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Kabila's objective: `rewrite history'

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- President Joseph Kabila is betting his future on cementing Congo's fragile peace after five years of civil war.

"It's time to rewrite the history of this nation -- a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me and the Congolese people -- in letters of gold and not blood," Kabila said in a recent interview.

But he faces a formidable task of rebuilding Africa's third-largest country. He must establish the government's authority in eastern provinces, revive the economy, rebuild the infrastructure, and confront a host of health issues, including stemming the spread of AIDS. He also must prepare for democratic elections in 2005, Congo's first in more than 40 years.

"Priority number one, priority number two, and priority number three are the elections," Kabila said.

Kabila, 32, works out of a small office in the enormous presidential palace. A laptop sits on his desk, and the BBC plays on television.

Quiet, almost reticent, he chooses his words carefully and numbers the points he wants to make. With his compact stature and boyish good looks, he bears little resemblance to his late father, Laurent Desire Kabila, whose corpulent image graces billboards and statues around this decaying yet bustling capital.

Joseph Kabila's ascent coincided with the worst phase of the civil war that began in 1998, when neighboring Rwanda and Uganda first invaded to overthrow the elder Kabila, but then backed rebel groups who had the same aim.

For most of his presidency, Joseph Kabila has been engaged in the fitful inter-Congolese peace process that in July inaugurated a transitional government, which includes the panoply of rebel groups.

Kabila spent most of his life in exile in Tanzania, where he learned English and Swahili, but neither French nor Lingala, the two most widely spoken languages in Kinshasa.

When his father led a rebel invasion in 1997 that ousted Congo's longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, the younger Kabila participated fully.

Initially known for a fast lifestyle of clubs and cars in Kinshasa, Joseph assumed power after his father was assassinated in 2001 and became the world's youngest president.

"I never asked to be president," he is quick to respond when asked about the job.

After he took office, the younger Kabila reversed many of the policies that had soured relations between his father and the international community, all the while cultivating the image of a son following in his martyred father's footsteps.

He improved cooperation with the UN mission immediately, and he slowly modified economic policies to win praise from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"The Congo will pursue a liberal-minded ideology as far as economics and finance is concerned," Kabila said.

His non-confrontational approach has won him strong support from European and American governments, who will be asked to bankroll Congo's postwar recovery, Western diplomats in Kinshasa say.

"Kabila is the man the West has decided it can do business with," said one UN official, who requested anonymity.

The darkest spot on Kabila's reputation is his entourage, a shadowy group of advisers that includes many of his father's comrades-in-arms, but also friends of his own. A UN panel investigating the wartime plunder of Congo's rich natural resources last month accused several close advisers of involvement in a corrupt deal with the state-owned diamond company, as well as other shady bargains.

So far, the government has denied the allegations, and Kabila has refused to punish the aides, preferring to take cover behind Congo's unreliable courts.

"We gave these cases to our judicial system," he said. "The answer was negative."

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