The United States proposal to acquire a Zairian air base is widely expected to prove highly controversial. The US is trying to expand its military role in sub-Saharan Africa, analysts say. Final arrangements have not yet been settled with Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko. But the Pentagon has tentatively agreed to allocate a ``few million dollars'' to bring the base at Kamina into proper working order in exchange for the right of the US Air Force to have full access to its facilities.
The US plan for Kamina will predictably raise an outcry for three reasons:
Because of the high profile it gives to direct US intervention in the Angolan civil war on the side of the rebel forces against that nation's government.
Because it will be seen by most members of the Organization of African Unity as increasing international involvement in a domestic conflict and as heightening superpower rivalry in the area.
Because the deal with President Mobutu will increase the US commitment to ensuring the survival of one of Africa's most controversial leaders.
Last week, Angola's Marxist government denounced the US plans. The state-run radio in Luanda warned that Angola ``will not remain in the position of spectator in the face of these facts.''
The proposed deal with Zaire would give the US its first base for military intervention close to the troubled region of southern Africa. Its only other military presence in the region is the important base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. That base's primary purpose is to maintain an air and naval task force for regional security purposes in the Indian Ocean. Kamina, on the other hand, is a land base in the heart of Africa.
Its immediate purpose is clearly linked to the recent US decision to give military aid to rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), diplomats in Britain say. There are well-corroborated reports that Kamina is already used to fly arms to UNITA forces. Washington much prefers this route to the alternative of shipping supplies through South Africa and Namibia (South-West Africa).
Kamina was originally built as an air base in 1953, during Belgian colonial rule over the Congo (now Zaire). It is situated in the Shaba Province (formerly Katanga) close to the Zaire-Angola border.
It has deteriorated considerably since Zaire's independence in 1960 and needs considerable work to modernize its installations.
Just how much the US administration intends to spend on improving Kamina will depend on the kind of agreement finally reached with Mobutu over freedom of access to the base allowed to the US Air Force.
The US State Department has expressed misgivings over the costs of this venture. The Pentagon, which has agreed to provide the initial funds for urgent work, strongly favors strengthening the potential for American intervention in the region.
But Mobutu's dictatorial rule, his record of flouting human rights, and his unsavory personal financial reputation have made him unpopular at home and abroad. He is heavily guarded against repeated coup attempts, and harshly criticized by human rights groups and foreign governments.
The so-called front-line African states - Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zaire, and Zimbabwe - have in the past strongly criticized Mobutu's role in allowing clandestine military support for Dr. Savimbi. By allowing the US to openly use his territory to ship arms to Savimbi, he will be seen to be openly flouting the wishes of his influential neighbors. Their hostility is thus likely to be turned more fiercely against the US.
The Organization of African Unity makes a clear distinction between, for example, the presence of Soviet-bloc and Cuban troops in Angola or the French military presence in Chad with the proposed US military presence in Zaire. In the former two cases the military agreements with foreign powers relate to the host countries' internal requirements, whereas the agreement over the use of Kamina Base is clearly intended for external intervention in the conflict being waged in next-door Angola. Observers draw a close parallel with Libya's military support for rebels fighting the recognized government of Chad - an interventionist role that is strongly criticized by Washington.
The US administration's decision to establish a military presence in Zaire is also bound to meet with vigorous opposition in the US Congress. Now that the Democrats control Congress, the decision - which was taken while the Republicans were still in a majority - is certain to produce a major conflict with the administration. A US State Department source says that the administration is preparing to resist a strongly backed move to overturn last year's decision to supply arms to Savimbi.