.
Mr. Kabila “will have at least two levers,” the diplomat said. “Party leadership and personal patronage leadership to continue to protect his interests.”
Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, center, a former interior minister and Mr. Kabila’s favored successor, at a cathedral in Kinshasa last month.CreditJohn Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Critics say that Mr. Shadary, referred to as the “dauphin,” from the French word meaning heir to the royal throne, is simply keeping the presidential seat warm for Mr. Kabila, much in the way Dmitri Medvedev did in 2008 for the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, who was also facing a two-term limit.
Mr. Kabila insists that the elections will be fair and transparent. When asked whether he would accept an opposition victory, he replied, nodding slowly: “Yes, definitely, definitely, definitely.”
But many Congolese are skeptical, and some expressed horror at the prospect of another Kabila presidency down the road.
“It will be a catastrophe for the republic, because for 17 years his regime was characterized by corruption, impunity and the violation of human rights,” said Georges Kampiamba, president of the Congolese Association for the Access to Justice.
“President Kabila has no obstacles from returning to power in 2023,” he said. “The law is clear. He can come back if he wants to.”
Franc Ngoma, who scrapes out a meager living selling prepaid phone cards in Kinshasa, said he wanted to see the back of Mr. Kabila. “It’s a president who does not communicate with his people,” he said. “We don’t have jobs. If he comes back, I’ll move to Angola.”
Electronic voting machines, made by a South Korean company and used in Congo for the first time, have raised concerns that they may be more vulnerable to vote rigging than paper ballots. Given the scarcity of electricity in parts of Congo, there are also worries that swathes of the population could be disenfranchised.
The president has been widely credited for bringing stability to a country that was torn apart in what is commonly referred to as the “Great African War,” a bloody conflict in the late 1990s that left millions dead and many more displaced.
Mr. Kabila inherited the presidency in 2001, aged 29, after his father was assassinated. The elder Mr. Kabila had brought down the kleptocratic government of Mobutu Sese Seko, one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, who had been propped up by the United States for many years during the Cold War.
The younger Mr. Kabila, trained as a soldier, invited foreign companies to invest in minerals like copper and cobalt, helping the economy quintuple during his tenure.
Still, for a country endowed with a wealth of natural resources, very little of the profits filtered down to ordinary people. The United States Treasury this summer slapped sanctions on businesses belonging to a close friend of Mr. Kabila’s, Dan Gertler, one of the biggest single mining investors in the country, over “corruption and misconduct.” Mr. Kabila denies any wrongdoing.
Mr. Kabila had a promising start, said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group. “He liberalized the economy and brought unification and growth,” he said. “You could fly, make bank transfers, phone from the east to the west” of the country.
In 2006, he oversaw the first multiparty elections since independence. He helped set up democratic and electoral institutions, and guaranteed freedom of speech.
“Then came the reckoning,” Mr. Stearns said. “It became clear that the democratic institutions were just a facade. The reality of most institutions is that they are there to distribute patronage, not to secure the safety of citizens.”
Economic growth has stalled recently because of endemic corruption, renewed outbreaks of violence and an Ebola crisis in the eastern part of the country. Mr. Kabila’s government this month announced it was increasing taxes on the profits of foreign mining companies to patch holes in the budget.
“There are still challenges in as far as consolidating peace,” Mr. Kabila said in a moment of candor. “It’s not the same challenges we had 20 years ago.”
Back at the reception, as reporters tried to glean some more personal information about him, he was asked what his favorite movie was.
“‘Apocalypto,’” he replied promptly, referring to an action-adventure movie co-produced by Mel Gibson about a Mayan hunter who makes a daring escape after being captured for a ritual sacrifice.
“And in the end, he lives, no?” Mr. Kabila said.
Source: The NY Times