-- A week ago, Maj. Gen. Joseph Kabila still could sit with friends and concoct a sly plan for an anonymous night out. A teetotaler and social introvert, he seldom ventured into Kinshasa's nightclubs. But he often craved a few hours in a downtown bar favored by other officers, and reckoned the key to relaxation hinged on leaving his two regular bodyguards and their guns out in the Jeep Cherokee.
Kabila would then proceed inside alone, secure in the knowledge that almost no one knew what he looked like.
Today, the anonymity described by associates must be the most distant of luxuries for Africa's youngest head of state. In the seven days since his father, Congolese President Laurent Kabila, was felled by a 9mm bullet to the brain and Joseph, 31, was named his successor, he has inherited the dysfunctional government of a nation mired in poverty and war, while being introduced to a world eager to take his measure.
So far, public glimpses of the new leader have been scant and tightly controlled: video footage of ceremonial handshakes, brief meetings with ambassadors of the world powers that had grown so exasperated with his mercurial father.
Already, however, a sketchy portrait of the new Congolese president has begun to emerge -- one that in crucial ways offers hope that Congo's stubborn status quo could change and that steps toward resolving its 2 1/2-year civil war may be taken.
"Joseph doesn't want to fight anymore," said one close associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
By all accounts, Laurent Kabila stood as the major impediment to a peaceful settlement of the war launched in August 1998 to unseat him. A peace accord he signed in the summer of 1999 remained unfulfilled largely because he kept staging new offensives while blocking deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in government-held territory.
Diplomats who met Joseph Kabila last week emerged clutching a hope that things have changed.
The diplomats were summoned on Thursday from the embassies of the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France, as well as Belgium, Congo's former colonial master. Rounding out the list was Kamel Marjane, the Tunisian who represents U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Congo peacekeeping mission, known by the French abbreviation MONUC.
Comparing notes afterward, the diplomats found the soft-spoken young president had said the same to each.
" 'For peace to be returned, all Security Council resolutions had to be in effect,' " one ambassador quoted Kabila as saying. "He said MONUC had a very important and very real job to do. He wanted MONUC to deploy."
Analysts here said Kabila's message obviously came as much from the corrupt but desperate government that survived his father as from the new president chosen as its public face. The war, which consumes as much as 80 percent of government spending, has battered an economy already in shambles when Kabila came to power in 1997.
"Within [Laurent] Kabila's court, among ministers, among the intelligentsia of Kinshasa and the middle class, there has been a very clear view that there's another way to handle the [peace] process," one diplomat said.
But it was also clear that it was a message the younger Kabila appeared comfortable delivering.
"He was very confident in himself, very sure of what he wanted to say," the ambassador said.
Congolese officials remain vague on when Kabila will be inaugurated. The question has turned out to be sensitive among Congolese, who held little affection for the old Kabila and appear leery of his successor.
"I haven't heard a good word about Joseph," said one Kinshasa resident. "I think, on general principle, the idea of Kabila's son slipping in bothers them."
Joseph is the eldest of Kabila's children, thought to number 10 by several wives. He was born either in eastern Congo, where his father spent most of his adult life as a self-designated rebel leader, or Tanzania, where Laurent Kabila had a second career as a bar owner and gadabout. Either way, the son reflects his early influences as reliably as the father reflected his -- if less colorfully.
Laurent Kabila came of age as a Marxist, leading rebels in the mountains above Africa's Great Lakes in the mid-1960s and drawing no less a tutor than Ernesto "Che" Guevara. After months working with Kabila, Guevara departed more than a bit disillusioned.
But Kabila remained a true believer. In May 1997, when he swept into Kinshasa at the head of a Rwandan-backed rebellion and toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, he brought the Marxist dialectic with him -- eight years after the Cold War was over. He organized Committees for Popular Power. North Korea sent officers to train the hapless Congolese army. Western businessmen returned from exploratory visits to Kinshasa reeling from what one called "Marxist mumbo jumbo."
"That's Kabila," a foreign analyst with long experience in Central Africa said before Kabila's death. "He's a historical footnote made good. He preserved in amber the political rhetoric of the African liberation movement.
"He's Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 1967. Actually, he's Austin Powers."
Joseph Kabila, by contrast, was educated in Kenya and Uganda, in schools that operated on the British model. One friend described him as "Western-thinking," another as "very correct." Single and without children, he lived until last week in a relatively modest house beside a military base.
Acquaintances describe Joseph Kabila as reserved and unaffected. In restaurants he orders eggs and cornmeal and, in the words of one friend, "wouldn't know a fine wine from grape juice." He drives around Kinshasa in the Cherokee or a Range Rover Discovery.
The younger Kabila's first languages are Swahili and English, a potential problem in a capital that speaks French and Lingala. Some observers speculate that is why he has yet to address the nation -- because he can't credibly speak its official language, French -- but others say that after three years in Kinshasa his French has improved.
Mwenze Kongolo, the justice minister who was among the inner circle who elevated the son, said his silence is better explained by grief. "Even though you see him doing some official work, it's just an expression of a man of strong character," Kongolo said.
The son emerged publicly four years ago, midway through the war that deposed Mobutu. That rebellion, like the start of Congo's current war, was stage-managed by neighboring Rwanda, which pushed into Congo to vanquish ethnic Hutu extremists who had fled there after slaughtering at least a half-million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
To put a Congolese face on the assault, the Rwandans and their allies chose Laurent Kabila, the old bush fighter. And when, as the rebels pushed west toward Kinshasa, the key river city of Kisangani fell, Laurent Kabila introduced Joseph, then perhaps 27, as the commander who took it.
In fact, that battle, like the entire Congo war, had been directed by the soft-spoken Rwandan colonel who was often nearby, James Kabarebe. "I went with him to all fronts, up to Kinshasa," said Kabarebe, who remained in the capital for months afterward to train Congolese troops.
After taking power, Laurent Kabila sent Joseph to China for six months of military training. When he returned, he was made a major general and given command of all land forces in a new war. This time it was against Rwanda, which after falling out with Laurent Kabila launched a fresh rebellion in August 1998, joined by Uganda, another erstwhile Kabila ally.
That war settled into the stalemate that continues today. Now, after reverses on the southeastern front that mirrored defeats in the northwest four months earlier, Joseph Kabila is described as ready to accede to the will of Congo's allies and embrace diplomacy.
"We can't win," one associate said, "and he knows it."