Few will mourn the fall of Zaire's besieged strongman
Endgame in Africa
Few will mourn the fall of Zaire's besieged strongman
Across a rutted road from the mass of fetid garbage that litters Kinshasa’s La Cité district, the shelves of Roger Kolomba’s Boutique Prestige are bare of the milk, cans of fish, liquor and clothes the 25-year-old entrepreneur has been selling since November. “Four times, soldiers have come to rob me,” he said last week, “and with that happening I would have to work for a loss, so I have closed my store.” Intimidation by the military is nothing new, he explained, but as rebels led by Laurent Desiré Kabila approached the Zaïrean capital, soldiers were stepping up their “security” raids. “They go door-to-door saying they are looking for Kabila’s rebels,” Kolomba said, 1 ife. \
“and then they rob the house to make money. We want the rebels to co me. Maybe after that, things will change.” Many Kinshasans feel the same, and last week it seemed clear they would soon get their wish. Although a flurry of diplomatic manoeuvring continued, the negotiations were over how—not whether—Zaire’s ailing strongman, President Mobutu Sese Seko, would make his exit. For many in the capital region—the only area his chaotic government still controlled—it would come not a moment too soon. Thirty-two years under Mobutu’s iron fist have left a country rich in diamonds, cobalt and copper nearly destitute. People lucky enough to have jobs work for wages of about $7 a month. Infrastructure is crumbling. Garbage rots in the street; health care is practically non-existent; even cemeteries are running out of space. There is no organized transport system to move Kinshasa’s more than five million people. When it rains, puddles hide the depth of the craters and ruts in the roads, making it impossible for the packed minibuses and aging taxis to navigate around them.
It is a different scene behind the iron gates that surround Mobutu’s Kinshasa residence, a grand house inside the Camp Tshatshi military base. There is no sign of the decay afflicting the country that made him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Peacocks parade on the lawns that slope to the curve in the Zaire River (formerly the Congo) where it races through rapids on its way to the Atlantic. Ceremonial guards, complete with British-style bearskin hats, stand at attention by the doors when dignitaries visit.
Mobutu seems almost oblivious to what has happened in Zaire. In seven months, an obscure group of rebels, called the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaïre, has captured more than three-quarters of the country. Massed just 185 km east of Kinshasa last week, they kept up their demand that Mobutu step
Pro-government demonstration in Kinshasa; rebel leader Kabila: an ultimatum down and hand over power immediately to Kabila. Fighting between the rebels and government forces in the town of Kenge left up to 300 civilians dead. The insurgents had all but toppled Africa’s longestserving president. But emerging from a summit of regional leaders in neighboring Gabon late in the week, Mobutu acknowledged only that he was too ill to run in proposed new elections. At week’s end, though, as the president arrived back in Kinshasa, South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki announced that Mobutu had agreed to discuss a transition of power in talks with Kabila this week.
Throughout the crisis, Mobutu has treated the war as a minor nuisance. Stricken with prostate cancer, he spent much of his time undergoing treatment in Switzerland and France. Until just a few weeks ago, he flatly refused to meet with Kabila. Then, after Kabila issued an ultimatum—meet with him or he would seize the capital by force—Mobutu said he would agree only “if he asks politely.”
It took U.S. envoy Bill Richardson, Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, to finally get the two men together. His talk with Mobutu was blunt, said a diplomat who attended. Richardson told the Zaïrean president there were three options: stay and be killed by the rebels when they take the capital; stay and flee in disgrace at the last moment; or negotiate a dignified departure. “Richardson was pushy,” said one diplomat, “but he sent the message that needed to be sent to both parties.” Richardson told rebel leader Kabila that he would have problems garnering international support and foreign aid if he did not act like a statesman and negotiate with Mobutu. The U.S. envoy also criticized the rebels for massacring Rwandan Hutu refugees in eastern Zaïre, then preventing international aid workers from helping the survivors. Last week, more than 10,000 of the Rwandans were airlifted home by the United Nations.
The meeting finally took place on Sunday, May 4, on a South African ship off the Congolese coast following two days of delays, first by Mobutu, then Kabila. Essentially, the two men simply restated their positions. Mobutu did, however, offer the first indication that he knew his rule was nearing an end. Following a ceasefire and installation of a transitional government, he said, he would hand power to an elected leader. Three days later, he headed for the summit in Libreville, Gabon, which cemented the call for elections. Diplomats, however, said it would take at least a year, likely two, to organize such voting. Kabila called the Gabon outcome “absolute nonsense.”
However, after talks with South Africa’s Mbeki, he agreed to give diplomacy a chance this week.
With Mobutu on the ropes, the U.S. involvement in Zaire raised many international eyebrows. Traditionally, the strategic former French colony has been within Paris’s sphere of influence. Now, many analysts believe that the United States, a Mobutu ally during the Cold War, is backing Kabila to increase its power in the region. But diplomats involved deny that the conflict is one pitting anglophone against francophone. “The real issue is to get Zaire to become a democratic society with an elected government,” said one.
Kabila’s leanings are uncertain. He began political life as a 23-yearold Marxist in a 1960s rebellion supported by Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. When the uprising collapsed, the rebels disappeared into Zaire’s eastern mountains. Little was heard from Kabila until he was named head of the rebel alliance that emerged last September and rapidly took control of the eastern border towns. “There is no doubt that Laurent Kabila has been involved in some nasty things over the years,” said a Western diplomat. One is
probable involvement with the 1975 kidnapping for ransom of three Americans and a Dutch national by Zairean rebels at a game station in Tanzania, say knowledgeable sources. Is Kabila a democrat now? “At this stage, we can’t tell. We hope so,” said one diplomat. Another, asked the same question, just laughed loudly.
To try to convince Kabila to embrace the democracy he says he believes in, Western diplomats have played the aid card. But an official of Kabila’s alliance argued that because the rebels have big business on their side, they don’t need aid. In Zaire’s mineral-rich southern provinces, Shaba and Kasai, foreign mining companies have signed contracts with the rebel alliance. Among them is Vancouver-based Tenke Mining Corp. Last week, it said it would pay about $70 million to Zaire’s state mining concern, which is now controlled by Kabila’s men, as part of a $340-million deal to develop the massive Tenke Fungurume cobalt and copper deposit. Rebel finance minister Mawampanga Mwana Nanga made little attempt to deny that the cash would aid the rebels’ war effort. “Even if Tenke Fungurume does not help us directly to capture Kinshasa, the money gives us room to manoeuvre,” he said. “It makes me more comfortable that we will win.”
As the rebels tightened the noose on the capital, the people seemed less fearful of Kabila’s forces than of their own poorly paid and ill-trained soldiers. At a grimy Kinshasa barracks last week, many soldiers said they were apolitical. But some had prepared white headbands, the sign of support the rebels have asked them to show; others said they will fight. All said, they have not been paid in three months. It was wage disputes in 1991 and again in 1993 that sparked Zairean troops to riot in incidents referred to as le pillage. In 1991,
9.000 foreigners were evacuated; in 1993,
2.000 left and Canada closed its embassy. One lone foreign affairs officer, Denis Grégoire deBlois, works in an office at the American Embassy, tending to the 500 Canadians normally in the country. About 85 per cent work in business, the rest as missionaries, deBlois says. By his count last week, about 100 of the Canadians had left.
Among them were Edward and Gertrude Deppner, who have been Canadian ministers for the New Apostolic Church in Zaire since 1981. The couple, who headed for Nairobi, witnessed both pillages. “In the first one, they didn’t touch us,” said Gertrude, 64. ‘The second time, they cleared everything out.” That time, in 1993, the Deppners climbed onto the roof of their home and hid there. When soldiers discovered them, they tossed an uncocked hand grenade at them. “A soldier came up on the roof and ordered us down,” said Edward, 60. “It got rough.” The Deppners—and all of Kinshasa—were hoping it wouldn’t be that way this time around.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.