The World

Zaire: those who fought and ran away have returned to fight another day

ROBERT HARRISON April 18 1977
The World

Zaire: those who fought and ran away have returned to fight another day

ROBERT HARRISON April 18 1977

Zaire: those who fought and ran away have returned to fight another day

The World

The spirited, paunchy African general sat forward angrily in his chair. “There are 10,000 of them, mercenaries and rebels, inside Zaire who have entered to loot this region, to destroy our economy and our country. There are many Cubans and Russians with them. We can tell by the writing on their forearms. But our forces have killed many. It will be over in a week.” And Zaire’s army chief of staff, Captain General Bumba Moaso Djogi, eased back into his chair, smiling.

That dismissal of the rebellion in the mineral-rich Shaba province—the latest theatre for potential East-West confrontation in Africa—has turned out to be a trifle optimistic. The campaign by former policemen from the province, once called Katanga, has consumed a total of six important towns and the rebels are now ominously, if slowly, moving down the road toward the “Rainbow”—as the Gecamines Copper Company complex is known. One of the richest mineral workings in the world, it produces copper, cobalt, manganese, phosphate, gold, germanium and a host of lesser minerals.

This particular mine—from which are extracted 958,000 tons of copper a month—could be the key to the massive central African country’s future. Already in grave economic trouble, Zaire depends on the minerals of Shaba to bail it out. Less of the Gecamine complex—five adjoining “pits” so colorful and deep that they resemble the Grand Canyon —might be just

enough to squeeze the 12-year-old, autocratic government of President Mobutu Sese Seko out of office.

The Katangese are estimated to be just 25 miles from Kolwezi, the town that has grown up around the mine, and their chances of moving in appear good. General Bumba’s invasion facts and figures— especially those about the number and presence of foreign troops, of which there is no proof yet—appear highly exaggerated in comparison with well-sourced intelligence reports.But there is still good reason for Mobutu to be near panic.

The Katangese have been fighting for 17 years—since five days after Zaire, then known as the Belgian Congo, gained independence in 1960 and Katanga’s governor, Moise Tshombe, announced secession. When this attempt failed, four years later, Tshombe’s 6,000-strong police force crossed into neighboring Angola, where it joined the Portuguese colonial army’s fight against nationalist guerrillas. A decade later, after the coup that ousted the Lisbon dictatorship and paved the way for Angolan freedom, the Katangese police joined the Marxist liberation faction, the MPLA, and fought in the three-way Angolan civil war in 1975-76. The deal, arranged by the departing Portuguese, was that the experienced Katangese would help the fledgling MPLA in exchange for later backing for another go in Shaba.

That campaign opened on March 8 with the seizure, in three separate but simulta-

neous attacks, of three towns in Zaire’s southeast corner. Within hours, the Paris office of the National Front for Liberation of the Congo, which claims to speak for the Katangese, announced the attack was aimed at overthrowing Mobutu. Within days the Katangese, estimated by Western sources to number somewhere nearer 2,000, easily took three more towns.

The rebel guerrillas, apparently wellarmed and disciplined, have obviously learned many lessons in their 13-year exile. Once a defeated ragtag, they have become professionals, with the added advantage that a second generation has been brought up in the ways of war and, in the process, has been “politicized” by parents determined to return to their homeland. But arguably the most important factor in the Katangese’s favor is tribal loyalty. They are predominantly from the Lunda “empire,” a fierce, tightly-knit tribe that never has recognized Zaire’s national boundaries, nor its national government. Their leader is still their chief, now Daniel Tshombe, Moise’s younger brother.

Reports make it clear that the Lunda are supporting the Katangese rebels, supplying food and shelter, running only when Zaire troops—largely from alien tribes outside the region—come in. Just before the former army headquarters town

of Mutshatsha fell to the Katangese in late March the 5,000 residents had abandoned it—because of the presence of government troops, according to one tribesman who was still working out how to escape. “These are not my people,” he said simply.

In comparison, Zaire’s army is in bad shape—poorly prepared, poorly

equipped, poorly disciplined and with no recent experience in serious warfare. At Kolwezi, in late March, with the rebels only 50 miles away, the only “barrier” in their path was two tin drums in the middle of the airport road, manned by two guards who spent the bulk of their time dozing in the tropical sun or chatting to people strolling by.

At the strategically important airbase, valuable Italian Macchi fighter bombers and American C-130 supply carriers covered the small strip. But there were no fences, sandbag reinforcements, bunkers or hangars. Piles of 50-kilogram Spanish bombs and 2.75-inch American rockets lay outside the two-room terminal. In town, small groups of soldiers sat idly at street corners, American or Belgian rifles lying between their legs. Three posts had shallow “foxholes.” It scarcely amounted to convincing evidence of a plan to protect the country’s key mining centre.

Twelve hundred miles away in Kinshasa, Mobutu’s capital, there is scarcely more enthusiasm for the struggle. A rally billed as “the most gigantic demonstration” in the capital’s history only halffilled the 40,000-capacity stadium where Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in 1974; and the crowd, much of it composed of children trucked in by the authorities, had to be prevented by soldiers from drifting out long before the speeches of loyalty to “our great guide” had ended.

The truth is Mobutu and his army have little working in their favor except the emergency assistance of Western countries afraid of losing one of their few remaining African allies. Within days of the first attack. the United States government prom-

ised more than two million dollars in support supplies, while the Belgians and French agreed to fly in small arms and ammunition. The United States also began working with Nigeria, an ally of Angola yet familiar with secessionist problems since its own Biafran war, to negotiate an end to the rebellion.

But there is serious concern in Western diplomatic circles that the buck does not stop in Angola, that even if the Angolans’ Cuban allies are not involved—and Zaire has suspended relations with Cuba because it insists they are—the Soviet U nion is. The reasoning behind this is simple and convincing: the MPLA government still depends on Soviet arms to fight off guerrilla

attacks in its own southeast province and is therefore unlikely to jeopardize that support by giving away arms supplies without the specific approval of their source. Highlevel Western observers feel the Kremlin has, at the very least, given its approval to the Katangese rebellion.

The rebels know the chances of taking and holding at least part of Shaba are good. They have an iou to cash from the Angolans. Together, they will not give up easily, even if they have to eat their way slowly through the south of Zaire. Some observers in Kinshasa have become so pessimistic they contend that only outside military support—arms and men, perhaps the French mercenaries who have fought in Katanga before—can save the Zaire government from a major economic and, perhaps, political disaster.

ROBERT HARRISON