Congo leader's death offers way out of war

Ex-president's son, army commanders are key, analysts say

January 20, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Although the pitfalls to peace are many, the death of Democratic Republic of Congo President Laurent Kabila, who was shot by one of his own soldiers this week, may create the best opportunity to end the beleaguered nation's two-year civil war, analysts say.

After seizing power in 1997, Kabila threw his diamond- and copper-rich country into a conflict soon called Africa's First World War. Drawing in more than half a dozen African nations, the fighting in Congo's rainforests, rivers and mountains has killed thousands of people and displaced millions more.

But Kabila, more concerned with using the conflict to maintain his seat as president than seeking peace, has continually frustrated attempts by the world to end the war, critics say.

Now with Kabila out of the picture and his allies showing fatigue, there may be a chance to restart serious peace negotiations, says Winston Meso, researcher at the Africa Institute of South Africa. That is, if Kabila's son, who was appointed as his successor, wants to pursue it, he says.

"The initiative lies with Joseph Kabila to make an overture to the rebels for peace. If not, it will be two elephants fighting it out, and the grass suffers - and the grass is the Congolese people," Meso says.

Not much is known about Joseph Kabila, 31, whose father appointed him major general of the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has spent much of his life outside the Congo, attending high school in Tanzania and later receiving military training in China. He has little knowledge of the country's main languages, French and Lingala.

"He's not seen as Congolese," says Hanlie de Beer, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. "It will be very difficult for him. I think there is already resistance against him."

Yet Joseph Kabila offers the nation a sense of continuity and stability in the short term while politicians and military leaders decide their next move, analysts say. And that move could be a push for a peaceful end to the country's quagmire.

Under one scenario proposed by Chris Landsberg, a lecturer in the department of international relations at the University of the Witwaterstrand in Johannesburg, military leaders plotted President Kabila's assassination because he had blocked their efforts to end the conflict. If that is the case, the military leaders may force Joseph Kabila to honor the peace agreement signed by all sides in the summer of 1999 in Zambia but ignored by his father.

The peace process could also receive a push from Kabila's allies, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola. Saddled with debt, Zimbabwe, for instance, which has committed 12,000 troops and millions of dollars to the fight, has been looking for an honorable exit from the conflict, analysts say.

Such a scenario is a favorable reading of the events unfolding in the Congo. It is still not clear who is really in charge of the country and what their plans are in the days and weeks ahead, Meso said. The confusion over whether Kabila was dead or alive and the hesitation by the government to finally announce the status of its president points toward a sense of crisis and chaos. Many fear this instability will spread to the fractious military, which could splinter into multiple alliances, throwing the country into greater disorder.

Or rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda may take advantage of the unrest created by Kabila's death to seize the capital city of Kinshasa. Rebels angered by a bombing raid they said took place Thursday near the northern town of Basankusu said they did not accept the younger Kabila as their leader.

"The power vacuum is not properly filled. There is still a lot of competing forces in the inner circles of power," Meso said. "The whole thing could deteriorate into further anarchy."

Unfortunately, history would support a future of chaos in Congo more than a future of peace, Meso says.

After winning independence from Belgian colonial rule, the country sank into 32 years of dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, who plundered the country's mines and cleaned out its treasury while the nation he had renamed Zaire fell into poverty and despair.

Backed by Rwanda and Uganda, Kabila overthrew Mobutu's government in 1997 and promised free elections and democracy. But his promises were never realized. One year after taking power, Kabila lost the support of his former allies Rwanda and Uganda, who turned on him and started their own rebellion. Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe rushed to support Kabila.

Before Kabila's death this week, tensions had been brewing between Kabila and his top generals over the military's recent defeats and low morale among the troops, says de Beer. She said there had been a number of reports in September and October about a possible move by the military to oust Kabila.

It is still not clear what happened on Tuesday, when a soldier shot Kabila after an apparent dispute with military leaders. After confirming Kabila's death on Thursday, the government announced a 30-day period of national mourning.

Analysts say Kabila will be remembered as a shrewd military leader who maneuvered his way to the top, but also as a stubborn and incredibly insecure statesman who jailed or killed those not loyal to him and often alienated his allies.

"Sadly for Kabila, the Congolese people will have the same view of Kabila as they did of Mobutu Sese Seko. He became just as brutal a dictator," Landsberg said.

Nevertheless, there will most likely be a large turnout during his state funeral in Kinshasa. "He brought them more hardship," said de Beer. "I don't think a lot of people will cry."

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