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Help the New Congo Help Itself

By Robert I. Rotberg / August 6, 1997



The guns of Kabila were firing again recently in Kinshasa. President Laurent Kabila has banned public demonstrations, but dissident democrats continued to protest, and the new army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire), fired into a crowd, killing three or four. Despite high expectations, the new regime has done little to inspire confidence at home or abroad.

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Mr. Kabila has conquered Congo, but his ouster of Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's long-time corrupt dictator, has so far fostered more questions than answers. Observers are waiting and watching. They're looking for stability and demonstrable political, social, or economic progress, but instead they're seeing understandable inexperience and lack of direction.

On a recent visit to Congo, I found an air of tense expectancy among the new governing ministers and officials, diplomats, UN workers, and, most of all, the people of Kinshasa, Congo's battered capital city. The new Congo, by area Africa's second largest state, hasn't begun to find itself.

Congo's economic rebirth is critical. Mr. Mobutu robbed the country of billions of dollars (its debt to international lenders is about $14 billion) and left an empty treasury to his successors. Congo owes about $1.5 billion in interest to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank. Its once-rich copper mines are barely producing. Only the diamond mines, as well as import and export taxes, are capable of providing immediate cash to keep the government in business.

A strong case can be made to forgive Congo much of its debt, especially its arrears, and to provide immediate international aid. One proposal, put forward by Harvard University economists, suggests $900 million, or $20 a head, over the first year. Another, favored by more cautious Congolese officials recruited from abroad, especially from the United States and international lending agencies, is for $320 million, or $8 a head. As Jesse Jackson recently declared in Harare, Zimbabwe, Africa needs a Marshall Plan. And Congo needs one more desperately than the rest of the continent.

Congo needs to rebuild itself, especially its destroyed road and bridge network, as well as its telecommunications and energy systems. Most of all, it needs to demobilize its old army and train a police force. It has to jump-start the economy so that cash flows into the cities and the countryside. Without a Marshall Plan, even a mini-plan, Kabila could fail, his revolution dissolve into instability, and intra-state conflict resume. Congo easily could be plunged into chaos again.

The US and South Africa recognize that Congo is needy and deserving. There's a willingness to help. But the shooting of demonstrators in Kinshasa, the brief jailing of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, and substantiated allegations that Kabila's troops massacred Hutu refugees in northeastern Congo last spring, haven't helped Congo's cause.

Nor does the fact that Kabila has put not one or two Cabinet ministers in charge of the country's economic affairs, but five. The minister of finance might in most states be in charge of economic matters. But Congo also has a powerful minister of the economy, a minister of planning and development, a minister of national reconstruction, a minister of international economic cooperation, and a minister of mining. Soon there will be a new governor of the central bank.

The cooperation minister is officially in charge of receiving international aid, but the reconstruction minister thinks that he is, and the finance minister is in constant contact with potential donors. The planning and finance ministers are rivals (along with the others) for the president's ear.

Indeed, at a recent meeting to plan requests to donors, representatives of the planning and finance ministries disagreed sharply about who was in charge and who was legitimate. After making threats, the representative of the planning ministry stalked out. A few days later the minister of finance was jailed on suspicion of corruption. His enemies had spread rumors.

A coherent strategy for stabilizing and rebuilding the economy isn't available. The danger of hyperinflation is real, as is the total collapse of governmental and social services, rioting and looting, and the spread of epidemic diseases. Everyone and no one may be in charge. This condition inspires little confidence.

Congo is not yet democratic or tolerant. Neither is it fully organized. It has hardly articulated a clear vision, leaving many wondering whether Kabila is really in charge or whether he takes directions at some level from Vice-President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, the force behind the revolution. Tutsis have not yet gone back home to Rwanda. Nor have the Angolan troops who assisted in the revolution left Congo completely.

Nevertheless, Kabila deserves assistance. Congo is too big and too important to be allowed to fail. Having ousted Mobutu, Kabila is the best choice to rejuvenate the vast and problematic country. South Africa wants to see this revolution work so southern Africa and Africa itself can succeed. So do the European Community and the United States.

Washington and Pretoria should lead the effort to help Congo help itself. Timely and sufficient assistance is essential.

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