DRC: A mystery named Kabila

By Anna Sylvestre-Treiner
Posted on Thursday, 3 March 2022 19:12

Joseph Kabila, in Kinshasa, on 30 December 2018. © Luis Tato/AFP

Retired on his own land, the DRC’s former president Joseph Kabila leads the rural life of a young retiree. However, it is hard to imagine that this secretive man no longer harbours any political ambitions. After his split with Félix Tshisekedi, does he dream of revenge?

Suddenly, the brakes gave out. This was unfortunate, as the old Peugeot 404 was on a hill. It began to roll down the slope, uncontrollably. That day, Kabila had gone for a drive, as he often does, on the roads of Kingakati with his driver.

The raïs spends much of his time on 19,000 hectares of green and hilly parkland, which he discovered when he came to power 21 years ago. Although the area is only 50km from Kinshasa, it feels further as the air is pure and mild. He feels calm as he admires these immense lands and contemplates the animals. Oxen, pigs, cows, chickens… The statesman has not only become a farmer, breeder and landowner here but also in his native province of Katanga and Central Congo. No one knows exactly how many farms he owns.

He loves his zebras, giraffes and lions more than anything else. There are even rhinoceroses. Kabila has imported a real savannah. “He’s a kid, he’s playing the gentleman farmer,” says one of his regular visitors. “His life’s work is also here. He can spend hours looking at his animals,” says one of his advisors. “I’ve seen him crouching in the tall grass next to a lion. He talks to them, feeds them. He stares at them, and that is enough to calm them down.” When he ventures into his private reserve, Kabila sports a BOB and a camera slung over his shoulder.

Cold-blooded animal

On 19 December 2021, at about 5:30 pm – the time when the light finally gets softer – the khaki 404, which is one of the former president’s two collector vehicles that dates from 1974, stopped responding to the controls. The car is the same age as its owner. It doesn’t even have seat belts on the leather seats. This kind of accident would never have happened if Kabila had taken his Land Rover.

This sporty driving fan soon realised that there was nothing he could do, especially since he was not behind the wheel. The car rolled over several times. Was this how he, the child of war, was going to die? In a road accident?All his life he had been convinced that he would end up like his father: with a bullet in the head.

The next day, his entourage discreetly distributed a photo of him standing on the terrace of his orange-walled villa. In it, he has a bandage wrapped around his left hand, the only visible sign of his mishap. As usual, the former president remained impassive, and, officially, everything was fine. “Even when he is hurt or angry, you don’t know. He never shows anything,” says one of his advisers. Kabila is a cold-blooded animal.

Appearances can be deceiving. Even though he’s tried to keep it a secret, the road trip has left more scars than he is willing to admit. Even today, part of his inner circle has denied it and assures us that they are “not aware of it”. However, according to several sources, Kabila got a shock during the accident. He was scared, and he had several broken ribs.

Strange stays

The examinations at the Marie-Olive-Lembe-Kabila Hospital, which were financed by his wife, were not enough, so a month later he decided to go to South Africa. South Africa again? The former president makes regular return trips there, which both annoy and worry the Congolese government. Ever since the alliance with his predecessor was broken off more than a year ago, Tshisekedi has been keeping an eye on this man who, since his early years in the maquis, has made mystery second nature.

For his part, even though he feigns indifference, Kabila feels like he has been mistreated by his former ally Tshisekedi. To undertake his latest journey, he had to get permission from the Agence Nationale de Renseignements (ANR), which took four days, before he was allowed to take off for Johannesburg – he used a Falcon-500 instead of driving from Lubumbashi and crossing 2,000km of southern Africa like he usually does.

Tshisekedi has become paranoid!

Two weeks later, on 9 February, his younger brother, Zoé, faced similar difficulties. At the airport, the former Tanganyika governor was told that he could not fly to South Africa, where he was supposed to join Kabila. Instead, he was invited to go to the office of the ANR boss, Jean-Hervé Mbelu Biosha. “Tshisekedi has become paranoid!” say those close to the raïs.

The Congolese regime does not want the Kabila family to make these trips, especially since part of the clan’s assets are domiciled there. However, the former president’s official reason for making these trips, when they are not of a medical nature, is so that he can continue his studies at the University of Johannesburg. He defended his master’s degree on 22 October and has just enrolled for a doctorate to prepare a thesis in political science.

He tells his visitors that African history, particularly that of the Congo, is what fascinates him. The young retiree has done a lot of research on these subjects. He also travels to see his family – some of his sisters, sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces live in South Africa – and he hopes to soon go to Barcelona, Spain, to see his son, who is honing his football skills there.

‘They’re trying to cause trouble for him’

In South Africa, he also reunited with some of his old companions, such as Kikaya Bin Karubi, his advisor, and Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, the Senate’s former president, who was impeached in 2021. What are they all up to, so far away from the country, one wonders? Meanwhile in Kinshasa, “Kabila has seen his neighbours”, says one of his close friends. During his latest visit – even though he drinks very little, does not smoke and only eats organic food – he shared a few glasses of wine with them. They were eager to meet a former head of state.

We must not forget that he is the reason that democracy returned.

“The Congolese regime is giving him a hard time. They bother him a bit, they’re trying to cause trouble for those close to him,” says one of his advisers. “But how did he react when he learned that Zoe was prevented from travelling? He laughed!”

Grave accusation

Even so, there is cause for concern. During Kabila’s stay in South Africa, François Beya was arrested by ANR agents on 5 February 2022. The president’s security adviser, who had been all-powerful until then, fell. The motive was unclear, but according to President Tshisekedi’s spokesperson, he “acts against national security”.

This puts the former head of state in a delicate position. Despite appearances, “Kabila is very worried, Beya was the link between Tshisekedi and him”, says a diplomat. He was playing the role of messenger, resolving misunderstandings and authorising travel. Beya, who had served the DRC since Mobutu, was – in fact – the boss of the Direction Générale de Migration under Kabila.

According to several sources, he is accused of being too close to the former president, who is suspected of attempting to destabilise the state. These are serious accusations, which were fuelled by a tweet from Karubi. Published the same day as Beya’s arrest, the tweet reiterated that Africa was experiencing a “cascade of coups” and assured that the DRC would not be “spared”. This message, which Kabila’s inner circle is trying to forget, was quickly deleted. “Since his exile, Kikaya has been depressed. Kabila has nothing to do with this,” says a member of the crisis unit of the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), the former head of state’s coalition. The tension is such that many have tried to dissuade Kabila from returning to the DRC.

He hesitated, but finally returned on 11 February, as he had to prove that he had nothing to reproach himself for. On his return, he settled in his GLM residence in Gombe, in the middle of Kinshasa. By doing so, he was telling the authorities that he was there and would not shy away, even if he did not show up. Ever since he lost power, his public appearances have been as rare as his speeches.

Private life

Perhaps it is this absolute discretion, combined with extreme caution, that intrigues so many. A lot of people find the mystery to be a source of intrigue. It is true that Kabila prefers to leave Kinshasa at night when the city is asleep and no one can see him. He would rather receive most of his visitors in an annexe building rather than in his villa. Like his father before him, he jealously guards his private life.

One thing is certain: Kabila is scary. However, those close to him swear that he has never dreamed of destabilising the state. “He has a deep respect for institutions. We must not forget that he is the reason that democracy returned,” says Raymond Tshibanda, who chairs the FCC crisis committee. “For the first time, thanks to him, there was a peaceful transfer of power in 2019. One day, justice will be done.”

If he comes back one day, it will be when he is sure of a win, and that will not be in 2023.

Kabila hopes so, in his heart of hearts. After 18 years in power, it is not easy to shake off the feeling that an injustice has been done. The international community sees him as an outcast, almost a pariah, but he is convinced that history will favour him in the end. Between two walks on his land, the senator for life is writing his memoirs. Everyone must remember the state in which he found the country in 2001 and what he did for it.

The ‘boy’ turned raïs

Within the space of 21 years, the DRC has changed, but perhaps less than Kabila himself. On his grey-bearded face, there is no longer any trace of the beardless young man who became president by chance when his father died. “Joseph [Kabila] is shy, he can’t look people in the face. I have never seen any leadership ability in him,” Rwandan General James Kabarebe said at the time.

The “little one”, as he was nicknamed, had never asked for anything. The clandestine life at his father’s side in the 1990s, commanding men, the army staff, then the presidency… It is almost as if his life had never fully been his own. He whom his opponents wanted to present as an adopted child never cleared the fog that surrounded the first part of his existence.

“Leave him alone,” says one of his closest advisors. Kabila has put on weight and, in the course of his 18 years as head of the DRC, he has indeed learned how to command. “He looks more and more like his father,” says a member of his party. Many visitors believe that this man who has suffered his fate now longs for tranquillity.

Courtesy and betrayal

He rarely meddles in the FCC’s affairs, and when he does, it is almost out of a sense of obligation. “He gives orders and makes decisions on major issues,” says Tshibanda. The end of his alliance with Tshisekedi, as well as the loss of his majority within the National Assembly and Senate at the end of 2020, forced him to remain on his guard. “It has been a shock,” he says.

“There is no room for two on a leopard’s skin,” Tshisekedi had told him. Kabila had underestimated his rival. He, his family and his fortune are no longer protected. He learned this the hard way. Leaving a position where flattery abounds also means experiencing betrayal and finding a certain solitude.

Since the December 2018 election, the Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie (PPRD, the former ruling party) and the FCC appear to be stunned. The former president is doing nothing to revive his political family, which is plagued by internal rivalries. With less than two years to go before the presidential election, he has given the green light to reach out to Moïse Katumbi and Martin Fayulu but has not designated a successor.

Could he be tempted to return to power? Those close to him say that he has regained some popularity, but on the other hand, diplomatic circles think it is highly unlikely. “If he comes back one day, it will be when he is sure of a win, and that will not be in 2023,” says a diplomat. “Today, his party is so weak that we almost forget that Kabila exists.” The 50-year-old former head of state is not dead. However, he may succeed in being forgotten by remaining discreet.

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