How a State Fails
On January 16, 2001, the Democratic Republic of the Congo tumbled into uncertainty. The country’s president, Laurent Kabila, had been sitting in his office at his marble palace in Kinshasa, the capital, when one of his teenage bodyguards entered, drew his pistol, aimed it at Kabila, and fired several times.
Kabila had installed himself as president in 1997, after overthrowing Mobutu Sese Seko, the cancer-stricken dictator of what was then known as Zaire. He had begun fighting Mobutu back in the 1960s, leading a Marxist rebellion in the eastern half of the country before, in the 1980s, fleeing to nearby Uganda and Tanzania, where he raised his children under false names. After years of dodging Mobutu’s intelligence agents, Kabila finally got the chance to remove his nemesis, riding in on an invasion backed by eight nations to take the presidency, if not control, of the country he rechristened the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila’s Rwandan backers quickly tired of him, however. They launched a rebellion in the east that kicked off the Great War of Africa, a five-year conflict so deadly and confused that estimates of its death toll range from two million to five million. Now, less than four years into a presidency he had spent his life pursuing, Kabila was slumped over, bleeding into his chair.
Kabila’s advisers scrambled to react. Keeping news of the attack from the public, they arranged for his dead body to be flown to Zimbabwe, ostensibly for treatment. Congo’s borders were sealed, its airports shut down, and a curfew announced. Late at night, Kabila’s inner circle gathered to decide on a successor, as Mwenze Kongolo, the justice minister at the time, recently recounted to me. “It was at that moment,” he said, “when we decided we had to put in Joseph.”
Joseph, Laurent Kabila’s son, was just 29 years old, a commander in the new Congolese military. Having grown up in Uganda and Tanzania, he spoke Swahili and English, but little French, Congo’s official language, and no Lingala, its most prominent African one. Shy and inscrutable, he was not a man made for politics. His only civilian work experience lay in doing odd jobs for his father and driving a taxi. Joseph was a mystery, unknown to foreign diplomats and the Congolese public alike; even his age was an open question at the time. Yet having marched across the country as part of the invasion, he enjoyed legitimacy among the military and the confidence of his father. “He was not a stranger,” Kongolo said. “And with his father having died, it had to be someone close.”