Democratic Republic of Congo

New Hopes for Peace

The assassination of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Laurent Kabila on Jan. 16 brought down one of central Africa’s notably corrupt leaders and raised new hopes for a peace agreement in the regional conflict often described as “Africa’s world war.”

Kabila, who was shot by one of his bodyguards under mysterious circumstances, was replaced on Jan. 26 by his son Joseph. Though the world learned about Joseph Kabila following the assassination, certain details remained cloudy. His age was reported in some publications as 29 and in others as 31, and commentators seemed unsure about whether or not his mother was a Rwandan Tutsi. The young former major-general of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s army was criticized for his inexperience in government and his lack of fluency in French (DRC’s official language) and Lingala (its biggest dialect). “His only claims to legitimacy to rule are his relationship with his father and his being an army officer, both negative factors in the present context,” wrote the independent Post Express of Lagos (Feb. 2).

Nevertheless, the young president made a strong impression in the weeks following his inauguration when he went on an international tour to promote a new peace initiative in the troubled region.

The “charm offensive” had several portions. One of Kabila’s first stops was Washington, D.C., where he met on Feb. 1 with a chief opponent in the Congo war, Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Both leaders then met separately with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. During a trip to Europe, Kabila also met with French President Jacques Chirac and with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

“Already he has managed to achieve...what his murdered father had bungled with equal speed: the support of important representatives of the international community,” wrote Frankfurt’s liberal Frankfurter Rundschau on Feb. 8.

African leaders soon got a chance to judge the young Kabila’s substance at a peace summit convened in Lusaka, Zambia, on Feb. 15. This summit, designed to reactivate the Lusaka Peace Accord signed in 1999, faltered somewhat when the war’s two main rebel backers, Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, decided not to attend. But despite their absences, several steps forward were made.

Perhaps most significantly, Kabila reversed a decision of his father’s when he announced that he would invite former Botswanan President Ketumile Masire to Kinshasa as a peace mediator, causing Dakar’s Panafrican News Agency to remark that “the young Kabila is seemingly eager to distance himself from the unproductive and hardline position of his assassinated father” (Feb. 16). DRC’s own press was more skeptical, citing Kabila’s eagerness to protect his father. “The new Congolese president has taken the necessary route so that Congo moves toward peace, but also so that his father and predecessor, wrongly accused of being an obstacle to peace, is washed clean,” read an editorial in DRC’s French-language daily L’Avenir (Feb. 16).

Most of the parties in the conflict, however, seemed inclined to take Kabila’s gestures at face value. “The Rwandan government wishes to renew its commitment to full implementation of the Lusaka ceasefire agreement,” read a statement from Kagame, quoted on Feb. 19 in the United Nations’ IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Network) news service. Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the rebel Congolese Liberation Front (CLF), called for all soldiers in his movement to surrender their firearms to local authorities by Feb. 15. “After this date, anyone with firearms will immediately be arrested,” DRC French-language daily Le Potentiel quoted him as saying (Feb. 17). Subsequently, Bemba brokered a peace accord between rival Hema and Lendu communities in the Bunia area of northeastern DRC.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, whose country has committed some 11,000 troops in the region, also announced his intention to withdraw his forces.

Whether these gestures will lead to a permanent peace remains to be seen. At press time, there were reports of intense fighting between the Hutu-supported Mayi Mayi faction and government-backed Rwandan militia in the eastern DRC province of Southern Kivu, a development that suggested peace may yet be elusive.