Embattled Zaire Dictator Hears Dominoes Falling

Pressures from rebels, West, mining firms, and opponents squeeze a defiant Mobutu

Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, is braced for a week of confrontation as President Mobutu Sese Seko faces pressure from all sides.

* The opposition has called for a two-day ville morte (dead town) protest in Kinshasa, in which anyone trying to go about their normal business will face attacks by anti-Mobutu youths.

* The United States, which backed the dictator during the cold war partly to maintain access to strategic minerals, has also made it clear it wants its former partner to go.

* Rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, who in six months has steamrolled across half of Zaire, is advancing on an increasingly nervous capital.

* International mining companies have switched allegiances and are lining up to do business with Mr. Kabila, who has captured the bulk of Zaire's abundant mineral wealth that sustained Mr. Mobutu's rule for decades.

Initial corporate reluctance to switch sides evaporated in March when it became clear that Kabila was winning the war. By the time he got most mining areas under his control last month, diamond giant De Beers of South Africa and even the state-run diamond company, Socit Miniere de Bakwanga, had joined the queue of those treating Kabila as de facto ruler.

New government welcomed

"In general, everybody recognizes that Mobutu's government is not helping the country. We would welcome a change in government," says Graham Palmer, exploration manager for Zaire for the major South African mining house, Anglo American.

"Kabila has said in public that he would honor agreements made prior to his coming to power, if he came to power. We would expect that to be the case," he adds.

Zaire is blessed with practically every mineral on the planet. Its Shaba Province is the world's leading cobalt producer, with 65 percent of total reserves. Kasai Province's industrial diamonds make it the second largest producer after Australia.

Zaire has a large share of world copper deposits and gold reserves, estimated at more than $1.48 billion.

In addition, the Central African giant harbors reserves of crude oil, tin, silver, columbite, uranium, manganese, tungsten, bauxite, and iron ore.

But under Mobutu, output shriveled to less than 15 percent of capacity. Foreign investment dried up for many years, partly due to lack of faith in the political system.

If Kabila takes over, he could build on the biggest revival of foreign investment in Zaire since the 1970s, a revival that began prior to the rebel offensive in October. Last year, state mining firm Gecamines entered several joint ventures to exploit Shaba's mining opportunities with investors from the US, Canada, Belgium, China, and South Africa.

Many of these companies have now entered talks with Kabila about maintaining the status quo.

Among those that have gotten in touch with the rebels are Penke Mining Corp. of Vancouver, B.C., and London; American Mineral Fields of Hope, Ark.; and the International Panorama Resource Corp. of Vancouver.

US has a change of heart

The ease with which mining firms have switched sides to protect their interests has had an impact on policymakers in South Africa and Washington, whose stated aim is to promote stability and democracy in Zaire.

The US, which has been distancing itself from Mobutu since he failed to embrace democratic reforms promised at the start of the decade, last week openly declared that Mobutu's days were over: White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Mobutuism should be relegated to the history books. His words were echoed a day later by Belgian Foreign Minister Erik Derycke, who said Zaire was "a military dictatorship revisited."

Their statements came after Mobutu fired opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi only a week after appointing him prime-minister designate, leading to calls for today's general strike. Mobutu later appointed a military hard-liner, Gen. Lukulia Bolongo, as his new prime minister.

Mobutu had already outraged the opposition by announcing that he was suspending the remaining semblance of parliamentary democracy and introducing a state of emergency that amounts to martial law.

The decision to revert to military rule marks the effective abandonment of a six-year democratic reform process urged on Mobutu by his former allies in the US, France, and Belgium - the colonial power in what was once the Belgium Congo.

The importance of cobalt

For Washington, Zaire has long had strategic interests based both on its location at the heart of Africa and also its vast mineral wealth.

During the cold war, Washington supported Mobutu as its proxy in the war against socialism in Africa.

US backing also guaranteed supplies of cobalt, which was once indispensible to American national security. The US is the world's largest consumer of cobalt, the metal used to produce the light and durable alloys to build the aircraft that made the US Air Force master of the skies. Cobalt goes into airframes, turbines of jet engines, helicopter blades, and parts of the space shuttle.

"Not only was Mobutu a bulwark against communism, but as long as he was propped up [by the US], he could continue to supply the US with the strategic metal," says Ken Macleod, president of International Panorama Resource Corp.

But the shift in international diplomacy since 1989 has made it difficult for Western powers to ignore Mobutu's brutal and staggeringly corrupt methods.

While public servants go unpaid and the colonial infrastructure collapses, Mobutu and his cronies have plundered billions of dollars from Zaire's substantial mineral wealth.

And Zaire's importance to the US appears to have waned. The US stopped purchasing cobalt about two years ago after it accumulated a "strategic reserve" of undisclosed quantity.

This reserve is rapidly being used up, but by the start of the next century the US will be able to avail itself of new sources of cobalt from new mines in Zambia, Mexico, Russia, and Canada. This will diminish Zaire's importance to the US, analysts say.

Mobutu's closest remaining ally, France, has now added to the diplomatic pressure on him by calling for him to start face-to-face talks with Kabila, who has made it clear that the first item on his agenda is Mobutu's resignation.

Holding all the cards

Having now seized half the country, including the diamond-rich city of Mbuji-Mayi and the copper and cobalt-mining region around Lubumbashi, Kabila is in a strong position to get what he wants.

On Saturday, Mobutu bowed to the seemingly inevitable, telling journalists for the first time that he would be prepared to meet with Kabila face to face, "provided he asks politely."

He rejected an ultimatum for negotiations issued by Kabila last week as a joke "in bad taste." Speaking from his base in Goma, on the border with Rwanda, Kabila gave Mobutu just three days to begin talks or else face unspecified consequences. On Sunday, after the deadline passed, rebels resumed fighting, beginning what they say will be a push all the way to the capital.

Diplomats in Kinshasa remain skeptical, however, of rebel claims to have infiltrated the city and to have conventional units less than 150 miles.

They also believe that, having captured most of Zaire's mineral wealth, the rebels have time on their side and will be in no hurry to launch a fresh offensive across hundreds of miles of rain forest and broken roads.

Meanwhile, the ailing President Mobutu cannot count time among his rapidly dwindling band of friends.

* Staff writer Jonathan Landay contributed to this report from Washington.

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