Ringed by layers of security and accompanied by an entourage of senior Congolese government officials, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila, 30, visited Harvard Business School last Monday to meet briefly with Dean Kim B. Clark and have lunch with a selected group of faculty and students. His visit was followed by an address at the Kennedy School of Government?s ARCO Forum, where he vowed his commitment to fundamental democratic change in a country that has been “brutalized” by civil war.
“No country can truly hold free and fair elections with external forces on all sides,” said a soft-spoken and at times introspective Kabila, who also holds the rank of Major General in his country?s army.
Kabila?s journey to the HBS campus began during an August meeting in Kinshasa with HBS professor Louis T. Wells, Jr., who was in the Congolese capital to help implement a new investment law.
“At the time, the President expressed an interest in having more Harvard faculty involved in work there,” which may include case writing, advising, or teaching, Wells said after the lunch meeting. “Since I found him quite impressive, I suggested that the President might meet with the BGIE (Business, Government and International Economy) faculty at HBS on one of his trips to the United States.”
Wells said that many BGIE faculty members expressed interest in future visits to Congo, presumably to research, write, and teach. Indeed, the School?s Executive Education unit offers a Senior Executive Programme in partnership with Wits Business School in Johannesburg. “Those who run that program would like to expand its coverage?in terms of participants and probably teaching material?to more of Africa. Central Africa, including Congo, is a natural place for that expansion to occur,” Wells said. “Thus, we also discussed the prospects for this kind of extension.”
“This was an event that was more of an educational opportunity for the Harvard community,” said Kofi Fynn (OI), who with Demola Gbadegesin (OF) made up the student delegation to Monday?s lunch event.
“He has a firm grasp of the events and situations in his country and elsewhere,” Fynn said, commenting on Kabila?s presence that is defined by an inner strength surrounded by a solemn exterior. “There was no doubt that he was the leader.”
Kabila inherited power in January after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. The elder Kabila led a rebellion in 1997 that overthrew longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, once considered one of the richest people in the world.
Though officially classified as a dictatorship, the current Kabila-led government has vowed to introduce democratic reforms, and this year signed an UN-brokered cease-fire agreement with rebels supported by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.
Despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force, sporadic fighting continues. Nonetheless, Kabila told the Kennedy School audience that his government would participate in peace talks in South Africa next month. “The dialogue will continue, and we are committed to go and accompany that dialogue to the end,” he said.
Congo, which won its independence from Belgium in 1960, is a mineral-rich country a quarter the size of the continental U.S., with a population of 52 million. Years of dictatorial rule, civil war, runaway inflation, mounting debt and, most recently, the AIDS epidemic that has decimated the populations of sub-Saharan Africa, have stymied economic growth and, in turn, social reforms.
Kabila?s Harvard visit was originally scheduled for September 19 but was postponed following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Following his appearance at the Kennedy School, Kabila traveled to Philadelphia to attend the U.S.-Africa Business Summit, sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa, in an effort to encourage American investment in a post-war Congo. From there, Kabila traveled to New York, Brussels, and Paris.
Kabila was accompanied by a delegation that included, among others, Congolese Finance Minister Matungulu Mbuyambu, Foreign Affairs Minister She Okitundu, Communications Minister Kikaya Bin Karubi, Ambassador to the U.S. Faida Mitifu, Cabinet Director Theophile Mbemba Fundu, and Economic Adviser Fauster Lwanga.
The author is a member of the HBS Communications Office staff.