In Katanga, fans want their 'Moses' home to battle Joseph

LUBUMBASHI, DR Congo: "You wanted to kill Moise (Moses)," goes the chant. "But God has foiled your tricks. We will back him until death!"

It is Sunday in the Congolese city of Lubumbashi. Yet the stirring words rise not from church but from the stadium of the local football club, TP Mazembe.

The "hymn" too is not biblical, but political — a message directed at President Joseph Kabila that comes from the soccer terraces, sponsored from abroad by his determined rival, Moise Katumbi.

When TP Mazembe play at home, Serge Izewa leads a group of 150 fanatical supporters called "100 Percent Mazembe" to extol the praises of Katumbi, the club's owner and a declared candidate in presidential elections in Dec.

"100 Percent Mazembe" get a stipend for their efforts — an unusual contrast to most of the world's stadiums, where fans have to pay to sing for their champions.

"We'll never be ungrateful. Our families live in good conditions thanks to him," Iweza told AFP. A pro-Kabila party tried to buy him to get him to switch sides, but he refused, he said.

Lubumbashi is the chief city of Katanga, a mineral-rich region the size of Spain, and a key prize in the Democratic Republic Congo's elections on Dec 23.

Both Katumbi, born to a Greek businessman father and a Congolese mother, and Kabila, in power since 2001 after the assassination of his father, hail from the region and were once allies.

Then they fell out, leaving the sprawling province a microcosm of some of the Democratic Republic of Congo's problems — an explosive mix of political rivalry intertwined with personal economic interests.

Kabila, a former soldier, has been in power since 2001, when he took over from his assassinated father.

Presiding over a government widely criticised as corrupt and incompetent, he was constitutionally due to quit office in December 2016 at the end of his second elected mandate.

But he has remained in power until a successor is elected, provoking street protests that have been violently repressed resulting in several deaths. Whether Kabila will run again has become a toxic issue — candidates must register by July 25.

'Father of democracy'

In June, Kabila himself paid a visit to Lubumbashi in what looked much like a pre-electoral trip while he ignored pressing demands from his opponents to pledge publicly to quit office.

The president inaugurated a number of constructions presented as symbols of a determination to modernise the former Belgian Congo, long run to ruin and then the theatre of terrible wars in 1996-2003.

Giant posters in Lubumbashi hailed "the father of Congolese democracy", a man first swept into office by politicians 17 years ago after the murder of his rebel father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, by a bodyguard.

Katumbi left in May 2016 to seek medical treatment abroad — and his followers fervently believe their champion will end his self-imposed exile in Belgium and return to see off Kabila.

But there's a big question mark: he was convicted in his absence over a murky property deal which, for now, blocks his return to declare himself a candidate. "If he comes back, he will be in the hands of justice", Congolese Foreign Minister Leonard She Okitundu said on Sunday.

Katumbi's brother, Abraham Soriano, who left with him in May 2016, was allowed freely to return at the beginning of June to become federal chairman of the opposition PND party.

In the meanwhile, his supporters, gathered in the Ensemble ("Together") coalition, say they have been prevented from campaigning in Katanga.

"The headquarters of my party UNAFEC has been officially sealed for two years," protested Gabriel Kyungu Wa Kumwanza, a prominent figure in the region and beyond.

A portrait of Katumbi that adorned the entrance to the offices of another opposition party was burned in June.

A third element has made things even more unpredictable — former warlord and ex-vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, who has been acquitted of war crimes charges in The Hague. It remains unclear whether he intends to stage a political comeback — and if he faces prosecution if he comes back. — AFP