TOPICS > Nation

Embattled Congo

January 27, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The embattled African nation of the Congo, and its embattled leader. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been nearly three years since Laurent Kabila fought his way across Zaire, a massive country in the heart of Africa, took the capital, ousted one of the continent’s longest-ruling dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko, and had himself sworn in as president of the newly renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.

RAY SUAREZ: President Kabila concedes he didn’t get to the capital on his own. From the first days his army began an insurgency in eastern Congo, he was backed with arms and men from his country’s neighbors, Uganda and Rwanda. Now these neighbors have turned on him, and occupy large chunks of Congo’s territory.

LAURENT KABILA: I was not expecting any war from my former allies. I was taken by surprise — the whole country, the entire country — but we managed to convince some of our friends who believed in the same principles as me that the country must remain independent, sovereign, and the Congo should be defended.

RAY SUAREZ: Those friends have sent their armies in too. Now units from neighboring Zambia, war-ravaged Angola and nearby Zimbabwe are trying to push out the Ugandan- and Rwanda-backed forces. Soldiers from half a dozen countries are now fighting in this weakened giant of a country.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Because of that nation’s location and size, and because of the number of countries involved, the conflict there could be described as Africa’s first world war.

RAY SUAREZ: How quickly it all changed. Just a few years ago, the rebel army’s victory and the departure of Mobutu was met with relief and jubilation in Congo, and in capitals throughout Africa and the west. Laurent Kabila had to come to New York this week to plead for U.N. assistance in keeping Congo intact and his government in power. During a wide-ranging interview with the NewsHour, he complained about the world body’s indifference to Congo’s continuing descent into chaos.

PRESIDENT LAURENT KABILA: I do not appreciate such an attitude of international community because everybody knows that the foreign troops, non-invited troops are occupying Congolese land, so why these attitudes of reluctancy when there is an aggression against a sovereign state?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what kind of help will you want from the rest of the world, given the situation that you have today?

PRESIDENT LAURENT KABILA: We have said it. They have to send U.N. troops in order to push aggressors up to the border of the international boundary. We need U.N. troops not to do anything than to force those people to get out of the Congo, and be the interposition force on international boundary of the Congo and its neighbors.

RAY SUAREZ: U.N. member states have answered all along that the down payment for a peacekeeping force must be a durable cease fire, and so far, getting one has been impossible. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is as big as Western Europe. It borders nine African countries, some in deep trouble. The world is starting to regard the country as too big and too strategically placed to be left to its own fate.

PRESIDENT LAURENT KABILA: No country can be protected when the Congo explodes totally. It is not yet. We are controlling things now. Even those individuals are just not master of the whole situation, entire situation. So there is, up to now, hope that things are going well and we can solve this crisis quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: South Africa’s current president, Thabo Mbeki, and its former president, Nelson Mandela, have both intervened, as has Nigeria’s new president, Olusegun Obasango.

PRESIDENT LAURENT KABILA: As you know, 40 years ago we are just waking up from a colonial rule, and we didn’t have enough time. You can read the history of our country. The U.N. was there once in our country. It did what it did, a big mistake it did, and nobody in Congo is blaming — is trusting the U.N. forces there. We are making tremendous efforts to convince the people that something bad can change to be good. One year in power and we started doing what it has called miracles, bringing a lot of things I can say, a lot of examples in economic and social lives. The changes was very, very fast to come out, and after one year, everything was stopped because of the war.

RAY SUAREZ: Also stopped because of the war, the president says, is his country’s long delayed chances for democracy. Mobutu kept his opposition fragmented, marginalized, small. Kabila had assured the international community he was going to be different from Mobutu; although he scheduled elections, he leaned hard on his opponents as well. When the latest insurgencies began, domestic political development was canceled, suspended until, he says, the country is at peace.

PRESIDENT LAURENT KABILA: In our case, casting votes is a matter of priorities for our society. You can remember that since 1960 with the coup d’etat, with the overthrow of the other democratic elected governments, it was the end of democratic rule in our country, and it is a very, very long time. I don’t know if you have — but I think 40 years of a dictatorship in the country, it is too much. And in the case of Congo, we hope that in our case, we can have in short time the elections, the democratic process established again.

RAY SUAREZ: Laurent Kabila says stories coming out of Congo about the persecution of political opponents are not true. He said there were 400 opposition parties in the capital when he got there at the head of his army. Many were little more than armed gangs.

PRESIDENT LAURENT KABILA: Indeed, it was for the security of the people necessary to stop those so-called groups to continue with kills and keeping guns, and making irresponsible declaration, and fighting themselves, you see. We succeeded to put peace in the country. It was absolutely necessary. And then we said we shall have within two years elections, but first we must have laws governing the creation of the forming of the political parties; we must have the rule, we can’t live as if we are — let’s have rule, and that is what we wanted. We must have the rule to know who is opposition party, who is not, but nobody has registered any political — and the rule is there. So I think what we did was good for our people.

RAY SUAREZ: The factors weighing against the Congo are daunting. During the decades of rule by Mobutu, the national administration fell to pieces, infrastructure dissolved. While Mobutu became one of the world’s richest men, his people fell into profound poverty. Zaire, as the Congo was known under Mobutu, became a faltering giant, vulnerable to the instabilities of its many neighbors. Guerrilla armies used Zaire as a base. Civil wars along its eastern flank spilled over, most recently from Rwanda, creating the horrifying refugee camps that sprang up after frightened Hutus ran out the country after the Hutu murder of 800,000 of Rwanda’s Tutsis.

Mobutu had been allied with the Hutus; Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni backed the Tutsis, who took control of Rwanda; and they backed a Congolese guerrilla leader named Laurent Kabila. As Kabila’s army grabbed control of the eastern Congo, reports started to filter out of large-scale murder of Hutu civilians. Kabila has told international investigators that his then-allies, now occupying enemies, Rwanda’s Tutsi army, are the real culprits.

PRESIDENT LAURENT KABILA: They’re asking me if we did kill people. We said no. But I said, ‘You don’t know. There are Rwandese soldiers killing the Hutus.’ I said, ‘You have privacy.’ He said, ‘Yes, give us permission to go to the other side of the River Congo,’ and I did give the permission. They went there; they come and they say that there were mass killings, mass graves on the other side of Hutus, including women and children.

That was the first step, and then when we were in equatorial province, I did receive the traditional chief of the area, and other citizens who came to Kinshasa informing that those friends of yours, that is the officers of the Rwandese army assisting my people, have killed as many as 17,000 people in equatorial province. So we are for the investigation and — because we asked to be free shall I allow them to do — yes, we have done it in the past, why not now?

RAY SUAREZ: International human rights organizations are still pointing fingers at the Kabila rebel army and government in the disappearance of thousands of refugees. And despite his claims to the contrary, the U.N.’s refugee agencies say Kabila hasn’t cooperated with them. Laurent Kabila has survived four decades in the tumult of civil war and political chaos of central Africa. He says with peace and international support, the people of the Congo can become what they should have been long ago– richer, safer, and freer than they’ve ever been before.