March 12, 2011 / 6:22 PM / 7 years ago

Congo's Kabila sacks ministers over graft, absence

* Government says sackings were unrelated

* PPRD seen keen to reduce influence of allies

By Jonny Hogg

KINSHASA, March 12 (Reuters) - Congolese President Joseph Kabila has fired two ministers from junior coalition partners in what analysts believe is part of a bid by his party to assert itself before elections in November.

Information Minister Lambert Mende confirmed on Saturday that Vice Prime Minister Nzanga Mobutu, son of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, had been sacked on Thursday for spending more than three months in Europe.

The minister for rural development, Philippe Undji, lost his job on Friday and is facing corruption charges, Mende said.

Both men were part of the coalition that has backed Kabila since 2006, when he was elected in Democratic Republic of Congo’s first democratic vote.

“The two cases are quite different,” Information Minister Lambert Mende told Reuters by telephone.

“Mobutu was fired for the time he spent in Europe without giving any explanation. We think he wasn’t prepared to work. Undji was fired over an issue of embezzlement.”

Neither Mobutu, a member of the minority UDEMO party and also labour minister, nor Undji, a former militia fighter in the 1998-2003 Congolese war, was immediately available for comment.

Observers say Kabila has long been keen to reshuffle his government and centralise power around his own party, the PPRD, reducing his reliance on coalition allies.

“The mentality of the PPRD is to have a president who does not need allies,” said political analyst and journalist Ben Clet Kakonde Dambu.

Kakonde questioned the official grounds for Undji’s sacking, noting that other ministers had faced similar allegations in the past without losing their jobs.

Mende denied that the moves weakened the base of the coalition.

“In terms of what Mobutu and his party decide, if the whole party decides to leave the coalition, that is their decision, but we didn’t break the coalition,” he said.

Earlier this year Kabila pushed through constitutional reforms that reduce the presidential election to a single round, which could help him to win re-election without an overall majority.

While the sackings will bolster the independence of the PPRD in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections, Kabila might still have to make deals with other parties if Congo’s fractured opposition manages to unite behind a single presidential candidate.

Kabila came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent. He oversaw the end of a brutal five-year civil war and has opened up Congo’s massive mineral wealth to international investors.

However, his failure to tackle corruption and accusations of an increasingly autocratic style have eroded his popularity.

Last month, gunmen attacked his residence in the capital. More than 100 people have been arrested but it remains unclear who was behind the assault, in which 19 people died. (Editing by Mark John and Kevin Liffey)

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