Monday, 20 February 2012

Heroes and villains

The elevation of dealmaker extraordinaire Katumba Mwanke to Congo-Kinshasa's Order of National Heroes, two days after he was killed in a plane crash in Bukavu on 12 February, prompts an unhappy comparison with the only other two recipients of the award: Prime Minster Patrice Lumumba and President Laurent-Désiré Kabila.

Lumumba was shot by Belgian soldiers in January 1961, after the then Colonel Joseph Mobutu had ordered his arrest; and Mzee Kabila was killed by a bodyguard, Rashidi Kasereka, in January 2001, as the prelude to a failed coup attempt. Katumba had been on his way to inspect the site for a tourist complex in the lush green hills of South Kivu. Officials in Kinshasa wouldn't be drawn on persistent rumours that the Gulfstream jet in which Katumba was flying was owned by former Katanga governor, Moise Katumbi.

Incontestably Katumba had become the ringmaster of Congo's political system. In that role he enjoyed the supreme confidence of award conferrer-in-chief, President Joseph Kabila. Katumba was one of the few people who could have helped President Kabila cut the necessary political deals to quieten things down after last November's disputed election.

Without those deals, things will get much noisier. One sign was the government's despatch of troops to shut down a peaceful protest march led by priests in Kinshasa on 17 February. Outrage continues over the official verdict that veteran oppositionist Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba lost the presidential vote in the wake of reports of widespread fraud.

Added to that is the uproar over the long-delayed results of the parliamentary elections.

Katumba's favoured political role was that of discreet advisor to the president. That's why he wasn't unduly disturbed when President Kabila officially relieved him of his duties as minister of state in the office of the President in 2002.

That was after a UN report in 2002 had named Katumba as a leading member of an elite network of Congolese and foreign business operators presiding over the transfer of some US$6 billion of the state's mineral assets to shadowy private companies.

With or without formal postings, Katumba had remained an indispensable member of regime's inner circle, the man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of both political factions and the corporate ownership structures.

The elite network still thrives. Congo's mineral assets are being parcelled out to the regime's business favourites. That helped finance the ruling party's election campaign, and win over a few political chieftains.

So how does Katumba compare with rebel leader Mzee Laurent Kabila and nationalist premier Patrice Lumumba?

Laurent Kabila ran a rebel army against Mobutu Sese Seko's regime in the 1960s. He returned from quasi-obscurity to seize power in May 1997, after a lightning offensive dominated by Rwandan fighters had chased Mobutu from power.

Among Laurent Kabila's top aides in 1997 was a smart young banker who had been working in South Africa, Katumba Mwanke. When Joseph Kabila took power, after his father's assassination, Katumba became a combination of national security advisor and chief of treasury.

That is a world away from Lumumba's speech on Congo's Independence Day, 30 June 1960. Lumumba saluted those who gave their 'strength and their blood' to put an end to 'the humiliating slavery' of Belgian rule. Minutes earlier Belgium's King Baudouin had praised the 'achievements of colonialism' and paid tribute to the 'genius' of his great grand uncle King Leopold II, one of the most brutal colonial rulers in history.

Lumumba's pan-Africanist oratory and his determination to put Congolese in charge of managing and developing the country's vast mineral reserves invoked a petulant and then murderous response from the Belgian authorities.

That response set the pattern for another 50 years of political and economic depredations and impunity. In the interests of accountability, perhaps Congo could establish an Order of Villains (national and international) as a counter to its sparsely populated Order of Heroes.