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Who Is Kabila?

May 22, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, an update on Congo, previously known as Zaire. We start with a report from the capital, Kinshasa, by Saira Shah of Independent Television News.

SAIRA SHAH, ITN: Over a shanty town in Kinshasa the flag of the new Democratic Republic of Congo, hastily erected. It’s a first step towards erasing the memory of Zaire and its hated dictator.

The Republic of Congo’s new rulers have inherited a nation transformed from one of the richest countries in Africa to one of the poorest, a country the size of Western Europe with only 300 kilometers of paved roads. In a city where unemployment is over 90 percent, manual workers wait by their piles of tools for casual labor. Less than a week of the new regime hasn’t changed conditions, but it has raised expectations.

The Congolese people are reveling in unaccustomed liberties like the street urchins permitted to direct the traffic. But there’s also a lack of political direction. Ready to fill the gap have come the very people who helped get the country into the mess it’s in now.

Beating a path to the Intercontinental Hotel, where a delegation of alliance officials is staying, or the country’s former ruling classes. These were the technocrats who helped the Mobutu dictatorship to function. Today, they’re out of a job, but as they waited in the corridors, they insisted their skills were still needed.

MAN: (speaking through interpreter) The process of recrimination must end. We must gather everybody together. People must be allowed to do the job they are qualified for.

SAIRA SHAH: So far, the alliance has hinted it will be generous in welcoming those who supported President Mobutu’s rule.

MAN: (speaking through interpreter) It was him who prevented this country from going straight for more than 30 years. We simply ask the others to go back to work, so that we can all reconstruct this town together. We don’t want to settle your scores.

SAIRA SHAH: The alliance is on the brink of announcing a new government. Supporters of the leader of the democratic opposition, Etienne Tshisekedi, demanding that he received the position of prime minister.

JIM LEHRER: Now to Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more on the Congo and its new leader, Laurent Kabila, we go to the special representative for the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity in Central Africa.

He’s Mohamed Sahnoun, a former Algerian diplomat who frequently takes on troubleshooting missions for the U.N.. Ambassador, thank you for joining us. You just heard that we are expecting the announcement of a new government formed by Laurent Kabila. Based on your experience with him, what kind of government would you expect him to form?

MOHAMED SAHNOUN, U.N. Special Envoy: I met him actually Sunday, last Sunday, and we discussed the issue. I told him that the international committee would expect broad-based government and that to initiate a democratic process leading to elections.

He assured me that he will make every effort to have a broad-based government; that he would not include all the political parties, but especially not those who have been very closely associated with the former regime. But he would certainly include in his words the representatives of the different political forces which were in the opposition, including some which were in the coalition, in the majority, but which were not too associated with the old regime.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what about Etienne Tshisekedi, who was reportedly the most popular politician in Zaire and without whom there are predictions that there will surely be more chaos and instability?

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: In our contacts up to even this morning, yesterday and this morning, we know that there are talks between Mr. Kabila and Mr. Tshisekedi and between their representatives there are discussions. We hope they will lead to the inclusion, if not of Mr. Tshisekedi, himself, at least of people who are closely associated to him, or members of his government–of his movement.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So your sense is that Mr. Kabila is a flexible man.

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: I think he wants to give an impression at least that he’s certainly forthcoming; that he certainly wants consensus; that he wants a reconciliation; so we will judge him on the deeds. We will see.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What else–based on your conversations with him–what else can you tell us about how you expect him to govern?

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: I think it’s not only according to his whims or to his own end process, but I think also because of the leadership, the people around him in the alliance, it’s a coalition of different movements, and Zaire is a very, very large country, with different groups, with different regional groups, and, therefore, if he wants to stabilize the country, he would have to be inclusive, and I think he is realistic enough to realize that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is that something you told him, or is that something he seemed to know?

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: We–I think he is facing the facts, and he’s facing the realities. We certainly are trying to promote that as much as possible, and we are trying to get all the countries and governments which are friendly to him to put across the same message. I think about messages coming very strongly, so even if he was not aware of it, I think people around him in the regions are certainly making him conscious of the need to stabilize not only Zaire but the whole region.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that’s important because–

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: Very important. The country has–Zaire has nine neighbors, all of them very important. And, therefore, whatever this stabilization occurs in Zaire will certainly affect countries in Central Africa and even in East Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you say that he seems to be open to listening to the advice of other countries. Many of them including the United States, South Africa, are pressing him to go forward with elections soon after he has formed a transitional government. What is your sense of his plans for that?

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: Oh, he certainly agrees in principle for the elections. It’s going to be difficult to organize elections very soon. I think we have to admit the fact that we first have to deal with the legacy of the older regime, a legacy of destruction. There was really no census done, and so on and so forth, so these measures have to be taken.

These steps have to be taken, and I think that the international committee should here give support in terms of organizing the elections, the U.N., the OAU, but also countries like the United States and the institutions in this country which have had some experience in organizing elections as well should certainly involve themselves to help the Congo, Zaire to organize with elections as soon as possible.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Did he ask for support for that, as well as other things? I mean, you talked, and we just talked about it a moment ago, and we heard in our taped piece about the immense problems facing the country, the poverty, the governance issue, and so on. Did he ask for help with those things?

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: Definitely when I met with him on Sunday, he was extremely–I mean, he was pressing for assistance. He said that he would need the help of the international committee. He said the financial situation is absolutely incredibly bad; that the coffers are totally empty.

He accuses the older regime of having taken all the money with them, and he certainly thinks that we should be helpful, and we have already spoken with the United Nations development program, also the World Bank, with the president of the World Bank, the Secretary-General today spoke with him. In fact, we think that not only for Zaire but also for Burundi and Rwanda, for the whole region we need some kind of what I call a mini-Marshall Plan. We need really to mobilize all the resources we can in the international community to help this region.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is it your sense that once Zaire stabilizes Rwanda and Burundi might fall, which are still in some turmoil?

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: I think if Zaire is stabilized, then Zaire can extend a helping hand to these countries; that certainly would be a much better prospect for these countries. I think Zaire–with Zaire stabilized, together with South Africa, I say these are the two legs for the whole region on which, in fact, even the continent can walk. It’s very important. Zaire is very important for the African continent.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: There are some who have some concerns about Mr. Kabila, who of course for 32 years was a Marxist and espoused Marxist principles. He’s now talking about free market reform. Do you think that he is going to be a democrat or, as some fear, another Mobutu-type tyrant?

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: Well, Mr. Kabila has had the views, as you described them, Marxist views in his youth. That was long ago. I think he has learned since then. And also he is not alone. He is surrounded by people who have, in fact, some of them have studied here in the United States, among the closest people, those were in charge of the financial and economic issues have come from the University of Kentucky or California and therefore, he’s surrounded by people I think who have good expertise and would have an impact, a very strong influence on what the economy should be.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Amb. Sahnoun, you sound fairly optimistic.

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: Well, I am measurably optimistic. I think we certainly will have to see what kind of government is going to form. I think there are some good indications that we might have a reasonable government, but of course we’ll have to judge on what we see.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, thank you. We’ll be watching. Thank you for joining us.

MOHAMED SAHNOUN: Thank you.