A Shy Son in Congo's Hot Seat ; after His Father's Funeral Today, Joseph Kabila Becomes the Official President

By Harman, Danna | The Christian Science Monitor, January 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Shy Son in Congo's Hot Seat ; after His Father's Funeral Today, Joseph Kabila Becomes the Official President


Harman, Danna, The Christian Science Monitor


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. In fact, he doesn't say much at all.

In so many ways, Joseph Kabila, the newly chosen president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is not his father.

Whether that will make him a better - or worse - leader remains to be seen.

The shy, eldest son of slain President Laurent Kabila's 10 children is expected to be inaugurated as president today. He takes the helm of a nation as large as Western Europe and as fractured by war as any place on the planet.

Born during his father's years in exile in East Africa - according to two separate versions either in 1968 or 1972 - the young Kabila spent most of his life outside the DRC. He completed his primary and secondary education in Tan-zania, received basic military training in Rwanda in 1995, and had just begun university in Uganda in 1996 when his father called him to help in the rebel war against then-President Mobutu Sese Seko.

After Mr. Mobutu was toppled, Joseph Kabila was sent by his father to China for more military training, returning from there three months later and soon promoted to the rank of major-general. Since his 1997 return, Joseph Kabila has served as chief of the armed forces.

"He is and always was a military man," says Gen. Yavh Nawej, one of the DRC's top Army commanders who is close to Kabila. "The new president knows about discipline and knows about action. He is a man of few words - true, but all great men are such.... He is accepted by the military because of his abilities, and I am sure of his capacity to rule."

Asked whether the young Kabila will be accepted by the people of DRC, the general's eyes open wide, and he emphasizes, "Absolutely."

Kabila speaks English and Swahili fluently, however is not as comfortable with Swahili, according to his cousin, Lungange Juvenal- Noblesse. Lingala, the tribal language that is spoken by most Congolese, is foreign to him. "He used to speak English to his father even when there were non-English speakers around," attests Mr. Juvenal-Noblesse.

Kabila's best friend, say those who know him, is a Tanzanian businessman known only as Jimmie, who comes to visit often. "He's a shy guy, Joseph," says another friend, Lubunga Bya'obe, who has known the young Kabila for four years. "We never really go out together. Mostly he is working, or when relaxing, he is just at home watching American basketball on TV, listening to the BBC, or working on the stationary bike.... When Jimmie comes to visit, they have a good time joking around and laughing, but otherwise, I have rarely seen him letting loose." To let off steam, says Mr. Bya'obe, Kabila goes for long drives in the countryside.

The new president will soon pack his bags, get in his Jeep Cherokee, and drive off to live in one of the official palaces. Until today, he has been living in a modest villa in the downtown military compound he shares with the heads of DRC's allied Zimbabwe and Angolan forces.

Although not married, Kabila lives with his girlfriend - a young, attractive woman named Olive from Gome, whom he reportedly met when she came with her aunt to complain that the Army had requisitioned their family home. The two have a child together, one-year-old Josephine.

Kabila has a twin sister, Jane, who is studying journalism in the US; and one blood brother, Saide. They are widely believed to be the children of Kabila and a woman from Rwanda's Tutsi minority. Their mother, Mrs. Sifa Maanya - one of the late Kabila's three wives - lives in the marble palace to this day, but has never spoken to the public or the press. …

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