The message US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke came to deliver is simple: When the US takes over the presidency of the UN Security Council in January, the US will help Africa only if Africa helps itself.
The Democratic Republic of Congo - a nation the size of Western Europe - is a case in point. Despite the July signing of a peace pact between the seven African armies engaged in a war there, the truce has been consistently violated by all involved.
"If the parties in the Congo truly want the international community's involvement and support, such violations of these commitments are simply unacceptable," Mr. Holbrooke said earlier this week at the start of his first African tour.
And somebody listened. On Tuesday, the two main combatants in the war, Rwanda and Zimbabwe, reached a deal. For the first time in the 15-month conflict, there's a concrete possibility that the war, which has displaced 1 million people and put another 10 million at the risk of starvation, might be settled by diplomatic means.
This seemingly intractable war involves at least three rebel groups and six African countries fighting on two opposing fronts in the Congo. On one side, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are allied with Congo's President Laurent Kabila. And on the other, Rwanda and Uganda are supporting rebel troops inside Congo to overthrow Mr. Kabila, whom they accuse of harboring rebel forces hostile to their countries.
On the surface, the deal struck holds no great promise, but there's a deeper significance, analysts say.
Zimbabwe will be allowed to deliver food to 700 of its starving soldiers besieged by Rwandan-backed rebels in the eastern Congolese town of Ikela. In return, Zimbabwe, which has committed 11,000 men, a third of its army, to back the Congo, agreed to withdraw from the town of Bokungu, 75 miles northeast of Ikela.
Its deeper significance
The significance of the deal rests on two premises, analysts say. First, that with the exception of Angola, Africa's military giant, Rwanda and Zimbabwe, out of all the belligerents, hold the key to the conflict in the Congo. Rwanda's Army is by far the best trained, and Zimbabwe's has the better arms. Indeed, much of the fighting along the main front has been between them, rather than between Kabila's Army, which Zimbabwe supports, and rebels of the Congolese Rally for Democracy, which Rwanda backs.
"In terms of rebel alliance, Rwanda definitely holds the key to this war," says Jakkie Potgieter, senior researcher at the South African Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg. "In terms of the government coalition, the key ally is definitively Zimbabwe. If Zimbabwe withdraws from the conflict today, Kabila is not going to be able to withstand pressure from the rebels."
Second, the degree of animosity that's been building between Rwanda and Zimbabwe seemed to leave no hope that they would even talk, let alone reach an agreement that essentially puts Rwanda's notoriously effective siege engines to rest while allowing its main enemy to resupply.
The bitterness on Zimbabwe's part is partly attributable to the fact that at least 22 senior military officers in the Zimbabwean Army have been either killed or taken prisoners by Rwandan forces.
"It's quite unprecedented in this conflict that an agreement of this type has been reached where one side is actually allowing the other to send food to troops that are cut off from their supply lines," says Mr. Potgieter.
A parallel consideration of political rather than military nature might have induced Rwanda into considering the deal, regional observers say.
In recent months, a rift seems to have developed between Kabila and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe can ill afford its involvement in the Congo: The state is on the verge of insolvency, civil servants have not been paid in months, and there have been frequent demonstrations in the capital, Harare, to protest Mugabe's costly intervention in a conflict that poses no immediate threat to Zimbabwe's national security.
Moreover, the Zimbabwean Army lacks a real motive to fight. "We catch these Zimbabwean soldiers, and we ask them: 'Why are you fighting?' They just look at us and say: 'I don't know, I don't even know why I'm here,' " a senior Rwandan officer said in September, as Rwandan forces were advancing toward the diamond-rich town of Mbuji-Mayi, which is defended mainly by Zimbabwean troops.
Zimbabwe's involvement in the war has been widely attributed to personal economic interests that Mr. Mugabe and a few top generals in his Army are reported to have in Congo's lucrative diamond industry. Also, Kabila owed Zimbabwe's Defense Industries an estimated $100 million for arms purchased before the war, a debt which he could hardly be expected to pay had he been overthrown.
But months of war with no return, and too heavy a responsibility on the battlefield, have diminished Zimbabwe's appetite for fighting.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society