A cat goes to a monastery, but she still remains a cat.
KINSHASA, CONGO, MAY 1997
President Laurent Kabila spent his first few weeks in Kinshasa in May 1997 shellshocked. It was understandable; he had not been in the capital since the early 1960s. In his mind, Kinshasa had become a mythical construct, a Babylon of excess and corruption, from where his archenemy had ruled for three decades.
The capital, called Leopoldville when Kabila had left, with its functioning administration and expansive infrastructure, had deteriorated into the riotous commotion of modern-day Kinshasa. In the early sixties, the city had been sculpted around a tidy, wealthy nucleus of white businessmen surrounded by the burgeoning Congolese elite and flanked by neighborhoods of blue-collar workers in relatively neat housing settlements built by the Belgians. By 1997, the population had grown from half a million to over five million. The city had burst at the seams, as villagers streamed into the ever-expanding shantytowns fanning south and eastward, away from downtown.
Kinshasa had become the third largest city in Africa and among the top twenty in the world, but it seemed like an oversized village. There was no functioning postal service or public transit system, and despite an overabundance of rainfall, over two million city dwellers did not have direct access to a water supply. Ninety-five percent of the population worked in the informal sector: lugging bags of cassava, shining shoes, hawking everything from aphrodisiacs to cigarettes and nail polish along the bustling streets. Tens of thousands of civil servants still showed up for work in old suits and ties—but were rarely paid. Garbage accumulated in the open sewers and on impromptu heaps by the side of the road, where it rotted and was eventually burned, filling the air with acrid smoke. Half of the population lived on one meal a day, scrounging together stacks of Nouveau Zaire banknotes to buy cassava flour and leaves for their evening meal; a quarter lived on a meal every two days.1 Kin la Belle had become Kin la Poubelle—Kinshasa the Garbage Can.
The architecture of the city had changed accordingly. The statue at the train station of King Leopold, the Belgian monarch who had founded the country and owned it as his private property for twenty-three years, was gone. The various exclusive social clubs, where white privilege was carefully groomed, had also disappeared as the foreign population fled the city, first after the social upheaval around independence and then during the pillage of the early 1990s. Mobutu had tried to reorganize the city, constructing wide boulevards to the Chinesebuilt parliament and a new 80,000-seat stadium, the second largest in Africa. But city planning had failed: The shanties grew organically and anarchically, appropriating empty spaces as sewage and lighting systems broke down. The rich reacted by building higher walls around the few pockets of whitewashed privilege left in the Ngaliema and Gombe communes. The few public parks were taken over by hawkers and evangelists during the day and by the homeless at night.
The presidential gardens, which had housed Mobutu’s zoo, were now overgrown with weeds. The zoo, once a model for others in Africa, was little more than a collection of rusty, dirty cages tended by unpaid keepers who looked after starving animals. Two of the lions had recently starved to death, and a group of expatriates had taken to collecting leftover food from upscale hotels to feed the remaining monkeys, chimpanzees, antelopes, and snakes. The abandoned zoo workers had tried raising chickens and fish on the land, but they had little hope for the animals.
Soon after Kabila arrived in Kinshasa, his advisors briefed him on the country’s economy. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The country’s income had shrunk to a third of what it had been at independence in 1960. Inflation was at 750 percent. Between 1988 and 1996, copper production had plummeted from 506,000 to 38,000 tons, while industrial diamond production dropped from 10 million to 6.5 million carats. Coffee, palm oil, and tea production followed the same trend. Only 5 percent of the population had salaried jobs; many of those worked for the state on salaries as low as five dollars a month. There were 120,000 soldiers and 600,000 civil servants to pay and only 2,000 miles of paved roads in the twelfth largest country in the world.
To top it off, the government was broke. When Kabila’s forces arrived in Kinshasa, one of their first stops naturally had been the Central Bank. The future vice governor of the bank had the honor of opening the vaults, only to find the huge cement chambers empty. A lonely fifty French franc note was left in one of the drawers, “as an insult.”2 In the ministries, most of the files had been burned or stolen, along with phones, fax machines, air conditioners, paper clips, and door handles.
Kabila, who spoke broken Lingala—the language of the capital—and knew almost no one in town, was daunted by Kinshasa. He slipped into the city under cover of night on May 20, depriving residents of a first glimpse of their new ruler. A silent motorcade rushed him to the palais du marbre, a marble palace ensconced in the leafy Ngaliema neighborhood. Mobutu had had several homes in the capital; Kabila would content himself with just one. His wife, Sifa, his concubines, and some of his eighteen children were staying elsewhere in town; he didn’t want to mix business and pleasure. He didn’t change his style or his personal habits. He continued to wear sandals and his drab, monochrome safari suits. His closet was full of identical suits in army green, navy blue, and brown, prompting his friends to joke that his tailor had an easy job. His diet remained inspired by his days in the bush: large quantities of venison, ugali—the thick maize meal preferred by Katangans—and simple vegetables stewed in palm oil. Sometimes he ordered Chinese and Indian food, or he would go to the kitchen and ask his cooks to make him whatever they were eating themselves; he had kept a taste for manioc, squash, and potato leaves. Contrary to rumor, he didn’t drink alcohol—he had high blood pressure and was diabetic—but consumed large quantities of strong, milky tea.3
His daily schedule also remained largely unchanged. He had problems sleeping—according to some because of his weight—and would wake before dawn and listen to the BBC Swahili and English broadcasts on shortwave radio on his balcony. He had a habit of waking up his advisors in the middle of the night to continue a discussion they had had the previous day. “I had to sleep with my phone next to the bed,” Didier Mumengi, his information minister and protégé, told me. “He would call us at all hours and continue conversations where we had left off days previously.” During these phone calls and everywhere else he went, Mzee—the respectful Swahili term for elder—carried a small, pocketsized notebook in which he would jot notes incessantly.
In the few hours of leisure time Kabila allowed himself at the end of the day, he read history books. He was intrigued by the Russian and French revolutions, as well as by the New Deal—he thought he could draw on these historical lessons to transform the Congo. Biographies of de Gaulle, Mao, and Napoleon lined his study. On occasion, some ministers would stay on after a meeting and debate philosophy. “He was a well-read man with some strange ideas,” one of his ministers told me. “I remember in one cabinet meeting, he asked us out of the blue whether we thought Sartre would have agreed with some policy we were discussing!”4
The image his former advisors paint of the new president is one of a man inflated by his new power but also confused and stifled by loneliness. Several times, he scared his bodyguards by disappearing from his presidential compound at night and driving his car into town, where he would drive around alone, trying to catch the city—which he barely knew—off guard. His soldiers would scramble into pickup trucks and chase after him, only to see their president get out of his car and order them to get back to his palace. A former minister remembered being asked to supervise a dredging project on one of the city’s canals. “A few days after we began work, Mzee showed up at night, all alone in a battered Mercedes, to see how work was progressing. He gave us all a fright. Not that I was there to see him—it was 1 o’clock in the morning!”5
On May 29, twelve days after the rebels seized Kinshasa, the country got its first good look at its leader. Laurent Kabila was sworn into office, the nation’s first new president in thirty-two years. The ceremony took place in front of 40,000 people in the Kamanyola stadium. The mood was festive. The war was over, Mobutu was finally gone, and a new chapter of Congolese history was beginning. In the baking midday sun, the Supreme Court’s twenty-two justices stood up in thick red robes lined with leopard skin to swear in the head of state. Behind them on the podium sat the people who had made this moment possible: the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, and Zambia. One by one, they filed passed the podium and embraced Kabila.
The celebration was momentarily interrupted by a group of around five hundred opposition activists in the crowd who chanted: “Where is Tshisekedi?” referring to the indefatigable opposition leader many wanted to have a role in the new government. They were soon drowned out by the marching band and Kabila supporters who answered with “Go to Togo!”—the small western African country where Mobutu had first fled after leaving Kinshasa.
The incident was a reminder that the new government was not a child of the democracy movement, that it had taken power by force. In the week before Kabila’s speech, state television had broadcast several decrees that gave an idea about the orientation of the new leaders. The first, signed on May 17, announced that all activities of political parties would be suspended until further notice. The next, signed a day before the inauguration, declared that the president would rule by decree until a constitutive assembly adopted a new constitution. Kabila was granted plenipotentiary powers: He would legislate as well as name judges and all high-ranking administrative and military officials. To the opposition, it was a page out of Mobutu’s playbook.
Many were willing to cut the new leaders some slack. After all, there were over three hundred political parties in Kinshasa when Kabila arrived, many of them so-called partis alimentaires, political guppies whose sole function was to “be fed” by the Mobutist system. There was little culture of democratic debate, and the one-party elections under Mobutu had hinged on cults of personality, ethnic politics, and the corruption of key opinion makers. An immediate opening to multiparty democracy and elections in this context could have led to a rebound by the Mobutists. Even Nelson Mandela, the dean of African democracy, deemed it “suicidal” for Kabila to allow free party activities before he had a firm grip on the government.6 A group of visiting U.S. congresspeople accepted Kabila’s measures, saying that the country needed stability first, even if it meant suppressing political protests in the short term.7
Kabila himself addressed these matters with typical flair during his inauguration speech: “You see, that’s very nice all that. However, these gentlemen [who demand elections] were co-responsible for the misdeeds of the dictatorship in this country. During three decades they never organized elections, nor did they care for human rights. They now want for the AFDL to organize in haste and without delay elections, as if democracy was not something that belongs to our people but only to them.”8
Kabila promised that these measures would be temporary and that after a transitional period of two years, political parties would be able to operate again and elections would be held. In the meantime, he named a constitutional commission—all close allies and members of the AFDL—to draft a new constitution.
Kabila’s honeymoon was brief. When the ban on political activity was challenged by the vibrant local elite, Kabila lashed out.
On November 25, Arthur Zahidi Ngoma, a former UNESCO official who had recently entered Congolese politics, tried to hold a press conference at his residence. A special police unit broke into the house, filled the air with tear gas and bullets, and arrested everyone present, including several journalists. Around twenty people were taken to police headquarters, made to lie down on the cement floor, kicked in the stomach, neck, and head, and then beaten severely with sticks. Zahidi himself was awarded fifty-one lashes, one for each year of his age.9
Dozens of other politicians who defied the ban on party activities were rounded up and given similar treatment. The most illustrious was Etienne Tshisekedi. When Kabila first arrived in Kinshasa, Tshisekedi reached out, saying that he wanted to work with the new leadership. However, Tshisekedi quickly withdrew to a typically hardheaded position, demanding that the government be dissolved and that he be appointed prime minister, a position that had been given to him by the National Sovereign Conference in 1992. Kabila threw Tshisekedi into prison several times, but he proved impossible to shut up. Finally, in February 1997, Kabila lost his patience and had him deported to his remote home village of Kabeya-Kamwanga “with a tractor and some soy seeds so he can put his leadership skills to the service of our agricultural sector.”10
For human rights organizations, which had spent the previous decade taking Mobutu to task for his repressive regime, there was little respite. Within the first few months of Kabila’s regime, at least twelve human rights advocates from across the country were arrested and interrogated for criticizing the government or inquiring into the detention of Mobutists; many were beaten. Nongovernmental organizations had flourished in some parts of the country during the latter years of Mobutu’s dictatorship, offering a much needed counterbalance to the heavy-handed state. When they began to criticize Kabila’s government, some of their leaders were arrested and told they had overstepped their limits. In the eastern gold-mining town of Kamituga, three members of a human rights group were detained after they published reports accusing the local prosecutor of corruption. They were subjected to daily beatings of a hundred to two hundred lashes until they accepted the supreme authority of the government.11
In October 1997, the minister of information, Raphael Ghenda, proposed outlawing direct foreign funding to nongovernmental organizations, saying that there should be a government intermediary set up for managing these funds.12 Several months later, the government went a step further, accusing all human rights groups en bloc of “destabilizing the government and contributing to the decrease in foreign aid by disseminating false reports and lies.” The government then began creating and sponsoring their own civil society groups, charged with reporting on human rights violations but also with informing the government of “foreign manipulations.” 13 Soon, the government also began to pay “transport fees” for journalists attending press conferences, and in some cases the ministry of information made direct donations to impoverished newspaper editors. At the same time, they banned commercials on private radio stations, depriving them of all legitimate revenue. Security agents began regularly visiting the offices of radio stations and newspapers, asking editors what they had slated for the upcoming show or publication. Several senior editors were arrested and taken in for questioning when they published stories that embarrassed the government. The tactics came straight out of Mobutu’s bag of tricks—a mixture of coercion and co-optation—and were effective. The newspapers critical of the government, Le Phare, Le Potentiel , and La Référence Plus, began to water down their denunciations.
This repression led to a renowned diplomatic incident that helped seal Kabila’s fate as a pariah of the west. In December 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Kinshasa to meet with Kabila. Relations between the senior U.S. diplomat and the Congolese head of state were not good. Several months before her visit, during the height of the refugee crisis, Albright had called Kabila, threatening serious consequences if he didn’t allow investigators into the country to find out what had happened with the missing Rwandan refugees. Kabila had hung up on Albright mid-sentence, muttering, “Imperialist!”14
Nevertheless, the meeting went fairly well. Albright argued that it would be in Kabila’s own interest to open up political space to his critics, that it would make him look stronger, not weaker. As often, he was eloquent and affable, expressing himself in fluent English. When they walked into the rotunda of the presidential palace, where a press conference had been organized, he went first, rattling off a series of fairly uncontroversial statements. Then, an American journalist asked Kabila about the recent arrest of Zahidi Ngoma, pointing out that this had been interpreted as a crackdown on his opponents. Suddenly, Kabila became agitated and began berating the reporter. “This gentleman [Zahidi Ngoma] is not a politician,” Kabila said, jabbing a finger in the air. “He’s not a political leader. Do you call a political leader those who come on the street to incite people to kill each other ... who manufacture political pamphlets with the intent of dividing people? Do you call people like that political leaders? Do you let people like that out on the street?”15
Then Kabila put his fingers up in a V for victory and said, “Viva democracy!” 16 The Americans were not amused.
In retrospect, Kabila’s heavy-handedness does not make much sense. The public had been relatively favorable toward him at the beginning, and what little opposition there was against him was disorganized and weak. Why did he squander the initial goodwill with such squabbles?
Many have dismissed Kabila’s hostility to domestic and foreign critics as evidence of his authoritarian nature. While it was clearly a factor, more was behind his reaction than just a despotic personality. As much as anything else, his allergic reaction to challenges to his regime stemmed from the profoundly weak position he was in. Pressed into a corner and feeling vulnerable, he reacted by lashing out.
Kabila came to power on the wings of a rebellion sponsored and, to a large degree, fought by other armies. He had tried to gain independence by surrounding himself with businessmen and intellectuals from the diaspora whom he barely knew. The people who surrounded him day and night—his personal assistant, the commander of his bodyguard, his secretary and protocol officer—were all Rwandan or Congolese Tutsi. His army was a jigsaw of foreign troops, kadogo (child soldiers), Katangan Tigers, and former Mobutu troops. Kabila felt like the majordomo in a house owned and lived in by others.
Some of Kabila’s former associates ascribe this lack of political cohesion to the unexpectedly quick success of the rebellion. Colonel Patrick Karegeya, who had helped manage the rebellion from Kigali, told me: “We reached Kinshasa in six months. Even basic training for a soldier takes nine months! We were not prepared.” Ugandans, in particular, were dismayed at the speed of their advance. Museveni drew on his own experience fighting a guerrilla war. His insurrection lasted five years, from 1981 to 1986, and received little help from other countries. This helped eliminate opportunists who were there to make a quick fortune and fostered cohesion and self-reliance among the remaining officers. The AFDL’s brushfire advance across the country, coupled with the foreign domination of the rebellion, produced a weak and fractured government.
From this position of weakness, Kabila saw critics as threats. After all, most newspapers were not able to sell enough advertising or copies to cover even their overhead and sought funding from politicians. The only way entrepreneurs in Kinshasa could get ahead under Mobutu was to seek political patronage; most businesses had links to the system Kabila had just toppled. And all the main civil society groups received funding from Europe or the United States, countries that were deeply critical of him because of the massacres of Rwandan refugees.
If Kabila had given way to demands for multiparty democracy and elections immediately, he would have most likely lost power. Indeed, an independent opinion poll in June 1997 indicated that 62 percent of the capital’s population supported opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, while only 14 percent favored Kabila.17
Moreover, the new leaders were mostly inexperienced. Following Mobutu’s demise, hundreds of top officials in government agencies and ministries were sacked or fled into exile. “It was like what the Americans did with the Baath Party in Iraq,” one official in the Ministry of Mines told me. “From one day to the next, everybody was gone.”18
The government did not have the time or the means to conduct a serious job search for all the new officials it needed. This led to ad hoc, hasty decisions. When Jean-Claude Masangu, the director of Citibank in Kinshasa, visited the new minister of finance to introduce himself, the minister sized him up: “Aren’t you Congolese? Are you looking for a job? We need people like you!” Several weeks later, Masangu was appointed governor of the Central Bank (it didn’t hurt that his father had been a childhood friend of Kabila’s).19
To Kabila’s credit, the first ministerial cabinet included several respected members of the opposition: Justine Kasavubu, a former Tshisekedi activist and daughter of the country’s first president, became the head of civil service. Two prominent doctors and Mobutu opponents, Jean Kinkela and Jean-Baptiste Sondji, were named as ministers of telecommunications and health, respectively.
The most important portfolios, however, went to unseasoned members of the diaspora. Mwenze Kongolo, a bail officer from Philadelphia, became interior minister, and Mawapanga Mwana Nanga, an agronomist from the University of Kentucky, was named minister of finance. A few appointees didn’t even know Kinshasa and had to hire drivers or guides to show them around the capital, as they had just returned from decades of exile.
Two of the new ministers had had run-ins with the law abroad. Thomas Kanza, who was in charge of regional cooperation and aid, was unable to deal with the U.S. government because he was wanted in Tennessee for fleeing a $300,000 fine for fraud. Celestin Lwangy’s nomination for justice minister elicited some chuckles in the Belgian press, as he had served eight months in prison in Belgium for illegally hooking up his electricity supply to the power grid.
It was no surprise that this motley group had trouble carrying out the necessary reforms. Nonetheless, with the arrival of the AFDL, the Congolese did get their first taste of democracy. In towns across the country, mayors and governors were initially elected by popular vote. Kabila, never one for lengthy proceedings, made short shrift of ballots and simply told people to gather together in the town square or marketplace. He would then parade a number of candidates in front of the crowd and ask them to raise their hands if they were in favor. The man—almost no women stood for election—for whom the highest number of hands were raised was immediately proclaimed winner. Despite its improvised nature, this process produced some decent results. Several well-respected university lecturers were elected by popular acclamation. This experiment, however, was brought to a hasty end when Kabila realized that many of the leaders that the population wanted to elect, especially in the center and the west of the country, belonged to Tshisekedi’s party.
Other initiatives were also aborted when Kabila feared that opponents of the regime could hijack them. Soon after the AFDL took power, the new minister for reconstruction announced that national and provincial conferences on reconstruction would be held so local leaders could propose development priorities. The participants, however, saw this as an opportunity to talk about much more than just development. They began condemning their new government for “misguided behavior” and “cooperation agreements with foreign armies,” and they demanded the opening of political space.20 Kabila soon suspended the whole initiative and adopted a more top-down approach toward development.
“During that first year we started a dozen projects and finished almost none,” Didier Mumengi, the former information minister, told me. “Kabila was surrounded by people with no experience. We didn’t have any money. And the Rwandans were still there, looking over his shoulder.” Mumengi shook his head. “Kabila was a man who needed to be helped. But he wasn’t.” On one occasion, the president decided he wanted to create a “canteen for the people,” where the poor could come and eat. Mumengi said he tried to dissuade him, saying that it would not be feasible, but the president insisted. “The people are hungry! They have a right to eat,” he told them.21 “The amount of money we wasted on bags of corn and beans!” Mumengi remembered. “That was misguided socialism.”
Lastly, we have to understand the time warp that Kabila was in. For decades, he had set his compass to the cold war divide, preaching against the neocolonial domination of Africa by the United States. To people who met him in the early days of his presidency, it was as if the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union had passed him by; he gave the impression of a revolutionary fossilized in the 1960s. He had come of age during the anti-western socialist rebellions that swept through Africa just after independence. The writings of Kwame Nkrumah, Mao Tsetung, Walter Rodney, and Frantz Fanon lined his bookshelf; after he took power he continued to call his associates “comrade” (although, apparently none of them was allowed to reciprocate).22
To make matters worse, Kabila was saddled with questions about the massacre of Rwandan refugees. According to his advisors, he initially thought this, too, was an American conspiracy to smear his revolutionary government. Only later did he come to realize that RPF troops had carried out systematic killings.23
In all his early interactions with western diplomats as head of state, the refugee crisis dominated discussions. Immediately after he was sworn in, all contacts with the Congo’s traditional donors—Belgium, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France—focused on the alleged massacres. The day of his inauguration, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for “an immediate end to the violence against refugees in the country” and demanded full access for the UN human rights teams.24 President Bill Clinton dispatched UN Ambassador Bill Richardson to meet with Kabila several days later. He obtained yet another promise to allow the UN investigators into the country, but Kabila turned around several days later and dismissed the initiative as a “Frenchinspired smear campaign.”25
The first UN report on the massacres was published in January 1997 in the midst of the rebellion and prompted Kabila to block any further investigations. Kabila eventually accepted the deployment of another team, but this time demanded that they be accompanied by Congolese officials, whose trip expenses would be $1.7 million per day, higher than the working costs of any government ministry.26 When the team finally deployed to the field in early 1998, they were met on several occasions by “spontaneous” mobs of locals armed with machetes and spears. The United Nations finally abandoned its efforts in April 1998.
The refugee question helped snuff out any chance for rebuilding the country. Donors didn’t want to give the new government the wrong message and made funds conditional upon a serious investigation. This attitude contributed to a vicious circle. Kabila defaulted on his promises of human rights and governance, prompting aid to be cut, which led to a further radicalization of the regime. When the World Bank convened a donors’ meeting in Brussels in December 1997, Kabila asked for $575 million to help rebuild the country but received a mere $32 million. Eritrean president Isaias Afeworki visited Washington around the same time and urged the United States not to give up on Kabila, warning that it could be disastrous, that Kabila needed to be helped. “Kabila stinks,” he told U.S. officials, “but you have to just hold your nose and engage.”27 They didn’t.
To add insult to injury, the World Bank informed the new government that they owed $14 billion in debts that Mobutu had accumulated over the years, debts on which interest would have to be paid each year. For the new government, it was the height of hypocrisy that they would have to pay back money that had served largely to enrich Mobutu’s cronies and destroy the country.
Kabila, feeling let down, lambasted the “embargo” western countries had imposed on the Congo. With little money in his coffers and a collapsed economy, Kabila had to rely on donations from his allies, including $10 million a month from Zimbabwe, and on the strength of diamond exports, the main source of Congo’s foreign currency.28
Like a car driven by a learner not yet used to a clutch, the government lurched clumsily from one policy initiative to another. One thing was sure, however. For a man who was initially perceived as a puppet of foreign interests, Kabila left no doubt that he was in charge. During his first year in power, he had no fewer than seven ministers arrested, as well as the self-styled commander in chief of the army, two directors of his intelligence agency, and the governor and vice governor of the Central Bank. He used justice as a tool of disciplining his associates at his discretion, not as a means of enforcing the law. There were rarely any trials or verdicts, and the arrests were usually short-lived. It is possible that the accusations against the accused were well-founded, as reports of embezzlement plagued Kabila’s various administrations. He himself was known to say that the AFDL was a “conglomerate of crooks.” In the end, however, he realized that loyalty was more important than integrity, and he used the arrests as a means of reminding his subordinates of his power, not to impose accountability.
Kabila’s idiosyncratic style extended to his personalized management of state funds. He was known to keep large stashes of money at his residence, where he would dole out stacks of bills to visitors. In early 1998, when the government tried to contract a Swedish company to print the Congolese franc as the new currency, the minister of finance complained they didn’t have the funds. Kabila told him not to worry—he would get the money at home. When he came back, he brought more than $1 million in cash with him to cover the expenses.29 Similarly, when his assistants brought to his attention that Congolese students in the diaspora were running out of stipends to pay their tuition, he took $1 million out of his safe to foot the bill. “He didn’t keep records and didn’t ask for invoices or receipts,” remembered Moise Nyarugabo, his personal assistant at the time. “It was a disaster.”
Kabila had a disdain for institutions intended to oversee the executive and hold him in check. For over two years after he took power, there was no Parliament or official budget, no means by which to hold the government accountable for its actions. “The means by which money left the Central Bank and went to pay for state projects or for salaries was an utter mystery to us,” remembered Mabi Mulumba, the auditor general.30 According to some former AFDL officials, up to half of the country’s funds were managed directly by Kabila.31
Perhaps the funniest, albeit not most reliable, story about Kabila’s personal banking system comes from Deo Bugera, the head of his political party who defected to join a new rebellion against Kabila in 1998. Like so many of the apocryphal stories surrounding Kabila, it is worth retelling, in part because it could well be true, but also because it was part of the constantly growing and increasingly surreal mythology about the new regime.
According to Bugera, a delegation of military officials from various southern African countries was visiting Kinshasa to see how the formation of the new army was proceeding. Many countries had invested in this project by sending officers to help train the new recruits and integrate Congo’s fractured militias. During a long meeting with Kabila, a Tanzanian commander excused himself, saying he had to use the toilet. Kabila looked around sheepishly and finally ordered a bodyguard to find the key for the toilet. The bodyguard ran about, but was unable to come up with the key. Finally, the Tanzanian was taken to a toilet in another building much further away. After their meeting was finished, Kabila reprimanded his bodyguard with a laugh, fishing a key out of his pocket: “You idiot! I had the key the whole time! All my money is stored in that toilet—I couldn’t let him in there!”
After six months in power, by the end of 1997, Kabila was becoming increasingly worried for his life. Nothing seemed to be working—his quixotic plans for the country were stymied by disorganization around him and his own erratic behavior. The coffers of the state were empty, and donors were reluctant to give money to the regime. At the same time, the Rwandan military had permeated the security services in Kinshasa. A Rwandan, Captain David, was Kabila’s main bodyguard and accompanied him everywhere—he held his glasses, his notebook, and his pen for him. He stood in front of his door when Mzee slept. He rode in the front seat of the presidential car. Another Rwandan, Captain Francis Gakwerere, was the commander of the presidential guard. Rumors of coup attempts filtered through to Kabila regularly, fueling his paranoia.
The population was also becoming increasingly discontent with the Rwandan presence in the city. Kabila’s AFDL soldiers, most of whom were from conservative, rural backgrounds, cracked down on what they saw as lewd and disrespectful behavior, arresting women for wearing tight dresses and pulling people out of taxis if they exceeded the legal passenger limit. Everywhere child soldiers could be seen caning people splayed out on the asphalt for minor violations. It was as if they were trying to beat propriety into Kinshasa’s inhabitants.
The situation was volatile; Kabila’s paranoia became a self-fulfilling prophecy. By early 1998, diplomats and government officials in Luanda, Kinshasa, Kigali, and Kampala were already fueling rumors about Kabila’s imminent demise and wondering who would replace him. Tired of his whimsies and monopolization of power, former allies began plotting against him.
Moise Nyarugabo, a Tutsi from South Kivu who had been his personal assistant, was one of many Tutsi to fall out with Mzee soon after they arrived in Kinshasa. One morning shortly after his inauguration, Kabila called Nyarugabo into his office, where he was preparing a list of people for his first cabinet. According to him, Kabila told him without preamble:
“Look, I can’t make you minister, as that would be two Tutsi in my cabinet. I’m very sorry. You can leave now.” Two weeks later, Nyarugabo found out through friends that he had been named as the deputy director of a government body charged with expropriating state goods that had been stolen by Mobutists.
“We had been together the whole day and he hadn’t had the guts to tell me! That day, I decided to fight him.”
Nyarugabo stormed into Kabila’s office. “Look, Excellency, if I bother you because I am Tutsi, I can leave you—it’s not a problem. But why did you name all of these people to your cabinet who were not with us when we were being attacked? I hid with you under tables when Mobutu was bombing us! I was loyal to you!”
By November 1997, just six months after Kabila took power, Nyarugabo and other Tutsi were reaching out to Mobutu’s ousted generals and former ministers in Brazzaville and Europe. It wasn’t difficult to find people opposed to Kabila and willing to fund a new uprising. In the end, Laurent Kabila would only preside over a peaceful country for fifteen months, from May 1997 to August 1998, before another war would break out in the east of the country.
“It was obvious by then that Kabila had to go,” Nyarugabo said. “I talked to several people, including Bugera. The easiest option would have been a coup d’état. But—believe it or not—at that point Rwanda didn’t want to do that. It would have been easy! But for some reason, they didn’t want to go that far. Not yet.”32