Joseph Kabila is a steely, enigmatic leader

2015-01-22 19:13

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Kinshasa - Propelled to power by the 2001 murder of his father, Congolese President Joseph Kabila has since struggled with the challenge of ruling a vast mineral-rich nation ravaged by incessant conflict.

But the deadly violence this week sparked by an electoral reform bill which would extend his hold on power, has revived claims Kabila is more intent on prolonging his own reign than unifying the nation.

The Democratic Republic of Congo was being riven by "Africa's Great War", in which up to five million people would die, when Kabila's father - long serving rebel commander and president Laurent Kabila - was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001.

His son, then a general, was summoned to take up the reins of state, and on January 26, 2001, aged just 29, was sworn in as Africa's youngest leader.

Taking charge of a country half the size of western Europe, plagued by the worst war in modern African history and weakened by decades of ineffectual governance, Kabila embraced international moves to end the conflicts that had brought at least six foreign armies onto Congolese soil since 1998.

Alongside deals for the withdrawal of foreign troops, an agreement was signed in December 2002 among rival Congolese parties that launched a transition process towards democracy in the former Belgian colony, once known as Zaire.

Surrounded by hardliners

But while a large UN mission helped prepare for free elections, the outgoing British ambassador, James Atkinson, alleged in a leaked 2004 diplomatic cable that "Kabila is surrounded by hardliners using him as a front...(and) serves the interests of those who (probably) killed his father."

A series of peace accords retained Kabila in power until he was voted into office in the 2006 general election - the country's first free ballot in 41 years.

However, eastern provinces bordering Rwanda and Uganda remain embroiled in conflict, with soldiers and numerous armed movements terrorising villagers and fighting for control of mineral resources. Widespread atrocities including rape and massacres have left hundreds of thousands displaced to this day.

With the help of UN troops given a special mandate to take the offensive against armed movements, the Congolese army defeated the M23 rebels, who were said by the United Nations to have Rwandan and Ugandan backing, an allegation denied in Kigali and Kampala.

Accounts vary as to when and where Joseph Kabila came into the world, but the accepted version holds that he was born on June 4, 1971 in the Fizi territory of South Kivu province in the east of the country, where his father based his rebellion to topple dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

When the family was pursued by Mobutu's forces, the young Joseph went into exile in Tanzania at the age of five, and in 1996 travelled to Uganda to begin law studies.

After his father took power, Kabila was sent to China for further military training, but was called home after a new rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda broke out in 1998. He was given the rank of general.

Since assuming the presidency after his father's death, Kabila has proved a stern and steely leader, but he seldom seems at ease during official events.

Both his presidential election victories, in 2006 and 2011, led to unrest and cries of electoral fraud, and foes have also accused him of running a "parallel government" - allegations his many supporters refute.

He loves discretion

During his 14 years in power Kabila has cultivated an air of mystery about himself. In rare interviews, he comes across as a soft-spoken leader who modestly tries to govern a war-scarred and under-developed state.

"He has an introverted personality, he's disciplined and he loves discretion," according to a member of his inner circle, yet Kabila often drives his bullet-proof 4x4 through Kinshasa, stopping pedestrians in their tracks at the sight of his motorcade.

Rebutting charges that he has given foreign mining firms juicy contracts to exploit vast mineral resources at the cost of stable development plans, Kabila insists he has acted for the good of Congo's 66 million people, who were bled dry during the 1965-97 reign of the kleptocratic Mobutu.

Kabila, an Anglican, is married to Marie Olive Lembe di Sita, and they have a 14-year-old daughter Sifa, and a son Laurent-Desire Junior, aged six.

Read more on:    joseph kabila  |  drc  |  central africa
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