Monday, January 28, 2019

Kinshasa 2019 - Where does a new President lay his Head?

On January 24, 2019, Felix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo was sworn in as fifth President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The grand event, an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power, was the first in nearly 60 years of Independence.  It took place at the Palais de la Nation, today the President’s Office, but originally constructed in the late 1950s as the residence of the Governor General of the colony (Sep. 12, 2011). 
January 24, 2019 - Felix Tshisekedi takes the oath of office at the Palais de la Nation (Photo:
At Independence, June 30, 1960, the first President, Joseph Kasavubu, also took the oath of office in the Palais de la Nation, but he was not destined to be its first resident, because the Belgians had decided to convert the facility into the Parliament of the new nation.  What about the former Governor General’s residence, the late 1920s edifice 100 meters up Ave. Tilkens (now Ave. du Fleuve)?  That was assigned as the official residence of the Prime Minister, Kasavubu’s rival, Patrice Emery Lumumba.  On the eve of Independence, at which neither politician had sufficient seats in Parliament to form a government, a compromise was worked out whereby Kasavubu became President and Lumumba the Prime Minister. The new President moved out to Mont Stanley (Mont Ngaliema) to the recently completed residence of the Governor of Leopoldville Province.
The first Official Residence of the President of the Congo (Photo: author coll.)
The Governor General's residence in the late 1950s.  It became the Prime Minister's residence at Independence
(Photo: author coll.)
The Provincial Governor’s residence was built on a spectacular site overlooking the Kinsuka rapids of the Congo River during Governor Julien Babilon’s term in office (1955-59). During this time, the Stanley Monument and Provincial Office Building (now the Ministry of Defense) were completed on the summit of Mont Stanley, adding to the urbanization of the area led by Imafor’s “100 Maisons” residential subdivision. The residence was an International Style box in two stories, with the top floor projecting over the base on all sides.  In addition to initiating construction of the Residence, Governor Babilon also gave his name to Quartier Babylon in Kintambo Commune, built by the Office des Cités Africains in the mid-1950s (Sep. 30, 2011).
The President's Residence on Mt. Ngaliema. Ministry of Defense building on left (Photo: author coll.)

President Kasavubu on the balcony of the Residence (Photo: author coll.)

In September 1960, as tension between Kasavubu and Lumumba escalated, both he and Lumumba requested the United Nations provide a security detail at their residences. On September 15, Mobutu staged a coup neutralizing both Kasavubu and Lumumba and essentially confining Lumumba to house arrest. In November 1960, Lumumba slipped through double rings of UN and Congolese Army guards around the Prime Minister’s residence and sought to escape to Stanleyville (Kisangani).  He was apprehended in Kasai province, returned to Leopoldville, then transferred to Katanga in January 1961, where he was assassinated. Kasavubu continued to conduct affairs of state, receiving new Ambassadors, government ministers and supplicants.  He remained at the official residence until Mobutu’s second coup on November 24, 1965. 
A UN security detail at Kasavubu's residence (Photo: Corbis)
Meanwhile, General Mobutu, the strongman behind the Presidency, established his headquarters in what became Camp Tshatshi, strategically located adjacent to the Presidential Residence.  In 1964 he notified Imafor’s subsidiary, Imbaleo, that he was taking over “100 Maisons” to expand the Camp (Imafor was a real estate company established by Joseph Rhodius, Director of the Texaf textile complex). No compensation has ever been paid to Texaf or Imafor. After the coup, he began to expand the grounds around the Presidential Residence, creating formal gardens along the bluff between the residence and Stanley Monument and extending a vast Presidential Zoo down Mont Ngaliema to the river.  He used the Residence more as an office and venue for receiving official visitors, preferring to sleep in the security of fortified Camp Tshatshi.  In 1967 as well, Congo hosted the annual meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and a new conference center with villas for 40 heads of state was built southwest of the Residence.  In July 1976, during the heyday of US-Zaire relations, Mobutu hosted a huge Bicentennial reception for the American community, at which Mwana Mboka and new best friend were privileged to shake the “Grand Leopard’s” hand.
Mobutu and Foreign Minister Bomboko Lokumba receiving the press at the Residence (Photo: author coll.)
OAU Village around 1971. President's Residence in upper right. (Photo: Elisofon Collection, Smithsonian Institution)
In 1970, the Governor of the Central Bank, Albert Ndele, began building an “official residence” for himself in the hills of the Binza district in Ngaliema Commune.  He tapped the skills of the team of Eugene Palumbo and Fernand Tala N’gai who designed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs complex (1965) and the Supreme Court (1969) (Aug. 20, 2011) and the thinking of the team for the Supreme Court can clearly be seen in the circular plan from which the rest of the building and grounds radiated. It was an opulent structure, reportedly using Italian marble from a quarry that supplied the Vatican. The result, taking in the topography of the site, was said to resemble to map of the Congo (see inset below). Ndele was named Minister of Finance in September 1970 (considered a demotion), then dismissed in November.  Although the Bank claimed the property in its inventory, it passed under the control of the Presidency and served as a guest house for high ranking visitors.  Among others, US National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, stayed there in April 1976.
The Palais de Marbre. Inset in the shape of the Congo.  (Photo: Lagae & DeRaedt, 2015)
In November 1975, President Mobutu laid the first stone for a new Palais du Peuple on Ave. Triomphal which was to be built under the terms of bilateral cooperation with China. As early as the mid-1960s Mobutu had requested designs from such architects such as Marcel Lambrichs (Aug.15, 2011) and Anibal Baldo for new Parliament building.  This building, completed in the 1980s, became the new home of a moribund Parliament which had started with such anticipation in June 1960 on the banks of the Congo in the Palais de la Nation.
The Palais du Peuple in 2010 (Photo: Wikinshasa)
 In 1977, Mobutu reintroduced the office of Prime Minister (his post-coup Prime Minister, Leonard Mulamba lasted less than a year).  The new Prime Minister was Mpinga Kasenda, a rising star in the state political party, the MPR.  He moved into the former residence of the Otraco Director in Ngaliema Commune overlooking Ngaliema Bay off Ave. Mondjiba adjacent Kintambo.  The building, built in the 1920s (King Albert and Queen Elisabeth stayed there during their visit in 1928. Aug. 22, 2018), is contemporary to the Prime Minister’s residence in Kalina, which now serves as the Prime Minister’s office. 

The Prime Ministers's residence in 2011 (Photo: Wikinshasa)
The original building, probably during King Albert and Queen Elisabeth's visit in 1928. Photo by Zagourski.
(Photo: author coll.)
In 2004, under the "1 + 4" Peace Accord formula, VP Arthur Zahidi Ngoma lived in the residence. 
I used to tell people I had a "distant" view of the river from my apartment. (Photo: author coll.)
In 1982, Prof. Lumuna Sando, a critic of the Mobutu regime, reported to the Second Russell Tribunal in Rotterdam, that Mobutu had three principal residences in Kinshasa; the original Kasavubu residence, which served as his office; the Palais de Marbre, often used as an official guest house; and a “Palais Privé” behind the Okapi Hotel in Binza.  However, the President preferred to stay within Camp Tshatshi, in a residence known as “OAU II”, reported to include an underground prison cell.  As the Mobutu regime came increasingly under pressure to open political space, the President often spent weeks at a time at his official residence in Gbadolite, his home village in Equateur Province.  In fact, the President had official residences in all Provincial capitals and many smaller municipalities.
The Lion fountain in Mobutu's palace in Gbadolite (Photo: Monuc)
President Mobutu chose to announce an opening for multi-party politics in April 1990 at the Nsele Pagoda (June 4, 2017), another of his palaces, though not used as a residence.  Mobutu imagined that this gesture might result in one or two opposition parties, but overnight, hundreds of new political groupings were registered. In March the following year, Mobutu signed an Ordonnance creating a constitutional conference called the Conférence Nationale Souveraine (CNS), held at the Palais du Peuple, to elaborate a framework for the Third Republic.  The CNS opened in August, but before anything could be accomplished, the “Pillages” of September 22-23 rocked Kinshasa and spread throughout the rest of the country.  On September 28, Mobutu met with opposition members at the Palais de Marbre which resulted in the nomination of Etienne Tshisekedi (Felix's father) as Prime Minister on the 30th. A long-term opposition figure and founder of UDPS in 1982, Tshisekedi was appointed Prime Minister on October 16 in a ceremony at the Palais de Marbre, but two days later Mobutu changed his mind and chose another opposition figure, Mungul Diaka.
"Pillage du 23 au 24 Sept. 1991 a Kinshasa" - Pierre Bodo (Photo: Art Richelieu Castor-Hara)
The country continued to limp along from crisis to crisis (a second Pillage in January 1993) and a series of seven government reshuffles, in which Tshisekedi was appointed two more times, the last for a week in April 1997.  On May 17, 1997, the AFDL led by Laurent Kabila captured Kinshasa.  Kinshasa residents joined the conquerors and sacked the President’s official residence on Mont Ngaliema and attacked other symbols of the departed dictator.  Laurent Kabila moved into the Palais de Marbre. On January 16, 2001, one of his body guards shot him as he was working in his office.  The building was largely abandoned and is only open to the public on January 16 and 17 each year (anniversaries of Kabila and Lumumba’s assassinations).  Visitors may view the office just as it was on the day he was shot, including blood stains.
Visitors lining up to visit the Palais de Marbre. (Photo:
Kids waiting to visit Laurent Kabila's Mausoleum - January 16, 2017. The dome of the Palais de la Nation in the background (Photo: author coll.)
Laurent’s son, Joseph Kabila Kabange, was named President by the late President’s entourage.  He moved to a property at the summit of Avenue de l’Ouganda overlooking Ngaliema Bay in Gombe Commune, which he developed into a sumptuous personal residence. When questioned about his personal plans after the CENI named Felix Tshisekedi the winner of the Presidential race, Kabila indicated he was not planning to leave where he was.  Prime Minister Tshibala, occupying the Primature residence in Ngaliema Commune, relocated to a villa on Ave. Justice in Gombe, so the Prime Minister’s residence could be readied for the new President.  At the time of posting, Tshisekedi and family had moved from the Hotel du Fleuve, located mid-way between the Palais de la Nation and Kabila’s residence to the Cité de l’Union Africaine (ex-OAU). The historic preservationist in me would like to see the Kasavubu residence rebuilt.  There is precedent: the White House in Washington, DC after the War of 1812 and the Imperial Palace in Tokyo after World War II.
The Cite de l'OUA shortly after completion in 1967

Lagae, Johan and Kim DeRaedt, 2015. “Building for ‘Authenticite’ Eugene Palumbo and the Architecutre of Mobutu’s Congo”, Journal of Architectural Education, Oct. 2015.

Texaf – Price Waterhouse Coopers report on creation of Imbakin Holding SA, Mar. 25, 2014 (

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