At age 30, President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is about as old as many HBS students are. Last Monday, Kabila spoke at the Forum and outlined his vision on creating peace and restoring good governance in Congo. Kabila became President in January 2001 after his father, former President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated.
Kabila faces several challenges. More than half of Congo is controlled by three rival rebel groups, who are backed by regular armies from neighboring Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. On the personal front, Kabila grew up outside Congo; he speaks the official language, French, poorly and barely speaks the national language, Lingala. Kabila?s route to the presidency has been questioned and nobody knows how much power he really wields.
Imperialism and Kleptocracy
Congo has a population of 52 million and occupies a huge portion of central Africa that is about the size of Western Europe. Although Congo is endowed with natural resources including diamonds, gold, manganese and timber, the country is one of the poorest in the world. Most of Congo?s resources have been looted rather than employed to develop the country. The looting began in the 1880s when King Leopold II of Belgium claimed Congo as his personal property. The Belgian government colonized Congo in 1908 and controlled the country until its independence in 1960. In 1965, Mobutu Sese Seko staged a military coup and went on to rule Congo with an iron fist for 32 years during which he amassed a fortune of several billion dollars and became one of the richest men in the world.
The current political problems in Congo stem from the overthrow of Mobutu?s kleptocratic regime. In late 1996, Kabila?s father was appointed to lead a rebel movement that received significant military support from Rwanda and Uganda. These two countries asserted that Mobutu was harboring rebels hostile to their governments. Mobutu was overthrown in May 1997 and Kabila Sr. became President.
However, Rwanda and Uganda soon fell out with Kabila Sr. and, in August 1998, backed another group of rebels vying to take power in Congo. In response, Kabila Sr. received military help, mainly from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Since 1998, the government side and the rebel groups have fought each other to a stalemate. Meanwhile, foreign politicians and soldiers, from both sides, have allegedly looted Congo?s mineral wealth.
Cease-fire and Hope
In July 1999, the government and the rebels agreed to a cease-fire and the withdrawal of foreign forces from Congo. However, the cease-fire was repeatedly violated until Joseph Kabila became President. Kabila has restarted the peace process in a bid to bring an end to the war that has claimed about 3 million lives either directly or indirectly.
UN peacekeepers have now been deployed and the foreign countries are taking steps to withdraw their armies. Kabila has pulled Congo out of its diplomatic isolation and has made a good impression abroad, where he is considered to be more statesmanlike and less recalcitrant than his father.
As stipulated in the 1999 agreement, a “national convention” was convened, albeit belatedly, in mid-October to discuss the political future of Congo. Although this convention has been temporarily suspended, it is a positive sign that the Congolese government has agreed to sit down with its armed and unarmed opponents to develop a plan for Congo?s political future. Kabila has instituted economic, political and social reforms within Congo. He has lifted the ban on political parties, lifted restrictions on non-governmental organizations, and restored press freedoms. Kabila has convened a national conference on human rights to discuss the human rights situation in the country and the government has embarked on a number of judicial reforms. On the economic front, Kabila has reopened talks with the IMF and the World Bank and has pursued economic policies aimed at rehabilitating Congo?s economy.
Congo has clearly moved in the right direction under Kabila?s leadership, which is remarkable given his personal handicaps and the difficult political situation in which he found himself. Kabila is conscious of his inexperience and has sought advice from several quarters, including members of the Harvard faculty. Hopefully, Kabila can strongly lead the Congolese government through the peace process and the national convention, which can then lead to broad based elections in order to establish a democratic government that reflects the will of the Congolese people and acts in their interests.