Old Issues Follow New Congo

Kabila government heads off to work amid US concerns about human rights.

Members of Congo's government began their new jobs yesterday. But diplomats eagerly searching for hints of democracy after rebels took over the country May 17 already have given the new leadership a mixed performance review.

US Secretary of State Madeline Albright has expressed concerns about the inclusion of only five opposition members in the 13-member government announced Friday. She says Washington wants to see "that there is a rule of law, that [Congo is] moving towards democratic elections, and that there is reconciliation."

A major test of the new government's openness to democracy will be when it holds elections, which leader Laurent- Desir Kabila says won't be for at least two years. The consensus among Western diplomats is that holding elections before 18 months would be unwise, due to the logistical nightmare of organizing a poll in a country that lacks working telephones or reliable roads.

"If you go too quickly, you will have a bad election. We are not going to beat them over the head over fulfilling Western ideals of democracy," says one Western diplomat. "What is also important is stability and respect for human rights.

"They have never run anything before. So there will be a lot of trial and error. I'm still open as to how it will play out. And I'm not convinced it is a monoparty state."

Great expectations

Huge hopes are invested in Mr. Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, which took the capital May 17 after an eight-month uprising. The new government must rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure, which decayed during more than three decades of neglect under the former regime. It must also overcome endemic corruption so ingrained that the former Zaire was known as a "kleptocracy."

Alliance members admit to no clear ideology, and the former bush fighters and exiled academics are open about their own inexperience in governing. "I will give it my best," says the new foreign affairs minister, Biziba Karaha, conceding that his training as a physician is not the best preparation for forging a foreign policy.

Diplomats agree Kabila will need to have an ethnically diverse government to command legitimacy among Congo's 250 ethnic groups. The new regime will also have to move quickly to pay civil servants, who have gone for months without their salaries, and to rebuild the infrastructure in a country the size of Western Europe.

"They have a lot of challenges working against them. There are few capable people available to serve the government. It's going to take a lot of charisma and political wisdom," says another Western diplomat.

Few strong signals on policy have come from Kabila himself, who has barely been seen in public since locking himself in a mansion after arriving in the capital last week.

Sidelined opposition

Much loud criticism has come from Eitenne Tshisekedi, the main opposition figure under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr. Tshisekedi is demanding the premiership, an office he was sacked from a couple of times by ousted President Mobutu. But diplomats say it is Tshisekedi's own fault he was not given a position in the new government by spurning Alliance overtures to talk. His supporters' calls for a general strike yesterday went unheeded by Kinshasa's residents, proving the view of many diplomats that he will be largely ineffectual as an opposition leader.

"Tshisekedi is a prima donna by wanting things on his own terms," says a third Western diplomat.

While Alliance policies are still unclear, what is seen as promising is its dynamism and willingness to canvass outside views. Two days after taking the city, Alliance leaders called a meeting of businessmen and impressed them with anticorruption, free-market talk.

But hours later, new Congolese Secretary-General Deo Brugera confused journalists when his first major policy speech was laced with Maoist rhetoric about collectives and peasant participation.

While the Marxist moral tone may be comforting to citizens tired of corruption, the behavior of some soldiers is not. Women have been stopped for wearing trousers or miniskirts. Looters and alleged Mobutu supporters have been shot on sight. And yesterday, the government banned protests in the capital, citing the need to maintain security. Kabila is already under pressure to answer for a human rights record sullied by the disappearance of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees in territory under his control. The refugees include some of the Hutu perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide of about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis.

Some diplomats see the refugee situation as a debt Kabila needs to pay to Tutsi-led Rwanda and Burundi, which supported him during his uprising. The diplomats assert that it is not necessarily indicative of human rights in the rest of the country.

As for ethnic problems elsewhere, the threat of resurging secessionist sentiment in Shaba Province would be solved if Kabila moves the capital to Lubumbashi, as he is seriously considering. A continual complaint by the people in Shaba is that revenues from its rich mining industry have been siphoned off to the capital.

New capital, new start?

A capital in Lubumbashi, an economic and mining hub in the southeast, would also give the government greater proximity to eastern and southern trading blocs. More than anything, it would give the country a fresh start.

"Kinshasa is associated with the corruption of the old regime. It might be good to make a break with the past," says an African diplomat.

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