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Wednesday, 17 January, 2001, 17:27 GMT
Analysis: DR Congo power vacuum
Kabila is sworn in
Kabila was seen as a last hope for unity
By BBC News Online's Justin Pearce

President Laurent Kabila's death brings yet more uncertainty to a country whose fortunes have long been determined by rival armies, self-serving politicians and greedy outsiders.

Though Mr Kabila himself renamed the former Zaire as the Democratic Republic of Congo, he left no constitutional structures in place which might easily appoint a successor.

His son, Joseph, has been appointed by the cabinet as a caretaker leader - but it would take the work of a political genius to hold together a vast country like DR Congo, riven as it is by regional and ethnic rivalries.

After the fall of the Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, some foreign observers clung to the hope that Kabila might prove the last person who had any chance of forging some kind of national unity.

That hope faded when he fell out with the Rwandan allies who had propelled him to power - and who soon launched a new rebellion against him.

Heavy hand

Kabila stood firm against attempts by foreign envoys to negotiate a peace deal with the rebels - earning him accusations of intransigence.

In Kinshasa too, Kabila tolerated no dissent, creating an atmosphere in which no one dare express ambitions as an heir apparent.

The long silence from Kinshasa following the first reports of Kabila's shooting has been interpreted by many as a cover-up for frantic squabbling within the halls of power.

But whoever - if anyone - takes his seat in Kinshasa's Marble Palace will have to face the reality that the DR Congo presidency is merely one centre of power in a state whose existence is largely theoretical.

Military alliance

The Kabila regime owed its survival to the military support of Angola and, above all, Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe's loyalty was cemented by diamond deals negotiated between President Kabila and his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe - Angola's support secured on the dubious premise that Kinshasa would be a useful ally against the Angolan Unita rebels.

Whether Kabila's eventual successor will be able to hold the military alliance together is far from clear.

The rebel armies could well take advantage of the hiatus to attempt a new push towards the capital - the last time that happened, it was only the Angolans who stopped them.

Rebels divided

If Angola and Zimbabwe pull out, the only thing stopping the rebels from taking the capital will be their own internal divisions, which have become even more marked over the past year.

Given Kabila's distaste for negotiations, some observers are saying that his demise would remove one of the main stumbling blocks on the road to negotiations.

But even if the peace process that began in Lusaka 18 months ago is revived, there is no guarantee that either the contenders for power in Kinshasa or the fractious rebel groups will be in any mood for sincere negotiation.

Either way, the balance of power in DR Congo is now profoundly different from what was the case just a week ago.

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See also:

17 Jan 01 | Africa
Cameroon talks overshadowed
17 Jan 01 | Africa
Belgium prepares Congo evacuation
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