Joseph Kabila. Tea with the FT: Young blood (Toby Heaps - The Financial Times), April 09, 2006,
Source: Financial Times, published, April 7 2006
For the third time in the past 24 hours, I fish out my passport and trudge up toward the machinegun-toting gatekeepers of the Palais de la Nation, Democratic Republic of the Congo. My mission: to have lunch with President Joseph Kabila. The day before I only made it into the compound waiting room - a five-hour stew. This morning, I managed to breach both metal detectors only to find that the president was not ready for our scheduled 10.30am “Brunch with the FT”. It is now 1pm and brunch has become lunch. Will the third time be the charm?
At 34, Kabila is one of the world’s youngest heads of state, in his sixth year at the helm of what is potentially one of the richest countries but is, in reality, one of the poorest. Emerging from a vicious war involving nine nations that left 4 million dead, the country is a vast swathe of untouched jungle sitting on some of the largest untapped mineral reserves on the planet and has enough fertile land to feed all of west Africa if cultivated. In 2001 Joseph, not yet 30 at the time, replaced his father as president after Laurent-Desire Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard. Now he is gearing up for the nation’s first democratic election in 45 years, scheduled for June. Right now, I am hoping that he rewards persistence.
A white Nissan Pathfinder screeches to a halt behind me. The driver rolls down his window. I recognise Kudura Kasongo, Kabila’s press secretary. There are four people in the back seat, all ready to shoot, two with cameras and two with machineguns. Kasongo’s mood is nothing like his pink tie.
“Where were you?” he says, looking both agitated and incredulous at the same time. “We went to your hotel. We were looking everywhere. We are going to be late.” I jump in with my photographer and notice a stray ammunition clip at my feet, as we speed away for the president’s private residence.
We make it through the first set of guards on a leafy boulevard. But a second set does not like the look of my photographer, a casually dressed 18-year-old named Eddy Kabaka whom I recruited the night before in a disco/bakery called the Acropolis. I give Eddy my blue blazer to put on over his shirt, which makes him look a little more official. The guards give in and two men in typical secret-service costume meet us at the bottom of a driveway. We are ushered through a metal detector into a spartan marble-floored anteroom, adjacent to the president’s office.
There is one more gatekeeper, the primus pilus of gatekeepers; the Dick Cheney of the Congo, but without an official title. Augustin Katumba Mwanke is sitting, legs crossed, in a leather office chair beside a glass coffee table. Despite being disgraced in a UN expert panel report in 2002 for corruption in the resource sector, he is still the president’s closest adviser. Wearing black leather sandals, he has a diminutive, casual grandfatherly stature and looks like the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy. Kasongo makes the introductions, being careful to convey that Mwanke is a person of high importance.
Before much can be said, Kasongo waves at me and takes off. I guess I am supposed to follow. By the time I gather my notebook and tape recorder, he is already halfway down the path of heptagon-shaped red bricks leading from the whitewashed crescent-shaped mansion to the edge of the garden overlooking the swollen Congo river with Congo-Brazzaville on the other side.
I make haste around the helicopter pad and catch up with Kasongo just short of where five leather office chairs have been set up for our lunch. Jungle birds are squawking. A little disoriented, I scan around for the food. There doesn’t appear to be any.
Suddenly, as if out of thin air, a young man in Nike Airs and creased dark blue jeans is standing to my right with his hand extended. I’m trying to figure out who this guy is. Kasongo genuflects and introduces me to “His Excellency, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo”.
In the photos of him that hang in public places all around the capital, Kinshasa, the president has a shaved head and a thin wisp of a moustache. In person, he sports more hair all around, including a slightly unruly growth above his upper lip complete with what could almost be called handlebars. Like most figures of power, Kabila is shorter in person, standing a good inch or two below my 5ft 11in. His only flashes of flamboyance are a silver-coloured Corum watch on his right wrist and a pink short-sleeved button-up shirt that hangs comfortably off his broad shoulders, untucked.
We take our seats, separated by a less-than-intimate eight-foot gap. Eyeing my tape recorder, Kabila says: “Are you sure it’s sensitive enough?” I assure him it is.
The presidential photographers and my Eddy dart about taking shots. I exchange niceties with Kabila, debating whether or not to tell him that the last time someone from my family met a leader of this country was in 1960, when my great uncle David sat down with Patrice Lumumba, the first and only elected prime minister. Shortly after that, Lumumba was kidnapped and assassinated in still mysterious circumstances. I decide to keep that to myself.
I break the ice on safer ground, saying I had seen a big picture of his late father, Laurent Kabila, at the Palais de la Nation, and note that they look quite alike - except that Joseph would need about 30 more kilos. “I’m trying to lose 10 kilos,” he says, laughing. That explains why there is no food. Instead, we are having tea: Teashop Regular Fine Black Tea. Kabila takes one scoop of sugar and no powdered milk. I, on the other hand, heap on the powdered milk, hoping to quell my growling stomach.
Kabila suddenly breaks out of his Buddha posture and turns to his left with sombre scrutiny. His eyes are tracking Eddy, who is manoeuvring behind him to snap some wide shots. I wonder if he is thinking about how al-Qaeda agents masquerading as a TV crew took out the leader of Northern Alliance opposition forces in Afghanistan just before September 11 2001.
Kasongo makes a meaningful hand gesture and Eddy and the other photographers scatter. I try to move my chair closer. Kabila gets up to help me drag it over.
I quote the former US ambassador to the Congo, Aubrey Hooks: “Kabila is very quiet and reserved. Those are good qualities for peace and transition but maybe not for what’s ahead.” Kabila is listening carefully now. Leaning forward, he asks, “Can you repeat that?” I repeat it. Kabila pauses, leans back in his chair, crosses his arms and, with a slight smile of defiance, responds. “Well, time will tell,” he says. “Back in 2001 they didn’t believe that Kabila could manage what he promised. I proved them wrong. I always intend to prove wrong my adversaries.”
I note that adversaries are sometimes good teachers. He nods. What about Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator ousted from power in 1997 by Kabila’s father? What can he learn from Mobutu’s reign? Without hesitating, Kabila answers: “A lot. A lot. First of all, don’t silence democracy. Let democracy thrive. That’s one. Two, never ever take, never ever believe, never ever try to believe that the nation belongs to you. You belong to the nation. And everything else belongs to the people. And three, always know when you have to go, when you have to quit.”
A tiny beetle-bug is crawling up my right arm and Kabila leans forward to give it a flick. The blow of his middle finger sends it hurtling, banished by presidential decree.
The Congo rainforest, as a carbon sink, could raise a billion dollars a year under the Kyoto protocol. Does the president plan to take advantage of this? His answer surprises. “Irrespective of the cash, I am very much an ecologist. The protection of the environment is one of the main areas we have to focus on.” He notes that one benefit of the war was protecting the forests from illegal exploitation. “Maybe that was a good thing.”
“I didn’t know you were an ecologist,” I say. “I’m not an ecologist, but I love nature. We should do more to protect what is left of the wildlife, what is left of nature.” A full chorus of birds chirps and caws like an orchestra, as if on cue.
I decide to shake up my line of questioning to see if the birds are really listening. “What’s the worst thing you have ever seen with your own eyes?” He pauses to reflect. “When you see a scene of a village after a massacre… that’s a very bad thing.” The birds are silent. “It will always haunt you; you will always have that image with you for a very, very, very long time to come, if not forever.” He speaks so softly that I can barely hear. “You have said before that there is no peace without justice,” I say. He corrects me. “There is no long-term peace without justice. Justice is not just getting some fellow, putting him in prison and then that’s it. Justice is also for people to recognise, to accept they broke the ethic.”
What about justice from Belgium, which is accused of widespread atrocities, including enslavement and mutilation, under King Leopold at the turn of the 19th century? “It is still a subject that’s on the table. A subject that one way or the other will have to come back until it’s settled in a gentleman’s way.”
I have a very personal question to ask. “There was a rumour you were married a couple of weeks ago.” Kabila lets out a tremendous sigh. “This town lives on rumours. No, but this is my wish.” The silence of the birds is deafening.
Kasongo gives a five-fingered signal. I am starting to learn the gestural language of the press secretary, and I take it I have five minutes left so I move to wrap up. “Is it true you have a PlayStation?” I ask. He deadpans. “I bought one, but my younger brothers, they confiscated it.”
Toby Heaps is editor of Corporate Knights, a corporate responsibility magazine based in Canada.
Back to top