Celebrating a year since his soldiers triumphantly entered Kinshasa, Congolese President Laurent Kabila derided his critics Sunday and told the crowd of 60,000 that "we are heading in the right direction."
"We are holding our heads high for all that we have accomplished," he said in a speech at a Kinshasa stadium. "We are proud and determined to put our plan into practice."On May 17, 1997, Kabila's rebel forces finished their sweep through the Central African nation, formerly known as Zaire, by marching into Kinshasa, and thousands of people turned out to welcome them. It was a time of jubilation, the end of more than 30 years under corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who later died in exile.
Change, it seemed, was at hand.
But Kabila's critics say much has stayed the same in the country he renamed Congo. They say their nation remains an economic wreck with sky-high unemployment, that Kabila runs it with near-dictatorial powers and has little compunction about imprisoning his critics. They also say his soldiers slaughtered thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees during their march to Kinshasa.
Kabila, whose speech met occasional booing amid much applause, dismissed those accusations Sunday.
He accused the international community of backing his critics, saying the rest of the world wanted to see Congo "slithering at their feet."
But he also said that his country was in great need of assistance after so many decades of misrule.
"Congo needs a type of Marshall Plan," he said, asking for $7 billion to reconstruct Congo's ravaged infrastructure.
He said his government had created 50,000 jobs and that people were working to rebuild the country's road system, which after years of neglect is nearly nonexistent in many areas.
Kabila dismissed accusations that his government had become repressive, with arrests of journalists, opposition politicians and rights activists.
"Human rights are resolutely protected in this country," he said.
He again insisted his soldiers had not slaughtered Hutu refugees.
After months of disagreement, the U.N. eventually pulled out investigators trying to look into the allegations of massacres of Rwandan Hutus.
A regional summit on security issues was to have been held in Kinshasa this weekend but was postponed at the last minute, apparently because of lack of interest.
Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Ange-Felix Patasse of the Central African Republic attended Sunday's rally, and other African countries sent delegations.