Out of the heart of darkness.
The agent of this exploitation has been the dictatorship of General Mobutu Sese Seko, installed in power by the United States in 1965, following the murder of the anti-colonialist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. For over 30 years, Mobutu proved to be the faithful executor of the will of the United States. Above all he served as a barrier against the threat of communist inspired anti-colonial movements in Central Africa. Especially important was the support Mobutu gave to the FNLA of Holden Roberto and the UNITA of Jonas Savimbi, both of whom sought to overthrow Angola's leftist MPLA government. But he also provided the United States with air landing rights and the West Germans with rocket launching facilities at the same time the country was wide open to Western investors who tried to exploit its forests, rivers and especially its mines. Overall control of the economic life of Zaire was vested in the IMF.
Compliant as he was to the West, Mobutu ultimately proved an unreliable puppet. His government rested on the army, a single party known as the Popular Revolutionary Movement and a vast system of clientage. On this basis Mobutu proceeded to accumulate a personal fortune estimated at between five and six million dollars. The country was progressively pillaged by Mobutu and those who supported him to the point of destroying all significant productive facilities and the infrastructure of the country. Under such circumstances it proved impossible for most Western owned enterprises to operate successfully and they virtually stopped doing business and withdrew. Zaire became ever more dependant on conditional loans from the IMF. But ever more stringent recovery programs imposed by neo-liberal economists and bankers could not revive the corrupt body of the Zairese state and economy. By the late 1980s the economy had declined to a barter level.
So bad had things become that Western governments began to have second thoughts about the virtue of dictatorship - or at least of this particular one. In 1990 Mobutu was forced to legalize other political parties as a condition of future IMF support. But the situation had reached a point of no return. In 1991 there were popular plots in the capital, Kinshasa, and in the mineral rich Shaba province. French and Belgian troops were sent in to put them down. The next year saw a collapse of the currency. In January, 1993 new riots broke out. Because the treasury was bankrupt, the civil service and army went unpaid, the latter living off pillaging the civilian population. Secessionist movements began to develop in various parts of this immense country - larger than the whole of Western Europe.
It is this context that a rebellion broke out in the eastern provinces of Zaire last year. Eastern Zaire borders on the Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. In recent years it has supported dissident movements in all three countries. In the case of Rwanda and Burundi it has helped the Hutu populations in their conflict with the oppressive Tutsi minorities. The present civil war in Zaire directly developed out of the conflict in neighbouring Rwanda. In Rwanda the populist Hutu government responded to its economic difficulties by turning on the minority Tutsi population. Following the terrible massacres of the spring of 1994, a Tutsi based invasion overthrew the Hutu regime and caused the exodus of about one million Hutu refugees into Zaire.
The Hutu leaders who dismantled the refugee camps and Zairese soldiers began to attack the relatively prosperous Tutsi minority who for generations had lived as farmers and petty merchants in eastern Zaire. It is this group supported by the Tutsi regimes in Rwanda and Burundi that destroyed the Hutu militias who controlled the refugee camps in Eastern Zaire and initiated the return of thousands of Hutu refugees to Rwanda in 1996. At the same time these Zairean Tutsis routed the Zairean army in the region and initiated the current rebellion.
At this point there emerged the remarkable figure of Lavront-Desire Kabila, the leader of the rebellion. Kabila's opposition to Mobutu is of long standing. A supporter of Patrice Lumumba in the early 1960s, he fought with Che Guevara in 1964-65 when the latter attempted to bolster the anti-Belgian and anti-American resistance in Zaire by launching an invasion of eastern Zaire from Tanzania.
At that time, Che's heroic intervention was thwarted by the intervention of South African mercenaries led by the infamous Mike Hoare. But today the situation is quite different. The government of South Africa is hardly revolutionary, but in African terms it embodies a permanent barrier against imperialist adventurers in the region. At the same time the rebellion led by Kabila seems to be gaining strength. It appears to be attracting growing support from the non-Tutsi population in the region. In Kinshasa the capital there have been general strikes and increasing evidence of support for Kabila. The Zairean army and air force, bolstered by foreign mercenaries, so far has been unable to resist the advance of the rebels. The seriousness of the situation is reflected in the cries of alarm coming from Washington and Paris. The US and French governments purport to be interested in stopping the violence. In fact they are concerned about the implications for their interests of a movement they can't control.
To be sure there are some real questions raised by the development of this movement against the Mobutu regime. Are the Tutsis who make up part of Kabila's forces attacking the remaining Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire? What exactly is the Kabila's program? To what degree is he an instrument of the governments of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi? Finally what can the US do to limit or control Kabila?
The following weeks and months will reveal how far Kabila is able to get in overthrowing the moribund Mobutu government. All attempts by the latter to rally the army or to enlist serious foreign support have failed up to now. In one way or another it appears that the end of the Mobutu era is close at hand.
It would be ill advised to exaggerate the possibilities available to a democratic government in Zaire. The country is in such a shambles that years of reconstruction lie ahead of it. Moreover, it seems clear that the US has the economic and political leverage to limit the ambitions of a democratic government. On the other hand, the establishment of a peaceful and democratic order in Zaire would present an enormous advance for the whole of Southern Africa. Such a development would have to be seen as a dividend in part of the end of the Apartheid era in South Africa.
But beyond these developments there is a lesson to be learned from Kabila's rebellion in Zaire. The case of Zaire and indeed, Southern Africa as a whole has been used by certain Western political analysts as proof of the hopelessness of the human conditions and the future prospects of humanity. The emergence of Kabila's rebellion in Zaire ought to give them pause.
Henry Heller is a member of the Canadian Dimension Collective.