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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December 2004, 09:42 GMT
First-name terms with the president
Mark Doyle
By Mark Doyle
BBC, Democratic Republic of Congo

For a journalist, being offered the chance to meet a country's president without asking for it may seem like an opportunity too good to miss. But sometimes, the experience may not be what was expected.

President Joseph Kabila
Joseph Kabila became president in January 2001
It was a correspondent's dream.

Or, at least, I briefly thought it was.

I was hanging about in the marble corridors of the presidential palace in Kinshasa, waiting for what I suspected would be a rather unexciting briefing about a meeting between the DR Congo President, Joseph Kabila, and some visiting United Nations diplomats.

They were talking about the fragile peace deal in Congo and the UN peacekeeping force which is trying to glue it all together.

But then I got a tap on my shoulder.

I turned round to find an immaculately dressed Congolese official asking me if I was Mark Doyle.

"Er, yes," I replied, rather tentatively.

"Good," he said, "follow me", and he started bounding up a marble staircase.

Turning round to check I was following him, the man in a perfect Parisian suit said: "You asked to see President Kabila, right?"

"Er, yes," I replied, lying through my teeth.

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I simply could not believe it.

I guessed that there had been some mix-up somewhere - and as a result I was going to get an interview with the president of Congo without even having asked for one.

Disagreement

We turned a corner at the top of the stairs and there he was, waiting for me, President Joseph Kabila.

He was standing near the edge of a thick red carpet.

When he saw me he gestured me into a room and politely took a step backwards to allow me to go in first.

He stumbled slightly on the edge of the carpet and for a terrible moment I thought he was going to fall over and crack his head open on the marble floor.

I was alone in a room with a powerful man who appeared not to be happy with me
That might have been a cue for every machine gun in the palace, and there are plenty of them, to be pointed at me.

Luckily he did not fall, but nevertheless other things then started going wrong with my plan.

"Thank you so much, Mr President," I started hopefully, "for agreeing to be interviewed."

"Oh, I don't want to be interviewed, Mark," he replied, looking at me with his piercing eyes and waving away my microphone.

"I just wanted a word with you about what you've been writing about Congo."

Power of radio

Oh dear. I was alone in a room with a powerful man who appeared not to be happy with me.

I must have looked worried, but the president smiled.

"You see, Mark," he continued, using my first name again as if we had been friends for years. "You see, I was not very happy when I heard you say that the idea of holding fair elections in Congo in six months' time was... what was it you said? A bad joke."

I had indeed said that, in a BBC News website feature article.

I was quoting well-placed sources, of course, but I had said it. And the president of Congo, unfortunately, appeared to be a BBC News website reader.

Shifting his weight in his chair, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo pointed his dark eyes at me again and said: "Why did you say that, Mark?"

I swallowed hard, and decided on the honest approach.

It is testimony to the power of radio in Africa - lots of people feel they personally know correspondents because they have heard them so often
"Well, I've just been in Eastern Congo for a week," I began, "and it's obvious to me that your national army is still split between opposing factions.

"There's no police force to speak of, foreign armies are still present in the region and there are no lists of potential voters and frankly, in these circumstances, I don't see how you can hold fair elections in six months time."

"Mark", the president said, using my first name again, "you've been around a bit, you've got to take some other things into account."

It was then that I realised that this first name stuff was not some clever public relations tactic designed to flatter me, but a genuine feeling on the president's part that he did know me, because he had been listening to me on the radio for years.

I have experienced this before.

It is testimony to the power of radio in Africa - lots of people feel they personally know correspondents because they have heard them so often.

"Look", President Kabila continued, "if you had come here two years ago, there was no peace process at all and we were still fighting in the east. Things aren't perfect now, of course, but we are making progress. Please be fair."

"But that still doesn't mean," I said, "that fair elections can be held in six months' time."

But, hang on, I thought, what's going on here?

Map of Kinshasa, Dr Congo
Why was I having this private debate with the president of Congo?

I am a journalist and I was supposed to be recording an interview with him.

"Of course," I said, "of course we'll be fair, but couldn't I just record a little interview with you saying that? Only take a few minutes. Then I can use your voice saying you think there has been progress and..."

"No thanks, Mark," the president replied, "I'm tired."

"Later, then," I implored. "Any time, any place, just before I have to leave tomorrow morning?"

He shrugged.

"Oh, all right then."

I was amazed at the informality of all this. "All right then", the president of Congo said. "Come to my place at seven tomorrow morning. I'll send someone to your hotel to collect you."

I never did get the interview.

My plane left earlier than we thought it would, and my messages to the president, asking for a different timing for the appointment, got confused in the protocol channels, as messages to heads of state so often do.

But if you are reading or listening to this report Mr President - Joseph - maybe we can have the interview some other time?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 4 December 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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