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DRC President Kabila: Reformer or corrupt authoritarian

Martina Schwikowski
December 29, 2016

President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down this month has many Congolese fearing more violence. New elections are tentatively scheduled for the end of 2017.

Kongo Präsident Joseph Kabila
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, has recently offered little hope for peace but rather perpetuated a fear of fresh violence. Kabila refused to step down in early December after his mandate ended saying that the election of a new president would take place in 2018.  After his constitutionally limited two terms at the helm of the DRC, there is no sign that a peaceful succession to rule the country's population of 70 million people is on the horizon.

Kabila became president at a young age and - against many expectations - he moved his country forward. He assumed the presidency after his father, President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated 2001 by one of his own bodyguards. Almost 20 years later, the vast country again finds itself weakened by corruption, poverty, exploitation of its mineral resources and political unrest.

Corruption continues

The latest corruption scandal is in the banking sector and points to members of the Kabila family. Jean-Jacques Lumumba, a great-nephew of Patrice Lumumba, the former leader of the liberation movement, had to resign from his position at the "Banque Gabonaise et Française Internationale" (BGFI) after he discovered that large amounts of money had been flowing to the national independent election commission.

Demokratische Republik Kongo Unruhen
Protests against a delayed presidential election turned violent in Congo's capital KinshasaImage: Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/J. Bompengo

"I have to protect my career and the capital of the country," Lumumba told DW. He even received threats due to his disagreement with the management of the bank about these transactions. It turns out that the director of the bank is an adoptive son of the president's late father.

Lumumba subsequently went into exile. He added that he does not trust the ongoing dialogue that is taking place between the opposition and Kabila's government.

"The greed of some politicians is so huge that they have taken Congo hostage. People are dying and are being tortured. Many cannot speak anymore. We have returned to dictatorship because it is all about sustaining power," said Lumumba.

Who is Joseph Kabila?

Joseph Kabila was the oldest of 10 children. His father, Laurent Kabila, was also involved in politics early on. Kabila's childhood coincided with the low point of his father's political and military career. He had a twin sister, Jane, and one full-blood brother, Saide.

The relationship with his sister developed later in life. She became one of his most influential advisers after Augustin Mwanke, his right-hand, died in 2012. She reportedly owns stakes in the media group Digital Congo and was voted a member of parliament from the Katanga Province.

The twins were born in Hewabora, a small village in the Fizi territory of the South Kivu provincen located in eastern Congo. His mother was one of Laurent Kabila's three wives, Sifa Maanya. She was a member of the Bangubangu tribe in the Maniema province of eastern Congo, although some have claimed that she was a Tutsi from Rwanda.

Demokratische Republik Kongo Wahl Wahlen 2006
Supporters of President Joseph Kabila celebrate at his office in Kinshasa after he won presidential elections in 2006Image: AP

Kabila went to school in Tanzania, where he learned to speak English and French at a young age. He is also fluent in Kiswahili, although not in Lingala, which is the language spoken in Congo's capital Kinshasa. This has led to many considering him a foreigner in his own country. After high school, Joseph Kabila followed a military curriculum in Tanzania and then at pursued further studies at Makerere University in Uganda. 

Kabila leads military coup

In 1996 Kabila's father, the head of a guerilla force that opposed the government at that time, asked him to join him in a fight to overthrow then-President Mobutu Sese Seko. Kabila's father sent him to China to further his military training and six months later, in 1997, they led the revolt that overthrew the Congolese dictator and put Laurent Kabila into the office of president. When taking over the presidency, Laurent Kabila promised that he would change the corruption and bad politics that had plagued the government for the past 32 years. But his rule was just as corrupt.

Kabila's father appointed his son to the position of major-general in charge of the armed forces. In 2000 he became chief of staff of the land forces and was one of the main military commanders during the Congo war.

Joseph Kabila became the President of Congo ten days after his father was murdered in January 2001 when he was only 29 years old. Striving to end the atrocities that had taken place in his country up to that point, young Kabila worked to make treaties with Congo's neighbors and fought to remove foreign forces from the country. In 2003 Kabila successfully ended the war that had started when his father fought with their neighbors Rwanda and Uganda who had been occupying parts of the eastern Congo.

Over an estimated four million people were killed in the conflict, but due mainly to Kabila's diplomatic skills and his meetings with officials of the other countries, there was an end to the slaughter. 

Democracy and reforms

Kabila won the democratic election in 2006 and became president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hopes were increasing that the living conditions for Congolese would improve. Kabila did manage to put Congo on the map as he worked to strengthen international relations. He also met with representatives from groups of different religious, social and commercial sectors which led to the beginning of the transformation of the country.

Afrika Kongo Kupfergewinnung
The Kabila family is assumed to have many business interests in the DRC including in the lucrative mineral extraction industryImage: Getty Images/P. Pettersson

Kabila recognized the need to make quick reforms to ensure unity among the country's stakeholders, bring peace and security to areas that struggled with foreign influences and establish a favorable environment for investors. In 2011 he was elected as president for the second time despite widespread irregularities. Kabila only secured 42 percent of the vote but was sworn into power under heavy military presence.

Instability in Congo

Clashes erupted at the end of 2016 between security forces and demonstrators after Congo's electoral commission said that the election slated for November wouldn't be held because of logistical reasons. A court determined that Kabila could stay in power until another election is organized.

Under young Kabila's rule, the DRC had begun to thrive and infrastructure improved. But later he departed further from democracy and put Congo in an increasingly unstable situation that has led to violent protests against his government and fears over the possibility of a new civil war if Kabila stays in power.