SAR, Vol 13 No 3, May 1998
A NEW CONGO IN A NEW REGION
BY CAROLE J. L. COLLINS
Carole J. L. Collins, a journalist and former southern African representative of the American Friends Service Committee, has written extensively on Mobutu and his ill-gotten wealth. She last visited eastern Zaire as a consultant for the US-based Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in September 1996.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo - the resource-rich central African nation of 45 million impoverished people once known as Zaire - is finally back. Last May the DRC reverted to the name stolen from it 26 years ago by Mobutu Sese Seko, the same thief who, with US and other western powers' acquiescence if not connivance, also stole his people's wealth.
Laurent Desire Kabila - a once-obscure follower of Congolese populist Patrice Lumumba - declared himself the Congo's new President May 30, 1997. Kabila emerged to head the rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) which, with Rwandan and Angolan military backing, toppled Mobutu. Mobutu's death in Morocco last September seemed to punctuate the end of a painful era.
But things are not always what they seem in central Africa. And the DRC displays an astounding capacity to re-integrate elements of its past in the present. Discredited Mobutists are now being rehabilitated. Sakombi, Mobutu's one-time spin-meister, who helped craft Mobutu's cult of personality, is the new regime's Information Minister. At the same time, former Mobutu opponents are again heading for jail (most prominently Etienne Tshisekedi, head of the Union for Democratic and Social Progress, who was sent into internal exile, a favoured Mobutist and Belgian colonial practice, on Valentine's Day).
Ten months after Mobutu's precipitous flight from Kinshasa, one can understand the many contradictory pressures exerted by varied actors on and within Kabila's new, relatively inexperienced cabinet and government. Lacking - and, as is apparent from recent events, making no effort to build - a broad-based consensus on key policies, Kabila's ADFL government has pursued increasingly erratic, even contradictory, policies. In January, e.g., it suddenly cancelled foreign investment contracts barely months after they were signed, and suspended a national reconstruction conference after several regional preparatory conferences made demands for greater democracy and respect for human rights. Such moves have left Congolese civil society and international investors and donors confused by the mixed signals.
Recent acts, however, seem to mark a decided turn towards authoritarian rule, acts which risk squandering the popular good will the ADFL earned by toppling Mobutu. These moves reflect an apparent effort to consolidate power around a relatively narrow regional and political base.
Such actions have included:
* increasing arrests of any perceived political opponents who reject the ADFL ban on party political activities, publicize human rights abuses or back peace negotiations with the armed Mai Mai rebel groups in eastern Congo;
* stacking the Constitutional Commission with adherents to Kabila's small Lumumbist tendency (excluding other longtime but peaceful opponents of Mobutu);
* politically rehabilitating a few notorious Mobutists who now owe whatever legitimacy they have to being favoured by Kabila;
* appointing to key Cabinet and security positions disproportionate numbers of people either from Kabila's home province of Shaba or who, after long years in exile, depend on Kabila for their legitimacy; and
* waging a harsh military campaign against armed rebels in eastern Zaire with high civilian casualties.
Such moves are increasing the prospects for a more unstable Congo and raising concern among neighbouring countries already awash with refugee flows and `soldiers sans frontiers' which have, in turn, heightened economic difficulties and aggravated domestic conflicts.
The southern Africa role
Most attention has focused on the key Rwandan decision in October 1996 (in collaboration with Uganda and Burundi) to help create and militarily assist the ADFL. Kabila rapidly manoeuvred to become the head of the ADFL. He received early support from Rwandan Vice-President Paul Kagame and the other `soldier-statesmen' (Museveni, Buyoya, Afwerki and Zenawi) oft touted by American policy makers as the basis for a new African `renaissance'. A year later, many of these same leaders now have serious reservations about Kabila's consistent efforts to marginalize, even repress, those anti-Mobutu forces (opposition political parties, human rights and development NGOs) that had refused to oppose Mobutu by force of arms.
Several southern African governments - notably Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia - moved early on to aid Kabila, covertly or overtly, as his forces advanced across the vast Zairian expanse to Kinshasa in the first half of 1997. For them, the uprising provided a gratifying opportunity to pay back Mobutu and his supporters for their years of complicity with white minority rule in South Africa and sustained support for UNITA forces in Angola. Various southern African governments provided troops, military supplies, transport and political support at key moments to facilitate Kabila's military advance - or, perhaps more precisely, accelerate Mobutu's collapse.
The South African stake
For South Africa and many other southern African nations, an ADFL victory could provide an opportunity to accelerate their access to the Congo's vast mineral and hydro-electric resources - without having to pay the exorbitant bribes necessary during Mobutu's reign. South Africa felt it had a good chance to expand its economic interests at the expense of European or North American competitors, if it could help craft a `soft landing' for Mobutu's exit that would avoid a destructive battle for the Congo's capital city Kinshasa. Hence Mandela's and Mbeki's extensive diplomatic involvement in the spring of 1997. South African diplomacy reportedly helped persuade Mobutist forces to hold off pillaging Kinshasa in hopes they could still negotiate a political future for themselves before the city fell. Kabila was sometimes bitterly critical of these efforts, fearing that international pressure might halt his advance and lead to a partition of the Congo. Meanwhile, RSA companies began competing with US, Canadian and European corporations (e.g. American Mineral Fields) to sign business agreements with Kabila even before his cash-strapped ADFL seized Kinshasa.
Last April, DeBeers, the RSA-based diamond giant, seemed on the skids in the new Congo. Accused by Kabila of "irregular business practices" (specifically payoffs to Mobutu which helped finance the latter's survival) and trying to monopolize DRC diamond production, DeBeers lost its exclusive contract to buy the total production of MIBA, the diamond parastatal . But by August, DeBeers seemed to have made up lost ground, emerging once again as the major buyer of DRC diamonds. A February report in the Wall Street Journal said DeBeers now hopes to negotiate an exclusive joint exploration deal with Kabila's government for prospecting rights to as many as 240,000 square km in known diamond areas. DeBeers and Anglo-American are jointly funding a feasibility study for electrification of the two Kasai provinces, where most of the DRC's diamond wealth lies.
Early on, Kabila moved to nationalize the Belgo-South African joint venture Sizarail and even jailed its Belgian head, Patrick Claes. [After months of Belgian pressure, Claes was released in February.] But in December, the South African government sent a delegation to the World Bank-convened "Amis du Congo" meeting in Brussels as a sign to the donor community of its support for the DRC. South Africa's corporate sector also showed up in Brussels, including Billiton's Gavin Turner, Standard Chartered Bank's Brian Scanlan, and the Sandton-based manager for Overseas Bechtel Inc., Peter Heap. A South African bank consortium is exploring a $40 million investment in the DRC's electricity parastatal, and South Africa will help rehabilitate the Kinshasa-Matadi 380 km road.
For Angola, the Kabila-lead uprising offered an unprecedented opportunity to deny both Jonas Savimbi's UNITA and the FLEC Cabinda-based rebel forces their vital rear bases once and for all. The Angolan army collaborated with ADFL units to retake UNITA-held diamond-rich territory near the Zaire border, long essential to financing UNITA operations. It also helped transport Gendarmes Katangists, living in exile in Angola from which they launched two armed challenges to Mobutu's rule, in 1977 and 1978. They proved crucial in helping expedite Mobutu's military collapse.
Angola then moved to project Angolan power into the brewing Congo-Brazzaville civil war, cutting rear base support that UNITA-backed FLEC rebels had come to rely on. Starting last October, Angolan troops and MIG fighters played a decisive role in defeating troops loyal to the democratically elected president Pascal Lissouba and helped install Lissouba's old rival (and long-time MPLA ally) Denis Sassou-Nguesso. (This hasn't resolved Congo-B's power struggles however; Brazzaville has recently been re-divided between armed forces allied to Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso.)
Angolan president Eduardo Dos Santos may be the most direct beneficiary of Kabila's military success and may be helping ensure Kabila's current security as well. Reportedly at Kabila's request, Dos Santos has stationed Angolan troops in Kinshasa since December, ostensibly to enable them to be deployed to Brazzaville if needed. Many Congolese believe, however, that they are there to reassure Kabila, who faces significant disaffection among the DRC's armed forces and commands the loyalty of no troops of his own.
In October, Dos Santos publicly called for an increase in multi-lateral cooperation within the framework of the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC). CEEAC could help link southern, eastern and western Africa in an eventual common market in Africa, he told his counterparts from Gabon, the DRC and the Congo Republic. He went on to argue for a collective security system.
Zimbabwe and Zambia, too, opted to support Kabila's forces. According to the Zimbabwe Independent, Zimbabwe provided up to $200 million in arms and ammunition, as well as uniforms, boots and dry food rations. The newspaper reports most of it was transported to Lubumbashi where several Zimbabwe military intelligence officers were deployed to help plan the ADFL advance to Kinshasa. Zambia allowed ADFL troops to cross its territory during their westward advance. It has since signed a defense protocol with the DRC.
For Zimbabwe, a Kabila victory opened up the prospect of new trade markets in the Congo. Zimbabwe Defense Industries estimates it has signed deals worth over US$106 million with the DRC (goods already supplied include various types of arms, boots and uniforms, mealie-meal, kapenta fish and tinned foods). Their relationship is not running smoothly, however. It has experienced payment problems and is not cooperating with Native Investments, which recently received a $23 million government-secured credit window financed by six banks, so that Zimbabwean companies can supply products to the DRC with some assurance of payment. Last October, Zimbabwe Industry and Commerce Minister Nathan Shamuyarira spoke of the possibility of a new development corridor to the DRC via Zambia. The strengthened transport and communications links could help mobilize new resources and generate economic growth and development. (During the same month, Zimbabwe and the DRC signed a bilateral trade agreement last October; several Zimbabwean companies have also announced investment deals worth more than US$30.4 million.)
An expanded SADC
During the Cold War, the US tried without success to pressure SADCC to admit Zaire as a member, citing as justification its many rail and road links to the southern Africa region. Because of his close ties to white South Africa and UNITA, however, Mobutu had few allies among the region's governments. But given its stupendous mineral wealth and abundant hydroelectric potential, the region's governments and business interests have always maintained a potential interest in the Congo.
Kabila's coming to power dramatically changed the situation. In September, a SADC summit in Malawi approved the DRC's request for membership. South Africa actively solicited the DRC's admission as the 13th member of SADC (slated to become a regional common market by 2005), in expectations it would facilitate greater South African participation in the DRC's reconstruction. It also provided a team to help the DRC "establish viable monetary and fiscal authorities." Other SADC members have a particular interest in ex-Zaire's abundant water and potentially massive hydro-electric capacity (the Economist Intelligence Unit recently noted the Inga dam's potential output is more than the current installed capacity of all SADC countries). Namibia reportedly wants to build a pipeline from the Congo River to its water-starved central region. What remains unclear is whether the DRC's new SADC ties will compete with or complement the emerging collaboration among countries forming a central-eastern African political bloc (comprising Uganda, DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), but one with economic aspirations.
Continuing storm clouds
The DRC's development prospects have been dimmed by continuing international controversy over Kabila's intermittent obstruction of a UN Commission of Inquiry investigating alleged massacres of Rwandan refugees during Kabila's military advance. Kabila's renewed harassment of human rights groups - the beating of Floribert Chibeya, a leader of Voix des Sans Voix, in late March and the April 3 banning of the human rights group, AZADHO - has also drawn international criticism. Growing unhappiness with such moves has sparked calls to suspend foreign aid by the US and European donors.
Many of Kabila's African allies reject linking aid to the new Congo to the UN human rights inquiry. Notwithstanding reservations about Kabila, leaders from Uganda's Museveni to South Africa's Mandela have sharply reminded western donors that they never tried to use the same approach to curb Mobutu's human rights abuses. African leaders argue western interests should allow Kabila a reasonable amount of time to reorganize the government, rather than hold the development needs of the Congolese people hostage to Western-defined human rights concerns.
While South Africa's government has been one of Kabila's biggest political allies, it has seemingly failed to disrupt a regrouping of Mobutist forces, some of whom are based in South Africa. In de facto alliance with elements from UNITA, they include the former Hutu-dominated Rwandan government (ex-FAR and Interahamwe). On 13 December, three former Mobutu generals (Baramoto Kpama, Nzimbi Nzale and Mavua Mudima) were briefly detained in South Africa after returning from Kahemba, an area still controlled by UNITA forces and awash with ex-FAZ and Hutu militiamen. Their arrest may have pre-empted a coup attempt.
South African police attempting to deport the three (as Kabila has sought since last summer) recently informed a South African court that Baramoto had been negotiating with the South African mercenary outfit Stabilco, run by former Executive Outcomes operative Maurice le Roux, for "a small army." Both Africa Confidential and Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman (in Le Soir, 6 Feb. 98) report efforts by former Mobutu troops in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Togo, Chad, Angola, Libya and inside the DRC itself, to link up with these generals and/or a Mobutist group - Rassemblement des Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) - formed in Europe to oppose the ADFL government. And so, however much of an opportunity for trade and investment the new Congo may seem to represent for South Africans and others, the country's travails - and those of its long-suffering people - could be far from over.
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