Kabila: saint or dictator? Zaire awaits its fate

Mary Braid on the rebel leader who remains an enigma to most of his people
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When the rotund and smiley Laurent Desire Kabila, 58, lumbered out of the bush to lead a rebel uprising in Eastern Zaire, even seasoned Africa watchers asked: Laurent who?

The avuncular Mr Kabila was ridiculed for his preposterous plan to seize Zaire from dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko, ruler for more than 30 ruinous years. Seven months later the former "nobody" controls all but the capital, Kinshasa, and a slither of Zaire.

On the street of Kinshasa yesterday, crowds celebrated what they believe to be President Mobutu's permanent departure. It was Mr Kabila's name they chanted.

"No-one could be as bad as President Mobutu," said Jean-Luc, an agricultural lecturer. But of that you cannot be certain. Opinions of Mr Kabila have fluctuated wildly in recent months.

When he first popped up as the leader of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire he was not thought worthy of investigation.

His rebellion was forecast to die as soon as Rwanda, the giant Zaire's tiny eastern neighbour, which backed Mr Kabila's army, had achieved its aim - the break-up of Rwandan Hutu refugee camps just inside Zaire's border.

But it didn't die, and as the rebellion has grown, so has information about its leader. In the early 1960s Laurent Kabila was a junior member of Zaire's Leftist, Pan-Africanist, Independent Movement led by Patrice Lumumba, who became the country's first post-independence prime minister. Lumumba was murdered in 1961 and the CIA and President Mobutu - then a senior military figure - were rumoured to have been responsible.

The rebel leader than spent three decades in a state of quiet - but perpetual - revolution, controlling a small district in the south-east of Zaire as head of the rather obscure People's Revolutionary Party.

He appears to have spent his entire adult life nurturing a small revolutionary force and networking with a new breed of post-independent leaders like Yoweri Musedeni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, pursuing a dream that one day he would overthrow President Mobutu.

But much about the man remains a mystery. Mr Kabila has yet to give a confessional interview and discourages questions about his private life.

However, his past is a testament to persistence and a purity of sorts. In a country where few, if any, in the political classes can claim never to have collaborated with President Mobutu, Mr Kabila is a one off.

He is an amiable fellow, but his affability evaporates if his Maoist past is questioned or his family life probed. There are some signs of imperial, dictatorial tendencies. He has appointed relatives to key positions in rebel held territory. And re-education classes run by his forces for the citizens of captured towns have a rigid totalitarian feel.

Political opposition, as yet, is banned in rebel territory, and his new standing has already been undermined by accusation of refugee massacres by Kabila's forces.

Emma Bonino, EU Human Rights Commissioner, this week claimed that if Mr Kabila replaced President Mobutu this probably not be a change for the better. While few would make such a hasty judgement, diplomatic opinion has been influenced by another recent event.

On Sunday, the South African President, Nelson Mandela, sandwiched between President Mobutu and Mr Kabila, at their first face-to-face meeting on the South African ship Outeniqua, described Mr Kabila as "a great son of Africa."

The real worth of that diplomatic statement should be judged by the fact that President Mandela afforded the same praise to President Mobutu.

Behind the scenes opinions of Mr Kabila, who initially failed to show for talks, are more acid. "He's an arrogant son of a bitch," said one of the negotiation process backroom boys, of Kabila's endless stalling on the talks and his humiliation, not just of President Mobutu but President Mandela.

"He has really gone down in President Mandela's estimation."

It is a confusing picture for those about to welcome Mr Kabila as saviour. If he is the latest member of the Museveni-Kagame club - African leaders dedicated to social order, stability and honest government - democracy will not be a priority. That could kill the overwhelming goodwill that awaits him. "We have been fighting for election since 1990," said Jean- Paul. "People are happy to see Mobutu go but Kabila must understand that we want nothing less than democracy."