The More Congo Changes, the More It Stays the Same

New government, sworn in yesterday, gives Kabila almost unchecked power.

Nuno Booto is considered by most of her acquaintances to be a demure young woman who conducts herself with modesty. But for the former rebel soldiers of Laurent-Desir Kabila, she was immoral and had to be put in her place.

On a late night last week, three soldiers stopped her in the street and demanded she remove her black trousers. "They said they'd shoot me if they ever saw me again in pants," recalls Ms. Booto, who was forced to walk down the street in only her underwear. "They said only women of dubious virtue wear trousers and short skirts."

The reactionary practice against women is ironically similar to one carried out during the previous dictatorship, from which the rebels fought to free Congo.

Shooting of looters on sight, killing of prostitutes, harassment of women in the "wrong" clothes, and impatience with the opposition are worrying trends in what used to be Zaire. Since they took the capital, Kinshasa, May 17, and renamed the country, Mr. Kabila's men have shown a disturbing bent toward social control.

Kabila, whose new government was sworn in yesterday, has given himself sweeping powers, including the right to make laws by decree. He has said he will hold democratic elections in two years, giving his transitional government time to rebuild Congo's crumbling infrastructure.

Some foreign observers, including South African President Nelson Mandela and visiting United States congressmen, say the new, inexperienced government should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Need for stability

Foreign Minister Bizima Karaha justifies the crackdown, saying that stability has to be installed after nearly 32 years of anarchy under the ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Allowing protest demonstrations is out.

"We won't allow anything which is not necessary," he told reporters Tuesday. "There is no need for marching. So why should people march?"

But some diplomats, while privately asserting that security should be the first priority, express concern that abuses are being committed. "There's a disturbing lack of checks and balances," says one.

For many Congolese, these growing pains of what claims to be an emerging democracy are a betrayal by the men they thought were their liberators. "So this is democracy?" one spectator murmured bitterly, watching soldiers fire into the air to disperse a protest march Wednesday.

The march was called by supporters of the chief opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, despite a ban on political activities. While overall showing restraint, soldiers arrested at least 40 of the more than 1,000 protesters, beating several badly, and confiscated the film and tapes of some foreign journalists covering the protest.

The zest for control has been extended to the state-run television and radio, according to TV presenter Zacharie Bababaswe.

Broadcasting staff were summoned May 20 to a meeting by the new management, which banned songs from the previous regime that mentioned Mobutu's son, Kongolo. "They also forbade television clips of women wearing tight trousers or ... dancing that could inspire lust in the soldiers," he says.

In the government's defense, some of the human rights abuses appear to be committed without sanction from above. For example, the government on Monday announced a ban on soldiers wandering the city without permission, in an effort to stop its soldiers from looting from citizens or former Mobutu supporters.

Bongombe Bohulu, a former energy minister under Mobutu, was visited last week by 10 groups of heavily armed soldiers, who appropriated many of his possessions including his green Mitsubishi jeep, a ceremonial sword, and his cellular telephone.

The pillaging stopped when he ran into Kabila's new security chief at the cellular phone office, where he was reporting the theft. "[Paul] Kabongo promised the troubles would stop, and they did," he says.

Strict control

Strict control is the trademark of territory in the interior that has been under Kabila's control for a longer period of time. The worst case by far has been the refugee camps near Kisangani in the east, where thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees have disappeared, and mass graves have been found.

Diplomats say much of the problem in Kinshasa stems from a lack of coordination within the new administration, which comprises bush fighters and academics from diverse backgrounds. None have governing experience.

Meetings of the entire Cabinet, which was appointed only last week, are rare. Some officials still lack cellular telephones, without which coordination with colleagues is impossible.

Kabila himself has been largely inaccessible, even to his own people, since he holed up in a mansion shortly after his forces took Kinshasa.

The new health minister, Jean-Baptiste Sondji, said in an interview Tuesday that he failed to see ideological consistency in the new administration.

Mr. Sondji said he barely knew some of his fellow ministers and believed a common vision appears to be lacking.

"I don't think we share the same opinions as to how to manage the country," he said. "Therefore I believe there will be many problems ahead."

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