Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
In DRC death is as commonplace as it is mysterious. But for better or for worse, in the local political realm, some deaths are more important than others. Augustin Katumba Mwanke’s passing away - when the private jet in which he and his colleagues were traveling missed the runway at Bukavu airport and crashed in a river - is one such important death.
No one who deals with Congo could escape his influence. As the most prominent and most important of President Joseph Kabila’s advisers, he was considered the regime’s de facto number two. Known as AK-47 or Katos, Katumba’s fingerprints seemed to be everywhere. United Nations reports on the illegal exploitation of DRC resources named him among the beneficiaries of questionable mining contracts. He was also often named in relation with several important financial and economic deals, such as the multi-billion dollar-deal with the Chinese, the restoration of the Inga Dam and many others.
Many observers within and outside the power circle saw him as the master strategist, the maître à penser, and Kabila’s gatekeeper and guardian angel. It was often said that nothing happened in Congo without his consent. A former high-school classmate of mine who served in the government once described Katumba’s influence to me in the following terms, “If Katumba likes you and says he will make you a minister, you will be a minister in the next government. It’s that simple.” Not since the days of Bisengimana Rwema, Mobutu’s mighty chief of staff, has a presidential adviser wielded so much power – real or otherwise.
Trained as an engineer, he had a rich and diverse ethnic and professional background, which made him competitive within the presidential circle. In a political context where ethnicity matters, Katumba’s Katangan origins made him safe and acceptable within the regime’s powerbrokers. But equally important were his deal-making skills and network of contacts, which he had developed as a banker in South Africa. As a governor of Katanga under Laurent Kabila, he further honed his political savvy and expanded his exposure to the mining investment community.
By the time Joseph Kabila became president and appointed Katumba to his government, the two men had been close friends for a few years. The young president relied on a small circle of advisers who helped him navigate DRC’s politics. It was this circle that set the country on a new course. They helped Kabila dismiss his late father’s coterie of old advisers who held DRC hostage to their antiquated, revolutionary ways. They also guided Kabila through the critical negotiations with rebel movements that led to the Sun City Accord, and eventually, to the 2006 elections that legitimized Kabila’s presidency. Katumba himself was elected to the national assembly in 2006 and served as secretary-general of the coalition for the presidential majority.
Despite his signature low-profile approach to politics and business, Katumba made many enemies among Kabila’s associates. Over the years, tensions have been reported between him and the likes of Vital Kamerhe, who fell out with Kabila in 2009. His detractors accused him of running a shadow, parallel government staffed with people loyal to him alone, which undermined the official government and did not serve the interests of DRC.
Nevertheless, over the years Katumba saw many of his detractors relegated to less influential positions away from Kabila. Building on his background, network of contacts and powerbase, he made himself indispensable to the President as his strategist, go-to-man, top gun and money man. Whatever Katumba did so impressed Kabila that he maintained him in that powerful position for the 11 years of his presidency.
But the 2011 elections that were supposed to extend Kabila’s legitimacy and grant him another 5-year term were poorly managed and marred by lack of transparency and credibility. The opposition has rejected the results, which has created a crisis. Both Kabila and Etienne Tshisekedi have claimed victory. As a group of Congolese civil society organizations said in a recent letter to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, “DRC is now grappling with a two-headed leadership crisis with one legal president without legitimacy and one legitimate president with no legality."
The coalition for the presidential majority that Katumba once led as secretary-general has emerged from these elections much weaker and fragmented, further complicating matters for President Kabila. As Kabila’s right hand man, it was Katumba’s mission to mend ways between the various parties of the majority and build a solid platform in support of the President. This is more important now that the leaders of these parties vie for the post of prime minister, who has the power to form the next government.
Katumba’s death changes everything, as it will reconfigure the council of powerbrokers around Kabila and exacerbate the power struggle among the many ambitious caciques now eager to fill the void.
For now, however, Katumba’s death exposes President Kabila and his allies, making them vulnerable to the winds of change and discontent blowing across DRC.ShareThis