Analysis: Congolese impatient to see action from the invisible president

THREE months after one of the world’s most expensive elections, the Democratic Republic of Congo has no parliament or new government and its people are beginning to wonder what has become of their publicity-shy president, Joseph Kabila.

Never one to seek out the media gaze, Mr Kabila has rationed his public appearances even more tightly since chaotic November polls that secured him victory, but failed to hand a workable parliamentary majority to his party allies.

While Congo’s body politic is mired in tortuous negotiations to form the next ruling coalition, concern over a possible power vacuum is troubling the Congolese. The 28 November elections were billed as the moment when the country could finally show it had shaken off the legacy of a 1998-2003 war that killed five million and begin to offer its 70 million-plus people some hope of a better future.

Instead, it triggered violence that claimed at least 20 lives and was marred by widespread allegations of fraud.

The logistical challenge of staging an election in a country more than half the size of the European Union meant the poll cost $20 a voter compared to the average $1-$3 for a Western democracy. In total, it cost $700 million, with foreign donors picking up a third of the tab.

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Mr Kabila was declared winner with 49 per cent of the vote and he was sworn in last December in a muted inauguration ceremony.

But his last address to the nation was over two months ago, leaving Kinshasa’s rumour mill to go into overdrive with far-fetched and esoteric explanations of what lies behind his low profile.

A clip of Mr Kabila attending the funeral last month of his chief adviser, Augustin Katumba Mwanke, drew 20,000 viewers on YouTube, many commenting that they doubted its veracity.

Mr Katumba – described in a leaked US diplomatic cable as Congo’s “power behind the throne” – was the cornerstone of Mr Kabila’s rule. His death, in an air accident, deprived the president of a powerful ally and added to the concerns over the power vacuum.

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What happens next may be a defining moment in the career of Mr Kabila, who after the 2001 assassination of his father, Laurent, had the mantle of presidency lowered onto his then 28-year-old shoulders by the ruling elite.

While his backers point out the country has not slid back into war during his time in office, many Congolese say they have little to show for the past decade and backed presidential rival Etienne Tshisekedi. He took a third of the vote, according to official results.

Some believe Mr Kabila is quietly working to repair ties with allies and foes alike, possibly by seeking talks with Mr Tshisekedi – who remains under surveillance after declaring himself president in a makeshift swearing-in ceremony.

“It’s now that we see if he can really do something,” said Modeste Bahati Lukwebo, president of the AFDC, a political party within the ruling coalition.

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“If he wants to take the chance to change things, he can. If not, there will be problems.”