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What’s Next for the Congo?

May 19, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And we have two perspectives on the man who just declared himself president of the Congo and his intentions. We turn to Chester Crocker, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa during the Reagan administration, now a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and Salih Booker, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations-Africa Studies program. Starting with you, Salih Booker, is it a big surprise that this transition has taken off so peacefully?

SALIH BOOKER, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, it’s a pleasant surprise. We shouldn’t be shocked at it. We should welcome it, and we should encourage this same sort of peaceful transition as much as we can.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Chester Crocker, a surprise to you?

CHESTER CROCKER, Former State Department Official: I think we’re lucky. I think we’re lucky, but obviously we should support this and make clear that we will support the effort to get Zaire back on its feet as the Congo, conditional support of course, because it’s not a blank check we’re talking about.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what do you think it says this peaceful transitions about the intentions of Laurent Kabila, the self-appointed president?

CHESTER CROCKER: It doesn’t tell me much there’s such a great desire to get rid of the old regime and to get into a new era that I think everybody is welcoming this writhing course with open arms. It’s early days to render judgment about Mr. Kabila’s intentions. He’ll appoint his new government in a day or so. He’ll define his transition process in the coming weeks after that, and then we’ll have more to go on.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Salih Booker, do you think that Kabila could be counted on to institute democracy and democratic forms, or, as some people have charged, he’s just going to be another Mobutu, another dictator, another tyrant?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, I think the important element is that I think the people of Zaire are not going to expect another dictator. I think he will enjoy a honeymoon period of incredible political support, but I think if he does not act democratically and that is, if he excludes democratic forces from this transition process, I think he’ll find a great deal of resistance, and if that’s the case, he won’t be able to create the political stability necessary for the country to get on addressing their problems of economic reconstruction, so I think for pragmatic reasons or even for opportunistic reasons he’s likely to reach out and try to be more inclusive.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What’s your view on that?

CHESTER CROCKER: I agree, but I think also the international system will not give him that long of a honeymoon. He’s going to have to make some new relationships and open some new channels of discussion with all the outside powers, all the neighboring countries, as well as with the international, financial, and credit agencies. And that’s all part of beginning to operate politically in the world. He’s been operating militarily. Now it’s becoming a political game.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you think that the international community has some leverage?

CHESTER CROCKER: No question about it.

SALIH BOOKER: I agree. I think the international community does have leverage. I think the western countries, in particular, though, who supported Mobutu for three decades also have some of a historic responsibility and need to commit themselves to providing the resources, some of the resources necessary for reconstruction of that country. Some supporters of Kabila and of the alliance may feel that the West is in no position to lecture the alliance on democratic practices or human rights because of the West’s past support for Mobutu, so I think all parties involved have an obligation to commit themselves to the same sort of principles.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Members of Kabila’s alliance were holding meetings today with the opposition politicians who opposed Mobutu long before all of this. Must they be included for all of this to work, and, if they’re not, what are the consequences?

CHESTER CROCKER: I would assume they have to be included because you cannot govern that vast country, which is really, you know, so huge. We’re always hearing bigger than the U.S. East of the Mississippi, and it’s a big place; with an army largely borrowed from neighboring countries and with a narrow ethnic base, you’ve got to reach out, and you’ve got to be inclusive, and you can’t just decide who from the other groups you would like to have on your ministerial team and cabinet. You have to also listen, and that’s going to be the real key on Mr. Kabila’s future, I think, is whether or not he’s a listener. Let’s hope he is. I’ve heard mixed reports, but let’s hope he is.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you heard the gentleman in the taped piece just then say that he has to cooperate with Etien Tsekedi. What do you think the prospects of that are, and what would happen if he doesn’t?

SALIH BOOKER: I think the prospects are good. As I said for pragmatic reasons, it’s necessary to have that kind of cooperation in order to achieve the political stability throughout this enormous country that they need in order to get on with reconstruction and in order to be able to attract investment and trade in the kind of economic activity that’s going to fuel this rehabilitation of Zaire’s economy.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, members of Kabila’s forces–he has not yet come into Kinshasa–he’s still in Lubumbashi, but members of his group were meeting today with the opposition politicians, which gives you some indication that they’re thinking about it, but he, himself, nor any of them has mentioned elections.

CHESTER CROCKER: Elections are not the issue that’s uppermost in the agenda right now I wouldn’t have thought. I mean, you don’t rush into something like that. You prepare it. And you build consensus. You build a framework that hopefully acquires legitimacy because of what you do and the way you do it, and then you get to election, but if you start today with elections, I mean, the country is not in any position, I don’t think, to do it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But even talking about elections?

SALIH BOOKER: Right. I think the authority, the transitional authority has to make a commitment to move toward a process of elections whereby the people of Zaire can finally determine their own leadership, but I don’t think we could impose a short time frame on such a process, I mean, in part, for the sheer physical obstacles with organizing elections in Zaire. It’s going to take some time to adjust. But on that meeting earlier today, I’ve also heard reports of that meeting, I mean, I think there will be tensions between Etien Tsekedi and Kabila and between some other political figures as well.

I don’t think it’s going to be a happy love feast but I do think that there’s going to be a practical side of Kabila, or certainly of his advisers, that they’ll recognize they need the participation of essentially leaders of what was a pro-democracy movement in Zaire, certainly since the beginning of the 90′s.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, Kabila is not Tutsi, but many of those who supported him, the neighboring countries, Rwanda and so on supported his forces, and many of the young men who make up his alliance are Tutsis. Do you see that as a potential problem?

CHESTER CROCKER: It just indicates the point we’ve been making that he has to broaden the base beyond that. I don’t think any leader could rely on that as the primary base in a country as diverse with other key ethnic and regional constituencies that need representation–need a voice, including Tsekedi, of course, but–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: There are 45 million people in Zaire and over what 200 and some ethnic groups, linguistic groups?

CHESTER CROCKER: That’s about right.

SALIH BOOKER: It’s a very diverse country, but I don’t think there’s that much of a danger at the moment of it falling apart or breaking apart as sometimes speculate. The people of Zaire, amazingly, have held this country together over the last three decades, and I think civil society in Zaire deserves a lot of credit for holding the political culture and sort of natural and territorial integrity of the country together. They’re committed to a sort of single political culture throughout the nation.

CHESTER CROCKER: They are today, and let’s hope it stays that way.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: One of the men in the taped piece said we want a dictator but we want a respect for law. I mean, is that a sentiment there, that another dictator would be okay, because many Africans argue–leaders argue that with so many ethnic groups you’ve got to have a strong hand–I mean, that’s what–argues in Kenya-you’ve got to have totalitarian–authoritarian rule.

SALIH BOOKER: What’s been a very self-serving argument for these dictators, I don’t think the strong man approach to government in Africa has any credibility anymore and I think more importantly there’s a democratic culture that has developed among the people. Some people may speak about the need for a strong man approach but I think by and large the people of Congo want democratic processes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Chester Crocker, what’s at stake for the region, for this–I mean, experiment or process to work and what’s at stake if it fails?

CHESTER CROCKER: I think it’s kind of poison, a knife edge. It’s a very big challenge; it’s also a very big opportunity. All the countries of Southern Africa, many of which are getting on their feet and showing real prospects and real hope and real dynamism, I think they could gain enormously, as could the countries of Eastern Africa, if Zaire can get on its feet and become something other than the sort of decaying basket case that it has been and so it’s tremendous upside in the mining industry and in the agriculture and transportation and in the use of energy on a regional basis lots of upside. The downside is pretty obvious too. They could–the Zairians if they are not able to do it could drag the region down in a way that would be very unfortunate.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We’ll have to see. Thank you both for joining us.