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Fri Oct 24 22:33:46 SAST 2014

Joseph Kabila: DRC’s steely, enigmatic leader

Sapa-AFP | 20 December, 2011 18:49
Congolese President Joseph Kabila cast his ballot at a polling station in the capital Kinshasa, November 28, 2011. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
Image by: FINBARR O'REILLY / REUTERS

DR Congo's Joseph Kabila can come across as a mellow president but his re-election was a reminder that the shy young man thrust into power by his father's murder 10 years ago also has a steely side.

He took the oath for a second five-year term Tuesday after a chaotic November 28 vote which saw defeated opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi declare himself the people's president, bringing the conflict-prone country back to the brink.

In his inauguration speech, Kabila praised the electorate in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- a country of 68 million two-thirds the size of Western Europe -- for its "political maturity" during the disputed electoral process.

Kabila, 40, has presented himself as the best chance to consolidate stability in DR Congo but Tshisekedi, a former prime minister almost twice his age, could provide an early test of the young president's campaign slogan.

His gleaming smile was ubiquitous throughout the campaign, shining down from billboards and lighting up the evening news on state TV with exhaustive reports on his visits criss-crossing the vast central African state.

But Kabila has cultivated an air of mystery around his persona since 2001, when his father Laurent-Desire Kabila was killed by bodyguards and he became the world's then youngest head of state.

He was born in a rebel camp in eastern DR Congo where his father led the struggle to topple Mobutu Sese Seko.

But his public image is a far cry from the imposing rebel who eventually ousted Mobutu in 1997 and changed the country's name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kabila went into exile in Tanzania at the age of five and grew up there before going to Uganda to study law in 1996.

When the fight to oust Mobutu broke out in September of that year, Kabila became his father's military advisor -- a role he in fact played in the shadow of James Kabarebe, a Rwandan army officer assisting the rebellion who became the elder Kabila's army chief.

Rising quickly to the rank of general, Kabila was sent to China for military training when his father took power, but was abruptly called home when a new rebellion backed by erstwhile allies Rwanda and Uganda broke out in 1998.

When the elder Kabila was assassinated by his own guard at the height of what would become known as "Africa's World War", seasoned Kinshasa politicians swiftly made Joseph head of state -- a post legitimised in the eyes of the world with the signing of a landmark peace deal in 2002.

He survived a 2004 coup attempt and led a transitional government with four vice presidents before winning 58 percent of the vote in a 2006 presidential run-off.

He won 48.95 percent of the votes this year, according to results validated a Supreme Court he packed with loyalists just before the vote.

Square-shouldered and stern, Kabila -- nicknamed "Chief" by his supporters -- seldom looks at ease at official events.

In the rare interviews he has given, he comes across as a soft-spoken leader who modestly tries to steer a huge war-scarred and under-developed state.

His detractors play up his long years in exile and his poor command of Lingala, a main language in the west, and argue he is just another African dictator clinging to the head of a kleptocratic regime.

Under Kabila, the DR Congo is "a pseudo-democracy where the regime has the flexibility to terrorise the people," said a Tshisekedi ally.

In the face of charges that Kabila has been involved in giving foreign mining firms juicy contracts to the detriment of a conflict-ruined nation, he has said he acted for the good of the country.

He has several farms, including one near Kinshasa that he visits regularly.

Reputed to be a lover of video games and motorbikes, he often drives his own bullet-proof four-by-four through the capital, the sight of his motorcade stopping pedestrians in their tracks.

"He has an introverted personality, he's disciplined and he loves discretion," said a member of his inner circle.

Kabila is an Anglican and is married to Marie Olive Lembe di Sita, with whom he has two children.

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