Rule from the graveyard as Kabila and Tshisekedi clans swap power in Kinshasa

13 Jan 2019

In  my  course of  tracking Africa’s  sometimes torturous navigation of this  elusive creature  called democracy, I often hear a  yarn told to much  amusement  of  what  happened  back in 1991 in Zambia. That  was  the  year Kenneth Kaunda after  reinstating  multi party  democracy   proceeded    to  witness  his  independence  movement UNIP  vanquished  by  a  Frederick Chiluba  bunch of  unionists, reformists, dissidents, adventurists and wolves in wolf skins  coalescing  under  the Movement for Multi Party Democracy. Apparently  old man Ken accustomed to  posting  victories of 99% plus in   polls where  he was the sole candidate in  the one party state  decided  to go for  a relaxing round of  golf  as the  results  started streaming in. Supremely confident  he was coasting home because  no  one ever contemplated  a UNIP  defeat the avowed socialist  didn’t see the irony in  partaking in golf, the most bourgeoisie of leisure pursuits. UNIP  was the  party  of liberation  and   under  its slogan of One Zambia, One Nation,  the movement  was destined to  rule till  the end of time. Or so  they thought. Anyway  the  numbers  started telling their  own  new narrative and  it was panic stations all over  as  reality  dawned power was gone. First  of the  challenges  was who  to  carry the burden of breaking   the news  to  the   venerable  freedom fighter  of  the  white hander kerchief trademark.  That  dispensed with,  the old man, shell shocked  repaired  to state house as  the process   for  handover kicked  in. Old comrades  had  vanished  and  some were  seen  celebrating with  the  soon to be  rulers,  and for  good  measure  led  the denunciations  despite  having  had  their bellies  filled by  him.  Old Ken wept as he watched them  dancing  on his grave despite all he had done for them.  But the bittereinders  hovered around hoping  the old man  could play  one last card  to keep them in the gravy. All to no avail. Friendly presidents  phoned  their commiserations to  a fallen  comrade. However  the  leopard  from across the border  felt sufficiently concerned  to   fly over    and  spend time  with  his buddy. Then at the helm  of   Mouvement Populaire  de la Revolution, the only political organization permitted in Zaire,  Marshall Mobutu  Sese Seko Kuku Wa Za Banga  sat a grieving Kaunda down and asked  him a simple  question: who was in charge of the election? Old Ken, head bowed in shame responded that his government  and loyalists had been in charge of everything.  The  leopard  was aghast  and  wondered  loudly  how Kaunda could lose  an election  which  was conducted  by  his own  government. 

Africa  has come a long way  since and  multi party democracy  is  now  a matter of  course  and  countries  hanging  onto to archaic  non competitive politics  are   getting fewer. But  despite political pluralism  becoming standard practice, actors especially those holding the  levers of power have also became  more creative  in  terms of  conjuring wily ways  to remain  in office.  This past  week  I arrived  from  another sojourn  in the country known as DRC since 1997, formerly Zaire since 1971 and  before that DRC since independence.  This was a return  exercise  after   observing the historic 2006 polls. The elections in question were only the second held under a  multi party dispensation  since the 1960 plebiscite that  delivered self rule and Patrice Lumumba  as prime minister.  When  I  arrived in Kinshasa  I considered myself  a  veteran  of  election observation  and   it  would take me only a few days  to  gauge the mood, assess   the various  protagonists  and   call the election long before the formality  of  polling day  because  the thing is   not  won on the actual day.  Twelve  years  ago  I  was based  in Bukavu  on the  border with Rwanda,  overlooking  Lake Kivu  amid  breathtaking  scenery  which were  it in  a different  place  would  be  a paradise  for tourists. Joseph Kabila  whose daddy Laurent  had   marched unchallenged  by Mobutu’s  fleeing  troops all the way  from the  east  and  installed  himself  as the  new leopard  after years of prosecuting an anti Mobutu insurgency, was on the  ballot  for president. When daddy  was unexpectedly  shot three years after taking over from Mobutu, the new regime only held together  by Kabila senior  was at risk of unravelling. This possibility could  result in  incalculable cost, loss  of  power and a place at the bountiful feeding trough after the years of hunger in the forest. Swift consensus  was that only  a Kabila   would be acceptable and so from  right  stage  entered  a sombre, intense  young man  at age 31  thrust into power  as the youngest  leader in the world  of potentially the  richest  piece of territory  on earth. Since  that fateful day in 1483    when  the Portuguese explorer Diago Cao  dropped anchor and set foot on the Kongo Kingdom,  the  interlopers  knew they were onto a good thing. From then onwards   it was the Portuguese,  followed by the Arabs, at times  in collaboration both plundered  and looted  the  territory  doing a roaring  trade  in slaves  and  ivory. By the time the European  powers  met  at Berlin Conference  1885  to  carve the   continent  among themselves in the scramble for Africa, little Belgium,  a  relatively new kingdom   had  the  singular privilege of having its  monarch,  King Leopold being  awarded  the Congo  Free State as  a personal  possession. It was all  his and  this at a time  when the motor car industry  was taking off  in Europe  and America, rubber  for  manufacture  of tires  was  in huge demand and its tapping  assumed industrial  and horrific  proportions. The atrocities  visited  upon   the people  of Congo  during  this  dark  epoch   has been recorded in  many  works. Such  was the  brutality  of the private  company  and enforcers of King Leopold that   in 1908  the Belgian state  had to  take control  of the  territory  as a colony, which it  was to be for  the  next  fifty two  years till 1960. By the time King Leopold let go  it is estimated  around 10 million native people had become victims  of the largest recorded mass maiming and  murder  of people in Africa in the king’s economic  exploitation ventures. After the colonialists it was the turn of the Africans  themselves, often as proxies  at each others throats  to lay their hands on  the wealth. In my month in Kinshasa  I visited  almost every part of the  city, the   most opulent  and also the  most deprived. I  went to pubs and imbibed Skol and Tembo. I attended live sessions of   amazingly   good rhumba  bands of hungry, old musicians  who had long  missed out on the  luck   to become  superstars like Franco,   Sam Mangwana, Madilu System  and all the  greats from a country  that does music like no other on this continent.  In the  course of our  fieldwork  we  interviewed  various role players, including  political  actors,  civil society, the church,  influencers and  all manner of  Congolese  across the  spectrum. I witnessed  the  campaign  activities and mobilization efforts of the  political  formations.

My abiding  impression was that   the odds were  too heavily stacked in favour of the  ruling  coalition. They had the  most billboards, campaign  paraphernalia  and on state media  the opposition might as well not have existed. In a country  sitting  on  stupendous natural endowments but   where  the  struggle  to eke  out a daily living   can hive off  many years  of  a man’s  life,  politicians  provide  a  lifeline  especially  during campaign  season. All the desperate  youth  seemed to gravitate  towards  ruling  party  candidates for a morsel or  two.  It  seemed  a  no contest from where  I was  seated. Such  was  the  conspicuous  dominance that  the  prettiest female  candidates on the  giant  billboards seemed  all   to belong  to  the FCC ruling platform. As Emmanuel Shadary  the  handpicked  successor  criss -crossed the  country, not too  far behind  him and at times splashing  holy  water on the  family  pet project  was Madame Marie Olive Kabila, the first lady. Fiery  and quite  dynamic  on the campaign  stump   she left  no room  for doubt that Shadary  was  their candidate. At times state tv  would  spend inordinate camera time  on  a burly  young man called Zoe, the president’s   younger brother who was  also  running  for one of the  1251  national  offices  on offer, for which 34 000 candidates were trying their luck. Zoe  was  always  surrounded by  hangers on who resembled wolves in wolves clothing and    had the  stride of a  man of purpose  whose  best  days were still ahead.  The  outgoing  president, always reticent stayed away from  party  rallies  and instead  would  be  shown  commissioning  big  infrastructure projects. The   bewildered  young man  presiding over  daddy’s funeral  and taking the oath back  in 2001   now transcended the rough  and tumble  of  inelegant   party  politics. Now wearing  a signature bushy white beard, in unruly  style the  46  year old resembled  some kind of guru, forever deep in thought,  pondering  weighty   national questions for which  only  he could  provide  solutions. In fact  in an interview   he had  left open the  possibility   of  returning to contest  the presidency  in 2023. Little wonder Madame Kabila was literally  chaperoning  the family  project  at  every  rally. Halfway to the finishing line  I  had no reason to  believe  the outcome  would be anything less  than continuation of the status quo with a loyal proxy holding fort . If anything  this was  going to  be  a  white wash. From  my observation  the opposition was in disarray  and outgunned in terms of  resources and reach. It seemed the entire state apparatus  was  acting in the interest  of the family pet project.  Some two months before polls, realizing they  had to  counter  the Kabila pet project,  the main opposition figures   met in Geneva    to bargain over  a single candidate and thus emerged a certain Martin Fayulu. At the time it  was  said  he  owed his position  as consensus  candidate  to the backing of Moise Katumbi and Jean Pierre Bemba  who  due to  infractions  with  the law, trumped up or otherwise, were barred from running. Fayulu  it was said was  their   joint pet project and  as men  of  great wealth and influence  they  were bankrolling  his campaign  for the day  he took power and they  would run the  show  as  the shadow  state. It sounded like a Faustian pact between a highly regarded, but relatively unknown  Fayulu and  his shady  backers.   As   someone  who has always  found  Congo an enduring fascination    I have often  watched  the  Thiery Michel documentary Mobutu The King Of Zaire tracing the  rise  to power  of the leopard and  his  fall.  A  figure  who makes numerous appearances in the movie as Mobutu’s  chief  nemesis  is a combative politician called Etienne Tshisekedi. At various times he was  thrown in jail as dissident, pardoned, made prime minister, rebelled, sacked, sent  back to jail,  or exile.

But  in the Mobutu  years  it was Tshisekedi  who built a reputation  of dissent against the kleptocracy and when  the Kabilas  seized power  he  refused to be  coopted, boycotting  the 2006 polls   but contesting in 2011 at the ripe  old age of 79 only to reject the result when it came out in favour of Kabila junior.  In early 2017  the effects  of  fighting  successive  regimes and the poor  health exacted  by  resistance took a  toll and  he died  in Brussels, the redoubt  of  all Congolese, both the elites and dissidents  alike, plus  anything in between. Then drama  happened. The Tshisekedi family  insisted  the patriarch  could only be buried  in Kinshasa and  subject  to  certain protocols  befitting his  larger than life  role in Congolese  politics. Kabila whose daddy  had  received  a funeral  of  pomp and pageantry  and now rested cozily  in an elaborate  mausoleum  in the  fashion of other great  helmsmen  like Lenin, Kim- II Sung and Chairman Mao, wasn’t  so keen on the idea. In the ensuing  stalemate  old man Etienne  remained chilling, literally, in  a morgue in Brussels.   When  he died his  son Felix  in proper dynastic fashion   took  over the UPDS  movement  just  like Joseph  took over  from  his own daddy,  but for him not as  dissident but as president. Back to the polls.  A few days after our arrival.  we woke  up  to  smoke billowing  from  a high security  area in Gombe and  news hounds from western agencies could barely  conceal their ecstasy. This  was beginning to  look like the election  they had come for, and as they say in youth lingo, things were getting lit in  the  real sense of the word. Apparently  a  warehouse  containing electoral material   was engulfed by  a mysterious inferno. A seven delay  was announced. The news hounds  became giddy with anticipation of blood letting  and raced all over the  city  with their local fixers  looking for action. But to their  dismay nothing dramatic happened.  They were quickly finding out Congolese are normal people and their lives don’t revolve around elections. As the  head of the electoral commission  advised, a seven day delay  does not justify  burning down the country  for a poll  that has been two years in delay.  Two days  after postponement came xmas and  Kinshasa ate  festivities  like  every city  in the world.  That  is not to  say there  was no trouble. In  a poll  where  so much was at stake, and  where the main  aspirants  had  vested interests  pulling the  strings,   incidents  were bound  to occur  and  in places like Lubumbashi  a rally for Fayulu   aborted  as teargas  filled  the air  and   about two  people lost their lives. The police  claimed innocence.

The  politicians  blamed the  police. But  things soon  settled  down. Kinshasa  is  a city of  historical sites  that  lie derelict  and  in a stable  country  could  be turned into  bustling  tourist  attractions. After all  it  was   here  where  the  legendary boxing  fight The Rumble In The Jungle  was hosted  by President Mobutu  when  copper  and cobalt  were  hot commodities  and money  was  in endless supply. In the award winning film  When We Were Kings  the story  is told  in grainy  footage  of those heady  days. But  a visit  to the Tata Raphael  arena in Kasavubu commune   where  the fight  took place  reveals  a  forlorn  little   place. There are no tour guides and I  have a chat  with  the  facility  manager  who tells  me  if resources  permitted  they  could  set up a museum  and get  rich  boxing fans to  come on  nostalgia tours. Up in Ngaliema Hill, Mobutu’s old palace in Kinshasa,  at which  he hosted banquets and  grew  plump on caviar  and pink  champagne lies in ruins and the jungle is winning the war of  reclaiming its territory. Here he used to  keep  exotic  wildlife and stroll the gardens deep in thought like a wise father of the nation. From this  hilltop abode overlooking  the mighty River Congo, he was  monarch  of all he surveyed.  I enquire  if any  of the Mobutu  kids are  running for office. It seems  not. Since daddy fled  the country as his regime of 31 years  collapsed all around him  only to die  a few weeks later stricken by cancer  in Morocco,  the family  had vanished from  public space. In fairness  not all western agencies  focused on gloomy news. The BBC   ran a brilliant series on the history of  the country to coincide  with the polls. One of the more interesting episodes  features Mobutu’s  elderly daughter showing the film crew around  the most  famous  of the family’s palaces, also  lying in ruins, this time in their ancestral village of Gbadolite. Here in the  middle  of  the rain forest, thousands of miles from Kinshasa  she  reminisces wistfully about  the beauty  of the place in the bygone years before villagers descended  in a looting frenzy when they realized Papa had on the  morning of 23 May 1997  fled Kabila’s  advance  and abandoned them. The narrator lets on how Concorde used to fly here on charters to   deliver crates of  chilled lobster and other  goodies from Europe.  Now  reduced to being  chief of the village, Madam Osambia Kpwata  Fyfy also wears  a jaunty little leopard skin hat just like her  daddy  used to. After fleeing the country daddy died four months later and lays buried  in Morocco awaiting  the  day  circumstances  permit  a befitting  reburial back home. The Mobutus  are not returning to power anytime soon, if ever. They have had their long ride on the gravy train, now it’s the turn of  other families, albeit from a limited select circle  who have for  decades been dramatis personae  in the battles for power  in this complex country. In the  midst of soaking in the  rich, tragic  stories of this  traumatized and comatose  powerhouse,  election day finally  came. And it did not announce its arrival  with staccato of gunfire or mayhem in the streets as the  newshounds  and Africa cynics secretly wished. I led  a team   observing  in four municipalities  and besides  the   missing  names on voter lists and  difficulties with  using the  new voting technology,  it was in the main an orderly election. Even on  this day  I  was  now more convinced than ever that  the family pet project was on track. I checked  out  state tv and  Madam Kabila  and  hubby  Joseph, accompanied   by the  kids,  prim and proper were shown voting at a polling  station  near  our  hotel. This time Joseph had discarded the green Castro like  fatigues and  was  in  a  formal suit,  flashing a rare  smile for the cameras as he  looked forward  to   an easy five years  playing puppet master  before  a grand  reappearance   in 2023 a la Putin.  Over  drinks with  some  observers one morning  we  swapped stories  about  how handpicking  successors  had brought  its fair share of  tears  to the erstwhile benefactors.  Chaps  from Zambia and  Angola  told their stories.  They were eager  to  hear  from the horses  mouth  about how   succession  handpicking  was  turning out in Botswana. 

I  assumed the posture of a  seasoned raconteur  and  left them  mouths agape  with   a blow by blow account  of the drama  back home. We all  concluded  if  precedents in  this part of the world  were anything to go by, the  Kabila family   pet project  might   also get  new  ideas the  moment  it took oath. Still,  none of us  gave  the opposition a chance in hell. But two weeks after that sit down  in Kinshasa the results finally  came out  and  they were more than  we had  bargained for.  The Kabila family pet  project  was  a complete  wreckage. Their man  Shadary  had  trailed in a distant  third.  Martin Fayulu  who lived  just down  the  road  from Joseph, separated  by our hotel was runner up. The most under resourced of the  three big elephants  in the race,  the one  who signed up to the coalition in support of Fayulu but  was  instructed by his militants to  tear it up   the  moment  he arrived from Geneva was declared  winner. I  had completely failed to call  this election.  I recalled  a field visit  to the UPDS   office in Limete  commune  where  we  interviewed  the deputy secretary general  who  gave us a piece of his mind about SADC and how hopeless  we were. Our presence in DRC was only meant  to  rubberstamp  a fraudulent  poll he let rip. On the  side of their office is  a huge   image of Papa Etienne,  with his mortal  remains  in the  morgue in Brussels.   I now  review the reel  in  my mind  and  wonder  about it  all.  I wondered about Madame Kabila and how shattered she was by the failure of the family pet project she led with such gusto from the frontline. Wonders never cease. Finally the day was  coming  when  also  in power, Felix would preside   over his daddy’s  state funeral, befitting  a  hero and the son of the father would  rule  with Papa Etienne  smiling  glowingly  from  his own  mausoleum. And Papa Laurent laying glum  in the mausoleum would  be asking his son Joseph the very  question his  nemesis Mobutu  asked old Ken in Lusaka  back in ‘91;   just how can you lose  an  election  held and conducted on  your own terms?    

*acknowledgment  to Simon Allison for his piece Hunting for ghosts in Kinshasa