TOPICS > Politics

Zaire: Peaceful Transition?

May 16, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The Zaire story is first tonight. We start with Saira Shah of Independent Television News.

SAIRA SHAH: In a town that’s been fueled by rumors for weeks, the rumors that President Mobutu had left Kinshasa for his hometown of Gbadolite this morning prompted outbursts of joy for the cameras at least. The President, it was said, has fled into exile.

MAN: We are very, very happy Mobutu is going, and we can say something Americans can hear.

Give us jobs.

SECOND MAN: Mr. Mobutu spend two years, he was doing nothing here in this country. No way with Mr. Mobutu. Let somebody else, as Mr. Kabila, in this country.

SAIRA SHAH: But as the day wore on, the capital remained largely calm, the first indication that the soft landing aimed at directing Zaire gently to a transfer of power is being negotiated behind the scenes. This afternoon, a government spokesman confirmed that after 32 years of dictatorship the President had finally handed over power to the parliament.

KIN-KIEY MULUMBA, Information Minister, Zaire: (speaking through interpreter) The president will reign but won’t govern, unlike the former presidential republic, in which the President was the only one who held executive power. That means from today the government conducts the nation’s business.

SAIRA SHAH: The country’s rubber stamp parliament last weekend elected a new president. He’s been left to negotiate the peace terms. The government here hopes for a transitional period culminating in elections. But as the news filtered down to Kinshasa’s residents, there were fears that without President Mobutu the army’s generals might not be able to prevent an outbreak of looting by government troops.

Tonight, a reception committee was preparing banners to welcome the rebel forces. Whether the new rulers will prefer a quick military march in and a new dictatorship is still an open question.

JIM LEHRER: More now from Jennifer Glasse, who’s covering the Zaire story from Monitor Radio. Charles Krause talked with her earlier today from Kinshasa.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Jennifer Glasse, welcome. It’s now about 9 o’clock in Kinshasa. Tell me what’s happening. Who’s in charge?

JENNIFER GLASSE, Monitor Radio: Well, it would seem that according to the Constitution, the prime minister has charged President Mobutu and made an announcement today through his spokesman that he will no longer take part in the ruling of Zaire, although he has not given up the title of president.

He, of course, left Kinshasa early this morning very quietly for his palace in the North of Zaire. The official reason given was for illness. People close to him say that his generals told him that he must leave the city, otherwise, he would risk being captured by the rebels.

CHARLES KRAUSE: The statement that he reigns but does not rule. What does that really mean in practical terms for the country?

JENNIFER GLASSE: In practical terms, it means that President Mobutu no longer has any power in the government, but it really seems a face-saving way for him to step aside without resigning. He has repeatedly said that he would not resign; that he would remain President, and so he remains president in name but retains none of the powers of a president.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Has there been any reaction from the rebel forces, from Mr. Kabila?

JENNIFER GLASSE: Well, the rebel spokesman and the rebel foreign minister say they reject this–this statement categorically that they don’t want anything to do with this statement. It would seem to say that they are not going to accept this kind of statement categorically; that they don’t want anything to do with this statement. It would seem to say that they are not going to accept this kind of statement as the resignation they were looking for.

The rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, had repeatedly said he wanted Mobutu to hand power directly to him and to his rebel alliance. Otherwise, he would take the capital by force. The rejection of Mobutu’s statement seems to indicate that they will not accept this as a resignation.

CHARLES KRAUSE: From what you can tell, from what you see in Kinshasa, is the government essentially still in control? We’ve heard a variety of things. On the one hand, we’ve seen pictures; it looks calm. On the other hand, there are reports of army troops fleeing and other problems. What is it like there?

JENNIFER GLASSE: Well, the streets of Kinshasa are calm. A curfew is still in effect here. Dusk to dawn government troops are patrolling the streets, trying to keep order. But it isn’t government troops that everybody is frightened of. They are the ones in other cities ahead of rebel advances who have started fighting, who have started looting, who have started terrorizing the population.

But there is concern–there has been concern that those troops would do that again. With President Mobutu out of town, however, his presidential guard has no one to defend. They were the ones loyal to Mobutu. Without a president to be loyal to it would seem that perhaps fighting can be averted here.

CHARLES KRAUSE: What–you say that, and we just heard a report talking about the possibility of a soft landing. We’ve also heard that there are still diplomatic negotiations underway. What can you tell us about all of those efforts to avoid a blood bath?

JENNIFER GLASSE: Well, the question is: How do the forces here allow the rebel troops to come into the city, and what role will Laurent Kabila play? And the government’s statement today didn’t really seem to offer Laurent Kabila any role in the new government. It seemed to say to him that he would have to wait until democratic elections to be held before he could take any position. That probably will be very unacceptable to Mr. Kabila.

The speaker of parliament is negotiating or is to negotiate with the rebel forces to try and bring them into Kinshasa, or bring them into the government in a peaceful way, although I spoke to President Mobutu’s son, Kongula, who is in the military and still in Kinshasa.

And he said that if the rebels were to come into the state tonight, that he would have his men fight. It’s unclear whether the generals feel the same way. They have advised Mobutu to leave town in order to avoid a fight for the city. So it seems that there are an awful lot of negotiations going on, an awful lot of machinations going on to try and avoid a fight for Kinshasa.

CHARLES KRAUSE: From what you know, how close are the rebel forces to Kinshasa?

JENNIFER GLASSE: There are conflicting reports that–most reports put them about 20 miles outside the international airport, within striking distance, analysts say. Analysts say they could take that airport at any time. South African Airways did not land its flight in Kinshasa because of security concerns. They declined to have their flight, international flight. Most international flights have not been landing at the airport on Kinshasa for about a week because of security concerns at the airport.

That is considered to be the first place that the rebels would take, but they have–in other cities they have come close and then waited, trying to raise the tension level, and then usually the Zairian troops have looted, and then the rebels come in victorious. That will be very difficult to do here in Kinshasa because the troops have nowhere to run. That’s why a negotiated solution is so important.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And one last question briefly. What is the–what are people saying? Are people afraid? Are they hoarding food? Is there any sign of panic, or are things still relatively calm?

JENNIFER GLASSE: Things are still relatively calm. The people are looking forward to change here. They say after 30 years of President Mobutu Sese Seko, they need a better life. They say he’s plundered the country and left them poor. So they’re hoping that Laurent Kabila will give them a better life, and the people here are certainly hoping that when he comes, he will come peacefully.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Jennifer Glasse, thank you very much for joining us.