A man of few words, Congo President Joseph Kabila has shown an uncanny ability to survive in the central African state’s noisy political arena thanks to a series of unlikely alliances and the support of low-profile but powerful friends.
Tipped by many to win a November 28 election, Kabila remains a divisive figure among the 70 million Congolese, hailed by some for unifying the vast country after a ruinous 1998-2003 war but criticised by others for failing to tackle poverty and graft.
Hastily installed as president in 2001 when his father Laurent was assassinated at the height of the civil war, Kabila went on to win election in a disputed 2006 vote, Reuters reports.
Key to his success so far has been an ability to retain the backing of international allies, reconcile with ex-foes such as Rwanda, and use coalition pacts to shore up his power at home.
“I think he’s clearly understood the value of these alliances, that he can’t win alone … But at the same time he doesn’t want to be held prisoner by these alliances,” said Philippe Biyoya, politics professor at Kinshasa University.
A private man who barely spoke the official language French when thrust into leadership, Kabila is lampooned in local media for a reported love of computer games in a country where loud verbal jousting is the rule both in politics and on the street.
Kabila grew up in Tanzania until his exiled rebel father was chosen to lead an uprising backed by Rwanda and Uganda to oust Congo’s long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1996.
“A SILENT FIXTURE”
When Mobutu fell in 1997, Kabila pursued a military career and his father appointed him head of the army after just three years in uniform.
In Congo analyst Jason Stearns’ book “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters,” Joseph Kabila at the time is remembered as a “young man, his military cap pulled low over his sunken eyes, a silent fixture in the room.”
According to one senior political figure, Kabila went on to cultivate a quiet, consensual style in contrast to the more confrontational approach of his father, at one point confiding: “If I govern like my father, I am already dead.”
While the quote has not been confirmed, his readiness to make concessions was a major factor in the 2003 peace deal that brought an end to hostilities and saw Kabila lead a transitional government of national unity before the 2006 election.
Yet his taciturn approach has also alienated some and led to accusations by critics that he is in thrall to a coterie of counsellors. At a rare October 18 news conference, Kabila declined questions on the role of chief adviser Augustin Katumba Mwanke.
Kabila’s rapprochement with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2008 has angered many Congolese who see their tiny neighbour as the cause of the continuing unrest in Congo’s rebel-infested east, where rape and other abuses by gunmen remain common.
Political foes had already dubbed him “the Rwandan,” a reference to longstanding speculation over his true parentage that is unsubstantiated but which has gained traction in a country where ethnicity is a crucial part of the political mix.
Despite overseeing more than seven percent economic growth last year, Kabila has yet to ease widespread poverty that keeps Congo firmly anchored at the bottom of world rankings such as the United Nations 2011 Human Development Report.
Home to some of the world’s richest reserves of copper and the metals used in the world’s hi-tech gadgets, Congo is still ranked by the World Bank as one of the toughest places to do business and by anti-graft watchdog Transparency International as one of the most corrupt.
Kabila, whose soldiers fought gunbattles in central Kinshasa against those of presidential rival Jean-Pierre Bemba after the disputed 2006 election, has said he would accept defeat if beaten in the next vote.
However constitutional changes earlier this year making the election a single-round vote means that Kabila can win a new term without even securing an absolute majority against opponents who have failed to unite behind a single candidate.
Summing up his election chances with typical brevity last month, Kabila simply remarked: “Divided or not, the opposition will be beaten.”