March 5, 2012 / 4:48 PM / in 5 years

"Invisible" president has post-vote Congo on edge

6 Min Read

* Kabila's last public address was two months ago

* Uncertainty seen unnerving investors

* 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 allies.

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 low profile.

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 power vacuum.

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 in command.

"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 peace.

"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 power resources.

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 economics.

"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 ceremony.

"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 coalition.

"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)

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