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Zaire: Peace Possible?

May 9, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining us now is Amb. Richardson. Thank you for being with us, Mr. Ambassador.

BILL RICHARDSON: Glad to be with you, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve been talking to all the principals in this in the past nine or ten days. Please help us understand where things stand right now. Is any part of a plan for a peaceful transition in place?

BILL RICHARDSON: I do think a peaceful plan is still in place. The South Africans headed by Mandela and the United Nations special envoy Sanoun have a plan that involves a transition structure that Mobutu and Kabila, I believe, still might accept. It’s going to take another face-to-face meeting sometime next week, probably in the Congo in the middle of the week.

A lot of shuttle diplomacy is going on between both sides, between the Francophone countries, they generally support Mobutu and some of the other states, the Anglophone states like Musavani and Uganda and others that are supporting Kabila.

I don’t think that a peaceful transition is dead yet. A lot of posturing takes place. At this very moment, I believe that Mobutu will return to Kinshasa before he heads for the Congo. He’s getting support. I believe he’s putting his affairs in order. But eventually I do believe there’s still a good chance of a peaceful, inclusive transition government. I really do believe that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you lay out for us how it would work?

BILL RICHARDSON: Well, in my judgment it will most likely be headed by Kabila. Obviously, he is not going to give that up, especially since he’s militarily at a very strong advantage. I believe that the transition government will include representatives from various factions in Zaire. The big issue is going to be how much of Mobutu’s people, if any at all, are part of that.

What I think is also important is that Kabila, to get international support once he forms his government, is going to have to come into Kinshasa without bloodshed in a rather organized fashion, because there’s American lives at stake; there’s a lot of foreigners there, Belgians, French.

I believe that too that Kabila is going to have to immediately address the refugee problem, which is very serious, allow investigations by the U.N. into those massacres, do something about punishing those soldiers involved in those massacres, and lastly, allowing for expatriation to take place, that right now because of a number of problems is not taking place as efficiently as it should. And that’s why you have so many of these enormously difficult problems in that refugee component area of Kisangani and other parts of Eastern Zaire.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let’s back up just a minute. Under this rather optimistic plan, as you lay it out, President Mobutu would return to Kinshasa in order to finish up there, perhaps make a final speech to the nation, something like that?

BILL RICHARDSON: I would expect that Mobutu wants to leave gracefully. The United States supports that. We would like to see an inclusive transition government that avoids bloodshed. The issue is going to be what kind of representation from the various factions are going to be part of this government.

The United States would like to see all of the factions represented so there is reconciliation in Zaire, but what I believe will be very difficult for Kabila to give up will be the dominant role within that transitional government. And that’s what Mandela and the South Africans right now rather skillfully, in my judgment, are trying to put together.

The United States supports this process. We’re stepping back a little. We’ve put our full weight behind South Africa in these negotiations, and some of the states like Uganda and Tanzania that are supporting Kabila. We’ve pressed the Francophone countries to work with Mobutu, to let him go gracefully, but not to stick around much longer.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So when the rebels say that they’ll only settle for a direct transfer of power from President Mobutu to Laurent Kabila, who, as you have said, does have the military vantage, it seems, you’re saying that’s not a definite position that can’t be changed; that they’re still maneuvering and working out some way to make it easier than that sounds?

BILL RICHARDSON: I believe right now what is happening is very, very intensive diplomacy on the part of the South Africans with the United Nations. We should help that process. We do think that it’s in everybody’s interest for a peaceful transition to take place. That means the Angolans step aside also; they’ve got, unfortunately, some negative intentions in terms of moving their troops into Zaire to pay back Mobutu.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain that a little bit.

BILL RICHARDSON: Well, over the years Mobutu has not helped the Angola government. He has supported Jonas Savimbi, an UNITA rebel leader, try to basically take over, and the Angolan government which is in power now wants to pay him back, and they don’t want to help Mobutu. They want him out militarily. That’s our judgment.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They actually moved some troops into Zaire, I’ve read. Is that true?

BILL RICHARDSON: Well, there’s reports of that. We warned the Angolans and told them that this was a bad move, that let’s respect the territorial integrity of Zaire, but what you see right now is the instability of Central America at stake. This is why it’s important to America’s interest, besides the humanitarian reasons. We’re pressing for a peaceful transfer, rather than violence, rather than other countries moving in, rather than a number of unstable factors, and that very strategically important part of Africa.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ambassador, I’m going to come back to that in a second, but tell us first, what was it like meeting with both President Mobutu and with Laurent Kabila?

BILL RICHARDSON: Kabila is an interesting character. He’s very street smart. He’s pragmatic. He’s never governed anything–overwhelmed by the attention and the responsibility that it takes. I think that deep down there’s a man that realizes that he has to behave more responsibly; that he has to send a message to his troops that they can’t continue with some of these massacres; that he’s got to deal with the refugee problem; and he’s got to get international support. Mobutu, on the other hand, I believe was not facing reality. His advisers were not telling him that his military situation was in a bad condition; that he could still hang on.

rtunately, I was the bearer of a lot of bad news, but, nonetheless, I believe that Mobutu is now realistic; he’s a dignified person; he wants to go out gracefully. He is bitter at the United States and some of its other allies for not backing him, but the reality is that he’s lost support in Kinshasa and throughout the country, and Kabila is moving very aggressively. And the best thing that can happen is a peaceful, inclusive transitional government that leads to election.

This is what U.S. policy has been. This is what I was pushing in my envoy initiative that President Clinton wanted me to do. And hopefully, in the days ahead we will see a process that allows a peaceful, inclusive transition to take place, rather than Kabila coming in violently into Kinshasa and looting and other violence taking place in that city right now that is very thin and very fragile.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What are Kabila’s troops doing right now?

BILL RICHARDSON: Well, right now, they’re moving ahead. They’re circling Kinshasa. They’re moving into position. I believe that Kabila will allow these negotiations to take place before he moves his troops in a final push into Kinshasa. We pressured them very heavily to do that. But quite frankly, Elizabeth, he right now has the total upper hand militarily.

I also believe that if he moves into Kinshasa, he will face very little resistance from Mobutu’s troops. The people of Zaire are tired of fighting. They want it to end. They want to get into a situation where stability comes forth. And quite frankly, I believe that Kabila right now, if he behaves responsibly, if he moves in peacefully, if he gets peaceful in the sense of an inclusive government and he deals with the refugees, the international community is going to give him a chance.

But right now he has not made a good start by the way he has treated a lot of the refugee problems in Eastern Zaire.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: If this does not work out, as you laid out the possibilities, there are U.S. troops on hand to come in to rescue Americans in Kinshasa, is that right? How many U. S. troops, where are they, and what is their purpose?

BILL RICHARDSON: Well, we have various troops positioned around Central Africa. We have a ship out there that is ready to take this evacuation. There are 300 or so Americans in the Kinshasa area that we have to protect. We have a plan coordinating with other countries, other foreign nationals there.

We hope we don’t have to do that, but, if necessary, we’re ready to do that. This is why it’s critically important that a political settlement, a negotiated settlement, take place and that the entrance by Kabila into Kinshasa be a peaceful one; otherwise, there will be chaos and looting, a lot by Mobutu’s troops.

So I think the next few diplomatic days are critically important, and we should back the South Africans and Mandela. They’ve been very skillful; they’ve been very aggressive, along with the United Nations, to get both sides to accept an inclusive transitional government.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On the international implications of this you’ve mentioned how many different countries–Zaire’s bordered by nine countries–many of them are involved in this. Explain that for us. What are the implications of that, to have Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, all involved in one way or another in this battle, mostly on Kabila’s side?

BILL RICHARDSON: Well, what is at stake is a lot of strategic interests, a lot of mining and economic interests in a very fertile and rich, strategic region. Secondly, you’ve got the potential of a huge refugee humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions unless some stability is brought.

And thirdly, you have basically a battle between the Francophone countries in West Africa and the newly emerging Anglo countries headed by countries like Uganda and Tanzania and others that are emerging. What you don’t want is both of them and all of them fighting each other in an unstable situation.

So a lot is at stake. Zaire is the heart of this area. Zaire is one of the largest countries–most populated countries in Africa–with enormous resources. As goes Zaire goes Central Africa. This is why it’s very important for there to be a stable end, rather than a violent end.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And already, speaking of the mineral resources, American and other companies are–have already actually signed deals with Kabila, right, for copper and cobalt and other–other interests–

BILL RICHARDSON: That’s correct.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For the minerals.

BILL RICHARDSON: That’s correct. Kabila is in control militarily, and he’s in control of some of the economic and other energy resources, diamond resources. That’s the reality. But that doesn’t mean that America and France and some of these countries in Europe that have interest in Zaire shouldn’t push as strongly as we can for a peaceful end, for a negotiated end, even though the military strength is clearly on one side. We do think that Mobutu deserves to have a peaceful transition. He is the leader of the country. He obviously has made a lot of mistakes.

Our relationship with Mobutu has not been very strong over the past few years. But at the same time, Kabila must realize that if he is going to take over, he’s got to be responsible; he’s got to enter Kinshasa in a peaceful way; he’s got to have market reforms; he’s got to have elections.

Otherwise, the international community, the World Bank, donor countries are not going to help him. And he’s going to need that private investment and international assistance to survive, because literally Zaire right at this moment is falling apart.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There have been reports, as you well know, and I think I read you had criticized Kabila for this; that the rebel troops headed by Kabila have massacred refugees in Zaire, and that he promised that this would stop, and that he would punish people who did it. What’s happened in the last four or five days, and what’s this current situation with the refugees?

BILL RICHARDSON: Well, Kabila made a commitment to me that he would allow a full investigation by U.N. agencies; that he wouldn’t have deadlines in some of the repatriation of refugees.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: These are refugees that would go back to–we should just remind people–Hutus–

BILL RICHARDSON: That’s right.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: –that left Rwanda and now want to go back to Rwanda in many cases.

BILL RICHARDSON: That he would punish those soldiers that were involved in some of the transgressions. I think there’s strong evidence that there have been these massacres. There should be a full investigation. Kabila, in my judgment, does not control all of his troops. Now that doesn’t excuse him, but we should press him very hard.

He’s very sensitive to this criticism that we’ve got a huge humanitarian crisis that not just needs to be dealt with but will affect him, Kabila, in the future; if he doesn’t appear to be handling it in a humane way, he is not going to get help from the international community. In fact, he will become a pariah. I think he realizes this and is pragmatic enough to start dealing with this. If he doesn’t, he’s going to be a leader without any support once he gets in and makes international appeals.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mr. Ambassador, thanks for being with us.

BILL RICHARDSON: Thank you very much.