A YEAR ago in February, the United States State Department sent a confidential cable from its embassy in Zaire warning that the deteriorating economic and political crisis could result in a ``Somalia and Liberia rolled into one, with vast potential for immense refugee flows, regional destabilization and humanitarian disaster.'' Since US Ambassador to Zaire Melissa Wells wrote those words, the situation has grown worse. If the US does not do something soon, the heart of Africa will be ripped open by a civil war that could eclipse the carnage in Sarajevo.
During the cold war, Zaire's dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko, made himself useful by allowing Zaire to serve as a weapons conduit for rebels fighting the neighboring Cuban-backed government in Angola. Over the last 20 years, the US has provided more than $1 billion in aid to Zaire in an effort to bolster Mr. Mobutu as a bulwark against Soviet influence in Africa.
Using Western aid and a long-used practice of co-opting prominent opposition leaders with short appointments as ``prime minister,'' Mobutu maintained his dictatorship for almost 30 years. In the process, he became one of the world's richest men.
This changed in 1991, when Mobutu's bankrupt Army joined with rioters to loot the capital, Kinshasa. Mobutu agreed to set up a new government through a ``High Council of the Republic,'' led by his rival, Etienne Tshisekedi. Once calm returned to the capital, Mobutu fired Mr. Tshisekedi and drove his ministers from office.
In its latest annual report, Human Rights Watch decried the fighting between Mobutu's security forces and Tshisekedi's supporters. Efforts to reach a negotiated settlement by Roman Catholic Archbisop Laurent Monsengwo have failed to end the bloodshed.
The divisions between Mobutu and Tshisekedi have led the economy into a free fall. Last year, soldiers rioted after they were paid in Mobutu bank notes that Tshisekedi declared had no value. The rioters killed at least 200 people, including French Ambassador Philipe Bernard. The US State Department reported that Mobutu's elite security forces, the Division speciale presidentiale and the Service d'action et de reseignements miliaraires, summarily executed several hundred soldiers following the riots. Dozens of prisoners were sent to secret jails maintained by Mobutu in and around Kinshasa. The State Department reports that torture and extrajudicial killings are common practices of the security forces. Most prisoners in these jails are awaiting trial, sometimes up to 10 years after their alleged offense. The State Department noted that these inmates ``sleep on the floor and have no access to sanitation, potable water, or adequate health care.''
Mobutu's security forces laid siege to the parliament last February and attacked Archbishop Monsengwo's home. Mobutu then set up a parallel government in March headed by a former ally of Tshisekedi, Faustin Birindwa. Tshisekedi and his ministers were forcibly removed from their offices by Mobutu's security forces. They have since operated a parallel ``green'' government from outside Kinshasa.
Zaire defaulted on most of its international loan payments last year. The World Bank closed its offices and International Monetary Fund officials moved for Zaire's expulsion from the IMF. Zairians now suffer from hyperinflation, which tops 9,000 percent despite an attempted currency reform in October. The new currency was rejected in Zaire's eastern and southern provinces, which sparked further violence by government forces.
Officials from Mobutu's security services demanded that local Catholic leaders accept the new currency. When the bishops refused, soldiers from the 223rd Army battalion shot and killed six unarmed civilians. A US Agency for International Development situation update reported that civil strife in these provinces had caused hundreds of refugees to flee from their homes.
Amnesty International (AI) reported that no member of Mobutu's security forces has been prosecuted despite the documented killing of more than 7,000 people in the eastern province of North-Kivu and hundreds more in the southern province of Shaba. AI and Human Rights Watch report that the violence in Shaba was sponsored by Mobutu and local leaders against the Kasaien community of Shaba province. To date 100,000 Kasaiens have been left homeless by state-sponsored violence.
The international community and the Clinton administration have not shown the leadership needed to help avert the civil war that is coming. Clinton spokespeople use strong words to condemn the Mobutu dictatorship but fail to take strong action to remove it. Last year, the United Nations appointed a ``special representative'' to Zaire, Lakhdar Brahimi, who held ineffective talks with both sides. While the State Department coordinated calls for a return to democracy with Belgium and France, these pleas fell on deaf ears.
The US should call for the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo against the Mobutu government and increase food aid. The UN should also sponsor an observer force to ensure safe, democratic elections.
In 1993 the US spent more than $7 million in disaster aid to Zaire. Without decisive action, the situation could turn into another billion-dollar humanitarian-aid effort like the one in Somalia. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.