Death Of Congo Leader Could Help Peace Efforts To Succeed

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - The political crisis sparked by the shooting of Congolese President Laurent Kabila has the region and political analysts wondering whether the war-torn country will slide even further into chaos with his death.

On the other hand, his departure may turn out to be a catalyst to end the conflict, analysts say.

Despite a day and a half of conflicting reports, including some denials from Congolese officials, foreign governments say they believe Kabila is in fact dead after being shot at his Kinshasa residence late Tuesday, possibly by a bodyguard.

An official at the Congolese information ministry told a wire agency Thursday Kabila was dead, and that his body would be returned for burial on Tuesday. It's understood the injured leader had been flown to Zimbabwe for urgent treatment after the shooting, but succumbed.

On Wednesday the government announced Kabila's 31-year-old son, Joseph, had been placed temporarily in charge of the government and armed forces.

Reports from Kinshasa say the capital remains calm.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) has been wracked since 1998 by a bloody war that has drawn in five foreign armies, and been dubbed the continent's first "world war."

Uganda and Rwanda, which helped Kabila oust former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, subsequently turned against him, backing three anti-government rebel factions in the east and north.

Kabila, in turn, has enjoyed the military support of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia in a war that, according to the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee, had cost 1.7 million lives by June 2000, most of them due to disease and malnutrition.

Efforts by the United Nations and the U.S. to enforce a 1999 peace deal and end the war have failed, and Kabila's demise has raised fears that the foreign forces inside the vast countries may try to exploit the situation.

The American and British ambassador to the United Nations urged the outside armies involved in the conflict not to take advantage of the crisis.

U.S. ambassador Richard Holbrooke told African ambassadors to the world body that it was essential foreign forces "halt their offensive action" and not try to play a role in the political process in Congo.

The U.N. has been planning to send a large observer force to Congo to monitor the 1999 Lusaka peace agreement, but a failure by the antagonists to uphold a cease-fire has delayed their deployment. A core group of some 200 are currently in the country.

Although Kabila was criticized at the U.N. for taking a military rather than diplomatic route in trying to solve his country's problems, analysts Thursday were unconvinced that his removal would spell an end to the war.

South African commentator Hermann Hanekom pointed out that the three rival rebel groups fighting Kinshasa had common cause only in their desire to overthrow Kabila.

The removal of the president had now denied them their raison d'etre, he said

"The rebel movements may now also seize upon the confusion in Kinshasa and bring the rebellion to a full-scale war level with the final thrusts towards Lubumbashi in Katanga Province and on Kinshasa, the capital."

If they did so, however, they likely meet fierce resistance from recently bolstered Angolan forces, and fighting would result in heavy civilian casualties and property damage.

Hanekom, a regional analyst at the Africa Institute in Pretoria, also predicted that Kabila's successor could be faced with the withdrawal of the support of the southern African allies, "who may use Kabila's death as a face-saving device to recall their military forces."

He held out some optimism for the future, though, saying that the peace accord could possibly be implemented successfully if Kabila's successor "offers the olive branch to the rebels."

But bearing in mind the mutual distrust between all of the parties involved, he said, the deployment of the U.N. force may be a prerequisite for the peace deal to work.

In its assessment, the London-based Jane's Intelligence Digest agreed there was a prospect Kabila's departure could open the way for a negotiated settlement between the warring parties.

On the other hand, it said, there had been reports of an internal power struggle at senior levels in the Congolese military. If these were accurate, there was a high risk open conflict between the factions could break out in parts of the country under government control.

"Given the prominent role of Kabila's family and supporters within the army and the government, the prospect of further violence and perhaps even a second civil war cannot be discounted."

Stratfor, a Texas-based independent intelligence analysis organization, said while there was no evidence of any outside involvement in the assassination, Kabila's death offered the region a convenient opportunity to restart peace negotiations.

Stratfor pointed out that Kabila's allies had been tiring of their military involvement even as the president had been planning a new counteroffensive against rebels.

Kabila had also been facing dissent in his own ranks, it said. Since rebels captured a town near the Zambian border from government troops late last year, hundreds of government troops reportedly deserted, many fleeing to Zambia and refusing to return.

Who's in charge?

It remains unclear whether Major-General Joseph Kabila has been put at the head of the government and army as an interim or permanent measure.

Until he appears in public or makes an announcement on radio or television, rumors that he, too, was seriously wounded or even killed in Tuesday night's incident, or that he fled the country, continue to circulate.

The younger Kabila, who spent much of his life in exile in East Africa and received military training in China, is not well known or particularly popular in Congo, according to African reports Thursday.

He is seen as owing his senior military position to his family ties, rather than merit, and has been accused of human rights abuses committed as he led the government campaign against rebels.

At least two other senior figures have been tipped by analysts as possible contenders for the leadership.

Presidential aide Colonel Edy Kapend, who went on television shortly after the shooting to announce a state of emergency and order all airports and border crossings closed, is one candidate.

Interior Minister Gaetan Kukudji, described variously as Kabila's nephew and his cousin, is the other. He is an influential politician, with interests in the mining industry.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow