NAIROBI, 18 January 2001 (IRIN)

IRIN Focus on the post-Kabila era

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

With the all-powerful president and commander-in-chief, Laurent-Desire Kabila, deceased, power-brokers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) appear to have gone into a Soviet-style denial of his death, coupled with intense debate on his successor, regional analyst Filip Reyntjens told IRIN on Thursday.

The cabinet's appointment of the late president's son, Joseph Kabila, to lead the army and the government retained control within the existing "inner circle" and also bought time for the members of that elite to make their case for leadership, said Reyntjens, a Great Lakes analyst attached to the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Political/diplomatic situation

Regardless of who establishes himself in power, the very fact of Kabila's assassination could bring greater instability, chaos and even the Balkanisation of the Congo, or - in a more optimistic reading - a new leadership more interested in peace and the gradual normalisation of relations with neighbouring countries, the 'Financial Times' reported on Thursday.

Kabila's death gave rise to the possibility of "a major shift" in the DRC conflict, according to the independent US-based intelligence consultancy Stratfor. Joseph Kabila had been named as the acting head of government but the evidence indicated that, for the moment, other senior government officials may be running the country, it said.

"Everything depends on the succession" and, with no constitutional rules to guide the process, there was a lot of jockeying for position to be done among those very close to the late president, Reyntjens said. "The long hesitation is reminiscent of the former Soviet Union in the sense that there was never an obvious heir, so it takes time [for the elite] to decide who should get the job," he said. Even in appointing Joseph Kabila to the interim leadership of the government and army, the cabinet did not appoint him acting president or head of state, Reyntjens added.

Stratfor suggested that the new leadership in the DRC - in which it regarded Kabila's aide-de-camp, Colonel Eddy Kapend, and Interior Minister Gaetan Kakudji as key figures - "may have tired of Kabila's war strategy" and could be looking to change it in the near future.

However, Filip Reyntjens, a close observer of the political situation in the DRC, said those in "the inner circle" - including Joseph Kabila, Kapend, Kakudji and Education Minister Yerodia Abdoulaye Ndombasi, among others - had been closely involved in government policy, so that any successor from among these would probably provide some continuity. There was a danger, however, that Kabila's death would leave a weakened DRC regime, and even less coherence than before, Reyntjens said.

Military factors

Despite reports that an angry army commander about to be sacked was responsible for shooting Kabila, the Stratfor intelligence service considered it more likely that "the country's ongoing war and the damage it has done to the economy is the real culprit." Territorial gains made by the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and the rebel Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD) in the southeastern province of Katanga threatened the vital mining sector, and this was a potential factor, it added.

There has been an abiding impression that all was not well between Kabila and his senior military command, Hannelie de Beer of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa told IRIN. There was the possibility that Kabila's effort to reshuffle his commanders - following the loss of ground on the southern front in Katanga Province and disagreements over tactical issues in the war - may have been the final straw which brought about the reported assassination, rather than any pre-planned coup, she said.

Sources in Kinshasa said the armed forces did, in fact, appear to have the situation under control throughout the whole incident. Notwithstanding the formal appointment of Joseph Kabila as interim head of state, a Joint Military Command reportedly retained effective control, with Colonel Eddy Kapend in charge, according to intelligence sources. However, Kapend was not regarded as one with personal political ambitions, regional analysts told IRIN.

Regional analysts have also pointed to the possible involvement of Angola in an attempt to remove Kabila. There has been a rapprochement between Angola, Uganda and Rwanda of late with high-ranking visits between the three countries. Angola, which has been growing increasingly weary of Kabila and the DRC war, believes the Lusaka accord is the only way forward and Kabila was the obstacle to its implementation.

Observers said Angola gave DRC chief of staff Colonel Eddy Kapend "the green light" to mount the coup, with the knowledge of Rwanda and Uganda. They noted that the fact Kinshasa remained calm throughout, and that the military were neither fighting among themselves nor looting, appeared to indicate the incident was pre-planned and the situation was under control.

However, other analysts have seen little evidence of the structure or forms of a coup d'etat, suggesting that some of the internal contradictions in the system fractured around a reshuffling in the military command.

"Kabila's allies were tiring of the fighting even as he was allegedly planning to mount another counter-offensive [in Katanga]", Stratfor stated. "Although there is no evidence to indicate external actors in any way participated in the assassination, Kabila's death offers a convenient opening for peace negotiations," it added.

Potential leadership contenders

On the political side, nobody has yet emerged as an obvious successor to Kabila but regional analysts have tipped Interior Minister Gaetan Kakudji as an obvious candidate. Kakudji appeared on Congolese television to appeal for calm on Tuesday evening, and called an extraordinary cabinet meeting at 10 am local time on Wednesday, after which Joseph Kabila was appointed interim head of state.

Colonel Eddy Kapend and Victor Mpoyo, a politician with strong business links, have also been identified as contenders. Filip Reyntjens of Antwerp University considered that Kakudji would feel he had a strong claim to the leadership, as would the temporary incumbent Joseph Kabila and, perhaps, the controversial former foreign affairs minister, Yerodia Abdoulaye Ndombasi.

It was also just possible that the current foreign minister Leonard She Okitundu would get some role - as prime minister, maybe - if only for the consumption of the international community, in which Okitundu is held in high regard, Reyntjens said.

No less crucial than the identity of any leader that emerges and his views on the Lusaka peace process would be the reaction of the foreign backers of the government and rebels alike, the 'Financial Times' reported on Thursday. It referred to domestic pressure on the Zimbabwean government to pull out of a war that was already costing more than the country could afford.

Angola was certainly not going to withdraw from the Congo with any haste, since "it would be a big loss to its internal security if there was instability in the DRC," Hannelie de Beer of the Institute for Strategic Studies in South Africa told IRIN. "As it is, UNITA has no access to Kinshasa and that is how Angola will want it to stay," she said.

Meanwhile, the international community was likely take a dim view of any attempt by the Congolese rebels or their Ugandan and Rwandan backers to take advantage of the current confusion by making territorial gains, the 'Financial Times' reported, citing diplomatic sources.

Ugandan sources said on Wednesday that Kabila's death could help open the way to end the DRC conflict. "We hope his death may help pave the way for a more positive development," Reuters news agency quoted James Wapakhabulo, a senior official involved in shaping Uganda's policy in the Congo, as saying. "It is our hope that whoever replaces Kabila will not be as intransigent as he has been," Wapakhabulo added.

US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke on Thursday warned Uganda and Rwanda not to take advantage of the situation in Kinshasa for their own benefit.

Humanitarian concerns

Relief agencies in the DRC - and, beyond, throughout the Great Lakes region - are busy trying to ascertain the facts, gauge their significance and consider different scenarios that may emerge. The effect on DRC will be felt in how the war is prosecuted, the general state of insecurity, the safety and security of relief workers, and the issue of access to vulnerable populations in a confused military climate - both in government-held areas and, as a result, in the rebel-controlled east of the country, humanitarian sources told IRIN on Thursday.

At a broader level, the relief communities in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and Angola would be keeping a close eye on the situation in the DRC, they said. This was not just because of its potential for increasing the breadth and scale of internal crises - for instance through increased refugee flows or a changed pattern of them - but also because of the potential for regional realignments that would have an impact on future security and stability throughout the whole region.

Particular attention would have to be paid to the potential for increased refugee flows to the Republic of Congo and Zambia [which are adjacent to the Equateur and Katanga war fronts respectively], according to one relief worker. There were also issues around the ability of relief agencies to recruit and retain aid workers, and to raise donor funding for a region some already considered to be too complex and intractable, humanitarian sources told IRIN.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on Thursday said it was "extremely concerned" by developments in Kinshasa. The Federation was, for the moment, "watching and waiting" like almost everybody else, but was worried by this "extra measure of uncertainty in an already unstable region," information delegate Caroline Hurford told IRIN. While the Federation had contingency plans for the region, none of them had envisaged Kabila's assassination, so it had not yet decided on any particular approach, she added.

Awaiting the transition

The eventual outcome of this week's events in the DRC depends in large part on the relative smoothness of the transition, as well as whether the armed forces retain control or hand over to political elements, according to analysts.

If the Joint Military Command held onto power, and depending on its relations with the DRC's war allies Angola and Zimbabwe, the war could be prosecuted with greater vigour, according to Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies. If a new political leader were to emerge and attempted to find a more flexible approach to ending the war than Kabila did, much would depend on whether he could bring the military along with him.

In the short term, it was likely that the military situation would remain largely stationary, because of the current rains if nothing else, Cornwell stated.

However, former Botswana President Ketumile Masire - the designated facilitator of an inter-Congolese political dialogue process proposed under the Lusaka peace agreement - considered that Kabila's reported death clouded further the peace process. "The death of Kabila is not an end to the conflict, it only complicates an already very complicated situation. His death might set peace efforts back, it might accelerate them ...," Masire told the South African Press Agency (SAPA).

The political situation, and international understanding of it, are still in flux. What is sure is that the capability, support base and intentions of the leader that ultimately succeeds Laurent-Desire Kabila will hold great significance for the DRC, and the Great Lakes region as a whole.


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