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Threat of all-out war.

The 'tiny' war which erupted in eastern Zaire last year looks set to be a long one. The new year has got off to a bad start for the Zairean troops as the rebels have continued to invade new territories including a number of mining concessions. FRANCOIS MISSER reports.

The long-awaited return of Zaire's President, Mobutu Sese Seko, to Kinshasa on the 17 December saw cheering crowds greet him at the airport. But the euphoria was somewhat artificial and the depth of support, perhaps thin. Many were members of the President's party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), or civil servants who had received money for their transport, pro-Mobutu T-Shirts and wax prints. The remaining majority were waiting for a "fula fula" taxi to take them home, having turned up simply to see whether the President had recovered from his operation for prostate cancer last August.

At the Parliamentary level, few bothered to feign feelings for Mr Mobutu's return. Within days, he imposed a number of changes which left the opposition parties grumbling. Their discontent is symptomatic of the President's bid to reassert authority to his receding regime. Appointed as the new army Chief-of-Staff is General Mahele who, unlike his predecessor General Kpama Baramoto who had only just got the position in November 1996, has attended military academies and also gained some field experience in the second Shaba War and against the Rwandan Patriotic Army in October 1990.

The new Government thus has a narrower base than the former one. While Kengo wa Dondo remains Prime Minister, the main opposition parties, including Etienne Tshisekedi's 'orthodox' wing of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDSP) and its rival wing under the leadership of Frederic Kibassa Maliba, have been excluded alongside the Union of Federalists and Independent Republicans led by Gabriel Kyungu, the former Governor of Shaba.

Indeed, the High Council of the Republic-Transition Parliament (HCR-PT) formed in 1994 under the Transition Constitutional Act which was agreed upon by all parties at the time, is now little more than a de jure structure. In reality, Mr Mobutu is determined to call all the shots with Mr Kengo at his side.

The rebels of the Alliance of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) meanwhile, have continued to advance during the past few weeks. On 27 December they captured Bunia which lies some 40km away from the Ugandan border. Some testimonies report that Ugandan troops participated in the fighting which lasted for six days and resulted in a major defeat for the Zairean army (FAZ) which lost 250 men on the battlefield. The rebels proved their bravery and fighting skills as 3,000 FAZ survivors fled west.

At the time of writing ADFL troops were reported in Mambassa, 160km west from Bunia, making advances from the town of Kamituga, 140km west of Bukavu, which they captured earlier in December More poignant, however, they have also established control over Zaire's main gold reserves. The gold deposits in the concessions of Sominki (Societe Miniere du Kivu), which last year were allocated to the British company Cluff Mining Ltd and to the Canadian group Banro, exceed 100 tonnes according to Belgian geologists.

The reserves of Okimo's (Office des Mines d'Or de Kilo Moto) huge concessions in upper Zaire, which the rebels had entered by the end of December, may be of equal significance. The Okimo concessions cover 83,000 [km.sup.2] and are shared by the Belgian-Canadian Mindev consortium and the Canadian-North American Barrick Gold Corporation (BGC). BGC's board of administration includes the former President of the United States, George Bush, the former Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, and the former Governor of the Bundesbank, Karl-Otto Pohl.

Clearly, the ADFL plans to use the mineral resources to finance the war but, without any expertise, its teams of artesanal miners can only expect to exploit alluvial deposits. This may explain why, on 26 December, rebel leader Laurent Kabila told mining companies operating in the region, to contact him before 3 January if they wanted to resume production. Otherwise, he threatened, "the mines will be ours and we'll call other investors to exploit them". Mr Kabila, in anticipation that the companies would refuse to collaborate by the end of December, began recruiting geologists and mining engineers from Belgium.

A signal that the President also wants strict control over the receipts from gold and diamond mining in order to purchase armaments, comes with the appointment of Banza Mukalay, an MPR member, as Minister of Mines. With the Government desperate to gather funds to finance its war effort, Mr Kengo has also imposed special taxes. A 10% tax has been slapped on to the price of air tickets, freight and beer consumption. However, this is unlikely to be enough for a bankrupt Government.

Since guerillas captured the three airports of Goma, Bukavu and Bunia, and army lootings occurred at Isiro and Kindu, many traders in Kinshasa have been discouraged from sending goods to the provinces. Beer consumers have responded to the taxes with substitute brews such as Heineken's Primus and Castel's Skol; the other alternative is to drink artesanal banana, maize beers or the local spirit, lokoto, made from distilled cassava juice.

The Government may be able to bank on other assets however. For instance, it might be tempted to strike a privatisation deal and finalise negotiations with the Canadian group Consolidated Eurocan Ventures, controlled by the Swedish businessman, Adolf Lundin. At the end of 1996, Eurocan proposed a joint venture with Zaire's parastatal, Gecamines, for the exploitation of the copper and cobalt reserves at Tenke Fungurume. The reserves are among the largest in the world with 220m tonnes of ore with a 5% copper tenure and a 0.3% cobalt tenure. The global investment is thought to be around $1,500m. Unconfirmed reports suggest the allocation of 20 diamond concessions to foreign companies in eastern Kasai.

All well and good except that neither the World Bank nor the Zairean opposition look particularly favourably at these type of deals. They question the transparency of the procedures especially since there have not been any public tenders launched. Another argument is that Mr Kengo's unelected Transitional Government lacks the legitimacy to allow it to hand-over state properties to foreigners.

It is for this that Zaire's mineral resources have become a pivotal point in the war. General Mahele's task, in part, is to reorganise the army into a force which is capable of defeating the rebels. Morale has been so bad lately that on 6 January, Mr Kengo decided to issue new bank notes to pay FAZ troops. As a short-term strategy this may have some effect but it is unlikely to improve Zaire's record with the IMF or the World Bank. Moreover, the rebels' reputation as organised and fearless fighters is accurate and may not be defeated by crisp cash. Indeed, it has been reported that there have been a number of attempts to recruit mercenaries to assist the FAZ. In November last year, the boss of the South African military advisory corporation, Executive Outcomes, Eeben Barlow, admitted in a BBC interview that he had been "contacted" by a Government in Central Africa. However, he also said that it happened in 1995 and that he turned the offer down anyway.

Despite Executive Outcomes' denial of having any involvement with the Zairean regime, several London-based newspapers and the Paris-based 'Le Monde' have reported on the company's previous dealings with African governments. Foreign soldiers are hired to recapture mineral concessions from rebels, frequently to the benefit of foreign mining companies.

Even without Executive Outcomes, there are indications that others are busy recruiting mercenaries. According to intelligence sources, one such man is the former commander of the 14th commandos battalion of the Congolese National Army, the Belgian Colonel Christian Tavernier who fought the Simba rebels in 1964. Another, Jean Bemba Saolona, the Manager of the Scibe air transport company and a close friend of Mr Mobutu, has deployed a number of Ukranian and Polish pilots. Allegedly, the pilots are flying Russian Yak 40 and 60 aircraft which are designed for the transport of troops and French Mirage, acquired on a leasing contract.

Attempts to import 11 second-hand Mercedes military trucks from the Dutch army have been made. However, Belgian customs officers at Ostende airport seized the cargo in late December because the requisite authorisation was absent. Indeed, the Belgian Government usually bans such exports to countries that are at war.

Zaire looks set to remain at war for a long time. The size of this troubled Central African state means the rebels are unlikely to make it to Kinshasa overnight. Equally, the FAZ's disorganisation leaves it struggling to make up lost ground; before the war had even begun, high-ranking officers were syphoning off petrol and military equipment. The Zairean army has quite a task ahead of it and time is not on its side.
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Title Annotation:Zaire
Author:Misser, Francois
Publication:African Business
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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