By Giulia Paravicini, Aaron Ross and David Lewis
KINSHASA (Reuters) - A month before his scheduled departure after nearly two decades as Congo's president, Joseph Kabila received a procession of foreign reporters at his heavily guarded riverside palace for a rare series of interviews.
If the timing suggested a valedictory, the 47-year-old leader's words indicated otherwise. He vowed to remain in politics and, in one interview after another, left open the possibility of running again in 2023 when the clock resets on presidential term limits.
"My role will be to make sure that we don't go back to square one, square one meaning where we found the Congo 22 years ago," he told Reuters inside an ornate reception room with high ceilings and sweeping views of the churning Congo River.
"In politics, in life, you shouldn't rule out anything," he said when asked about a potential return. "There are still other chapters to write."
In the 18 years since a youthful, clean-shaven Kabila succeeded his slain father, Laurent, the now bulked-up president sporting a billowy grey beard has traced an unlikely trajectory from accidental and apparently reluctant leader to the defining Congolese figure of his time.
Whether the vote due on Dec. 23 brings down the curtain on the tumultuous Kabila era, which began when Laurent seized power in 1997, or triggers a new phase in which Joseph becomes the power behind the throne of his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, remains unclear.
It depends in part on how the Congolese reflect on his rule.
There were early accomplishments - ending a regional war and holding the first open presidential elections - but also incessant conflict, lethal crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters and corruption that the government acknowledges siphoned off billions of dollars of potential revenue.
Foreign investment has propelled Democratic Republic of Congo to the status of Africa's top copper producer and the world's leading miner of cobalt, a crucial component of electric car batteries, but militia violence has persisted in the east.
Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, said Kabila had a right to remain in politics but hoped voters would remember his broken promises.
"None of the elements needed to install a real democracy have been made during his time in power," he told Reuters.
PULLING THE STRINGS
Kabila's critics and some analysts say concerns about his personal security – his assassinated father's mausoleum stands below the presidential palace - and the fortune reportedly amassed by his family could account for a seeming reluctance to cede power.
A report last year by a research group at New York University found his family's businesses are likely worth tens of millions of dollars. Kabila has called such reports "stupidity".
He did not specifically respond to a Reuters investigation https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/congo-passports that showed nearly a third of the purchase price of Congolese passports goes to a company in the United Arab Emirates whose owner is believed to be a close relative of the president.
Even if Shadary, a former interior minister who many analysts say was chosen for his loyalty and lack of an independent political base, beats his two main rivals, Kabila has reason to worry about his ability to pull the strings.
He need only look next door to Angola, where President Joao Lourenco quickly marginalised Jose Eduardo dos Santos, his powerful predecessor who ruled for 38 years, by accusing family members of corruption.
"Kabila saw what happened in Angola. That's why he chose the person who is the most loyal and, above all, the least threatening to his personal power," said Manya Riche, who advised Kabila from 2008 to 2011.
Referring to an arrangement in which Vladimir Putin remained Russia's dominant leader as prime minister until he could run for president again, she said: "This isn't Russia. At a certain point here, it's the chief who's in the chair who is the chief."
COMING TO POWER
Kabila was born in 1971 in eastern Congo in the bush headquarters of his father's rebellion against long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko but spent most of his early years in neighbouring Tanzania.
He returned to Congo to take part in Laurent's Rwandan and Ugandan-backed successful march on the capital Kinshasa. A period of military training in China followed and Joseph was back as army chief when a bodyguard shot his father in 2001.
The country he inherited at 29 was in disarray, fragmented between government and rebel territories, with tens of thousands of people dying each month from conflict, hunger and disease.
A former U.S. official who met Kabila during his first trip to Washington that year described the shy, awkward leader as a "deer in the headlights".
With his halting French and virtually non-existent Lingala - the language of the capital and the army - he struggled to connect with many Congolese. But his political instincts were surprisingly good.
He courted Western powers such as the United States and France, which his father's anti-colonial rhetoric had alienated. He passed a liberalised mining code that attracted foreign investment. He revived a stalled peace process, leading to a 2003 power-sharing deal that kept him in the presidency even though rebels remained active in the east.
"He managed to run the country, more or less," said Azarias Ruberwa, a rebel leader who joined the power-sharing administration and is now a government minister.
Kabila won both rounds of voting in elections held in 2006, which were generally viewed as fair, as well as the bouts of fighting that erupted after results were announced.
Those victories, followed by another vote in 2011 marred by widespread allegations of fraud, led to changes in his leadership style, according to people close to him.
"The president became less tolerant of the West," a former advisor said on condition of anonymity. "He saw them as imposing their ideas on him."
After the death in 2012 of Augustin Katumba Mwanke, his closest advisor and confidant, Kabila moved more assertively to chart his own course.
Kabila rarely speaks in public and is driven by mistrust of almost everyone outside a tight circle of family that includes his twin sister, Jaynet, and younger brother, Zoe, people who have worked closely with him said.
Public frustration with his government mounted as economic growth fuelled by copper production failed to deliver a semblance of infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa's biggest country, much of it covered by rainforest and only accessible by barge or motorcycle.
Kabila would occasionally tell collaborators he was frustrated by his inability to transform Congo into something more like other African countries he visited.
Although Kabila put most of the blame on the brutal legacy of former colonial power Belgium, Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, a current advisor, said he sought to change "the Congolese mentality from people who like songs and dance and high life to people concentrated on hard work".
STATE OF SIEGE
As the vote to replace Kabila at the end of his two official terms was repeatedly pushed back - officially due to conflict and logistical challenges - opponents accused him of seeking ways to cling to power and tried to organise protests.
Muted concerns from Western capitals over the flawed 2011 vote gave way to vocal criticism of alleged corruption and the killing of protesters.
Shadary is under European Union sanctions due to crackdowns by security forces. Deals with Israeli billionaire mining investor Dan Gertler, who American prosecutors say paid Congolese officials, including Kabila, more than $100 million in bribes, have received particular scrutiny. Kabila denies ever taking a bribe, and Gertler denies paying them.
Kabila left his options open for as long as he could. Shadary was nominated hours before the deadline to register candidates.
Whether it was Kabila's intention all along to step down, as allies say, or it was a concession to domestic and international pressure, the president's imminent departure thrusts him and his country into the unknown.
For now, Kabila appears serene.
"Look at my face. Do I look worried?" he told Reuters. "I am not worried."
(Giulia Paravicini reported from Kinshasa, Aaron Ross reported from Dakar and David Lewis reported from Nairobi; additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; editing by Alexandra Zavis and David Clarke)