* Hiatus may be defining moment for Kabila's career
By Jonny Hogg
KINSHASA, March 5 (Reuters) - 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, 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
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 and frustrating investors keen to push on with resource projects
in the central African state.
"Because the government is not in place, there is no work and people aren't
being paid," complained resident Joseph Oleko, as he picked his way through
a scrap metal market in the sprawling capital Kinshasa.
"I don't know what Kabila is waiting for ... He has to talk, he has to be
visible, because he's the head of the nation."
The Nov. 28 elections were billed as the moment when Congo could finally
show it had shaken off the legacy of a 1998-2003 war that killed 5 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 it cost $20 a voter compared to the
average $1-3 for a Western democracy. In the end, the vote cost $700
million, with foreign donors picking up a third of the tab.
Kabila was declared winner with 49 percent of the vote. He was sworn in last
December in a muted inauguration ceremony attended by dignitaries more
relieved the bloodshed had not been greater than convinced by the democratic
credentials of the process.
His last address to the nation was over two months ago, leaving Kinshasa's
infamous "Radio Trottoir" ("Sidewalk Radio") rumour mill to go into
overdrive with far-fetched and esoteric explanations of what lies behind his
A clip of Kabila attending the funeral last month of his chief adviser
Augustin Katumba Mwanke drew 20,000 viewers on YouTube, many leaving
comments that they doubted its veracity.
POWER VACUUM BRAKE ON INVESTMENT
Katumba, described in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable as the man widely
regarded as Congo's "power behind the throne", was the cornerstone of
Kabila's rule. His death in an air accident in the east of the country
deprived the president of a powerful ally and added to the concerns over the
Lambert Mende, a spokesman for the outgoing government, conceded Congo was
going through a period of "agitation and uncertainty" and that some
ministers were putting decisions on ice, but insisted Kabila remained firmly
"Of course its normal for people to be impatient. But I think the president
will give his answer very soon," he said.
The question is how soon.
Civilians in Congo's east remain prey to violence as government troops take
on local rebels. Soldiers in the Ituri region there briefly mutinied last
month over poor living conditions, a reminder of the fragility of Congo's
"A power vacuum is not sustainable for a very long time. If the centre does
not seem to be in control, the disgruntled peripheries may try to contest
the so-called electoral results in the bush," said Thierry Vircoulon,
Central Africa Director for thinktank the International Crisis Group.
The massive investment that Congo will need in order to convert the
pre-election promises of Kabila and his allies into a better economic
reality for the Congolese also risks being held up.
A mining boom in the southern copper belt of Katanga is proof of Congo's
potential but is putting huge strain on the country's limited and crumbling
Kinshasa suffered a setback for its future Inga 3 hydro power plant last
month when BHP Billiton dropped plans for an aluminium smelter due to take
energy from the dam. BHP said it had shelved the plan after a review of its
"The current state of play will only serve to put the brakes on any plans
for now," said Marc Mercer of the Eurasia Group consultancy.
What happens next may be a defining moment in the career of 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 at least not slid back into war
during his spell in office, many Congolese say they have little to show for
the past decade and cast their ballots for presidential rival Etienne
Tshisekedi, who took a third of the vote, according to official results.
Some believe Kabila is quietly working to repair ties with allies and foes
alike, possibly by seeking talks with Tshisekedi - who remains under
surveillance after declaring himself president in a makeshift swearing-in
"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
"If he wants to take the chance to change things, he can. If not," he added,
"there will be problems." (Editing by Mark John and Alessandra Rizzo)
* Toll seen as high as 200 dead, many more injured
* Defence Minister blames blasts on fire in arms depot
* Xinhua says three Chinese killed in blast
By Christian Tsoumou and Jonny Hogg
BRAZZAVILLE/KINSHASA, March 5 (Reuters) - Up to 200 people were killed on
Sunday when an arms dump exploded in Brazzaville, ripping apart a nearby
neighbourhood in the Congo Republic's capital, medical and local authorities
Hundreds of others were injured by the blasts which rocked the riverside
capital around 8 a.m. (0700 GMT), flattening houses near the scene and
sending a plume of smoke high above the city.
A government spokesman said that a short circuit was to blame for the fire
that sparked the explosions and promised to move military barracks out of
town as a result.
But witnesses reported scenes of carnage on Sunday.
"I saw someone being carried to hospital with their intestines hanging out.
They had been hit by a shell," one witness told Reuters as he was leaving
the blast zone.
A nearby church, packed with worshippers, collapsed, said one witness.
Corpses, many burned or with missing body parts, were carried into the main
city hospital morgue, said a Reuters reporter outside the building.
Officials there said they had already counted 136 bodies by mid afternoon.
Many more corpses littered the blast scene, said one soldier. Others are
believed to be trapped under houses and other buildings that collapsed
during the explosions.
Weeping relatives of the dead gathered outside the main hospital to mourn
while others came to look for family members who had scattered in the chaos.
Congo's government, which gave a toll of 146 dead, will pay for the
treatment of all the injured and look after orphans, government spokesman
Bienvenu Okiemy said.
Betu Bangana, an adviser in the president's office, told Reuters earlier in
the day that around 200 people had been killed before later revising the
estimate down to 120.
"Some people are still (trapped) in their houses... They're saying the
entire neighbourhood of Mpila has been destroyed."
Panic spread to Kinshasa, 4 km (2.5 miles) across the Congo River, which
separates the former French colony of Congo Republic from the larger
Democratic Republic of Congo. The blast was so strong it shattered windows
in the neighbouring city.
Both governments called for calm.
Congo Republic Defence Minister Charles Zacharie Bowao quickly dismissed any
talk of a coup attempt or mutiny, and told state radio the explosions were
the result of a fire in the arms depot at the Regiment Blinde base near the
Residents immediately fled Mpila, normally a densely-packed neighbourhood,
as a series of smaller explosions rang out, said a Reuters witness. A plume
of grey smoke still hung over the city hours later as a military helicopter
circled the blast zone.
The base and surrounding neighbourhood looked like a war zone. Many
buildings were levelled, burned or badly damaged and the occasional flame
still flickered in the debris. Some residents tentatively returned later in
"I heard at least five or six good sized explosions, which blew out the
windows and brought down half the ceiling in our hotel," Patrick Mair, an
analyst with Control Risks there, told Reuters.
China's Xinhua news agency cited Chinese officials as saying three Chinese
construction workers were killed and dozens injured, some in a serious
condition. They were part of a group of about 140 Chinese workers from the
Beijing Construction Engineering Group.
Congolese television earlier showed pictures of panic-stricken residents on
nearby streets as the injured were rushed to hospital or received first aid
on the spot.
At least 225 people were being treated at the main university hospital, a
source there said.
Local television interviewed doctors saying they had to select who should
receive surgery first. It also relayed an appeal for all medical personnel
in the city to report for duty.
Mass in Brazzaville's cathedral about 4 km (2.5 miles) away was abandoned as
the building shook.
Oil-producing Congo Republic has suffered coups and a civil war since
independence from France in 1960. However it has remained largely peaceful
since President Denis Sassou-Nguesso took power in a coup in 1997.
Presidential adviser Bangana said Sassou-Nguesso had not been injured by the
explosions. (Additional reporting by George Fominyen in Dakar; Writing by
David Lewis; Editing by Myra MacDonald)
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Mon Mar 05 2012 - 19:11:57 EST