- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2001

ASMARA, Eritrea Congolese Cabinet officials thrust President Laurent Kabila's son into power yesterday, making him head of the vast, crisis-torn African nation a day after the senior Kabila was reportedly killed in a palace attack.
Reports that Mr. Kabila had died continued to mount. Congolese officials, however, insisted he was wounded but alive when they announced the temporary measures to fill the power vacuum that has threatened to throw Congo into even more turmoil.
"Until President Kabila has recovered, and to ensure stability, the government has decided to give command of the government and military to Maj. Gen. Joseph Kabila," the Associated Press quoted Communications Minister Dominique Sakombi Inongo as saying after an emergency Cabinet meeting.
The younger Kabila, who already heads the armed forces, was reported to have been injured in the 30 minutes of intense gunfire Tuesday at the presidential residence in Kinshasa. He made no public appearance yesterday. State-run television broadcast footage of the uniformed major general sitting silently, twisting his beret, but it was not immediately clear when the images were recorded.
The reported death of Laurent Kabila, a longtime rebel who himself was thrust into power in an attempt by Rwanda and Uganda to win Congolese cooperation in snuffing out their own rebellions, will be felt far beyond the borders of his nation.
With Congo embroiled in what outgoing Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright called "Africa's first world war," the killing of Mr. Kabila, if true, has the potential to set off a scramble by the politically ambitious in Kinshasa and by allies and enemies who have spent more than two years fighting over the fate of this vast, mineral-rich central African nation.

Kabila accumulated foes

A mercurial figure who ruled by erratic decrees, Mr. Kabila has accumulated a wide array of enemies inside and outside Congo since he came to power in the 1997 war that toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who has since died.

He was initially embraced by a Congo eager for change, who saw Mr. Kabila as a reformer and a genuine nationalist. Western governments were prepared to fund Mr. Kabila, but he quickly displayed an intolerant, combative persona. He banned political activity and frequently jailed critics and journalists.

Rwanda, whose troops did most of the fighting to oust Gen. Mobutu, put Mr. Kabila in power at the head of a rebel coalition. Angry over his embracing Rwandan Hutu rebels ousted as Rwanda's government after the April-July 1994 genocide targeting the ethnic Tutsi minority Rwanda attacked Congo 15 months after Mr. Kabila's accession, along with an eastern Congo rebel group.

Neighboring Uganda joined Rwanda against Congo, but Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia rescued Mr. Kabila from imminent defeat by supplying him with thousands of troops. The warring sides have since been in a military stalemate that has divided the nation roughly in half.

The assassination drama follows months of deep discontent in the Congolese army and military defeats in recent weeks as Mr. Kabila's army and allied Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian forces were driven out of key towns in the mineral-rich southeastern province of Katanga.

Power vacuum feared

The United Nations, news agencies and diplomats in Kinshasa reported that heavy machine-gun fire was heard Tuesday around Mr. Kabila's Kinshasa residence, the Marble Palace. Unconfirmed reports said Mr. Kabila met with his generals over the Katanga defeats.

An argument reportedly took place, possibly over presidential threats to fire army leaders. Some sources said Mr. Kabila was shot by a bodyguard, while others said one of the military men in the meeting shot him in the back and leg.

An African diplomat in Kinshasa said diplomats were concerned about a power vacuum despite the naming of his son to lead. The elder Kabila's Cabinet and military command were stacked with ambitious relatives and cronies, none of whom seemed to command the competence to manage the complex war.

Mr. Kabila appointed Joseph as head of the army in 1997 and gave him the rank of major general, despite his son's lack of military training. Maj. Gen. Kabila has since clashed with more seasoned generals for control of the army.

Psychologically, Mr. Kabila's death or continued incapacitation could have enormous impact on his troops, demoralized by recent defeats and months without pay, poor battlefield leadership and court marshals and executions of soldiers for failure to obey orders.

Soldiers tired of war

In battle, they have shown little willingness to fight and would be expected to grow more hesitant without a well-known leader at the helm.
Recently, some 4,000 troops put up little resistance to a rebel offensive and fled into Zambia, where some sought political asylum. Soldiers told reporters they were unpaid, on starvation rations and had been ordered to shoot and abandon their own wounded.
"It has been brewing for a very long time. The army has been dissatisfied for a very long time," said one African diplomat in Kinshasa. He said that the city was very quiet, and that soldiers patrolling the streets oddly seemed very relaxed. "You never see it like this. Soldiers are relaxed but not hassling anyone," the diplomat said.
"I know some people had been contemplating it for a long time, and then they saw an opportunity," said Ketumile Masire, the former Botswana president who was appointed as the mediator of a long-stalled internal political negotiation under the Lusaka peace plan.
Speaking to the South African Press Association yesterday from his home in Kanye, Botswana, he said: "The death of Kabila is not an end to the conflict, it only complicates an already very complicated situation."

If Lubumbashi falls

If Mr. Kabila is indeed dead, the crumbling army morale could quickly translate into a rout of Congolese government forces on the southeastern front. Already, Rwanda and its Congolese rebel allies have closed to within 130 miles of the copper and cobalt mines around Lubumbashi that fund Mr. Kabila's regime.
If Lubumbashi falls, the Kinshasa government would also lose its ability to resupply troops overland by rail or road through Zambia, leaving it completely dependent on far more expensive and limited air transport.
A crucial question is how the inexperienced Joseph Kabila, whose age is put at around 33, will react, knowing that key generals or bodyguards might have been involved in the attack on his father, despite their strong ethnic and family connections.
He may seize the opportunity to rekindle the peace plan rejected by his father and open dialogue with Rwanda. But with his own position as weak as his father's was three years ago, he may follow in the family mold and launch a wave of destabilizing purges of the army command and presidential guard.
Besides possibly hostile generals, the younger Kabila also faces ambitious politicians, who will be tempted to plot against their new temporary leader.

Big stakes for Mugabe

For Zimbabwe and its embattled president, Robert Mugabe, much is at stake, too.

Although Zimbabwe is effectively bankrupt and wracked by intense fuel and foreign-currency shortages, Mr. Mugabe refuses to withdraw from Congo or admit that the war is a prime cause of Zimbabwe's troubles. One reason is that Mr. Mugabe and his top generals have been given valuable mining concessions and military supply contracts to shore up their loyalty.

If the Kabila family falls, the deals are worthless.

But economic chaos in Zimbabwe poses a growing political risk to Mr. Mugabe, who faces re-election in 2002.

Angola joined the war to prevent its UNITA rebel enemies from seeking a safe haven in southern Congo as they did under Gen. Mobutu. But Angola and Zimbabwe, Mr. Kabila's major backers, cannot fight the war without Congolese troops.

For Rwanda and Uganda, Mr. Kabila's death or removal was a key objective, since he showed a willingness to embrace rebel groups bitterly opposed to the Rwandan and Ugandan governments.

Although both nations are economically less strained by the war than their enemies are, a new Congolese ruler offers a chance to restart peace talks and pursue their long-held goals of tracking down and arresting their rebel opponents who have been incorporated into Mr. Kabila's army.

Additional implications

If Mr. Kabila lives, his rule is likely to grow even more harsh.
Already he has filled key positions with relatives and people from his home region around Lubumbashi.
If Mr. Kabila is replaced or sidelined, it could weaken control of the army but may harden attitudes toward Rwanda, according to Jan Van Eck, a specialist on Africa's Great Lakes region at the Center for Conflict Resolution.
"Kabila's anti-Rwanda position was supported by a large number of people in Congo. He is by no means out on a limb on that," Mr. Van Eck said.
Burundi, a tiny nation bordering Congo and Rwanda, also has much at stake. Its troops have been fighting alongside Rwanda's in eastern Congo against an ethnic rebel group out to topple Burundi's minority Tutsi government.
To get Burundian troops out of eastern Congo, where they are fighting their own enemies, Mr. Kabila last week brokered what Mr. Van Eck described as a "breakthrough" meeting between Burundi's military ruler Pierre Buyoya and the FDD rebel group.
"This is sad for Burundi. It was always alleged that Kabila controlled the FDD, and so that meeting gave a major boost to Burundian peace. His death would put whatever positive role Congo played in Burundi on ice," Mr. Van Eck said.

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