KIGALI, RWANDA, EARLY 1996; LUBUMBASHI, CONGO, 1960; FIZI, CONGO, 1965–1980
Laurent Kabila’s presence is hard to miss in Kinshasa. In the middle of town, he towers as a forty-foot statue (thanks to North Korean sculptors, experts in state-sponsored hagiography), his finger pointing to the sky, admonishing the Congolese for straying from the path he had envisioned for the country. His head is mounted on countless billboards around the city, dressed in his characteristic collarless brown safari suit. His eyes are turned upwards, “to the dazzling future,” according to supporters. In the center of the government neighborhood, ensconced in a marble mausoleum, his shiny grey coffin is on display, lined with garish fake flowers and ribbons. On many afternoons, schoolchildren in blue and white uniforms parade by, chattering irreverently, impervious to the irritable presidential guards with machine guns.
Despite his omnipresence, however, it is difficult to penetrate Kabila’s myth. His real character has been shrouded by both vilification and idolatry. For some of his former comrades—those responsible for the statue, posters, and mausoleum—it was his perseverance that helped liberate the country first from Mobutu’s dictatorship and then from Rwanda’s control. For many others, Kabila’s image morphed into a stereotype of African leaders: the thuggish, authoritarian “big man,” willing to do anything to preserve his power, a mold cast by Jean-Bedel Bokassa and Idi Amin, the military strongmen of neighboring Central African Republic and Uganda, respectively.
Kabila had been a rebel since his youth in rural, pre-independence Congo. The son of a disciplinarian civil servant, Kabila distinguished himself as a precocious but difficult student. His father insisted on speaking French with his children at home, which left his son with the smooth, urbane accent of an évolué, an African accepted into the exclusive colonial clique. His schooling was often interrupted, probably as a result of the turbulence in the country as well as in his household, where his father’s polygamy caused tensions with his mother. Before the age of ten, his parents separated, and he divided the rest of his youth between his mother’s and father’s houses. It is not clear whether he even finished high school, but according to childhood friends, he could often be found in public libraries in Lubumbashi, the capital of the southern, mineral-rich Katanga Province, his nose buried in books. French Enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes and Rousseau appear to have been favorites.1
According to the few accounts from that period, his blinkered ambition appeared at an early age. Despite a slight limp that he developed when he was a child, he earned himself the nickname Chuma (made of iron) for his strength. A friend’s description of his behavior on the soccer pitch reminds the reader of future traits: “Laurent Kabila was very authoritarian. When he said you weren’t playing, he wouldn’t change his opinion. In soccer, we respected him because he didn’t fool around. Kabila didn’t accept defeat, he was resolute and determined, he was above us. We feared him.”2
Kabila began his political career during the upheaval that rocked his home province of Katanga in 1960. The province harbored some of the richest mineral deposits in Africa, prompting Belgian businessmen to back a bid for secession of the province when the Congo became independent. The province, however, split in two when the north, dominated by Kabila’s Lubakat tribe, rejected secession. It was one of the many uprisings that broke out across the country following independence, sparked by both Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s assassination and local ethnic power blocs, now free from the shackles of a strong central state, that were trying to stake out their own interests. Kabila quickly immersed himself in this wave of violence, becoming a commander in a youth militia at the age of twenty.
Politics provided a feeling of purpose and belonging that he couldn’t find in his sprawling family of nineteen siblings and half-siblings and at least five parents-in-law. The rebellion also pitted him against his father, the diligent colonial administrator. In late 1960, as Lubakat youths across the north of the province rebelled, they captured dozens of former colonial officers, including Kabila’s father. The sixty-year-old was kidnapped, beaten, and finally lynched by the same militia that his son belonged to. When word of his father’s death reached him, Kabila is said to have reacted calmly.
The young revolutionary spent the next years on the move, after South African and Belgian mercenaries put down the rebellion. He traveled as part of a socialist delegation to Moscow and then Belgrade, where, according to some, he briefly enrolled at the university. Finally, in January 1964, the leaders of the rebellion sent Kabila to Burundi to make contact with the Chinese government and to launch a rebellion in the highlands of the Kivus, close to the homeland of the Banyamulenge. There, commanders from the local community had been fighting against the government for several years, using bows and arrows, colonial-era Mausers, and a few AK-47s.
The rebels purported to be nationalists fighting against colonialism and the exploitation of their country’s natural resources. Marxist ideology, however, was having a hard time grafting itself onto the Congolese insurgencies that proliferated across the country after independence. With over 80 percent of the population living off subsistence agriculture, and with a tiny, unpoliticized, and largely uneducated industrial labor force, the Congolese rebellions had little truck with Marxist arguments of surplus labor and the exploited proletariat. Most importantly, the kinds of urban and rural social networks that communism was able to mobilize elsewhere through labor unions and peasants’ associations were largely nonexistent in the Congo. After conquering half of the country by early 1964, the rebel groups quickly fractured and succumbed to corruption and ill-discipline.
The Chinese were not the only ones to misjudge the strength of socialism. Che Guevara led an expedition to support Kabila’s insurrection in the eastern Congo in 1965. Fidel Castro’s government, newly in power, had immediately embarked on exporting their revolutionary and anti-imperialist ideology elsewhere. The Congo was an obvious target in many ways. Not only had the CIA helped in Lumumba’s assassination, but the United States and South Africa had helped assemble a contingent of white mercenaries to put down the various rebellions that had seized almost half the country in 1964.
The mercenaries’ racism and brutality, as described by an Italian journalist, further stoked Guevara’s determination: “Occupying the town meant blowing out the doors with rounds of bazooka fire, going into the shops and taking anything they wanted that was movable.... After the looting came the killing. The shooting lasted for three days. Three days of executions, of lynching, of tortures, of screams, and of terror.”3 Pictures of white mercenaries smoking cigarettes and laughing, as behind them rebels’ bodies dangled loosely from trees, filtered out, although only an African American newspaper would print them.4 An added affront to Castro was the CIA’s hiring of Cuban exile pilots to provide air support to the mercenaries.
Che took on the Congo campaign as a personal challenge. For him, it was not just a matter of freeing the country from imperialists. “Our view was that the Congo problem was a world problem,” he wrote in his diary.5 During a three-month tour of Africa in early 1965, Che was pressed by other rebel movements for support, but he kept on coming back to the Congo. “Victory [in the Congo] would have repercussions throughout the continent, as would defeat,” he wrote. As he described an exchange he had with rebels from other countries, “I tried to make them understand that the real issue was not the liberation of any given state, but a common war against a common master.”6
Nevertheless, Che’s experience, as well as the insurrection, ended in disaster. The beginning words of his Congo journal were: “This is the history of a failure.” Suffering from internal divisions, lack of organization, and little military experience, the rebel offensives against the national army fell apart amid numerous Cuban and Congolese casualties. After seven months, Che was forced to withdraw, sick and dejected, his feet swollen from malnutrition.
Throughout this period, Kabila proved himself a wily and sometimes ruthless politician, deftly riding the political currents around him. In the conclusion of his diaries from that time, Guevara had mixed feelings about the Congolese leader:
The only man who has genuine qualities of a mass leader is, in my view, Kabila. The purest of revolutionaries cannot lead a revolution unless he has certain qualities of a leader, but a man who has qualities of a leader cannot, simply for that reason, carry a revolution forward. It is essential to have revolutionary seriousness, an ideology that can guide action, a spirit of sacrifice that accompanies one’s actions. Up to now, Kabila has not shown that he possesses any of these qualities.... I have very great doubts about his ability to overcome his defects in the environment in which he operates.7
Between Guevara’s departure and Kabila’s rebirth at the helm of the coalition that toppled Mobutu, there were three decades of obscurity. Kabila never stopped talking about the revolution, sporadically mobilizing fighters and making the rounds of regional embassies and government for support. But the élan of his early years had waned; the charismatic revolutionary had lost his shine and began to look more and more like a common bandit. The nadir was perhaps reached in 1975, when Kabila’s forces snuck into Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research camp in western Tanzania and kidnapped four American and Dutch students. They subjected their captives to lectures on Marxism and Leninism while demanding a ransom of $500,000. This was the last straw for Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, who had been tolerating the rebels out of disdain for Mobutu. At one point, he had complained to the Cuban ambassador about their 'font-size:9.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:blue'>8
Back in the Congo, Kabila’s activities were hardly more popular. In the late 1970s, Kabila tried to consolidate his power by launching a campaign against witch doctors, whom he considered a bad influence and a challenge to his rule. He ordered a strong herbal drink to be concocted, a sort of truth potion that would trigger dizziness and nausea in wizards. Of course, the herbs themselves were so strong that they elicited this response from almost anybody. According to eyewitnesses, hundreds of elderly men and women were tied to stakes and burned.9
With his prospects of rebellion dwindling and his reputation tarnished, Kabila retreated to Dar es Salaam, where he had good contacts with the Tanzanian intelligence service. They provided him with a house and a diplomatic passport and allowed him to take on a more laid-back lifestyle. He had a vintage typewriter, on which he would bang out letters to regional leaders and his commanders in the field. The few writings that remain from this time indicate his attempts to establish himself as a revolutionary intellectual, using ornate prose and Marxist jargon.
It was this role of political operative that he felt most comfortable in, traveling throughout the region, exaggerating his military exploits and prowess, writing letters to friendly leftist governments in Africa and abroad. He spent little time in the bush, preferring to hopscotch through the socialist world in search of support for his rebellion. He traveled to China for seven months and made visits to Cairo, Nairobi, and Belgrade.
At home, his family life was complicated by his fondness for women. He had affairs with his two live-in Congolese maids, Vumilia and Kessia, who “were promoted” to wives, and squabbles between them and his first wife, Sifa, sparked tensions in the household. In total, Kabila would have at least twenty-four children with six women, creating endless family intrigue and drama, especially after he became president. He had behaved similarly in the field. According to accounts that filtered out from his commanders, Kabila would resort to a Mobutist subterfuge, regularly sleeping with his commanders’ wives as a display of power and humiliation.10
In the summer of 1995, Kabila’s stars aligned. He was restless, following the BBC news broadcasts from Rwanda and eastern Zaire several times a day and pestering his friends in the Tanzanian intelligence service with phone calls about what they might know. No Congolese rebellion could ever succeed without outside help, he often told these friends. The last such support had come from the Chinese and the Cubans in the 1960s. Now it seemed that Rwanda and others were gearing up to make the push.
Then, one afternoon, the Rwandan intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, turned up at Kabila’s house in the leafy Oyster Bay neighborhood of Dar es Salaam in the company of several Tanzanian officials. The veteran Congolese rebel was in a talkative mood, his spirits lifted by the possibility of renewed support. He explained that he still had several thousand troops he could mobilize in the Fizi area of South Kivu. “He was just happy that somebody was visiting him and asking him about his ideas,” Karegeya remembered. The aging rebel, perhaps thinking he was speaking to someone from the same bloodline, invoked his anti-imperialist struggle and lambasted Mobutu’s links to the west. He dug among his chest of papers to come up with some of his revolutionary pamphlets, and he even talked military strategy, proposing flanking maneuvers of the refugee camps and tactical feints.
To Karegeya, who, like most of his RPF colleagues, had by then endorsed the maxims of free-market capitalism, the “old man seemed like a relic of the past.” Kabila didn’t convince Karegeya, but then again, “we weren’t looking for a rebel leader. We just needed someone to make the whole operation look Congolese.”
Karegeya later sent emissaries to Fizi to find Kabila’s rebels. His men spent weeks climbing mountains and trekking through forests on promises by their guides that the following day the rebels would appear. After several months, they gave up. And yet Karegeya persisted with Kabila. Many Congolese, especially those close to veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, now accuse Rwanda of having deliberately chosen a weak and marginal figure in order to manipulate him. The Rwandan government did, however, try to reach out to other leaders, including Tshisekedi, without much luck.11
Karegeya laughed at me when I questioned their choice of a rebel leader. “You act like we had a lot of options! By 1996, Mobutu had co-opted or locked up almost all of his opposition, with the possible exception of Tshisekedi. Kabila might have been old-school, but he had not been bought off. We gave him some credit for that.”
Kabila arrived in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, from Dar es Salaam in July 1996 with almost nothing. He shacked up in a safe house in the affluent Kiyovu neighborhood of downtown Kigali, with a couple of suitcases. His only companions were his son, Joseph Kabila, who followed him everywhere, and several of his old rebel commanders, who “came in and out of the house, looking like janitors who had lost their brooms,” as one Rwandan officer commented.
The Rwandans had picked four strange bedfellows to lead the rebellion. Besides Kabila, there was Deo Bugera, the architect from North Kivu; Andre Kisase Ngandu, a bearded and aging commander who was leading a rebellion in the Ruwenzori Mountains, on Congo’s border with Uganda, and like Kabila traced his roots back to the rebellions of the 1960s, although he at least could still count several hundred active rebels under his command; and Anselme Masasu, a taciturn twenty-some-year-old from Bukavu who had a Rwandan mother and at the time was a sergeant in the Rwandan army. Years later, Bugera laughed when he heard Masasu’s name. “You know he ended up being a popular commander, very popular. But then, he was a kid! They said he had a political party, but he was the only member in it.”
Bugera remembered his first meeting with Kabila: “He was wearing sandals and one of those safari suits. He had uncut, blackened—I tell you, blackened!—toenails that stuck out over the end of his sandals. What a strange man, I thought! He didn’t look you in the eyes when he talked.” Bugera, who seemed privately to have hoped to become the rebellion’s leader, had heard about Kabila in the 1980s but nothing about him since then. According to Bugera, Kabila was so cash-strapped that Bugera bought him some shoes and a safari suit at the local market.
These four men—two overhauled, aging guerrilla commanders, a twentysomething sergeant, and an architect—were meant to lift the Congo up out of its political morass.
In Kigali, the Rwandans embarked on some much-needed bonding exercises with their newly recruited rebel leaders.
“The Rwandans are weird,” Bugera said. “They made us stay in a house together for three or four whole days, sleeping there, eating there, and preparing the war. They wanted us to become a team.”
It must have been a strange few days. Bugera remembered Kabila as a largely silent man, listening to and observing his new comrades. Like an outmoded professor, Kabila distributed green pamphlets printed on cheap paper with his seven lessons of revolutionary ideology. Masasu skulked about in his neatly pressed fatigues, speaking mostly with the Rwandan officers who came in and out of the house, and keeping his distance from the two rebels thirty years his senior. Bugera huddled with other Tutsi leaders, who muttered bitterly about Kabila’s massacres of Banyamulenge in the 1960s. The alliance had gotten off to a shaky start.
After several days, they finally came up with the one-page founding document the Rwandans had asked them to draft. They shared it with Colonel James Kabarebe, the commander of the Rwandan presidential guard who was preparing the Congo mission. He helped them polish it and added a Congolese dateline to mask Rwanda’s involvement in their movement; the paper became known as the Lemera Agreement.12 Kabila’s outdated verbosity shines through the text: It speaks of the “imperious necessity” for their four political parties to come together to liberate Zaire and names Laurent Kabila as their spokesman. It laments the economic situation, marked by “doldrums, financial muddle, corruption and the destruction of the means of production.”
The four leaders met three times with Vice President Kagame, who was constantly involved in the war preparations and seemed well-informed of the complexities of Congolese politics. The RPF strongman seemed more enthusiastic about the rebellion than the leaders themselves, exhorting the Congolese to understand their responsibilities in the struggle, but also to understand that the RPF and others were helping them liberate their country. He said, “If we win the war, we will all win! It’s our victory!”
Thus was born the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). A grandiose name for a group that initially had little political or military significance other than providing a smoke screen for Rwandan and Ugandan involvement.
At the beginning, Kabila felt awkward and marginalized. He had worked with Tutsi rebels in the 1960s, when some had fled the pogroms in Rwanda into the Congo, but he had not been in touch with this new, younger, cosmopolitan generation of rebels. They worked with laptop computers and satellite phones and organized their soldiers on the model of the British army. Even their marching style was different, he noticed.
He also felt a sense of entitlement. After all, he was at least twenty years older than the Rwandan officers milling about; he had been a guerrilla leader in the Congo when they were still in diapers.
Kabila was also smarter than most gave him credit for. He realized there was little he could do at the moment other than bide his time and try to position himself. After all, the Rwandans’ ambitions were initially strictly military, and they had given little thought to the government they would set up once they controlled the conquered territory. Given Kabila’s seniority, the Rwandans allowed him to become the movement’s spokesperson and to begin setting up a political directorate for it.
He got his hands on a satellite phone himself and began calling members of the Congolese diaspora whom he had worked with in the past. Without his own soldiers on the battlefield, he would need to rally loyal advisors around him. He contacted one of his former comrades from the 1960s, who was a nightclub owner in Madrid. Another one was a lawyer in Belgium, while a third had been with him in Tanzania. As the rebellion became more visible, and Kabila began making appearances on radio and television, other diaspora figures contacted him, and his political clout grew.
Laurent Kabila emerged as an accidental leader of the AFDL movement and eventually as the president of a liberated Congo. In an example of Rwandan hubris, the RPF planners desperately tried to foist ideology and sincerity upon the Congolese they had handpicked. As ingenious as Kagame’s military planners were, their political strategy ended up being simplistic and short-sighted. For many Congolese who had labored long—and ultimately unsuccessfully—to overthrow Mobutu peacefully, Kabila was a living symbol of foreign meddling in their country. It is one of the Congo’s historical ironies that the same man came to be seen as a bulwark of patriotism and resistance against Rwandan aggression.