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Zaire Army Riots Test Regime

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 1991



NAIROBI, KENYA

LOOTING and killing in Zaire this week by national Army soldiers, with angry civilians joining in, are only the most recent evidence of economic and political collapse in the central African country.President Mobuto Sese Seko, whose dictatorial rule goes back a quarter of a century, was quoted as saying the riots were the worst since Zaire's independence in 1960. Zaire national radio reported 12 people killed and dozens more wounded. Many were injured in the rioting by soldiers, some of them drunk, venting their fury over a pay dispute. But while this is not the first time Mr. Mobutu has seen such riots in Zaire, there may be a significant difference this time. For more than a year Zaireans have been demanding political change and Mobutu's ouster, sometimes clashing with his Army and police. Now, more than ever, he needs the support of his Army. Yet this week's violence by some of his soldiers raises doubts about whether Mobutu can count on them. Recent violence in Zaire is occurring within the context of significant power, economic, and social shifts inside the African continent, analysts say. First, African dictators can no longer count on being bailed out by Western forces when in trouble. Second, many of them will find themselves much less able count on full support from their militaries. Finally, economic frustrations are fanning demands for political liberties in many African countries, so that almost any popular issue can boil over into action against a hard-line regime.

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Foreign troops Hundreds of French and Belgian troops arrived in the capital of Zaire, Kinshasa, after the violence began. But their mission was different than the 1978 intervention in southeastern Zaire, when French troops helped squash a rebellion threatening Mobutu's regime. This time, French Defense Minister Pierre Joxe says his troops have gone only to protect French citizens. "If African dictators do not yield to the demands of democratic reformers, they [the dictators] will be forced to use military force to stop them," writes Michael Johns, a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "And in sharp contrast to the past, such repression now may fail. Increasingly, African militaries are losing the loyalty that once led them to protect African autocrats." Dictators in Togo and Madagascar are also having problems with their militaries. In Togo, President Gnassingbe Eyadema recently called out troops to stop opposition leaders from setting up an interim government. But delegates ignored the military and completed their meeting. In Madagascar, President Didier Ratsiraka this year has repeatedly called on the military to stop the opposition from installing a shadow cabinet. Arrests have been made, but the military has mostly refrained from force, and formation of an opposition government has gone ahead.

Economic impact Zaire's violence this week reveals how fragile political stability is in African countries reeling under economic hardships. Zaire ranks among the worst nations in the world in quality of life, international agencies say. With high inflation, low pay, and massive unemployment, many urban residents can afford just one meal a day. Earlier this year, Mobutu also gave in to demands for a national conference of opposition and government representatives. But the conference broke down several times, most recently in September, over charges Mobutu had stacked the delegations with his supporters. Mobutu's opponents want him to step down and make way for an interim government to hold democratic elections.