5 March 2007

Congo-Kinshasa: Odd Case of Phantom Minister

Johannesburg — AS MINISTERS in the Democratic Republic of Congo's first democratic government in four decades settled into their new offices last week, there was one notable absentee.

In a very brief political career, Trade Minister Andre Kasongo Ilunga has become the country's most notorious cabinet member, thanks to a controversy stemming not from corruption, but from whether he actually exists.

When the supposed member of the Unafec party allied to President Joseph Kabila failed to claim his post last month, the press began asking questions. No one had heard of him.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga later admitted Ilunga had missed meetings. In his absence, at least three other Ilungas stepped forward to claim the post. Few in the Congo believe Ilunga ever existed, and newspapers in the capital Kinshasa have dubbed him the "phantom minister".

Senior Unafec officials have accused party president Honorius Kisimba Ngoyof of inventing a ministerial candidate in an elaborate scheme to win the job himself. Kisimba denies this.

The scandal has tarnished the image of Gizenga's new government, which Congolese hope will help rebuild their country after a 1998-2003 war that killed 4-million people.

The cabinet -- at 60 members one of the world's largest -- was named on February 5. Members began moving into their offices on Wednesday -- except for Ilunga. Hoping to uncover his whereabouts, the prime minister phoned Unafec president Kisimba, to be told Ilunga had resigned and that his reasons for not claiming his post were "secret" and were contained in a letter to the prime minister, Kasimba said.

"He wrote it himself. He signed it," Kisimba said. "Could an imaginary man do that?"

Gizenga has said Ilunga remains minister until he resigns in person, and has meanwhile launched an investigation.

But Gabriel Kyungu, Unafec's head in the southern province of Katanga where it is based, has his own explanation. He says Kisimba, acting under a requirement that a party advance two names for a ministerial post, put forward himself and the unknown Ilunga.

"He wanted the job," said Kyungu, adding that Gizenga derailed the plan by unexpectedly picking the fictitious name instead of Kisimba's.

Kyungu said Kisimba had violated the party's regulations and was no longer its boss.

The Unafec president said Kyungu had no authority to fire him, but Kyungu said he had the backing of party leaders now gathered in Kinshasa to discuss the crisis.

A party convention would be held to choose a new president. With Reuters

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