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Oddly Enough

Congo's "phantom minister" tarnishes new cabinet

KINSHASA (Reuters) - As ministers in Congo’s first democratic government in four decades settled into their new offices on Thursday, 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 or abuse of power, 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 ever heard of him.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga later admitted Ilunga had missed meetings with them. In his absence, at least three other Ilungas stepped forward to claim the post.

Few in Democratic Republic of Congo believe Ilunga ever existed, and papers 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.

Even in the vast former Belgian colony, used to decades of kleptocracy and chaos under late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the tale has raised eyebrows.

“It’s just bizarre. Nowhere else in the world could you attempt to swear in a ghost,” said civil servant Charles Yoshad.

TARNISHED GOVERNMENT

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 an estimated 4 million people, mainly through hunger and disease.

The cabinet -- at 60 members one of the world’s largest -- was named on February 5, cobbled together after a month of consultations between the prime minister and members of the coalition that helped Kabila win presidential polls last year.

They began moving into their offices on Wednesday -- except for Ilunga.

Hoping to uncover Ilunga’s whereabouts, the prime minister phoned UNAFEC president Kisimba, to be told Ilunga had resigned.

Ilunga’s reasons for not claiming his post are “secret” and were contained in a letter to the prime minister, Kasimba said.

“He wrote it himself. He signed it,” Kisimba told Reuters on Thursday. “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 given ministerial post, put forward himself and the unknown Ilunga.

“He wanted the job for himself,” said Kyungu, adding that Gizenga derailed the plan by unexpectedly picking the fictitious name instead of Kisimba, a one-time spokesman for Mobutu. Gizimba was a Mobutu opponent.

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 currently gathered in Kinshasa to discuss the crisis and a party convention would be held to choose a new president.

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