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The Democratic Republic of Congo is scheduled to hold long-delayed elections in less than two weeks that should lead to the country's first democratic transfer of power. Outgoing President Joseph Kabila, who has governed the vast, mineral-rich and sometimes violent nation since 2001, is barred from seeking a third term. In a rare interview with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Kabila has not ruled out running again at a future date.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Forty-seven-year-old Joseph Kabila has been president of Congo since he took power after his father was assassinated nearly 18 years ago. Kabila's political opponents accuse him of having clung to power by postponing elections way past his two-term constitutional limit, which ended in 2016, and by violently cracking down on protesters who called for his immediate departure two years ago.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: We stated way back, some 10 years ago, that the Constitution was going to be respected. It's effectively what has been done.
QUIST-ARCTON: However, it was only earlier this year that Kabila announced he would not challenge the Constitution or seek a third term. He told NPR his government's top priority had been to dampen a continuing rebellion in restive eastern Congo, which took time and resources, before shifting its attention to the huge task of voting for a new president of Congo, a country the size of western Europe brimming with natural resources.
KABILA: I have always wanted these elections to be perfect elections, and I don't use that word lightly. We want them to be perfect elections - meaning before the elections, during the campaign, and especially after the elections after the results are announced.
QUIST-ARCTON: Post-election violence has marred two previous disputed ballots in Congo held under Kabila's watch. He says he wants to guarantee a smooth, credible and peaceful single-round vote on December 23 and handover to his successor. That would be uncharted territory for Congo, which has never witnessed a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960. Speaking to NPR at his farmhouse outside Kinshasa, Kabila assessed his time as president but was a little vague about his ambitions. So might he run for office again in the future as Congo's Constitution allows?
KABILA: I said in life, you don't rule out anything - be it in life, be it in politics. So I don't rule out going to the moon. I won't rule that out. I'm not going to rule out any other option.
QUIST-ARCTON: Responding to his critics, Kabila has dismissed what he says are wild allegations of corruption circulating about his family's reported wealth. I put it to him that since he arrived in Congo's capital with his late father, who ousted long-term President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, he appears to have made money.
Have you become a wealthy man?
KABILA: I don't know what wealthy - a wealthy man means. I believe that the Congolese should be the primary investors in their own country.
QUIST-ARCTON: Switching to global affairs, Kabila says Congo is willing to work with all its international partners, from the U.S. to China, but no one should think that they can dictate to his country, which faces periodical criticism by Western powers and especially rights groups, for delaying elections, allegations of human rights violations and more.
KABILA: The Congo does not take any orders from anybody. Advice, yes, but the Congo is our country. We know the Congo better than anybody, and we believe that the choices that we make for our people are the best choices.
QUIST-ARCTON: Congo's main opposition leaders disagree. They hope to defeat Kabila's handpicked candidate, who has the backing of the presidential coalition, in the first-past-the-post vote. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Kingakati. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.