The Slate Gist


Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the Central African country of Zaire for the last 30 years, is considered the continent’s most brutal and corrupt living dictator. Since October, rebels have battled his army. Last week they seized Kisangani, Zaire’s third-largest city, and may soon topple him. Some Africa watchers predict that chaos could spread to Zaire’s nine neighbors. What’s it all about?

Attribute part of Zaire’s current crisis to the boundaries it inherited from its Belgian colonizers. The country–the size of Western Europe minus Scandinavia–envelops almost 250 tribes. They frequently conflict. Bantus, the country’s largest tribe, constitute the majority west of the rain forest that divides Zaire. East of the rain forest is a hodgepodge.

Zaire used to be called the Belgian Congo. At independence in 1960, a Soviet-backed socialist party took power. In 1965, a CIA-backed military coup brought down this government and installed army chief Mobutu as president. Using violence, anti-colonial rhetoric, and a cult of personality, Mobutu consolidated his power and suppressed tribal tensions. As part of a program called “Mobutu-ism,” he changed the country’s name. It all worked fairly well until recently.

The most unsettling development has been the civil war in Rwanda, Zaire’s eastern neighbor. The war is between the country’s two main tribes–the Hutus and the Tutsis. In 1994, when Rwanda’s Tutsi minority seized power, 1.5 million Hutu refugees fled across the border to Zaire. These refugees included members of the Hutu militias that had led the murder of 1 million Rwandan Tutsis. With the sanction of local Zairian officials, these militias used camps in Zaire as bases for raids into Rwanda. To avenge these attacks, Paul Kagame, vice president and defense minister of Rwanda, arranged for the combat training of 2,000 Banyamulenge, Tutsis indigenous to Eastern Zaire. In October, the Banyamulenge commandos attacked Mobutu’s army and the Hutu militias operating out of Zaire. They routed both forces, causing them to flee into the country’s interior rain forest.

M obutu’s political opponents have joined with the victorious Tutsi commandos. In November, they launched a joint offensive and so far have captured a thousand-mile swath of territory in the East. The opposition army mainly consists of separatists from Shaba and Kasai provinces in East Zaire and supporters of the original post-colonial government, who have battled Mobutu’s army sporadically since the dictator’s ascent. The most powerful rebel leader is Laurent Kabila, head of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. Though Kabila, a member of the pre-1965 government, has renounced his Marxist past, many in the West worry about his socialist tendencies.

While militarily successful, Kabila’s alliance with the Tutsis is a political handicap for him, because many Bantus have their own deep-seated hatred toward Tutsis. Another obstacle to Kabila’s revolt is the lack of national infrastructure. Crossing the roadless rain forest, from recently captured Kisangani to Kinshasa, the capital, will be arduous.

Zaire’s economic collapse may make all these tribal differences irrelevant. Groups normally hostile to Tutsis, including Bantu student protesters in Kinshasa, have turned against Mobutu. Despite Zaire’s natural resources, including some of the world’s richest diamond and copper mines, the country has become one of the poorest in Africa. In 1994, its gross national product was less than a third of what it had been in 1958. Zairian industry runs at only 10 percent of capacity. American aid to Zaire dried up after the end of the Cold War diminished Zaire’s strategic importance. And Mobutu’s corruption has siphoned off resources. The president is said to have plundered $6 billion straight from the government treasury, making him one of the richest men in the world. He pays his civil service virtually no salary, requiring them to earn their income through bribes.

In October, the 66-year-old Mobutu went to Switzerland to receive treatment for prostate cancer. Except for short visits to Zaire in December and February, he has been staying at his villas on the French Riviera and in Monaco. His absence has hastened the country’s disintegration. Many Zairians consider Mobutu to be the stern-but-loving “national father.” Other more superstitious Zairians endow him with a supernatural aura, something he has cultivated through his identification with the leopard, which signifies omnipotence in Bantu iconography. (Mobutu made “Leopard” his nickname and always wears a leopard-skin hat.) In Mobutu’s absence, various politicians have jockeyed for power, creating serious harm to the war effort. This week, the parliament voted to oust the prime minister. The army is in shambles, and large sections of the country have been running themselves, without oversight from the central government.

Increasingly desperate, Mobutu uses Serbian mercenaries to fight the rebels. In addition, the army relies on assistance from Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA army (anti-communist rebels from neighboring Angola, formerly backed by the CIA). Sudan and Uganda, also neighbors, have sent troops to assist the rebels. Their intentions are unclear: Do they hope to grab land from Zaire? Are they seeking to avenge Mobutu’s long support of rebellions in their countries? Some experts predict that their involvement in the war could escalate the conflict, drawing these countries into battle with one another.

The Clinton administration has not officially taken a position on the civil war. However, it has tacitly encouraged the rebels, in the belief that Mobutu’s patronage of guerrilla forces in the region is destabilizing. American opposition to Mobutu has been a source of tension with France, which supports the Hutus and resents Kabila’s alliance with the Banyamulenge.