TOPICS > Politics

Zaire in Turmoil

March 17, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For months, a rebel movement has rapidly been gaining ground in the Eastern part of Zaire, one of Africa’s largest countries. On Saturday, the rebels secured their control over the Eastern third of the country when they captured the town of Kisangani, Zaire’s third largest city. The question now is whether the fate of the entire country now lies with the rebels. We start with this report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITN: Rebel soldiers in control of what remains of Kisangani Airport. Government officials, senior army officers, and Eastern European mercenaries fled before the rebels struck. Some abandoned their weapons. The rebels are said to have been welcomed by Kisangani residents. In the capital, the news sent the cabinet into a closed-door meeting today, but they came up with no new plan to reassert authority. And increasing numbers of Kinshasa residents now say that they too would welcome the rebels.

Zaire’s aging leader Mobutu Seseseko has left his villa in the South of France for hospital in Monaco. His prostate cancer is said to be worsening. Mobutu seized power in a coup in 1965. It’s now possible that army officers, loyal for so long, will overturn his impotent government and maybe try to negotiate with the rebels. The rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, says his aim is not to split Zaire. And western countries in the U.N. say no one wants the fragmentation of this huge country.

MOHAMED SAHNOUN, UN Special Envoy: (Nairobi) They’re talking about a change of system, a change of the political system. They’re not talking about the break-up of Zaire. It will have a destabilizing effect not only in Zaire but in the whole region if we stop talking about the implosion of Zaire or the break-up of Zaire.

LINDSEY HILSUM: But the rebels, seen here in the town of Goma, are now heading deeper into the wealthy province of Shaba, which previously tried to secede. At the moment, they’re popular, but they have been brutal as they’ve advanced. Zaire has never really functioned as a cohesive state. And there’s no evidence that this rebel movement will bring unity.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more on this story we are joined by Roger Winter, the director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a private, non-profit organization advocating protection and assistance of displaced persons. He spent almost two weeks with the leader of the rebel movement, Laurent Kabila, since the conflict began more than four months ago. Also with us, Salih Booker, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Africa Studies program. Thank you both for joining us. Let’s just go back a few minutes to the beginning of this story tonight, the fall of Kisangani. Just how significant is that turning out to be?

SALIH BOOKER, Council on Foreign Relations: It’s very significant. It’s the third largest city in Zaire, and it’s precisely the city from which the government forces President Mobutu had planned to launch the counter-offensive, or had tried to mount a counter-offensive against the rebellion.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What happened to Mobutu’s army? I mean, this was the army that kept its citizens intact, often by terror, over the past 30 years.

SALIH BOOKER: Well, it’s always been an army that was more a criminal mafia than it was a professional fighting force. And I think the rebel’s success sort of demonstrates the bankruptcy of the army as an institution and the bankruptcy of a state as it has been under President Mobutu. The soldiers, average foot soldiers, have no interest in fighting against the rebellion. They are poorly paid, if paid at all. They are poorly trained, if trained at all.

And they identify, understandably, with their family members and regular citizens of Zaire and have no interest in fighting to preserve a corrupt regime that has no interest in the rights and interests of the 45 million people of Zaire. And the better trained and more effective forces that were more closely tied to the Mobutu regime and more responsible for his own personal protection, or protecting his economic interests. Also, similarly, have no interest in losing their lives, and they are the first to retreat.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And Mr. Winter, tell us about Laurent Kabila. You’ve spent a lot of time with him. Is this his superior soldiering skills, or what do you see at work here?

ROGER WINTER, U.S. Committee for Refugees: I think he’s–first of all, he’s been–he describes himself as a dissident and a rebel for the last 30 years. He’s 56 years old. If you meet him in person, he’s sort of soft spoken, and he’s very deferential. He doesn’t sort of appear to have a big swelled head or thump his chest very much. He seems to be a very decent fellow to spend time with. He’s a philosopher and a politician. He’s not a military man.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But he’s been fighting this regime for 30 years, is that not right?

ROGER WINTER: Yes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: From the hills and the mountains.

ROGER WINTER: From within the country and outside as a–in exile but not in a military context. The military context, this rebellion is rather new. I mean, it has really grown legs since last October. And I think what you’ve got is you’ve got a political benefit of Mr. Kabila of joining with military capacity and the benefit of a military capacity joining with a political leader, and Kabila presenting a united front, an alliance of capacities, military and political in terms of achieving a nationalist revolution.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Because this started, of course, when the Tutsis in the Eastern part of Zaire were threatened with expulsion by Mobutu, rose up in arms, and so he joined that.

ROGER WINTER: Exactly. What happened was, in my view, that what was triggered, the fuse was lit by this so-called planned expulsion of the Banyamulenge, this Tutsi population you’re talking about. But it’s rapidly evolved far beyond the Tutsi issue or Rwanda-related issue, as a lot of outsiders would seek to make it. What it’s become is a struggle for a new Zaire. That’s what’s unfolding right now. And it’s important to have that as the context, not some exterior outside forces.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Kabila is not a Tutsi, is that not right? That’s right. Well, what does he want? I mean, he’s described as a shadowy political figure with no real–and a Marxist who fought with Cubans in Africa. What do you think he wanted?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, he’s not really a shadowy figure. His history is relatively well known. He was a supporter of Prime Minister Patrice LaMumba in the first government after independence, who, of course, was assassinated. And he was a supporter of then Education Minister Pierre Mulele, who helped sort of mobilize resistance against Mobutu when he came to power in 1965. He has been a rebel. He has been opposed to authoritarian dictatorial rule.

I would say he’s first an African nationalist, going back to the independent period. He was inspired, as were many African nationalists by various other revolutionary figures around the world, including Che Guerra, who visited the region and had at least briefly a relationship with Kabila. But I don’t think he carries any particular ideological bent. I think he’s a nationalist that wants finally for Zaire to achieve independence in the name of its very large population that’s never really had an opportunity to practice democracy and self-determination.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We saw in the taped piece that population is sort of coming around to supporting him. Is that real? I mean, how deep is his support in the country?

ROGER WINTER: Well, let me say when I was with him the last week or so of January, it was very clear to me that young men of all ethnic stripes from all over the country were rallying to that cause. I went to some military training bases, and the young men who were training were not Tutsi. They were from Chaba. They were from all over the country, and exiles returning. He was setting up a civil structure to govern, as it were, the areas that were under his control, and the great bulk of the people were not Banyamulenge. They were from all over the country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And of course today the United States has expressed some concern about support that he may or not be getting from neighboring Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Angola. Does he have substantial support, as far as you know, outside of the country?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, I think he certainly has political support. And I think there’s a reason to believe that the rebellion has received some military support, whether it’s communications equipment, some arms. I don’t think that’s the decisive factor, and I would agree with Roger that this is not an externally motivated and directed rebellion. I think, however, that there is some regional involvement in the conflict. And that’s not surprising. It’s an opportunity for many of these states to protect what they feel is their vital national security interest because Zaire has long been a de-stabilizing factor for many of the countries in the region, Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, as an example.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ziare under Mobutu. Speaking of Mobutu, what is the role of Mobutu at this point? We see he’s quite ill. What happens if he continues ill, or if he should pass away?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, I think the rebels taking of Kisangani, coinciding with apparently another downturn in his own medical situation, really signals the end of Mobutu. And I think we’re now entering the post-Mobutu era. I think, however, that it raises a lot of questions about what’s going to happen with the armed forces of Zaire.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That’s right. And how do you get past–is civil war avoidable here?

SALIH BOOKER: I think it is. I think it is possible for a more legitimate and transitional government to be formed to help lead the Zairians toward intellectual processes that eventually can usher in a democratically-elected government.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But how is that going to happen? Because, for one thing, Mobutu has refused to meet face to face with Kabila, who says he will negotiate, but if he won’t meet face to face, that means fighting, doesn’t it?

ROGER WINTER: I think we agree that Mobutu is increasingly irrelevant to this discussion. I think actually the fall of Kisangani sets the stage for what could be the brokering of a deal. I think for Kabila, taking that big city was necessary for him to feel that he could have a basis on which to be a real player in Kinshasa. And I think it’s not just a wake-up call. It’s a smack between the eyes for the folks, the political elites back in Kinshasa, that they’d better begin to negotiate at this point now, or it could get a lot worse.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But the taped piece raised the possibility of a coup d’etat among the remaining military.

SALIH BOOKER: That’s a possibility. Certainly the senior officers are right now jockeying for position. They’re in talks with the current prime minister, wa Dondo, over what will be the, sort of rump government’s response to the rebellion. I’m sure there are some that would like to continue press on with a counter-offensive, which I think would be disastrous first and foremost to the civilians, but I think it’s something they would lose in any case. But the possibility of continued war is very real.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what about the possibility of the break-up of Zaire? I mean, that’s been the big worry all along. How much more real now is it than before, and what would be the impact?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, I for one, don’t believe that Zaire is teetering on the edge of break-up. There are no secessionist movements. The rebellion is not a secessionist movement. And there’s a very strong sense, I think, among civil society that I would argue has actually held the country together during much of Mobutu’s rule. I think the dangers of the breakup become real if there’s a more prolonged stalemate. And I think the negotiations need to go forward. But you have to remember that the rebels may also want to go all the way to Kinshasa unless they have some political incentive to come to the table and deal.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. And negotiations between the U.S. and South Africa and Kabila and Mobutu failed just a few weeks ago. What’s the incentive now to broker a deal?

ROGER WINTER: As I say, I think the fall of Kisangani has made the incentive very clear. It’s enabled Kabila to do it as an equal partner, and it’s shown the guys in Kinshasa that it can get a whole lot worse than it’s been unless there’s a negotiation, a deal, the grand deal for a transitional government and hopefully elections, a new Zaire.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Thank you both for joining us.