Congo on the Brink

All the big powers want Africans to shoulder their own burdens of war, and they are. But hardly with one voice. South Africa has failed to mediate the Congo crisis while Angola and Zimbabwe have sent troops and airplanes to help save Kinshasa from rebel capture. The West, meanwhile, is standing on the sidelines, not particularly caring whether or not President Laurent Kabila remains in charge.

Mr. Kabila has hardly endeared himself to the West or to the Congolese. His human rights record is mostly negative, his economic growth accomplishments few, his relations with the big powers and most of his neighbors poor, his people's affection for him limited, and his credibility thin. South Africa's President Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki have both soured on the man they helped install in power more than a year ago.

Rwanda and Uganda have sponsored the rebellion which a week ago appeared ready to drive Kabila from power. They feel doublecrossed. Having helped him invade Congo and overthrow dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, they sought secure borders and the end of raids on their territory from Congo. But Kabila has not produced stable frontiers. Nor has he gained much control over the far-flung reaches of Africa's third largest country.

Kabila and his ramshackle administration have disappointed their original benefactors. Kabila also made a fatal mistake recently when he dismissed Rwandans in senior positions in his armed forces. The die of war was then cast.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and President Eduardo dos Santos of Angola have calculated that keeping the Kabila regime intact is better for them and for their influence in Africa.

Zimbabwe is working at cross purposes with South Africa because of their rivalry for leadership within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which includes the Congo. Mr. Mugabe constantly attempts to play an outsized role on the African and international scene. By rushing hundreds of troops to Kabila's assistance, Mugabe hopes to be kingmaker.

Angola's intervention is even more important. Its army is the largest in the region, and its geographical and strategic interests in a cooperative Congo are clear. Moreover, Angola's own ongoing civil war against the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) can only be won by controlling western Congo.

Kabila has not been the democratic leader Congolese and outsiders had hoped would succeed Mobutu's predatory state. Instead, corruption continued, and Congo swung largely leaderless without making friends at home or abroad. The inhabitants of Kinshasa do not want to be ruled by Rwandans, so there has been a rallying in recent days by western Congolese to Kabila's side. He can also count on support from his home region, Katanga. The remainder of his vast country, however, seems indifferent. Congo could easily split into two or three new countries, the west dominated by Angola, the east by Rwanda and Uganda, and the south by the remnants of the Kabila regime backed by Zimbabwe and Zambia. If Kabila is reprieved by the efforts of Angola and Zimbabwe, he needs to reach out to his own people, especially to proven democrats. The persons and groups that fought Mobutu for many years have been persecuted or shunned. They need to be bought back. Kabila also needs to open up his country economically, rather than keeping tight control of state enterprises so he and his cronies can profit.

With Washington, London, and Paris on the sidelines, Congo's last best hope is South Africa. If South Africa can influence both the Kabila regime and the rebels, and placate Rwanda and Uganda, then it could install a democrat like Etienne Tshisekedi alongside Kabila. Otherwise Congo will implode, and Washington will have to become involved, whether it wants to or not.

* Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation, Cambridge, Mass.

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