TOPICS > Politics

Second Look: Origins of a Crisis

February 17, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The crisis began last October when rebels in Eastern Zaire launched a military campaign aimed at ousting Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who has ruled Zaire with an iron fist for the past 30 years. The ever-deepening crisis took a turn today when the government rejected a cease-fire with the Tutsi-dominated rebels and launched air raids that killed six and wounded at least twenty people.

This was the first bombing attack against the rebels since they launched their military campaign. Mobutu, ailing with advanced cancer, has retreated to an isolated jungle hide-away in the northern village of Gbadolite and from there has accused the rebels of fighting a proxy war on behalf of the Tutsi-led governments of neighboring Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda.

Last week, the U.N. accused Mobutu’s government of arming exiled Hutu hard-liners. The action is in the Eastern part of the country. There, the conflict is intertwined with the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighboring Rwanda. In Zaire, rebel leader Laurent Kabila, a shadowy figure of uncertain ethnicity, and his Tutsi-dominated forces have carried out a startling four-month offensive that has swept across Eastern Zaire and captured an area the size of the U.S. Eastern seaboard from New York to Atlanta.

And while the advance has slowed in recent days, the rebels are pressing on toward their two main targets, the Southern mining center of Lubumbashi and Kisangani, the commercial hub of Northern Zaire. The loss of these areas could bring down the government.

Last October, Kabila’s movement, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo Zaire, attacked Hutu extremists in the camp on Zaire’s border with Rwanda. The Hutus had fled there after committing genocide in 1994 against Tutsis in Rwanda. Once the Tutsis had regained control in Rwanda, even innocent Hutus joined the exodus in fear of indiscriminate reprisals. But the Hutu extremists used the camps to launch hit-and-run raids against the reconstituted Hutsi-dominated government in Rwanda.

The Kabila-led rebels, joined by Zairian Tutsis, drove the Hutu extremists and many of the innocent refugees out of the camps, some deeper into Zaire’s forests. Many also returned to Rwanda as the government there promised reconciliation.

The Tutsis of Zaire have lived in the country since before it came into existence in 1885 as the congo free state. They are fighting to become recognized as Zairian citizens, a right Mobutu once granted but later rescinded.

Killings of Hutus by the Zairian military in league with the Hutu extremists in the refugee camp has raised the specter of ethnic cleansing of this vulnerable minority population of some 400,000. Zairian Professor George Nzongola argues that land is at the heart of this aspect of the crisis.

GEORGE NZONGOLA, Zairian Professor: In Africa, every people is supposed to have a piece of territory. You may be born anywhere in the world, but you are identified with a little corner, so that this aspect therefore is basically a land question, is a question of competition for land between Rwanda, or Tutsi and Hutu, and indigenous Zairians.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Zaire’s political problems have roots in its colonial past. Like its tiny neighbors to the East, Zaire was a creation of European powers who in 1885 carved up the continent. Belgium reigned over Central Africa, including Zaire, then Belgian Congo. Sir Brian Urquhart, a former United Nations Undersecretary General, has been a longtime observer of the region.

SIR BRIAN URQUHART, Former U.N. Undersecretary General: One of the many, many outcomes of the European colonial carve-up of Africa which was done really with very little knowledge of Africa and no interest in tribal territories or economic boundaries or anything else. They simply cut across tribal or ethnic boundaries, and I think it’s a huge burden on all independent African states now that they have to live with this totally artificial division.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: As the new boundaries were drawn, the Belgians also forcibly relocated huge population groups away from their roots and coerced them into labor on the rubber plantations or in the mines. During the 75 years Belgians ruled the Congo, they treated the Zairians harshly, exploiting them economically and neglecting them politically.

Thus, like Rwanda and Burundi, which Belgium also governed, the Congo was ill-prepared for independence. Brian Urquhart served as deputy to Ralph Bunch, the UN Assistant Secretary General in charge of Africa in the early 60’s during the dawn of African independence.

SIR BRIAN URQUHART: Well, I think Ralph Bunch had a very clear idea how difficult it was going to be because a lot of the states, particularly Zaire, didn’t have any infrastructure to build an independent state on. If the Belgians left, they really took the government and the administration with them because there were virtually no Zaire or Congolese in the administration at any serious level.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: To try and avert civil war, the United Nations stepped in just after independence and kept the lid on until 1964.

SIR BRIAN URQUHART: The Belgians assumed nothing would change, which I think was extremely foolish. And Patrice LeMumba, the prime minister, and the people around him and the people in the army assumed there would be an instant change for the good in their position.

And when that became clear that there wasn’t, the army mutinied, the whites panicked and got out, and the UN was put in really to fill the vacuum because I think there was a genuine fear that either the United States or the Soviet Union or both would try to fill it. And since it was strategically a very important country, that would have been a disaster.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: LeMumba, the first democratically elected leader in all of Africa, was aligned with the Soviet Union, and in the post-independent chaos was murdered, if not with CIA help, many believed with CIA blessing. Urquhart argues that the politics of the Cold War severely retarded Zaire’s political development.

SIR BRIAN URQUHART: These were proxy Cold War battles, and, of course, the Congo, now Zaire, originally got into trouble on an East-West split because the West of the United States backed President Kazabubu and the East and Soviet Union backed the prime minister, who was Patrice LaMumba.

So you had a standoff at the heart of the Congolese state representing East and West. It was a disastrous situation. I think if it hadn’t been for that, it was possible that a lot could have been done to have got the Congo to become a stable, self-governing country, but with the East-West pressure it was almost impossible.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: One year after the U.N.’s departure in 1965, Mobutu, then a Congolese army general, seized power, later giving himself and his country new African names.

The country of the Congo became Zaire, and Mobutu took the name that means “all powerful warrior whose will to win sweeps him from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” Salih Booker, senior fellow for Africa with the Council on Foreign Relations, described how Mobutu used the state to amass a personal fortune of over $5 billion, build 10 palaces in Zaire, and homes on the Riviera.

SALIH BOOKER, Council on Foreign Relations: The president, Mobutu Seseseko, basically used the state and the machinery of the state to extract a profit on every type of economic activity taking place in the country, such that he, himself, became the state. He, himself, became the owner in many ways of the most important mining and other types of businesses operating in Zaire. He is one of the world’s richest individuals right now, yet, his country is one of the world’s poorest countries.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: George Nzongola, a Zairian, has long been involved in the democracy campaign in Zaire, most recently as vice president of the Electoral Commission. He argues that the United States bears some of the blame for what Mobutu became.

GEORGE NZONGOLA: The United States decided that they wanted a strongman in Zaire who could keep this country from falling into the hands of the Communists, and they found that Mobutu was the right person. T

hey put him in power. They gave him money to be able to pay soldiers so they can win their loyalty, so they taught Mobutu corruption. And so Mobutu’s using it. Mobutu’s learned that this is the way to stay in power, is to use money to buy people and to keep them in line.

BRIAN ATWOOD, U.S. Agency for International Development: There isn’t any question that we poured a lot of money into Zaire.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Brian Atwood is the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

BRIAN ATWOOD: I must say as the head of the American foreign aid program I have to continually explain that we invested money during the Cold War that wasn’t for development purposes, that when we started investing foreign aid money in Zaire, a per capita income of something like $1600 per person, it now has a per capita income of under $200.

The investment of over $2 billion of American foreign aid served no purpose because you had essentially a corrupt government that wasn’t accountable to its own people and that didn’t care about development.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Chester Crocker was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1989.

CHESTER CROCKER, Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs: So there are real problems with Zaire and real problems with Mobutu’s leadership, and I can tell you working closely with that leadership, as I did for eight and a half years of my life, was no bed of roses.

The Mobutu government was a very staunch friend of the West, and one of the most reliable partners that we had during those years. We were interested in security and stability and in making sure that the contest with our global adversary was one that we prevailed in, and those were our priorities in every region of the world. Let’s be frank about it. It was very difficult in those circumstances to make democratization the No. 1 priority in your foreign policy.

BRIAN ATWOOD: One can argue that we kept them on the right side of the column in the East-West struggle but I think that there are larger questions that are now coming home to roost.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The U.S. eventually suspended aid to Zaire over its human rights abuses, but only after its Cold War strategic value had declined. Still, however blame is apportioned, most analysts agree that the corrupting influence of unchecked power in the hands of a few in Zaire, as well as in Rwanda and Burundi, was clearly a major factor in the chaos that reigns today.

SALIH BOOKER: It’s really the urban educated and privileged elites who had access to power and who were in the government, who it was in their interest to manipulate and promote this kind of ethnic antagonism in order to continue to support their own despotic rule.

GEORGE NGONGOLA: And now we have our rulers. We have now restored in our countries regimes which are even worse than the colonial regimes which preceded them.

That is the crux of the matter. You see, in Africa, the state is everything. In this country, in United States, or in other developed countries, people make their wealth primarily through the private sector of the economy. In our countries, you make your wealth through the state because the state controls a lot of the economy, and so if you are denied access to the state, you feel excluded and if there is no democratic means by which to redress that imbalance, you’re going to resort to violence.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Salih Booker argues that this crisis is not necessarily a bad thing to the extent that it forces the international community to push Zaire, in particular, towards elections scheduled for July 1997.

SALIH BOOKER: But at present they lack–the process lacks credibility. It’s important for that process to be supported, but it must have credibility. If it isn’t, then I think disaster will follow. Zaire–Zaire borders on nine countries in–throughout Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa, as well as West Africa. It–should it begin to disintegrate, it would pull down a good number of nations with it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But Chester Crocker, for one, doesn’t believe that Zaire will disintegrate.

CHESTER CROCKER: Today, Africa is a very different place from what it was a decade ago. And you’re seeing a lot of lessons being learned, and there’s a strong movement against the kind of patrimonial clatrocracy. We have to be humble enough to recognize that Africa is a young place.

Our first 30 years had some ups and downs in this country. We’ve only been around for a couple of hundred years, but Africa is still very young. And Africans are right to insist they have a right to make their own mistakes and to learn from their own history.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So far, Mobutu has given no indication that his reading of history’s lessons. For now, only one thing is sure: the consequences of a misreading could be costlier than ever.