The Remaking of the Congo

Against the Current, No. 69, July/August 1997

B. Skanthakumar

MOBUTU SESE SEKO’s tyranny over Zaire ended with a whimper, not a bang. The forces of the Alliance for the Democratic Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) swept into Kinshasa on May 17th. They were greeted by chants of “Liberation, Kabila, Congo” from an expectant, if somewhat wary, people.

There was no drawn out siege of the city nor the feared number of deaths, destruction and violence. The Zairean Armed Forces (FAZ) behaved in much the same way as elsewhere in the course of this nine-month armed rebellion: they dropped their weapons and fled.

The week before, the FAZ hierarchy, led by the Defence Minister General Mahele Lieko Bokungu, realized that Mobutu and his regime could not be saved. They then turned their attentions to securing their own future by instructing the army to offer no resistance. It was a surrender in all but name.

Mobutu was informed of the military leadership’s decision and advised to leave the country. Furious at the news, his son, Captain Kongolo, lured General Mahele to the central military encampment where he had him assassinated.

Kongolo loyalists in the elite Special Presidential Division then went on a killing spree, hunting down and murdering anyone suspected of betraying Mobutu. Fearing the same fate, the Prime Minister, General Likulia Bolongo, sought refuge in the French embassy before he too, under French protection, was whisked away to neighboring Congo-Brazzaville. Even in its dying hours the regime remained true to its violent nature.

There was a convergence of factors which contributed to Mobutu’s speedy downfall: His poor health and the publicity of his impending death; the cowardice and poor morale of his own army; the strength of popular disaffection with a regime that would not transform itself; his backers in the West signalling that they would not intervene militarily to rescue him.

If Mobutu Sese Seko is a creature of imperialism and cold war rivalries, then Zaire as we know it is a creature of its “Helmsman,” “Guide” and “Father.” The phrase coined by the 17th century French monarch Louis XIV, “L’Etat c’est moi” (“I am the State”) epitomized the vain-glorious Mobutu. He named Zaire, defaced it with his ubiquitous leopard-skin hat portrait everywhere, and on everything, and plundered it on a daily basis.

As individuals and regimes in the rest of Africa waxed and waned, Mobutu just went on. Then the rumors about his ill-health began, fuelled by his frequent visits to Europe’s best clinics. It turned out that he had prostate cancer and it was already at an advanced stage.

Despotism revolves around the force and character of the central figure<197>an individual who so fears any challenger that he weakens or eliminates alternative bases of power and concentrates authority within himself. Through generous doses of patronage and fear, Mobutu entrenched and preserved himself for thirty-two years. His own Ngbandi ethnic group benefitted by political appointments and state contracts. It was not for nothing that Mobutu himself would proclaim only he could keep Zaire (a country twice the size of France and Germany combined) and its forty-five ethnic communities together.(1)

Mobutu had no anointed successor. When he returned to Zaire in December 1996 he looked visibly feeble. There was little doubt that his days were (in all senses) numbered. That perception — combined with news that the armed rebellion in the east was facing no determined opposition either from the FAZ or local people — punctured the aura of invincibility around him.

The Zairean Armed Forces was used to committing brutalities against an unarmed population. But facing AFDL troops who were trained, armed and well-motivated, they mounted only token resistance. As they deserted their units or fled to Kinshasa, these notoriously ill-disciplined men raped, looted possessions and extorted money from townspeople.

The FAZ like other public employees were not paid regularly by Mobutu’s government. When they did receive their monthly salary, it was a pittance (equivalent to $1). To compensate, they demanded money from rich and poor alike. Their commanding officers turned a blind eye, or encouraged them, hoping to maintain their allegiance. One Kinshasa resident complained, “The soldiers are our enemy. They stop you, strip you naked and steal everything. Last week they even took my shirt.”(2)

“Ghost soldiers” remained on the payroll, their salaries filling the purses of army officers. But often these “ghosts” were sent into battle by Kinshasa strategists who were unaware that the men didn’t exist. At the end, with their commanding officers, thousands who were alive switched to the AFDL. There at least they would be given uniforms, food to eat, even paid. They also stood a better chance of survival, and the possibility of employment, after the war was over.

Mobutu could only really count for complete loyalty on his personal guard, the Israeli-trained Special Presidential Division, who were better paid than regular troops. When the fighting grew intense and it became clear that Western countries (with the exception of France) weren’t rushing to his defense, Mobutu believed that foreign mercenaries would face down a military threat as they had in the 1960s. About 400 were recruited and deployed in the frontline (paid anywhere between $2,000-$5,000 a month). They included veterans of previous campaigns in Africa — of Belgian and French origin — as well as Serbs, Croats and Russians.(3)

When civilians in Bukavu, Walikale and Shabunda suffered aerial bombardment in mid-February, it was from these mercenaries. However the mercenaries were plagued with problems ranging from poor communication with each other and with the FAZ (in one incident they attacked each other causing several fatalities). They didn’t have Zairean troops to lead and they were confronted by disciplined and well armed opponents. <169>Times have changed since the 1960s<170> said one AFDL soldier, “the liberation army soldiers are not scared any more by white mercenaries. They also use modern weapons.”(4)

The final blow to the mercenaries was when many of them were laid low with dysentery and malaria. By April they dispersed in disarray.

The “Transition to Democracy”

While parliamentary elections were scheduled for this year, few believed that Mobutu would accept an outcome which was less advantageous to him than the preceding six years of a “transition to democracy.” In 1990 Mobutu had conceded to a partial liberalization of civilian life. Organizations of civil society, including professional and religious associations, women’s and youth groups, worker and peasant unions, community associations and cooperatives flourished. A vibrant press developed. Four hundred and fifty political parties — created usually on the basis of family and ethnic ties — sprung up.

In 1992, after much delay, a self-selected Sovereign National Conference, modelled on similar processes in other Francophone African countries, drafted a new constitution. It was supposed to oversee the transfer of power from Mobutu to civilian politicians.(5)

The Mobutu regime took little notice of this conference or its pronouncements. While “democratic” politicians squabbled among themselves for the prime minister’s office — and used their periods in office to amass their fortunes — Mobutu remained entrenched in power. His disdain for the “political class” in Kinshasa was symbolized by his residence over 1,000 kilometers away in Gbadolite.

The Clinton administration favorite has been Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). Western governments supported Tshisekedi as a suitable successor to Mobutu. They saw him as someone who would restore financial stability and enforce law and order. On three separate occasions he had been appointed prime minister, and dismissed. However the West began to grow impatient as Tshisekedi was unable to unite the fractious anti-Mobutuist forces behind him and force Mobutu to relinquish power.

Last April, when Mobutu thought that AFDL leader, Laurent Kabila, might be seduced into calling off the rebellion in exchange for some cabinet posts, he once again appointed Tshisekedi prime minister. But Kabila was unimpressed by the offer, realizing that compromise with Tshisekedi would leave Mobutu in power. So when Kabila didn’t take the bait, Tshisekedi was fired once again.

Tshisekedi’s popularity in the recent past was largely because he personified opposition to Mobutu. His weakness has been an intransigent belief that he is destined to be prime minister. To reach his goal, he has been no less a self-serving opportunist than others. Late last year, after the rebellion began, Tshisekedi flew to France to pay Mobutu a deathbed visit. Appealing to him not to die until he had overseen the mythical “transition to democracy,” Tshisekedi reportedly said, “We need the President at this difficult time.” His recent acceptance of the prime ministership from a crumbling and discredited regime further tarnished his anti-Mobutu credentials.

Most Zaireans long ago gave up on the “democratic opposition” in Kinshasa. The realized that the opposition, while criticizing Mobutu, played a game amongst themselves of musical chairs, vying for the prime minister’s seat. But Mobutu was both musicmaster and choreographer.

To most people in Zaire there seemed to be a choice between more of the same — and even the intensification of repression under direct military rule–or supporting the Alliance forces. The AFDL was making a difference to communities in the areas it controlled. It removed people’s fear of the FAZ’s thuggery, paid salaries, reduced hyperinflation and introduced a stable currency. So the choice wasn’t a difficult one to make.

For many years people in Zaire have existed virtually independently of central authority and the official economy. The state is usually a distant and malevolent authority whose periodic intrusions into their lives are associated with foreboding and gloom. These emotions and perceptions are vividly portrayed and communicated in Sony Labou Tansi’s magical realist novel, The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez (Heinemann: London 1995).

If Zaire is to be valued by mineral wealth alone, it would be one of the world’s richest countries. But its human development indicators give a better picture of the state of its people. Out of 174 countries ranked, it is rated 141. Life expectancy is a mere 52 years. Only 26% of the people have access to health care, 27% have potable water. The daily calorie intake per person is 2,060, well below the recommended threshold.(6) Where indicators have improved it has been due to the ingenuity of the people and the efforts of voluntary organizations.

“I don’t know if Kabila will be good,” said one woman trader, “But after all the years of Mobutu, what could be worse? [Mobutu] has humiliated us. He has stolen from us. He didn’t just steal money, he stole our lives, our chances to have better lives for us and our children.”(7)

From Colonialism to Neocolonialism

There was a time when Mobutu Sese Seko was the darling of the West. In 1960 — as direct Belgium control over the country was ending and at the height of Cold War rivalries — the Congolese nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba appeared to be tilting towards the Soviet Union. Many of his followers were left-wing radicals. So the CIA plucked from obscurity one Colonel Joseph Desire Mobutu. With Western assistance a secessionist rebellion in Katanga (now known as Shaba) was provoked and the United Nations arrived to provide suitable cover for U.S. designs.(8)

In January 1961 Lumumba was killed by the puppet Tshombe regime and supporters like Pierre Mulele subsequently murdered by the Mobutu regime.(9) Laurent Kabila’s political and personal history is bound up with this period. So too for a while was the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara whose political and personal relations with Congolese militants was a difficult episode for both.(10)

Mobutu proved a useful ally for Western foreign policy in his recognition and support for the apartheid regime in South Africa. He also channelled Western aid to (and directly supported) anti-Communist movements like UNITA, the FNLA and Cabinda separatists in Angola as well as ethnic chauvinist regimes like that of Juvenal Habyarimana in Rwanda. In undermining popular revolutions in the region he shares responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths, including carnage and destruction in Southern Africa, where he supported the apartheid regime.

Mobutu was befriended by King Hassan of Morocco, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and the Peoples Republic of China (sic) among others. However by the end of the 1980s, he was becoming an embarrassment to Western regimes. By then they were using the rhetoric of “good governance” and “democracy” in their dealings with the Third World — even making it a conditionality in bilateral and multilateral lending.

Imperialist Intervention in the 1990s

There was no Western military intervention in Zaire because it would have been expensive as well as unpopular at home and abroad. France urged intervention to little avail, but France is something of an anachronism. It continues to use military intervention to secure its foreign policy interests, as witnessed recently in the Central African Republic and its shameful role in the Rwandan genocide.(11) France also maintains military bases from Senegal in West Africa to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

Yet France’s commercial interests in Zaire are not as extensive as may be thought. Primarily, France supported Mobutu in order to retain a sphere of influence in Central and West Africa independent of the European Union and the United States. With Mobutu’s fall these ambitions have been dealt a severe blow.

But for Western imperialism there is a better and less troublesome way now to protect and extend its interests — through the mechanisms of international finance. It’s not necessary to march in and occupy a country in order to dictate its economic strategy or secure economic dominance.

Instead the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank impose conditions for servicing the external debt and extending future loans. This scenario begins with the liberalization of domestic markets by opening them up to foreign capital. The free flow of capital is permitted along with the full freedom for transnational corporations to evade minimum wage laws, health and safety standards and environmental protections. Since the state is still the main shareholder of the country’s huge mining companies, the standard IMF/World Bank demand to privatize has the possibilities of enriching foreign capital. The greatest weapon in the imperialist armory today is that of debt.(12) As Chester Crocker, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, forthrightly explained, “We and our friends control the keys to the clubs and treasuries that Kabila will need to tap if he is going to rebuild the country.”(13)

Today democracy is coupled with the market in the dominant discourse. When Samuel P. Huntington and others use the term “market democracy” we are left in no doubt as to which takes dominance. While the ritual and trappings of Western liberal democracy have been resurrected in the 1990s, their substance is renewed austerity and authoritarianism wrapped in a velvet glove.

No longer is there a homegrown on imported “Communist” threat. Those countries which espoused statist ideologies and “Marxist-Leninist” phraseologies junked them long ago. Western commercial interests are secure in countries where state control over the economy has been rolled back and the imperatives of global trade take precedence over popular need.

Winning the War

Perhaps Laurent Kabila’s greatest success was not on the battlefield but in his ability to prevent the deployment of a multinational military force in eastern Zaire in those crucial first few months of the rebellion. Had Western troops been on the ground, ostensibly to safeguard lives of Rwandan Bahutu refugees and ensure safe passage of food and medicines, at best they would have frozen the conflict and prolonged the agony of both the one million refugees and the forty million Zaireans. At worst the troops would have sided with Mobutu.

The Rwandan regime’s military strongman General Paul Kagame bitterly commented that humanitarian intervention was simply a pretext for the West to prop up Mobutu. Kagame was speaking from experience. He knew well the role of French troops in Rwanda during the “humanitarian” Operation Turquoise, which, in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, acted to protect the rump of the Bahutu chauvinist regime it had previously armed and supported.

While in Zaire military intervention was ruled out, Western countries attempted to exert diplomatic pressure on both Mobutu and Kabila to reach a “settlement.” The South African government became the international mediator, urging a halt to the war and a transitional government comprising Mobutuist forces minus Mobutu, the unarmed opposition, and the AFDL. This would have been their ideal scenario.

Fortunately it never happened. Kabila stuck to his original position. He was prepared to meet directly with Mobutu (who has a tendency to send a representative to talks and then to disown him) but only with one outcome, “to negotiate the modalities of his departure.” Kabila explained, “We do not want to make the same mistakes that the other opposition parties made by making too many compromises and being duped on each occasion.”(14)

Problems in Winning the Peace

As Laurent Kabila declared himself president and announced his cabinet, there were no surprises. A government has been formed based on the AFDL, with some posts for non-AFDL parties and individuals, including Etienne Tshisekedi’s wing of the UDPS — although not Tshisekedi himself.

The ban on political parties has not been lifted although party activists themselves still work freely, as indeed they have in areas that were liberated by the AFDL earlier in the war. In fact the Alliance had appointed members of opposition parties to the civil administration in a number of provinces.

However multiparty elections will not be held for at least two years. Instead there will be a constituent assembly that will draft a new constitution on which to base democratic elections and the reorganization of the country.

A persuasive model is likely to be that of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement. Uganda too shares many of Zaire’s problems: conflict, ethnic cleavages, unrepresentative and venal politicians. Museveni has managed to combine authoritarian non-party politics with free market reform. There party-based elections were scrapped in favor of a system of village-based Resistance Councils, whose delegates form the National Resistance Movement. However the NRCs/NRM are inherently structures of the state and a political vehicle for Museveni. In Uganda some good opportunities to forge truly democratic structures and reorient the economy around social needs were missed.(15)

There have been persistent — and sometimes confirmed — reports of atrocities by the AFDL. Last November 500 Rwandan and Burundian Bahutu refugees were killed near Bukavu.

There have also been reprisal massacres following attacks on the AFDL.(16) These attacks do not provide justification for such conduct. If the new regime is to be any better than its predecessor, it must break with past practices and severely punish those who commit atrocities. Human rights monitors and the media should have free access to all parts of the country, particularly where there are pockets of Rwandan refugees.

AFDL soldiers have to show greater respect for their fellow citizens than the FAZ did. The culture of impunity for state crimes must end. The new regime must be held to its promises on human rights and democratic liberties. There must be freedom of association, assembly and expression.

One hears the refrain that it was the AFDL and not the unarmed opposition that finally liberated Zaire. While that is true, the emergence of popular organizations and their confrontation with the old regime was a significant stage in the struggle. Their role — ranging from demonstrations and ville mortes (“ghost town,” stay-away general strikes) should not be forgotten. It was their presence, successes and failures that invest legitimacy in the method of struggle and AFDL’s final victory.

Among these sectors and through a dynamic of their self-organization and self-activity we may find those who while celebrating Mobutu’s departure will challenge the inequality, poverty and powerlessness that remains.

One of the difficult questions to be addressed in coming months is the nature and content of federalism. In many cases in Africa the demand to create new states or regions has had little to do with extending democracy and self-administration. Instead, as in Nigeria, it has often been related to ethnic mobilizations in which the elites attempt to carve out separate zones for capital accumulation and self-enrichment, and increase the political patronage they can dispense.

Yet if Kabila’s government intends to make the new name for the country — the Democratic Republic of the Congo — meaningful, then he will have to concede genuine autonomy for provinces with safeguards for minorities in those areas. Provincial governments should be given full freedom and support to develop cross-border links for travel, trade and work with peoples and governments in neighboring countries.

It is a legacy of both colonial and post-colonial neglect as well as a historical reality that communities in eastern Zaire have better-developed relations with Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda than they have ever had with Kinshasa or the western regions of the country to which they are not even connected by road. This opportunity to develop links must be grasped and utilized in order to negate the boundary lines that only made sense to cartographers and colonial civil servants, but never to the people whose lands were so cruelly and arbitrarily partitioned.


  1. “Zaire without Mobutu is a nightmare many shudder to think of” one diplomat was quoted saying in “Worry over Mobutu’s Health,” Weekly Review (Nairobi), October 25 1996. This about a man who had perfected the art of divide and rule among civilian politicians in Kinshasa and “ethnic cleansing” in the rest of the country.
    back to text
  2. Ruaridh Nicoll, “People of Zaire have mastered art of getting by,” The Guardian (London), December 21st 1996.
    back to text
  3. The South African firm, Executive Outcomes, denied any involvement in Zaire but are involved in a number of countries. “The Executive Outcomes mercenaries are not simply `guns for hire.’ They are the advance guard for major business interests engaged in a latter-day scramble for the mineral wealth of Africa.” Khareen Pech and David Beresford, “Corporate dogs of war grow fat amid the anarchy of Africa,” The Observer (London), January 16 1997.
    back to text
  4. Francois Misser, “Mercenaries bark but don’t bite,” New African (London), April 1997.
    back to text
  5. There is an interesting and instructive account of this process in Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba’s, “Zaire: From the National Conference to the Federal Republic of Congo?” Development Dialogue, 1995: 2.
    back to text
  6. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1996, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
    back to text
  7. Quoted by Chris McGreal in, “He stole our money and he stole our lives,” The Guardian, May 17 1997.
    back to text
  8. For a powerful and eloquent denunciation of the U.S. role, see Malcolm X, “The oppressed masses of the world cry out for action against the common oppressor” in Steve Clark (ed.) February 1965: The Final Speeches, (New York: Pathfinder 1992).
    back to text
  9. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, “The Second Independence Movement in Congo-Kinshasa” in Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o (ed.), Popular Struggles for Democracy in Africa, (London: Zed Books, 1987).
    back to text
  10. Richard Gott, “Che Guevara and the Congo,” New Left Review, 220, November/December 1996. When queried on Che’s criticisms of the Congolese liberation movement and its leaders, who were berated by locals as “tourists” because most of the time they were far away from the frontline or even Congo itself, Kabila responded, “Che was entitled to his view of that moment. That was over 30 years ago. The situation was quite different . . . . The reality of Cuba and Latin America of the 1960s he was coming from was different from Congo and Africa of that time. Those were very interesting times and we were also young. However it was a great honor for us to have worked with Cuban comrades led by Che.” Interviewed by Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, “An Evening with Kabila,” West Africa (London), 31 March-6 April 1997.
    back to text
  11. Eric Toussaint, “Genocide’s Creditors,” International Viewpoint (Paris), No. 287, April 1997.
    back to text
  12. See more generally, Eric Toussaint and Peter Drucker (eds.), IMF/World Bank/WTO: The Free Market Fiasco, Notebooks for Study and Research No. 24/25, International Institute for Research and Education: Amsterdam 1995.
    back to text
  13. Cited from a New York Times report by Chris McGreal, “New Congo, no chaos,” The Guardian, May 19 1997.
    back to text
  14. Interviewed by Collette Braeckman for Le Palmares (Kinshasa), March 7 1997 (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, AL/2864 A/1, March 11 1997).
    back to text
  15. Mahmood Mamdani, “The Politics of Democratic Reform in Uganda,” Africa World Review (London), May-September 1994. For lessons from elsewhere, Issa G. Shivji (ed.), State and Constitutionalism: An African Debate on Democracy, SAPES Trust: Harare 1991.
    back to text
  16. Amnesty International, Crisis in Eastern Zaire, AFR 02/15/96, November 8 1996; Zaire: Violent persecution by state and armed groups, AFR 62/26/96; <MI>Rwanda: Human rights overlooked in mass repatriation, AFR 47/02/97, January 1997; Great Lakes Region, AFR 02/07/97, January 24 1997; Zaire: Appeal for a commission of inquiry to investigate reports of atrocities in eastern Zaire,<D> AFR 62/11/97, March 24 1997.
    back to text

ATC 69, July-August 1997