RAY SUAREZ: Joseph Kabila succeeded his father as president of Africa's third largest country last Friday, just days after Laurent Kabila was shot to death by a bodyguard. The younger Kabila inherited a nation on the verge of economic and political collapse, cut almost in half by civil war. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is at the center of a multi-nation conflict called by some Africa's World War. The eastern part of the country is controlled by rebels and troops from Uganda and Rwanda. In the West; Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia have been supporting the Kabila regime.
President Joseph Kabila is 29 years old and a major general. He was in command of the army when he was chosen quickly by his father's cabinet to take over the presidency. As a youth, he spent much of his life in exile in Tanzania and Uganda where he received extensive military training. Since his swearing-in last week, both the Congolese government and its rebel opposition have expressed interest in reviving a 1999 peace accord, signed by the elder Kabila. It has since been widely ignored by all sides in the conflict. UN officials have approved, but not dispatched, peacekeepers to the Congo to implement what are called the Lusaka Accords.
Joseph Kabila is now on his first diplomatic trip to enlist support for his new government. Yesterday, he met with French President Jacques Chirac, and today he began a two-day visit to the United States. This morning, President Kabila attended a prayer breakfast with President Bush here in Washington, and later met with Secretary of State Powell and other administration officials. Also in Washington for the prayer breakfast was Kabila's neighbor and rival, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Kagame met yesterday with Secretary Powell and there had been speculation Kagame and Kabila would meet today. Tomorrow, President Kabila is scheduled to meet privately with members of the UN Security Council in New York.
RAY SUAREZ: I spoke with him earlier this afternoon. Mr. President, welcome and thanks for joining us.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA, Democratic Republic of Congo: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: If we were to step outside of this hotel and talk to ordinary Americans, what could you tell them about why it's important for this country to be interested in the future of the Congo, in its security, in its prosperity and its continued existence as one state?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: First of all, I'd say America is a nation, a strong nation, because it has stayed a united nation, since the last 200 years. I don't see why the Congo today must be a nation that everybody, or anybody, for that matter, should start thinking of dividing it.
RAY SUAREZ: So it's in America's interest to have a healthy Congo?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: It's in America's interest to have a healthy Congo. It's in the interest of Africa to have a Congo that's stable and strong.
RAY SUAREZ: Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, is also in Washington this week. He was an ally of your late father. Now he is an opponent of your government. Might you speak with him while you're both in Washington or both in the United States?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: I don't see anything wrong with speaking to President Kagame. I don't really see anything wrong in speaking to President Kagame. But of course, the problem is not speaking with President Kagame; the problem is the occupation of the Congo, which has to be ended. We might speak, but the reality is that the occupation is still in progress for the last three years now.
RAY SUAREZ: The armies that are occupying eastern Congo have as their goal, the ending of your government's rule from Kinshasa. You might say that one of the reasons they still are there is because your father, and you, are still in power. Why would they go home now? What is it that has changed since last year that would make them go home?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: Precisely. I don't believe that, the government of Rwanda, Uganda, or whatever, has got the right to decide who has to be in power in Kinshasa, because the Congo is not in a position, never is it interested in deciding who should be in power in Uganda, Rwanda, or Burundi for that matter. We are a foreign sovereign state. We'd like to stay so.
RAY SUAREZ: Why didn't the agreement signed in Zambia result in peace?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: Precisely, that's why I say we are stuck with the Lusaka Peace Accord because there are lots of ambiguities, contradictions within the accord. So... but of course, on the other hand, I believe it's lack of good will on the part of the aggressors whose intentions are to stay in the Congo, continue with the rape of the resources, continue occupying the Congo for their selfish ends. And that's why we are stuck with the Lusaka peace accord. That's why after today.
RAY SUAREZ: When you say stuck, are there parts of it that you would like to renegotiate? Are there parts of it that are forcing your country to do things that you don't want to?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: Forcing -- forcing to do things that we don't want to is not really the word I would use. But I believe it's something that has to be renegotiated. It was signed in July 1999, after today, almost two years. I would suggest that there are clauses that have to be reviewed.
RAY SUAREZ: Can your government start making moves now, even though there are parts of the country that are under occupation, to improve the lives of the Congolese? Are you so distracted by the war, that it's very hard to worry about things like water, transportation, the telephone system?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: Well, of course, Congo, as you know, has had a very rough ride for the last 32 or so years. There are lots of development that we need to do, as far as transportation is concerned, hospitals, water, power, et cetera. But of course, all those sectors need resources.
RAY SUAREZ: Would you want to remain president for several years, or do you see your time in the office as part of a transition to a more permanent government?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: The most important thing that I can do for my country is to see an end to this war. Talking about my political future is not really... I don't believe that it's the time to discuss that. But the most important thing that I'd like to see happen in the Congo is, under my presidency, is to see an end to the war -- a transition to a democratic government. The future for me... time will tell.
RAY SUAREZ: But -- so would you like to begin to move the country to elections?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: I mean, we have to move forward. But when you talk of elections, I mean, we are talking of elections in what circumstances? We've got a country under occupation. How do we go ahead with elections?
RAY SUAREZ: Well, would the opposition be able to participate in these elections, for instance?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: Of course, the opposition can participate in the elections. But when I'm talking of the occupation of half of the country, will the opposition participate in the elections where Rwanda and Uganda control the country? That's the big puzzle. Not really a puzzle, but I've been stating wherever I've gone -- In Paris I said the same thing-- for us, the priority is to see the foreign armies of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi move out of - out of the Congo. Then Congolese dialogue will start tomorrow, the day after that, it's in preparation, then the nation will move forward to a transition with elections, democratic elections, that will be observed by the whole international community.
RAY SUAREZ: If, on the other side of that occupation line, they say, "Well, that's fine, President Kabila, but we would only participate if the other foreign armies, the Namibians, the Zimbabweans and the Angolans also leave." Is a comprehensive peace going to have to be part of the deal, not just the Burundians and the Rwandans...
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: That's why we are talking of the inter-Congolese dialogue. That's the forum where we will find the best for whatever is going to happen in the next two or three months... six months.
RAY SUAREZ: You've mentioned that your country has had a rough ride. Certainly there have been... there are many difficult challenges ahead. Are you optimistic?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: I have all the reasons to be optimistic. I believe the future is bright for the Congo, if all the Congolese people will take this opportunity, sit down, talk to each other. But, of course, the occupation must end in order for the Congolese people to do that -- in perfect harmony with each other, not being forced by any foreign power, be it Uganda or Rwanda.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you nervous? Are you overwhelmed by the duty that's just been given to you? You are still a young man. You were not involved in the political life and now, here you are, president of the country. Is it still a shock?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: It's not a shock. It's a challenge that I believe -- I'm up to that challenge. It's a challenge.
RAY SUAREZ: Mr. President, thank you for talking to us today.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: Thank you.