Africa has seen the likes of Congo rebel leader Laurent Nkunda before. The story of the revolutionary who storms out of the hinterland in a lightning advance and seizes power is a familiar one, from Nkunda's native Democratic Republic of Congo to the Comoros Islands. Sometimes, as with Paul Kagame in Rwanda or with Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, the new leaders are an improvement. But in other cases, as with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe or Laurent Kabila, the assassinated father of the current Congolese president, they quickly impose the autocracy and corruption they were initially fighting.
Nkunda is still in his hinterland, along the Rwandan border in eastern Congo. But the Tutsi rebel leader has doubled his territory in the last few weeks, precipitating a humanitarian crisis involving a million refugees. And with his forces closing in on the regional capital Goma and facing a collapsing national army and a weak and isolated President, his threat to take the Congolese capital Kinshasa is suddenly one to take seriously. Nkunda's decision to hold a rally and press conference on Nov. 22 in Rutshuru, newly captured by his forces, was a chance to discover what kind of leader he might prove to be. (See pictures of Congo on the brink.)
Nkunda arrives two hours late, sweeping to a halt in front of a sweating crowd of 2,000 in a blacked-out Toyota Land Cruiser flanked by jogging uniformed bodyguards. As Nkunda disembarks, the goons shove and kick reporters and spectators, then stand moon-faced and legs apart around their man, guns slung over their shoulders and pointed down, trigger fingers running along the guard - the pose of elite troops from Fort Bragg to the southern Philippines. Nkunda is a man who manages his appearance carefully, cutting a tall and slightly dandyish figure in combat fatigues, a purple beret and gold-rimmed glasses, and carrying a black cane topped with a silver eagle's head. At times, he has affected a prophet-preacher look: a long flowing black overcoat, a high cream woollen polo neck and a wide-brimmed black felt preacher's hat. But for the rally - perhaps the most public appearance he has ever made - Nkunda selects a new outfit: U.S. desert camouflage. The suggestion seems to be that Nkunda is at heart a Westerner, a democrat - a good man in Africa.
Projecting an urbane reasonableness proves to be the theme of the day. At the press conference, Nkunda, 39, a father of six, says he is ready for talks whenever President Laurent Kabila chooses. He denies he is interested in the Presidency and speaks instead of a position in the Congolese army - "where I am most comfortable." Two days later, he expands on that, declaring he is ready to integrate his forces into it. His dream, he says, is not one of personal ambition, but of a "big Congo" no longer overshadowed by its smaller, more developed neighbors.
But Nkunda has form - and there is nothing in it to suggest reasonableness. It was his previous refusal to integrate with the national army in 2004 that began the present stage of Congo's 15-year civil war. His forces have just spent the last two months killing the same army troops he now says he wants to join. And Nkunda has a history of war crimes. The U.N. accuses his forces of executing enemies and raping women and indicted him for war crimes in September 2005. This month, it accused his forces - now numbering an estimated 7,000-8,000 - of taking part in the massacre of at least 50 people on Nov. 5 in the village of Kinwanja, a 20-minute walk down the road. This may explain the attempt to project a gentler face. "I think Kiwanja was a big tactical error," says Tatiana Carayannis, Congo expert at the Social Science Research Council in New York. In other words, this is not a change of direction. Rather, it's a switch of tactics by a pragmatic leader in pursuit of a single goal: power.
At times Nkunda, who has promised an "inquiry" into the killings, can't help let his true colors show. During the rally, he berates the crowd for their cowardice. "If you are afraid, then respect me," he said. "I am not afraid. Do not compare me to you. If you are afraid, let me pass. Get out of my way. I have no fear." There was also some clumsily, stage-managed propaganda. Several Congolese army deserters gave testimony at Nkunda's prompting on how they had switched sides after realizing justice was on the rebels' side. Then a rag-tag thief and a former Mai Mai militiaman were also wheeled out before the crowd to testify that his old group was to blame for looting and attacking civilians, not Nkunda's men. If anything, such crude attempts at image management only enhance Nkunda's poor reputation. Asked about how he viewed the one million refugees and humanitarian crisis that his campaign had helped create, he replied: "This is war. We are fighting. People are fearing. Of course." Asked whether he would march on Kinshasa, the rebel leader replied: "Why not?" At the rally, he added: "Nkunda is here today to bring freedom. The whole country is going to be liberated." How many times has Africa heard that?