Yesterday, Joseph Kabila Kabange arrived in Uvira on a presidential campaign stop. I was able to see the Chef de l’Etat Congolais twice: yesterday when he arrived in Uvira and today when he gave a speech to a large crowd next to the Cathedral.
Yesterday morning, I knew something was up when I saw large groups of soldiers wearing red berets and sporting a lot more equipment than the normal, ragged FARDC soldier that we are used to seeing in this part of Sud Kivu. It turned out that these were members of the Presidential Guard.
I later went to the Rond-Point, the entrance to Uvira proper, and encountered a large crowd sporting blue and yellow, the colors of Kabila’s campaign. I conducted interviews for the better part of the afternoon next to the Rond-Point, watching as the crowd grew larger and larger. Police and soldiers ran up and down the road, trying to keep the path clear. People were holding signs, waving flags, and hoisting photos of Kabila above their heads. A brass-and-drum ensemble was loudly farting out bouncy tunes, keeping the crowd’s spirits high. At one point, when I was trying to cross the road, I was stopped and questioned by a surly member of the Presidential Guard.
“I’ve seen you wandering around here, Mzungu. What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I am here to see the Chef de l’Etat,” I said, with an obsequious smile.
“No, what do you DO here in Uvira?” he reiterated, the scowl on his face growing deeper.
“I am a humanitarian,” I said, trying to keep the mood as light as possible, but probably only succeeding in looking like a mzungu airhead.
The surly soldier let me go, but warned me not to take any pictures. I was a bit impressed with his equipment; he was the first Congolese soldier I had seen with an assault rifle, several banana clips in his webbing, and, to top it off, a sidearm. In addition, he looked like someone who drank lots of beer while pumping lots of iron.
As the first vehicles of the presidential convoy started arriving, I took up a post on a hill, so I was afforded a broad view of the road. Standing next to the road were several provincial deputies, the Territorial Administrator (in a blindingly white suit with a gaudy Congolese flag sash), and the mwami of Uvira (wearing a golden crown). All of a sudden, a group of police trucks came screeching past with red-and-blue lights blazing, and before I knew it, President Kabila and his wife, Mme Olive Lembe Kabila, were walking right in front of me. The president stopped briefly to shake hands with each notable person standing by the side of the road, pausing every few minutes to do a double-handed wave to the crowd. Mme Kabila was putting more of an effort to excite the crowd, jumping up and down and flashing a broad smile as she waved. The intimidating Presidential Guard, their assault rifles at the ready, closely followed the president and scanned the crowd. President Kabila was a little shorter than I thought he would be, and also a little skinnier than the brawny figure one sees in most presidential portraits.
As soon as it happened, it was over. The president walked past my view, and presumably got back into one of his SUVs after passing the crowd at the Rond-Point. The crowd at this event was obviously very excited, but it was also clear that most of them were ardent Kabila supporters that were brought to the Rond-Point to give the president a warm welcome.
The next day, my roommates and I received news that President Kabila was going to be giving a campaign speech. Earlier that morning, the presidential helicopter (the Congolese equivalent of Marine 1) was observed flying in tight evasive combat circles very close to our house. We had heard that Kabila’s was speaking at the Cathedral, so we decided to go up and see what the Chef de l’Etat had to say.
We arrived at a large, open space between the Cathedral and the accompanying Catholic school, where normally a group of schoolchildren would be playing soccer on an ordinary afternoon. There was about a crowd of 2,000 present, and on the small incline next to the Cathedral an impromptu stage had been set up. There were definitely a lot of Kabila campaign banners/flags present in the crowd, but they were somewhat diluted by the vast numbers of people present. Unlike the crowd at the Rond-Point the day before, most people were not wearing Kabila campaign paraphernalia.
As we arrived, the microphone was handed to Joseph Kabila, and he began speaking to the crowd in clipped, but warm, Kiswahili. He spoke of how he carried Uvira and the rest of Sud Kivu in the 2006 election, and he asked the crowd to vote him in again. Most of his speech centered on the Cinq Chantiers, and the efforts he had made to realize them. Of course, for most Uvirois, the Cinq Chantiers are a complete joke, a promise that has never been fulfilled, and most Uvirois who plan to vote with the opposition cite the Cinq Chantiers as the reason why they won’t vote for Kabila again. However, Kabila made some serious overtures, promising to pave the road from Bukavu to Uvira and all the way down to Baraka. He promised to build more schools; indeed, about a month ago, Mme Kabila had visited Uvira to inaugurate a new primary school in Kasenga. Kabila pointed out the Congolese state’s investment in the old Belgian sugar factory in Kiliba, which is about to start operating again after many years of disuse and disrepair. At the end of each long paragraph of oratory, Kabila would pause and large speakers would blare out his earworm-of-a-campaign song: VOTEZ VOTEZ VOTEZ, KAAAABIIIIILAAAAAA.
After about 10 minutes, Kabila apologized for his short visit to Uvira and bid farewell to the crowd.
Two things to note about the event:
1) The reception of the much-larger crowd at the Cathedral was lukewarm, at best. Sure, there were plenty of Kabila supporters near the front, but the level of cheering and applause could hardly beat out what I normally hear from local soccer matches. The crowd of mostly young men with which I was standing was making cynical and sarcastic comments during the speech, especially when Kabila spoke of all the improvements he claimed he would continue bringing to Uvira. When Kabila was saying his goodbyes, a young man near me exclaimed “anamaliza?! (He’s finished already?!)”. However, I was struck by the overall calm nature of the crowd; even those who were openly unhappy with Kabila were not “acting out”, interesting news when election-related violence is rising in Kinshasa and Katanga Province.
2) Kabila’s tone seemed almost pleading. Kabila’s reputation has suffered quite a bit in Sud Kivu, and it appeared that he was doing his best to win over the crowd for their vote. Despite the fact that security is still bad and the Cinq Chantiers are a distant fantasy, Kabila sought to assure the crowd that he would continue trying to accomplish his goals. Overall, he came off as someone who was desperately trying to ingratiate himself with a population where his support is slipping. This is quite a contrast to, say, his father, who was prone to take ironfisted positions when faced with declining support. Again, while Kabila is obviously engaging in some dirty tactics in order to stymie his opposition, he also seems to be campaigning like a man who just might lose.
For further information, check out the amazing Charlie Walker‘s thrilling account of Kabila’s visit.