Zaire's Zero Hour - Will America Be Ready?

If rebel leader Kabila can contain top-down kleptomania, President Mobutu's predatory state will be finished

What goes around, comes around. Laurent-Desir Kabila has been attempting to overturn Mobutu Sese Seko's dictatorial rule of Zaire for 30 years. Now that his troops have captured the diamond-mining and copper-extraction centers of Mbuji-Mayi and Lubumbashi, all of Zaire will soon be his. When it is, there will be an important, clear role for the the United States and other concerned world powers.

So far Mr. Kabila's rebel army has moved surely from Goma and Bukavu in the east toward the north and west to capture Kisangani, and just as easily south and west to gain control of the rich provinces of Kasai and Shaba.

This week's negotiations in South Africa could lead to an outright Zairean capitulation. There seem few reasons to think that Kabila's men will not soon march on Kinshasa, the distant, Atlantic-facing capital, and control Africa's second-largest land mass, with all of its neglected problems.

Popular liberators

Kabila's men are a popular force, so there is no stopping them. In comparison to the retreating, unpaid Zairean Army, these liberators have behaved well. The Army is the rabble, and it rapes and loots as it falls back toward a final stand somewhere closer to the mouth of the River Zaire. Kabila's forces are, however, alleged to have killed some Rwandan Hutu refugees who have fled before rebel advances.

Kabila himself is an old-time Marxist who fought for Patrice Lumumba's legacy and with Antoine Gizanga against Mobutu's CIA-backed takeover of Zaire in the late 1960s. He was a part of the mini-rebellion at Kisangani (then Stanleyville) that attracted US military intervention. He appears to have been involved with Che Guevara's abortive (and CIA-opposed) attempt to establish a revolutionary beachhead on the Zairean shores of Lake Tanzania. Later Kabila became a successful merchant, trading in diamonds and ivory. He is a Luba from Shaba, but his trading successes occurred throughout eastern Zaire and its neighbors, like Uganda.

Whatever Kabila's shadowy past, he and his commanders have gained approval in the conquered towns by insisting on democratic frameworks. Local management committees have been elected by open, popular vote in hastily convened conventions.

Order has been restored in conquered towns. Commerce has resumed. New local taxes have been collected and devoted to public goods. Mwana Mawampanga, Kabila's finance minister who was trained at the University of Kentucky, has implemented a conservative economic stabilization policy in rebel-held areas. He understands the need for a strict monetary policy. Many "freed" Zaireans wait for Kabila and associates to behave like the ousted Mobutuites, but so far there seem to have been few complaints.

It is widely suspected that Kabila's insurgency was initially backed, if not promoted, by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and his successful protg, Vice President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. The introduction of local participation in eastern Zaire and the tight control over the conquering troops is reminiscent of the methods employed by both Museveni in gaining control in Uganda and Kagame in Rwanda.

Kabila's aim, presumably, is a guided democracy on the Museveni model. A centrally controlled and gradually conceded articulation of people's power would be (and so far is) accompanied by an opening-up to a market economy, the end of state intervention, and an attack on corruption.

If Kabila can contain corruption from above, Mobutu's predatory state will be finished. Top-down kleptomania has ravished Zaire and put it into its desperate state. Roads hardly exist, the indigenous currency is regarded as a joke, inflation has been stratospheric, civil servants and other functionaries have not been paid for months, hospitals have no supplies, schools do not teach, parliament meets and does nothing, and life for ordinary Zaireans has become catch-as-catch-can. They see their president jetting back and forth to France, Switzerland, and Monaco, living off bilked billions.

If Kabila, whose actions now seem positive, instead succumbs to the same temptations, Zaire would gain little. The limited role of the US, France, Belgium, and South Africa should thus be directed to providing incentives for the gradual introduction of national democratic processes across competing regional interests and ethnic groups.

Massive aid needed

The reconstruction of Zaire will require massive outside assistance from many quarters. The polity and economy have been destroyed, and generating fresh beginnings without a functioning civil society will be extremely difficult. There is little remaining physical infrastructure, so the demands on any new government will be vexing and continuous.

Zaire is in the bad graces of world lending institutions. Thus one of the tasks of the meetings in South Africa, and of policymakers in Washington and Paris, is to carefully craft a multilateral, constructive approach that takes account of Zaire's great needs and great problems. Kabila's prospective victory will make the reconstitution of Zaire more, rather than less, urgent.

* Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

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