TOPICS > Politics

Congo’s Future

January 23, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on Kabila’s death and Congo’s new president, we get three views. Faida Mitifu is Democratic Republic of the Congo’s ambassador to the United States. Susan Rice served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the Clinton administration. And Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He’s written extensively about central Africa. Philip Gourevitch, who would want Laurent Kabila dead and why?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, Laurent Kabila was never suffering from a shortage of enemies. He was not a popular leader. He was a deeply unpopular leader. And with time, he managed to stay in power largely by playing off former allies against one another, and to do so both externally, with countries that had supported his original rise to power and playing them off against one another, but also internally. As time went on, he became increasingly a man who ruled by a paranoid style of government. And since he did not really govern so much as hold power, he did nothing for the people or for the country. He simply maintained power and maintained his name attached to the presidency. He consistently consolidated his power more and more in the hands of an ethnic base from his home province of Katanga. There was a clique within the government and also within the military. And there seems to have been a good deal of disgruntlement amongst those who saw their position in the country being threatened by this Katangese core, as well as one hears lots of stories about deep dissatisfaction with Kabila on the part of his external allies, Angola and Zimbabwe, and to a lesser degree Namibia, who have essentially propped him up in power while he faces a rebel and foreign threat in the East.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Mitifu, what has your government been able to determine about the murder? Who was behind it? Who was interested in having it happen?

FAIDA MITIFU: My government has abstained itself from pointing at anybody so far. The investigation continues. We know that he has been shot by a bodyguard, but whether the bodyguard acted on his… on himself or whether somebody or someone or some organization was behind the bodyguard, we don’t know yet. We have some clues so far, but there are not enough to really make a conclusive report about his murder.

RAY SUAREZ: Have there been threats to the president’s life in the past?

FAIDA MITIFU: No, up until so far, no. There haven’t been any threats on the president’s life except before the one that left the country when the former chief of staff actually attempted to enter the provincial compound with a silent revolver. But since then, I’ve never heard of any attempt on the president’s life.

RAY SUAREZ: The government in Kinshasa and its new president, Joseph Kabila, how much of this large country do they really control?

FAIDA MITIFU: Well, we control about half of the national territory, and hopefully we’ll be able to control and administer the entire country. We control the entire western part of the country, and also a little more than half of the central part of the country and a little bit toward the north… northern part of the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Susan Rice, would you agree with that understanding of how far the government in Kinshasa has really run? I mean, this is a place if you put it over Western Europe, it would cover much of Western Europe. Do they really control half the country?

SUSAN RICE: Half the country is under governmental control; roughly half remains under rebel control. One of the difficulties in governing the Congo historically even before the invasion of Rwanda and Uganda was the fact that it’s a vast country with limited infrastructure. And so in the best of circumstances, the writ of the central government in Kinshasa is relatively weak over the far-flung provinces. But as a matter of law and as a matter of practical facts on the ground, until the invasion, obviously the government in Kinshasa had sovereign control over the entirety of Congo’s territory, and now it’s about 50 percent.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the killing of President Kabila create new circumstances that might create an opening for peace, for settlement between warring factions, or does it create a recipe for more chaos in the short term?

SUSAN RICE: I think it’s very difficult to tell, Ray, in a short term what’s going to come about in the Congo. One would certainly hope that any change, and this change in particular, might lead to greater resolve on the part of the government and the people of Congo, as well as the belligerents fighting in the Congo to see peace finally come to pass. That would mean all of the concerned parties redoubling their efforts to implement the Lusaka agreement, which was signed in 1999, which remains, in my judgment, the most viable basis for peace in the Congo. It has the elements that can lead to the withdrawal of foreign forces, democratization and opening of political space, as well as the necessary steps to rid the Congo of rebel elements that have been destabilizing Congo’s neighbors.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, why was the Lusaka accord never put into place? Why did the UN force never take up its positions in your country?

FAIDA MITIFU: I believe it’s because the Lusaka accord has lots of flaws in it. I remember even when it was signed, journalists commenting the Lusaka accord that it was an accord that was almost impossible to implement. You will remember that when we signed the Lusaka accord, the international community had not recognized yet Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi as armies of occupation. It was talking about rebels. It was talking about, of course, the inter-Congolese dialogue, which we are and still are committed to. And it tended to tie directly the Congolese dialogue with the withdrawal of foreign forces, and it was… in the beginning it was difficult because also the UN as well also trailed its feet before sending in observers. So there was a lot of problems, and there were also, in the country, most people believed that we should not negotiate the integrity of our territory. Also, Lusaka was not popular, because the people felt as if they were not consulted when it was signed and they didn’t feel like they were bound to Lusaka. So there was that internal pressure also on our government.

RAY SUAREZ: Philip Gourevitch, maybe you could give us a quick look at who is on the ground there. What foreign armies have taken up positions inside the country, and how do they rack up against each other?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, essentially, the country is divided in half, east to west. And in the east, you have Uganda and Rwanda, who are backing rebel movement, some of which are fairly substantial and have a fair amount of internal structure, and some of which are really proxy puppet movements. And they occupy about half of the country, and they are fighting generally together against two forces: The government formally of Laurent Kabila and now handed off by his cronies to his son, without, of course, any consultation whatsoever with the will of the Congolese people; and also fighting against the former genocidal militias of the Rwandan genocide, who are alive with Kabila’s government.

To a large degree, Kabila’s decision to ally with these genocider provoked the current war, and various other factions. There’s Burundi in the east, there’s Uganda fighting some of its own issues. On the other side, basically Kabila’s army really was unable to… Kabila was never able to defend his own territory; he was supported in the war by Angola and Zimbabwe primarily, and to a lesser degree Namibia. Some troops came in from Chad, but they were badly beaten and withdrew. Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi has consistently supported that struggle as well on behalf of the Kabila regime. So right now really — and this is what one saw today at the funeral of Kabila — the primary security force of the so-called government of the Congo is, in fact, Zimbabwe and Angolan troops. So you have a country divided between two vying groups of foreign alliances who are probably going to have to negotiate or fight out what will come next, which is deeply uncertain.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Susan Rice, the new administration now finds itself with this new or old/new problem, a huge and unstable country in the heart of a continent that they’re just now trying to come to grips with. What’s on tap for America as it looks to Central Africa?

SUSAN RICE: I think the United States’ interest in Central Africa and the Congo remain consistent. And our approach is unlikely to change dramatically under the new administration. We have strongly backed the Lusaka agreement. We continue to think it’s viable and important to be implemented. I would have to respectfully disagree with the ambassador about the reasons for Lusaka’s failure. It was a complicated agreement, but it was inherently a balanced agreement. It had something in it for everybody, first and foremost for the people of Congo, who would get their sovereignty restored and a democratic process under way. Secondly, security for Rwanda’s neighbors, which as Philip correctly said, has been a critical issue and one of the precipitating factors in the conflict. And of course the withdrawal of the foreign forces, which is part of the restoration of sovereignty. The reason the agreement wasn’t implemented is because the signatories didn’t abide by their commitments. And in particular, President Kabila’s government failed to implement its end of the deal. Now there’s blame to go around, and all of the sides share in that. But I think it’s particularly important to note that President Kabila and his government blocked, for a long time, the deployment of the United Nations — it wasn’t that the UN was dragging its feet — and made it very difficult for Congo’s allies, even those from Angola and Zimbabwe who have a greater interest in seeing Lusaka effectively implemented to get on with the business of peace in the region and developing their own countries.

RAY SUAREZ: Is peace possible in your country in the near term?

FAIDA MITIFU: Absolutely, peace is possible. Peace is possible because we are committed to peace. If in this government and Joseph’s leadership during this interim period, is committed to peace. We’re calling him a president who is actually residing during this short time, which is the interim period, because we want, and have always wanted, that the new leader of the DRC will have to have the mandate of the people. We are committed to elections. Last time when President Kabila was in New York, he said that again, and renewed his commitment, actually, to elections in the country. That’s very important for us.

RAY SUAREZ: Madam Ambassador, guests, thank you very much.