A Rebel With a Cause: Rwandan Puppet or Zairean Nationalist?

Crisis in the Heart of Africa

Five years after the cold war's end, a veteran African revolutionary has donned fatigues once again to take on the world.

The last 30 years have not been kind to 1960s radicals. Disillusionment and compromise have eroded their standards; complacency and prosperity have sapped their will for change.

But Laurent Desir Kabila has seen more success in the past month than he did in half a lifetime of abortive agitation and insurrection.

After 20 years of obscurity and 10 years of oblivion, he reemerged last month at the head of a Zairean rebel movement that has driven Zairean government forces out of the provinces of North and South Kivu. On Friday, he strengthened the rebels' hold on the southern province by appointing his own governor in the captured town of Bukavu.

It seems a fairy tale end to his 35-year struggle against Zaire's corrupt dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.

"I'm a symbol of resistance of my people to the regime," Mr. Kabila recently told a Kenyan newspaper. "My background is the very long story of our country. Everybody knows who Kabila is, and what he has done."

In fact, Kabila's personal life - while less-renowned than he would have people believe - really is closely bound up with the post-colonial history of Zaire, the troubled African giant once known as the Belgian Congo.

A non-Tutsi born in what is now Shaba province, the young Kabila was an ardent Marxist and a supporter of Zaire's leftist first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Like much of Africa, Zaire was destined to become a proxy battlefield for the cold-war antagonists.

Prime Minister Lumumba, Moscow's man, was outflanked and eventually murdered by an ex-Army sergeant calling himself Mobutu Sese Seko, who enjoyed the backing of the West. Kabila took to the bush, participated in provincial revolts in eastern Zaire. In 1965 he was joined for several months by the legendary Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who turned up in Zaire to radicalize central Africa. Guevara soon left, disgusted by the inefficiency and brutality of civil war in the Zairean bush.

After rebel leader Pierre Mulele was murdered, Kabila buried himself in the vast Mulenge region of Kivu, a remote region near the borders of Rwanda and Burundi that extends down the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

There he found himself at odds with a local Tutsi minority. But when he moved to neighboring Uganda in the early 1990s, he was thrown in with Tutsis of a different sort.

These Tutsis were the Rwandan exiles who formed the backbone of future Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army, and who in 1990 quietly invaded Rwanda. Four years later, ethnic conflict spilled into Zaire as Rwandan Hutus fled there fearing reprisals for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis.

Diplomatic sources in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, believe Kabila owes his resurrection to the friendship he struck up with Mr. Museveni.

Others believe that Kabila is simply being used as a figurehead for the rebel movement, which, while Zairean in origin, is being carefully manipulated by Rwanda's vice president and military leader, Gen. Paul Kagame. Rwanda denies this, but its own officials have been heard to mutter that Kabila merely climbed onto a horse that had already won.

Stripped of their Zairean citizenship and facing state-sponsored pogroms, the Banyamulenge, the Zairean-born Tutsis of the Mulenge, took up arms this fall.

With the reported backing of Rwanda's government, the Banyamulenge swept into the regional capitals of Uvira and Bukavu, and on Nov. 15, obliged Rwanda by forcing the return of about 500,000 Hutu refugees who had been living in the refugee camps of Zaire. Stepped forward Kabila, the rebels' surprise spokes-man, promising to end corruption and liberate all Zaire.

The trouble is, nobody really knows how important Kabila is to the still-shadowy rebel movement.

In his frequent press conferences - some say too frequent for a real leader - Kabila refers to himself as the "coordinator" and even "president" of the multiethnic rebel group he calls the "Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire." The alliance's apparent military leader, Andr Ngandu Kassasse, refers to him simply as a "spokes-man."

A surprisingly jovial figure, Kabila laughs at suggestions that he is Rwanda's puppet. He calls himself a Zairean nationalist, denies the rebels want secession, swears they are dedicated to the overthrow of Mobutu's hideously corrupt regime. He claims his ragtag army is nearing Kisangani, a city on the Zaire river hundreds of miles from Bukavu. And some say he may make it to Kinshasa, with a little help from his friends.

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