There are several versions of the story of how Joseph Kabila was chosen to succeed his father. A popular one goes as follows: The day after Laurent Kabila’s assassination, the inner cabal of the presidency meets to decide who would become president. Around a table are the Who’s Who of Congolese power politics: Katangan strongmen, the high brass of the army, and the regime’s economic kingpins.

A cacophony ensues as the group argues over who is best suited for the job. Gaetan was Kabila’s favorite, one claims; Victor has the best ties to Angola and Zimbabwe, another suggests.1 Finally, as the tensions reach a climax and the country teeters on the brink of civil war, General Sylvestre Lwetcha, the old, frail commander of the armed forces and a renowned witch doctor, bangs his fist on the table.

“Silence!” The general, who had fought side-by-side with Laurent Kabila during the bush rebellion, pulls out his side arm, a Magnum nine-millimeter pistol, cocks it to his temple, and shoots himself six times. Smoke billows up around his head, filling the room, as his colleagues cough and wave their hands in disbelief.

When the smoke clears, the bulletproof general slams his pistol down on the table, slowly clears his throat, and says, “I have decided that General Joseph Kabila will become president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo!” He looks around the table slowly and asks calmly, “Are there any questions?”


Of course, this is not what really happened. The truth is buried under hundreds of competing rumors and may never be entirely uncovered. But according to various people who took part in the meetings, the following is as accurate as we might get.

On the morning following Mzee’s death, his closest associates met at the City of the African Union, a sprawling complex of government buildings overlooking the Congo river. Edy Kapend, Laurent Kabila’s powerful military advisor, presided over the meeting.2 The president’s taciturn son Joseph had flown in the previous night from Lubumbashi, still in shock.

Kapend began by reminding everybody of an oral will that the deceased president had given his close associates several years earlier, when he was suffering from a severe illness. “He told us that in case he died, his son Joseph was supposed to take power,” Kapend reminded the small group. Several people nodded. Others contested the will, claiming that Joseph was only supposed to take command of the military, while the political leadership should be handed to someone else. Let’s set up a special committee to study the matter, someone else suggested.

A debate ensued in the air-conditioned rooms, which Kapend cut short by pulling down a military map of the eastern Congo. Bold, red arrows marked where the Rwandan offensive was threatening Lubumbashi and Mbuji-Mayi. “We can debate this all night if you like, but if we are weak and divided, our enemies will take advantage. We need to decide now.”

After some squabbling, everyone in the room realized there was little choice. They needed someone who could command the respect of the army and their allies alike. If they chose anyone else besides Joseph, the government was at risk of collapsing into internecine fighting. Joseph was young, shy, and practically unknown on the political scene, but this could be a good thing. “The logic was: The weaker the person we chose, the less he was likely to be contested, as they thought they could influence him,” one of the people who attended the meeting told me.3

The ayatollahs of the Congolese government were in for a surprise. The weak, introverted successor turned out to be much smarter and more independent than anybody had suspected. Within a year of his nomination, Joseph would rid himself of almost everybody who had put him in power. He also launched a peace process, setting the gears in motion to bring an end to the war and paving the way for elections.


It would have been difficult to find someone more different from his father than Joseph Kabila. Where his father was authoritarian and confrontational, Joseph was shy and reclusive. In his first speech to the nation on January 26, 2001, he stumbled through his prewritten text in halting, uninspired French. He was not very fluent, as he had grown up mostly in Tanzania and was more comfortable in Swahili and English. Several days later, he asked an advisor to help him through his first meeting with the diplomatic corps. “You do the talking,” he said uneasily.4

For the Congolese public, the contrast was jolting. “He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t like going out to dinner, doesn’t have a large wardrobe, doesn’t have a lot of good friends, and doesn’t speak the languages of the people he’s going to govern,” an American reporter observed.5 In an early television interview in the United States—he avoided the press in his home country until he had a better command of French—his expression was wooden, his hands folded in front of him, barely moving when he answered questions.

So who was Joseph Kabila? From the first day of his presidency, the Congolese rumor mill began churning. As usual, most of the talk was not about government affairs, but about his ethnicity and origins. He wasn’t the real son of his father, some said. He is really Tanzanian, others tattled—he can’t speak French. Or even: He killed his own father to take power!


Joseph Kabila and his twin sister, Janet, were born in Mpiki, South Kivu, on June 4, 1971, in the grass-thatched rebel headquarters of his father. Overlooking the camp was the so-called Mlima ya damu, the Mountain of Blood, named for the battles that had taken place there against Mobutu’s army.

Most agree that Joseph is the son of Laurent Kabila. The deep attachment between the two attests to this: Mzee doted on Joseph while in office and elevated him from a simple soldier to the commander of his army. However, short of DNA testing, the mystery of Joseph and Janet’s biological mother will be more difficult to solve.

The official mother, Sifa Mahanya, married the rebel leader in 1970 and would remain his wife until he died, albeit alongside a gaggle of mistresses. She was responsible for the women’s wing of the rebellion and a member of the revolutionary courts. It was Mama Sifa, as she is known today, whom most of Mzee’s former comrades recognize as the mother of the current president.6

A second, plausible version is provided by members of Joseph Kabila’s entourage. They say that Joseph’s mother was a Rwandan Tutsi called Marcelline Mukambuguje, who was one of the many Rwandans who joined Kabila in his maquis in the hope of using Zaire as a rear base to overthrow the Hutu-dominated dictatorship in Rwanda. Mukambuguje was allegedly kept from public sight when Laurent Kabila was president in order to prevent the public from discovering Joseph’s real mother. A Tutsi mother would obviously not do in a country at war with Rwanda.

As soon as he became president, his alleged mother was bundled away to the United States to live. This is not just Internet apocrypha—although the blogosphere does abound with these rumors—but allegations relayed by people close to the president, including a close former advisor, a bodyguard, and members of his family.7 Every once in a while, rumors make the rounds among diplomats and the elite in Kinshasa that a mysterious elderly woman was seen in the presidential chambers or gardens. Of course, this version of his parentage is lapped up by the opposition and many Kinois, who think Kabila never stopped working for the Rwandan government, a sort of Tutsi Manchurian candidate.


Shortly after Joseph’s birth, Kabila’s troops kidnapped a group of American students from a Tanzanian chimpanzee research project, earning them international infamy. While the rebels did manage to obtain a hefty ransom, Mobutu’s army launched a new offensive against Kabila, pushing his soldiers out of their highland redoubt into inhospitable jungles to the west. Given the danger and poor living conditions, Laurent Kabila decided it was best for his family to move to Tanzania, where he had good connections inside the security services.

In Dar es Salaam, Joseph and Janet enrolled in the French school under fake names, pretending to be from a western Tanzanian tribe in order to escape the attention of Zairian intelligence agents active there—Laurent Kabila’s deputy was scooped up by such spies and taken to Kinshasa, after which he wasn’t heard from again.

According to one of Joseph’s classmates, he was intelligent, proficient in English, and an admirer of martial arts and sports cars. Nonetheless, even then he was a silent loner. When he did speak about politics, he liked to discuss the exploits of the heroes of his father’s generation—Che Guevara, Thomas Sankara, and Yoweri Museveni.8

“The small boy already had the personality of a leader, he dreamed of being a soldier, of leading an army,” recalled his mother, Sifa Mahanya, who, according to Tanzanian security sources, was with Joseph during his whole childhood. He used to play with small model cars and trucks in their house, lining them up into military convoys.9

Joseph underwent a brief military training in southern Tanzania but spent most of his youth helping his father with his businesses, which for a while included transporting large shipments of fish along Lake Tanganyika. The young man drove trucks for thousands of miles, from Zambia through Tanzania to Uganda.10

When Laurent Kabila got in touch with the Rwandan army in 1995 to prepare for the invasion of Zaire, Joseph accompanied him to the meetings. Once the war started, the twenty-five-year-old was entrusted to Colonel James Kabarebe, the Rwandan field commander of operations. The two lived under the same roof and traveled together to the front lines to inspect the troops. Officers remember seeing Joseph Kabila, known as Afande Kabange11 by his soldiers, everywhere along the front lines, but he rarely spoke. The image that remains for most from that time is of a young man, his military cap pulled low over his sunken eyes, a silent fixture in the room. The war had a serious impact on his psyche. “The worst thing that I have ever seen is the sight of a village after a massacre; you can never erase that from your memory.”12

After the AFDL’s victory, Joseph kept a low profile in Kinshasa. He lived in the same house as several Rwandan commanders and began to explore the capital. He visited the famous bars and nightclubs of Bandal and Matonge, where ambianceurs (lovers of the nightlife) and sapeurs(dandies) strutted the latest fashion and ate grilled goat washed down with bottles of Primus or Skol beer. Until today, scurrilous Kinois still claim to have drunk beer with Joseph or have seen him trying out a dance move. (“He used to love the women!” some claim. “No! He was too timid, he couldn’t even dance.” “Alligator skin shoes, that’s what he liked. My little brother sold him his first pair!”)

In early 1998, his father sent him on a military training course to China; his father had himself once visited the Nanjing military academy decades earlier. This training, however, was short-lived, as he was called back home when the second war began. Despite his brief military career—at that point, he had served a grand total of three years in military uniform, including a year of basic training in Tanzania—he was promoted to the rank of general and named acting chief of staff of the army.

It was an abrupt change for him; he had had little experience in military operations. 13 Now he commanded tens of thousands of Congolese troops against the very Rwandans who had trained him. As soon as he got off the plane from China, he rushed to defend the capital from his former mentor and friend, James Kabarebe.

Few remember much of Joseph Kabila during the next few years. He rarely met with foreign military advisors, and even in meetings with his own staff he spent most of the time listening. In any case, it is not clear how much power the young general had; his father made many important military decisions, like, for example, the battle for Pweto in 2000, and Zimbabwean and Angolan generals also had strong influence.

The Congolese officer corps was an amalgam of former Mobutu officers, Katangan Tigers trained in Angola, Mai-Mai from the Kivus, and newly recruited child soldiers. Without much experience, the president’s son showed he was adept at navigating the tensions between these different groups, making friends and listening to their advice. He established a small coterie of young army officers, some of whom had also gone for training in China—not the most experienced officers, but fiercely loyal to him.


As much as Joseph admired his father, he also realized that his views were outdated. In his first address to the nation, just days after he had laid his father to rest, Joseph announced a sea change in foreign policy. George W. Bush had just been elected in the United States, and Kabila’s message was directed at him: “Without beating around the bush, I recognize there has been mutual misunderstanding with the former administration. The DRC intends to normalize bilateral relations with the new administration.”14 At the same time, he promised to liberalize the diamond trade and float the currency, promote a new mining code, and—most importantly—immediately try to resuscitate the peace process. Several months later, he allowed political parties to operate again. Where his father had governed by ideology, Joseph was a pragmatist.

To underscore his point and to bolster his position, Joseph immediately embarked on a diplomatic offensive. As one political analyst of the region remarked, “Devoid of any national constituency, he had decided to treat the international community as his powerbase.”15 The American ambassador in Kinshasa, William Swing, invited him to take up an invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington that had been extended to his father. He traveled first to Paris, where he met with President Jacques Chirac, and then on to Washington, where he met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and later, privately, with President Kagame, with whom he discussed the possibility of a peace deal. He finished off his tour with an address to the UN Security Council in New York, all within a few months of becoming president.

His presidency marked an abrupt U-turn in government policy. His father had insisted that the war would be “longue et populaire.” It had been the former, but certainly not the latter. His son immediately abandoned this purely military approach.

After his speech at the UN, diplomats lined up to shake Joseph Kabila’s hand and applauded his desire to restart the peace process. His eagerness to comply with the demands of the United Nations put Rwanda on the defensive for the first time since the beginning of the war. Other factors also played in his favor. The American representative to the UN remarked, “We do not believe that Rwanda can secure its long-term security interests via a policy of military opposition to the government of Congo.” The British UN ambassador asked President Kagame to bring an end to the plunder of the eastern Congo.16 Several months later, a UN report concluded that Rwanda and Uganda were plundering the eastern Congo for personal enrichment and in order to finance the war.

The new Kabila was no pacifist. He did not stop fighting with his enemies; he just changed tactics. He largely respected the front line cease-fire but provided weapons and supplies to fuel the Mai-Mai insurgency on his enemies’ turf. It was as brilliant in its logic as it was brutal. The ramshackle Mai-Mai were little military threat to the RCD and their Rwandan allies, who had much greater firepower, but they provoked ruthless counterinsurgency operations by Rwanda and its allies, making them even more unpopular. It was typical guerrilla warfare, as practiced by Mao Tsetung and Che Guevara: Keep the enemy swinging with nine-pound sledgehammers at flies.

Suddenly, it was Rwanda and Uganda who were seen as the obstacles to peace. The RCD rebels refused to allow UN peacekeepers to deploy into their territory, seeing it as a “declaration of war,” prompting demonstrations against them in Kisangani and Goma.17 Kabila, on the other hand, urged the Security Council to increase its deployments and to relaunch the investigation into the massacres in the refugee camps that his father had so adamantly blocked.


Within his own government in Kinshasa, the new president took equally drastic steps. Three months after he came to power, he sacked almost his entire cabinet, including most of the people who had chosen him as his father’s successor. The aging generals who had fought side by side with his father since the 1960s received handsome pensions and were retired. In their place, he appointed a new group of technocrats, young Congolese who had not been as tainted by corruption and warmongering. The new finance minister came from the International Monetary Fund, the new information minister was a U.S.-educated journalist. The average age of the new ministers was thirty-eight.18

But who was in charge during these turbulent reforms? Who allowed Joseph Kabila to take such drastic steps and reverse his father’s policy?

To a certain extent, during the early days of his presidency, the government was guided by Kabila’s international partners. Western ambassadors came with wish lists of people they would like to see sacked and made decisions that needed to be made to advance the peace process. Both the Angolans and the Zimbabweans were tired of the war and encouraged Kabila to bring an end to the conflict. After all, most of the population saw the various rebel factions—with the possible exception of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s MLC—as foreign proxies and would not vote for them during elections. “Sign a peace deal, stand for elections, and consolidate your power” was the advice of western and African diplomats alike.

In general, Joseph Kabila seemed much less in charge than his father, who had managed state affairs with an iron fist. Joseph was not often seen on television and rarely took charge in cabinet meetings. Where almost of all his father’s ministers had spent at least a few days in prison, Joseph almost never arrested any collaborators. Instead he slowly marginalized them if they fell out of favor.

Government officials often did not know where they stood with the president, a style of management that kept everyone guessing. When they went to present projects, he would nod at their comments but not say anything. Thinking that he wanted more explanations, they would expound further, only to be met by more silence or a few words. Encouraged by his polite smiles and silence, they would leave thinking they had succeeded in convincing him, only to find out weeks later that he had canceled the project.

This kind of prevarication often shone through in his contacts with international partners as well. “It used to infuriate Kagame and Museveni,” a UN official who attended meetings of the heads of state told me. “Kabila would be silent throughout the meeting; then someone would come and whisper something in his ear, and he would answer.”19


Kabila’s reticence also marked his personal life. He kept out of the limelight, avoiding cocktail parties and other social events. He would wake up at around 6 o’clock in the morning, check the news and his e-mail, and work out in his exercise room, lifting weights and sweating on his stationary bike. Before he assumed the presidency, he lived in a modest townhouse with his common-law wife, Olive Lemba, a light-skinned woman he had met in the eastern Congo during the AFDL. He doted on his young daughter, Sifa, named after his mother.

Surrounded by well-groomed bureaucrats, Joseph was conscious of his modest background. He began French classes soon after he arrived in Kinshasa and enrolled in an online course in international relations at Washington International University, a small outfit based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, from which he obtained a bachelor’s degree after completing ten courses online. His French improved considerably, as did his self-confidence.

Diplomats who met him regularly were often impressed by his knowledge of world affairs and understanding of the region. A favorite rhetorical tool he liked to use was to defend his record by comparing the Congo with western countries. “You criticize democracy here, but our elections turnout was over 80 percent—in the U.S., barely half of the voters show up,” he told an American diplomat.20 When confronted with allegations of corruption, he countered with the Enron scandal in the United States and Silvio Berlusconi’s manipulation of laws to protect himself from prosecution.

He did not have many close friends. His twin sister, Janet, and his younger brother, Zoé, visited frequently, and a Tanzanian friend showed up from time to time. In the evenings, he would relax in front of the television and play video games with his brother, a habit that earned him the nickname “Nintendo” from a skeptical French ambassador.21

He also began to take an interest in designer watches, clothes, and sports cars. On weekends, he relaxed in his Kingakati ranch outside of Kinshasa, drove rally cars around a dirt track, and received a few select diplomats and businessmen. One had the impression of repressed energy, a man looking for a release valve. In Kinshasa, foreigners going for a morning jog along the Congo River—a secluded, leafy area with shady streets and ambassadorial residences—would sometimes be surprised by the young president whizzing by on a motorcycle, followed by a pickup full of sheepish presidential guards. Unfortunately, he could only drive his Maserati around the street outside his presidential house in Kinshasa, and then only up to half its maximum speed; there were too many potholes.


Joseph Kabila’s greatest accomplishment was the peace deal with his rivals. Of course, peace was in his interest, as he was recognized as the incumbent president and controlled the bulk of economic assets and state administration, while his main military rivals were tarnished by their association with Rwanda and Uganda.

In February 2002, after several false starts, Kabila finally met with his main military and political challengers in South Africa for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, peace talks that would result, after ten months, in a comprehensive deal that would unify the country.

The setting for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue was surreal. The South African government had leased part of the Sun City luxury resort, once an entertainment haven for apartheid South Africa elites. The inaugural ceremony took place in the Entertainment Center’s Superbowl area, a stone’s throw away from Jungle Casino and the Bridge of Time, gaudy buildings decorated with stone elephants and artificial waterfalls. Three hundred and thirty Congolese delegates spent their free time trolling the slot machines and racking up tabs at the bars.

After two months of talks, on the eve of the deadline fixed by the facilitators, the government and the MLC shocked the conference. Following late-night meetings in a nearby hotel, the two delegations announced that they had reached a bilateral agreement, making Joseph Kabila president and Jean-Pierre Bemba prime minister in the joint government. The talks collapsed in furor, as Kabila and Bemba went back to their respective headquarters to set up the government, while the RCD went back to the trenches.

The deal was bound to fail. Bemba refused to come to Kinshasa to take up his position, citing security concerns. In the meantime, regional fault lines began to shift. Together with their British counterparts, the American diplomats went on the offensive with Rwanda and Uganda. Washington abstained from a vote to renew the International Monetary Fund’s loans to Rwanda, while London privately made clear to Kampala that it would not extend further loans if it did not withdraw its troops. In June 2002, President Kagame committed to withdrawing all Rwandan troops within three months. Museveni followed suit in November. Journalists lined up at border posts to see a total of 30,000 foreign troops march across, as crowds of Congolese celebrated.

The RCD and MLC, already destabilized by their allies’ withdrawal, further weakened their positions with blunders on the battlefield. In May 2002, RCD commanders brutally put down a mutiny in Kisangani, killing over a hundred sixty civilians. Bodies that had been eviscerated and weighed down with stones floated to the surface in the Congo River in plain sight of journalists and UN investigators. To the north, the MLC launched an attack against a rival faction of the RCD while also deploying troops to support President Patassé in the neighboring Central African Republic. On both fronts, Bemba’s soldiers were guilty of egregious human rights violations.

In November, the delegates trudged back to South Africa. This time President Mbeki, wary of prolonging the Sun City circus, took matters into his own hands. Instead of allowing commissions to develop their own power-sharing proposals, Mbeki presented his plan and gave delegates firm deadlines to come back with counterproposals. “Mbeki had a bash-heads-together philosophy,” one of the organizers commented. “He told the delegates that if they didn’t agree on a solution, he would shut down shop and tell them to go home.”22 Back home, churches and human rights activists demonstrated in streets across the country against their leaders’ turpitude. In Bukavu, women marched bare-breasted through the streets in protest.

Mbeki combined strong-arming with copious incentives. While Kabila obtained the presidency as well as a vice president, the RCD and the MLC garnered vice presidential positions, as did the political opposition. Sixty-one ministries, six hundred twenty parliamentary seats, and over fifty state companies would be split up among the signatories. The former belligerents were attracted by a generous sharing of spoils; impunity and corruption were, to a certain extent, the glue holding the fragile peace together. As opposed to other transitions in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where warlords were not allowed to stand for public office, the transition in the Congo stacked the new government with the very people who had plunged the country into internecine conflict. “It was the only way out,” Philip Winter, the chief of staff of the Facilitation, remarked later. “Did it compromise the future? Yes. But it was the only way out of a difficult situation.”23

On December 16, Mbeki submitted a final proposal to the delegates in the plenary session and gave them half an hour to deliberate. An hour later, as the bewildered delegations were still squabbling over clauses and details, he invited Jean-Luc Kuye, the head of the civil society group, to the podium to sign the deal. Under almost physical pressure from their hosts, the remaining delegation heads solemnly filed up to the podium as applause, at first hesitant, began to crescendo behind them. After an all-night session, at 7:30 in the morning, Mbeki asked the delegates to rise and sing the Congolese national anthem. After five years of war and millions of deaths, the country was unified once again.


Figuring out how power works in Kinshasa is a complicated affair. Foreign businessmen arriving from Europe or China have to spend weeks to get to the right people in government. Connections are everything. Il a un bon carnet d’adresses—“He has a good address book”—is high praise from entrepreneurs in the capital.

This institutional weakness of the courts, whose members are appointed by the government, and political parties, who have no traditional base in Congo, has privileged the emergence of a small clique of power brokers around the president, a kitchen cabinet of roughly a dozen individuals with direct access to the president and who help him rule.

This state of affairs developed slowly, during Joseph Kabila’s tenure in the army, as he traveled through the country and realized that his father’s defiant militarism was going nowhere. He became friends with a group of young, sophisticated Congolese officials, all convinced that Laurent Kabila was on the wrong track, especially in regard to his dismissive attitude of the United States, South Africa, and Europe.

The most important of these Young Turks was Katumba Mwanke. He has since acquired an almost mythical status in Kinshasa court politics as the éminence grise behind the throne. As a young man, he left Zaire to study and work in South Africa as a banker for HSBC Equator Bank. When the war began, he found himself in an ideal position, given his ties with business in South Africa and his family connections. He is married to the sister of Laurent Kabila’s former finance minister, and, importantly, he is also from Kabila’s home province of Katanga, although not from the same tribe.

Katumba arrived on a mission for his bank in the early days of the rebellion and, because of Laurent Kabila’s desperate need for competent officials, was immediately offered a position in the ministry of finance. It was difficult not to like him: He was short, unpretentious, and polite; he spoke with a slight stammer when excited. When the Lunda and Lubakat, the two main ethnic communities in Katanga—both of which claimed Laurent Kabila through his mother and father, respectively—began squabbling over leadership positions in the province in 1998, Kabila asked around for a good Katangan official who was not from either of those communities and had not been a Mobutist. Katumba Mwanke, who is from the minority Zela community, was a perfect fit.

Katumba spent the next three years as the governor of the country’s richest province, endearing himself with Kabila’s family and getting close to the powerful mining corporations active in the province. He was a key player in the transfer of mining concessions to Zimbabwean businessmen, putting his signature on state contracts with executives such as Billy Rautenbach.24

In 2000, when the Rwandan army launched its onslaught on Lubumbashi, and Laurent Kabila sent Joseph to take command of the defense of his home province, Katumba shielded Joseph from the droves of family members who all arrived in the country’s mining capital wanting favors from him. At a time when problems abounded—pay for the soldiers didn’t arrive on time, there was no fuel or spare parts for the vehicles, the satellite phone was out of air time—Katumba had “one great quality,” a UN analyst told me. “As opposed to many others, when he promised something, he would always deliver.”25 He was both business-savvy and very reliable, a prized combination.

When Joseph became president, he brought Katumba to Kinshasa, giving him the broad title of minister of the presidency and state portfolio. Working out of a modest office in the downtown Gombe neighborhood, Katumba was officially in charge of state assets, the various national companies that included the main diamond and copper concessions, as well as steel mills, coffee plantations, and the national water and electricity company.

In practice, however, Katumba was tasked with not just running these companies but milking them for funds to supplement the presidency’s discretionary budget. Bank records, for example, show that he signed orders for the state diamond company to transfer $2.3 million directly to several weapons manufacturers in eastern Europe, without passing through the Central Bank or the Ministry of Finance.26

Katumba was also the point man for bringing in much needed investment to the Congo. In part, this had been made possible through reforms in investment and mining codes, which the World Bank had helped create. But despite the streamlined system set up by the mining code, investors had to obtain approval from the presidency for large investments. This was Katumba’s job—brokering and approving deals with international companies. According to numerous people within the mining industry, Katumba’s office is an unavoidable stop on the way to securing an important contract. A UN investigation called Katumba “a key power broker in mining and diplomatic deals” and recommended him for sanctions; the Financial Times called him “the primus pilus, the Dick Cheney of the Congo.”27

The mining sector, which had remained relatively locked up during the war for lack of interest by investors, suddenly experienced a massive privatization spree, helped along by Katumba. Between February 2004 and November 2005, the government concluded deals for 75 percent of the Congo’s copper reserves.

This fire sale of assets went against all principles of best practice in international mining. Several nonprofit companies got hold of two of these contracts belonging to Dan Gertler and Belgian magnate George Forrest, which had been kept strictly confidential, and gave them to the reputed mining law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin for analysis. The lawyers’ conclusion was that the contracts were so poorly structured that the private companies “will have been totally reimbursed in capital and interests of all loan and advances and will have derived substantial benefits from the control exercised on the operations prior to [the DRC partner] receiving any remuneration on its contributions.”28

The World Bank’s top mining expert, who had pushed long and hard for the privatization of the mining sector, cautioned in an internal memo that neither Gertler’s nor Forrest’s company, which now owned some of the world’s largest copper concessions, had any experience in industrial mining. “There has been a complete lack of transparency with respect to the negotiation and approval of these contracts,” he wrote, further worrying that the deals could deeply embarrass the Bank.29

The reason for these rushed and shoddy contracts, diplomats and industry experts indicated, was because of impending elections in 2006. Everybody in the industry I spoke to told me the same thing: Both Gertler and Forrest contributed considerably to Kabila’s campaign coffers, although both deny this.30 It was expensive to canvass such a vast country, set up offices in all of the 145 territories, print hundreds of thousands of T-shirts and posters, and buy the loyalty of musicians, customary chiefs, priests, and politicians.


A key word in the Congolese lexicon of corruption is enveloppe. If you want to buy votes in Parliament to squelch the audit of your state-run company, you pass around envelopes. When you want to obtain a lucrative contract to supply the police with beans and rice, you make sure the officials on the procurement board all get envelopes delivered to their home.

The operative verb is usually “to circulate,” and typically used in the passive voice, as if the envelopes were floating around on their own accord. On a fait circuler des enveloppes (envelopes were circulated around). The enveloppe preserves the dignity of the recipient: You avoid the crude embarrassment of receiving naked cash from your benefactor. After all, who can turn down an anonymous envelope whose contents are unknown?

Katumba Mwanke was a master of the envelopperie. An opposition parliamentarian told me that, after being called to a meeting at the presidency to discuss an upcoming vote, Katumba thanked him for coming and gave him a small, white envelope. “It’s for your transport costs,” he said. Inside was $1,000 in crisp hundred-dollar bills.31 Another friend, a lawyer who had to deal with him regularly, told me that Katumba had a Little Red Book with names written in it. Quite in contrast to Mao’s synonymous booklet, this one had names accompanied by a series of arrows, checks, and asterisks. “This was the off-the-books payroll,” my friend told me. The names included judges, generals, ministers, opposition parliamentarians, and journalists. Perform your job well, and Katumba could augment your salary by several thousand dollars; perform poorly, and you could find yourself broke and on the street.32

This mode of governance is typical of Kabila, what some in Kinshasa call the “informalization” of government. “The president prefers informal networks, parallel command structures,” a veteran political analyst for the United Nations told me. “It gives him greater leeway to rule.”33Instead of passing through his Ministry of the Interior, for example, Kabila will call governors or military commanders directly. Instead of authorizing decent official salaries for civil servants, he allows many to scrape by on salaries of less than $100 a month, only to send them envelopes of several thousand dollars at his discretion to keep them happy. This parallel management weakens institutions but makes officials depend directly on the presidency.


Until Kabila won the 2006 elections, many observers cut him some slack. When he first came to power, the country had been divided by war, and he did an admirable job in uniting the country and marginalizing his opponents. During the transitional government, between 2003 and 2006, he had to share power in a clumsy arrangement with seven different parties. In this tangle of graft and power-sharing, it was difficult to get anything done. He was applauded for having brought an end to the war that had divided the country. For this, he won 58 percent of the national vote in 2006. People believed in his campaign motto: “Joseph Kabila—The Bearer of Eggs, He Doesn’t Squabble, He Doesn’t Fight.” Kabila was balancing the fragile peace in his hands; he could be trusted not to start fighting again.

But three years after the elections, Kabila struggled to articulate a vision for the country. In the economic arena, there has only been little improvement in the lives of the average Congolese. In Kinshasa, where few appreciate Joseph Kabila’s somber and lackluster character, people say, “Mobutu used to steal with a fork—at least some crumbs would fall between the cracks, enough to trickle down to the rest of us. But Kabila, he steals with a spoon. He scoops the plate clean, spotless. He doesn’t leave anything for the poor.”

Kabila’s presidency has been marred, above all, by an ongoing insurgency in the eastern Congo. In 2004, during the transitional government, General Laurent Nkunda launched an insurgency against the fledgling Congolese government. A Tutsi from North Kivu, Nkunda had been a commander in the RCD and claimed that he was only trying to protect his community from the ex-FAR and Interahamwe who still lurked in the province.

There were, however, other, less noble reasons behind his rebellion, as well. The RCD was aware of its lack of popularity among Congolese and had little hope of winning in the 2006 elections. For the RCD leadership and the Rwandan government, both of whom encouraged Nkunda to go into rebellion, the new rebellion was a means of keeping their influence in the eastern Congo in the case of electoral defeat. Their fears came true: In presidential and parliamentary polls, the RCD wasn’t able to garner more than 5 percent of the vote. They had gone from controlling almost a third of the Congo, including some of the most lucrative trade and mining areas, to almost nothing.34 The fear of anti-Tutsi persecution combined potently with business and political interests to fuel a new rebellion.

Kabila tried in vain to defeat Nkunda militarily, launching four major offensives against the rebellion and sending over 20,000 troops to the Kivus. Repeatedly, during the lulls in fighting, his government tried negotiating peace deals. Finally, in 2009, Kabila struck a deal directly with the Rwandan government, allowing them to send troops into the Congo to hunt down the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in return for arresting Nkunda and integrating his troops into the Rwandan national army.

At the same time, Kabila faced challenges in Bas-Congo Province in the far west of the country, where the mystical Bundu dia Kongo sect was protesting abuses by the regime and demanding—sometimes violently—the right of self-determination. He also had to deal with the hundreds of bodyguards loyal to former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, who had refused to disarm and integrate into the national army after their leader was narrowly defeated in the presidential elections.

In both cases, Joseph Kabila reacted with disproportional force, eschewing negotiations and sending in hundreds of police and soldiers to put down both challenges to his power. Hundreds of unarmed civilians died in Bas-Congo, some brutally dismembered; over three hundred were killed during the battle for downtown Kinshasa. Hundreds of others were rounded up and tortured.35 In the words of the opposition, “the Bearer of Eggs has made one huge omelet.” Encumbered by weak security services, the government seems stuck between brutal repression and pallid negotiation.


But Joseph Kabila’s problems go further than just weak state institutions. He is surrounded by business and political leaders with their own interests and power bases. He is an outsider who was handed the presidency on a platter, without having to climb his way up through the ranks of a party or army, earning the respect and loyalty of his fellows. He knows that he can just as easily be removed from power; the example of his father is fresh in his memory.

Reforming the state will require tackling entrenched interests and mafia-like networks that permeate the administration. In doing so, he risks offending powerful people, who could then try to unseat him. In 2004, after a botched coup attempt in downtown Kinshasa, I remember speaking with outraged security agents who told me, “We know who is behind [the coup attempt], but we can’t do anything!”36

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Kabila has chosen not to promote neutral, efficient state institutions, but rather to strengthen his own personal security and business networks. This attitude is perhaps most palpable in the domain of security sector reform. After the elections, Kabila had an army of 150,000 patched together from half a dozen different armed groups. Many of its officers were illiterate and had never had any formal military training. There were only a few military prosecutors for the whole province of North Kivu, where over 20,000 soldiers are based. There was no formal process of procurement, and army officers regularly commandeered civilian trucks and airplanes for transport. “We managed the army informally,” a general told me. “The real power was held by people in the presidency or close to the president, not by the official chain of command.”37

This state of affairs could be understood for the duration of the transition, when Kabila was wary of his former rivals on the battlefield pulling a fast one on him. After all, he didn’t want to meet his father’s fate. But he has scarcely showed more willingness for reform since the elections. Purchases of military equipment continue to be carried out by officers close to the presidency, not the logistics department, and Kabila himself has a reputation for micromanaging military operations against Nkunda, sometimes countermanding his officers and sowing confusion. He has maintained a relatively large and well-equipped presidential guard of over 10,000 troops under his direct control, but he has not been able to improve the performance of the rest of his army. As under Mobutu, this approach may prevent his own troops from overthrowing him, but it will also keep him from consolidating peace in the rest of the country.

Does Kabila want a strong state? Or does he perceive strong institutions, such as an independent judiciary and lively opposition, as a challenge to his authority? Is he condemned to negotiate with militias and other power barons around the country, or will he be able to suppress these parallel networks of power?

These are perhaps the most important questions for the country’s future. The attitude of his advisors is not encouraging:

Politics is always dirty, is always a fight. This is not Switzerland! If we liberalize the political sphere and the economy, allow for unrestrained democracy, the same self-obsessed people who drove this country into the ground under Mobutu will come to power again! You see free press and political activity—we see opponents, plotting our demise. In order to reform and promote growth, we need to curtail some civil liberties and control part of the economy. It is a lesser evil for a greater good.38

This language is eerily reminiscent of the Mobutu regime’s earlier days. President Kabila is intent on centralizing power to the detriment of an efficient state bureaucracy and the rule of law. In 2009, he suggested that he wanted to change the constitution to prevent decentralization, extend term limits, and bring the judiciary further under his control. His government has expropriated several lucrative oil and mining concessions from multinational corporations, allegedly in order to distribute them to companies close to him. As so often in politics, what appears to be politically expedient for those in power rarely overlaps with the public interest. The lesser evils of the regime become entrenched, while the greater good is never realized.

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