The first reports said that the airports had been closed and the borders sealed. These measures were like fetishes for people to put their faith in when the chief was in mortal danger. They conjured up runways with a hex on them, all-seeing roadblocks that no man could pass. Never mind that the Democratic Republic of Congo, almost the size of western Europe, and a cockpit that has been disputed by up to eight different states, could not seal its borders even if it tried. It was said that Laurent-Desire Kabila had been shot at his Marble Palace, and attention turned to what was happening where his remote country met the outside world. Whether the borders were calm or not: this was an augury of any wider threat.
In 1994, when Central Africa’s conflicts erupted in genocide in Rwanda and threatened to spill over into neighbouring Burundi, the border of Congo-Kinshasa (then called Zaire) seemed an inviting margin. There was a palm tree from a Hockney daub standing by itself just inside the border and, far above it, a hang-gliding bird of prey. These unremarkable sights were as tantalising as mirages from just a few hundred yards away in Burundi. There, Hutus were being taken off the street in broad daylight, some said in retaliation for what was happening to Tutsis in Rwanda, and the airlines had stopped landing, abandoning the airport terminal to roosting birds.
Three decades earlier, however, when the history of modern Congo began, the same borders were as highly charged as if they were staked out with an electrified fence. The Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was attempting to get into the Congo to cover the story of the Belgian colonial withdrawal. “We are stopped by a patrol of Congolese gendarmes,” Kapuscinski wrote in his book The Soccer War. “Their grim, closed faces, half-hidden in the depths of their helmets, are unfriendly . . . Go back, they say, because beyond here it’s dangerous and the further you go the worse it gets. As if they were the sentries of a hell that began behind them.” Much later, a heedless Kapuscinski and two of his colleagues were put on a plane in Congo and expelled, and considered this a very lucky escape, until they landed amid Belgian forces spoiling for revenge at Burundi’s international airport. This was the same place where all flights were becalmed in 1994 and the only sound was birdsong. “We were cut off from the world,” wrote Kapuscinski.
Mention of one Polish writer in the Congo inevitably calls to mind his countryman Joseph Conrad. I was wondering how long it would be until someone compared Laurent Kabila to Kurtz, the raving nihilist in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Like Kurtz, Kabila was once admired for his apparent virtues. The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright described him as “a beacon of hope” when he came to power in 1997. But he proved to be Kurtz’s equal in corruption and savagery, involved in diamond rackets and bloodying his hands in the terrible enmity between Hutus and Tutsis.
Sure enough, in the Daily Mirror the day after Kabila was reported shot, there was a reference to Conrad’s novella. But even if you do not accept the critique that Heart of Darkness is a racist work about the ruination of the white man by irredeemable Africa, you clearly cannot recast Kurtz as an indigenous Congolese without dramatically altering Conrad’s story.
For the present purposes, the author’s non-fictional account of a voyage he made between river stations is more apropos. On 3 July 1890, Conrad wrote: “Villages quite invisible. Infer their existence from calabashes suspended to palm trees.” This note sets the right tone for considering the invisible final moments of Laurent Kabila, about which, even now, so much might just as well be inferred from calabashes. Let’s start with who, what, when, where and why. Indeed, the original outstanding issue was, “Is Kabila actually dead?” His obituaries could not hide their own confusion on the substantive point. One newspaper said that Kabila was “widely reported to have been shot”. The obituarists weren’t helped by government sources in Congo, who were still claiming that Kabila was alive up to three days after the shooting. It is now clear that, within hours, the president was flown out of Kinshasa’s otherwise unstirring airport and taken to Harare. This was ostensibly in order that he might receive the life-saving treatment he needed in the Zimbabwean capital. In reality, his old crony Robert Mugabe was stalling for time, waiting to see if Kabila’s son, Joseph, could make a reasonable fist of assuming power, and hence look out for Mugabe’s interests in Congo. Zimbabwe has a juicy concession for “protecting” diamond and copper mines in the south-east of the country.
Mugabe has kept the lights on at home only by importing electricity from the Inga dam, near Kinshasa, paying for the service in the practically worthless Zimbabwean dollar. With 11,000 troops quartered on his neighbour’s land, Mugabe could well see himself propping up the son as he did the father. Major-General Joseph Kabila, who is 31, will certainly need the help. Grainy footage of him on television last week failed to dispel rumours that he had also perished in the same shooting incident. He is slight and reticent where his father was in every sense larger than life.
As to the mechanics of Kabila’s death, early bulletins spoke of two direct hits, one in the leg and another in the back. Other reports said that the fatal round had entered behind an ear and exited through the presidential ribs, which suggests that a coup de grace was administered while the victim was sitting or kneeling.
So, whodunnit? In a clumsy if touching homage to the way these things were once ordered in the west, Congolese spokesmen invited the world to believe that there was a lone gunman – a mad bodyguard, in this case – who was himself speedily and irrevocably silenced. Referring to some of Kabila’s ministers and officers, one diplomat told me: “There were some powerful people in the room when Kabila was shot and some of them had very good reasons to want him dead.” Outside the room, too: Uganda and Rwanda support rebel forces that opposed his government. As in the case of the late Auberon Waugh, who might have been amused – or horrified – to find his life story printed on the same page as that of the president of Congo, there was fierce competition for the title of his worst enemy.
The young Laurent Kabila took his bow a short time after the events that Ryszard Kapuscinski reported in 1960. He was in his early twenties when the first leader of a free Congo, Patrice Lumumba, had his presidency murderously cut short. More “grim, closed faces” on the border; more empty skies. The assassination of Lumumba at the hands of Mobutu Sese Seko is the well-drawn backdrop to Ronan Bennett’s 1998 novel, The Catastrophist. “Mobutu stood with folded arms and watched the soldiers slap and abuse their prisoner. They pulled his hair and threw away his glasses. One of the NCOs sarcastically read out Lumumba’s declaration in which he had affirmed that Mobutu’s coup was illegal and that he was still head of state. When the NCO had finished, he rolled the paper into a ball and rammed it down Lumumba’s throat.”
Kabila identified himself with Lumumba, and was in the van of those who challenged Mobutu’s pocket-lining presidency. Some appreciations of him have argued, not quite accurately, that he hoodwinked the international community – Madeleine Albright et al – when he finally replaced Mobutu. His “jolly smile” and “genial exterior concealed the instincts of a tyrant”, said the Daily Telegraph. With Kabila’s genial exterior, not to mention the rest of him, due to have been laid beneath the Kinshasa sod on 23 January – a brief, civil interval, to be followed by an indefinite interment in his home province of Katanga – this is the moment to record that at least one figure with a worldwide reputation was wise to Kabila from the start. “He lets his days pass without concerning himself with anything other than political squabbles, and all the signs are that he is addicted to drink and women,” this seer noted as long ago as 1964. “So far, nothing makes me think that he is the man for the situation.” Not a word of this character analysis needs to be changed now that the post-mortem reviews are in. It reads a little like the sort of thing that might have crossed the CIA’s Africa desk – and I suppose there’s every chance that it did – but it began as a leaf in the field diary of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Kabila’s commandante in the struggle against Mobutu. Of all the qualities that keep Che on the walls of undergraduates, his sense of humour probably is not uppermost. But in his commonplace book of the war, the old Cuba hand keeps up a sardonic commentary on Kabila’s positively Latino time-keeping. “Kabila’s mananas” is Che’s private name for these longueurs.
Swinging the revolutionary lead was the least of it, and Kabila’s bequest to his people includes fear and tension. His rule was no improvement on Mobutu’s kleptocracy. As I write, it is not clear how Congo will emerge from his death. For the time being, Kinshasa’s signature dance music has fallen silent. “At dinnertime in the Cafe de la Paix the two old men parade the young prostitutes they have picked up, girls of 14 or 15. Old men: their last chance to feed on such young blood: Kinshasa may close down tomorrow.” Not a despatch filed in the past few days, but a piece written by V S Naipaul in 1975, when Mobutu was still the chief. The visiting Naipaul was an avid reader of Kinshasa’s daily paper. It predicted that, by the year 2000, the country would be booming, with great cities, a population of “probably 71,933,851” and a mighty manufacturing capacity. At last, “Zaire (and Africa) should have her day”. Instead, the country has war, corruption, poverty and disease, and what everyone is asking of Joseph, the new President Kabila, is the steely test that Che Guevara applied to his late father in 1964: “Will he be the man for the situation?”
Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter. His book Cocaine Train is published by Abacus (£7.99)