Zaire Table of Contents
Figure 1. Administrative Divisions of Zaire, 1993
ZAIRE HAS LONG BEEN CONSIDERED SIGNIFICANT because of its location, its resources, its potential, and (perhaps paradoxically) because of its weakness. The country has been at the center of a number of crises over the years, most notably following independence, during the Congo crisis of the 1960s, when there was a threat of the Cold War spilling over and heating up in Central Africa. Again in the 1990s, Zaire is threatening to become a source of international instability.
Zaire's importance is to some extent geopolitical. It borders on no fewer than nine other states. These countries range from Arab-dominated Sudan in the north, to Angola in the south. Hence, in defending its borders Zaire can--and has--become entangled in political rivalries extending all the way from Libya and Egypt to South Africa, i.e., the length of the continent. During the 1990s, Zaire's borders with Angola and especially Rwanda have been international flash points.
Zaire's minerals add to the country's importance. Although the value attached to them by outsiders has varied over the years, the country's resources remain impressive. In recent years, Zaire has been the world's largest producer of cobalt, second or third largest producer of industrial diamonds, and fifth largest producer of copper. Zinc, tin, manganese, gold, tungsten-bearing wolframite, niobium, and tantalum also are found in Zaire. In addition, the Atlantic coast contains important oil reserves, and the country also has some coal deposits. Also intriguing, in terms of Zaire's development prospects, is the country's immense agricultural and hydroelectric potential, believed to be sufficient to feed and power the entire continent. Obviously, however, the potential represented by these resources has yet to result in any significant benefit for the vast majority of Zaire's impoverished population. For example, failure to reinvest in the mining sector, since the mid-1980s at least, has diminished Zaire's ability to profit from its mineral resources. By 1994 it appeared that copper and cobalt production had declined to the point that diamonds were Zaire's most import export.
Indigenous developments laid the groundwork for what has become Zaire. Well before Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century, the indigenous peoples had developed iron-working and long-distance trade. Large states had emerged, notably among the Kongo and Luba peoples of the southern savannas. Artistic traditions that have become world renowned had begun, particularly in the areas of sculpture, weaving, and music.
For the last five centuries, the area of present-day Zaire has also been influenced by the outside world. The Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão reached the estuary of the Congo River in 1483. Shortly thereafter commercial and diplomatic relations were established between Portugal and the coastal Kongo Kingdom; the slave trade soon came to dominate the relationship, however. Over the centuries, a larger and larger portion of the Congo Basin was drawn into trade networks connected to the Atlantic Coast. By the founding of the Congo Free State in 1885, most of its territory was linked to one of these Atlantic networks or to two newer ones that tied the country to the Nile Valley and the Indian Ocean.
"Traditional" culture in Zaire has been substantially modified by these precolonial contacts with the outside world. The so-called traditional diet of many Zairian communities, for example, includes crops from the Western Hemisphere introduced by the Portuguese (notably cassava, or manioc as it is called in Zaire) and rice, introduced from the East coast of Africa by the Afro-Arabs in the nineteenth century.
The colonization of what became Zaire took place in an atmosphere of intense international competition. The Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, first brought the Congo to the attention of the Western world through his explorations of the Congo River basin, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Then, in 1878 journalist Henry Morton Stanley was commissioned by Léopold II, King of Belgium, to undertake additional explorations and to establish Belgian sovereignty along the Congo. In 1884-85, Léopold's claims to the Congo River basin were recognized by the major powers at the Conference of Berlin, and the Congo Free State was established under his personal rule. In 1908, following international criticism of the brutalities tolerated by Léopold, Belgium assumed direct control of the colony, which henceforth was called the Belgian Congo.
Once Léopold's personal fiefdom had been replaced by a more orthodox arrangement, the Belgian Congo largely disappeared from international view. However, Belgium remained very nervous regarding the intentions of the major powers toward the colony and with good reason. Germany planned to link its colonies in West and East Africa by annexing the Belgian Congo, had it won World War I. Adolf Hitler had similar notions during World War II. Moreover, in the late 1930s, the British apparently considered trying to buy Hitler's good will by giving him the Belgian Congo. In both cases, the colony's strategic position as well as its minerals made the acquisition appealing.
France had only recognized Léopold's sovereignty over the lion's share of the Congo Basin with a reservation, namely a right of first refusal should Léopold give up the territory. The French raised this supposed right when Belgium took over the Congo Free State and again in 1960 when Belgium proposed to grant independence to the colony.
The legacy of nervousness regarding the threat to its colony helps to explain the ambiguity of Belgium's response to the Katanga (now Shaba) secession of 1960--i.e., supporting the secessionist regime while denying it the official recognition that might have enabled it to consolidate its independence. Had the Katangan leaders achieved full independence, they might have opened the door to non-Belgian investors in Katangan minerals, as indeed occurred during the 1970s.
Bula matari ("he who breaks rocks" in Kikongo, the language of the Kongo people) became the name of the Léopoldian state at its very beginning and is still used to refer to the state, for example in radio broadcasts in indigenous languages. The name graphically symbolizes the brutal form of extortion-- extracting ivory and wild rubber from the Congolese--by which Léopold attempted to pay the cost of penetration of the territory and development of infrastructure.
The Belgian Congo was run on a somewhat different basis. Philosophically, "paternalism" served to guide and justify the actions of the administration. But coercion or the threat of coercion never was far from the surface. The brutality of colonial rule, particularly in its early years, left a double legacy. On the one hand, it created strong resentments on which nationalist movements could draw. At the same time, it generated a mood of fear and hopelessness that deterred the appearance of nationalist movements.
The state shared responsibility for administration and development with the Roman Catholic Church and business interests involved in mining and plantations. State, church, and business thus constituted what was called, even by Belgian officials, the "colonial trinity." It was not simply a question of the state's taking care of administration, the church of evangelization, and the business community of economic development. Rather, the tasks of the three overlapped and reinforced one another. In the postcolonial era, particularly after 1965 under Mobutu, finding a new equilibrium among the members of the "trinity" and sorting out the areas of responsibility of each would pose major problems, particularly with regard to education and management of the economy.
The troubled role of the military in Zairian politics also has its roots in the colonial era. Since the days of the Congo Free State, the Zairian state has had a strong military dimension. The Force Publique, or colonial army, was essentially used to subdue and control the indigenous population, although it served outside the colony during the two world wars. Many of the Free State's administrative personnel were military officers, drawn not only from Belgium but also from the United States, Canada, and European countries ranging from Norway to Turkey. Although courses were set up to train civilian administrators, the Force Publique remained the backbone of the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo.
The first rank-and-file troops were foreigners from the coasts of East Africa and West Africa, but as the Free State began to recruit Congolese, it tended to rely on what were seen as "martial races," first people of the middle reaches of the Congo River (the so-called Ngala or Bangala) and then the Tetela from southeastern Zaire. Although later quotas spread recruitment more evenly across the colony, there is some reason to think that the early imbalances were perpetuated by differential re-enlistment and promotion. During decolonization, military men of Ngala and Luba-Kasai backgrounds, in particular, played major roles in the fall and murder of the first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.
After a series of revolts had demonstrated the danger of ethnically defined units, the Belgians made sure that all units down to the lowest levels were ethnically mixed. The Force Publique supposedly was the most "national" institution of the Belgian Congo, as well as the guarantor of the Pax Belgica. But with the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that both the Pax Belgica and the national quality of the Force Publique were somewhat mythical.
The unity of the Force Publique was also mythical, or at least exaggerated. Certainly, by the time independence arrived in 1960, various politicians had established contact with adjutants from their respective ethnic groups. These contacts laid the groundwork for division of the army into warring camps in the tense atmosphere surrounding accession to independence and for the Force Publique mutiny of July 1960. The mutiny obviously was directed at the Belgian officers; less obviously, it was directed at Prime Minister Lumumba, instigated in particular by soldiers whose ethnic affinities led them to sympathize with Lumumba's rivals such as President Joseph Kasavubu, Albert Kalonji, and Jean Bolikango.
Failed decolonization was to a large extent responsible for the Congo crisis of the early 1960s. Considerable economic development took place under Belgian rule, but within a highly paternalistic framework in which Africans were confined to the lowest ranks of the administration and the economic enterprises. Although opposition to Belgian rule became manifest in the late 1950s, Belgium made no preparations for decolonization. Rioting in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in January 1959, however, forced Belgium's hand and led to an agreement whereby the colony gained independence as the Republic of the Congo on June 30, 1960, and the First Republic was established.
Independence was followed immediately by crisis, dramatized by the mutiny of the Force Publique on July 5 and the secession of the country's richest province, Katanga, on July 11, soon followed by a similar move in southeastern Kasai Province (now Kasai-Oriental Region and Kasai-Occidental Region). The crisis was further compounded by the power struggle between Prime Minister Lumumba and President Kasavubu, ultimately culminating in Lumumba's assassination in January 1961 at the hands of Katangan secessionists, and also, according to most accounts, with the connivance of Mobutu and others in Kinshasa as well as the United States and Belgian governments.
From its inception, the Congo crisis had an international dimension. The chaos that followed on the heels of independence was caused not only by conflict among Congolese but also by foreign interference. Politics in the First Republic involved numerous rivalries among political leaders on behalf of various Congolese constituencies, ethnic or otherwise. At the same time, however, outside forces clearly intervened in Congolese politics and decisively determined outcomes. The Force Publique mutinied in large part because Belgium had presistently refused to Africanize the officer corps, even following independence. In response to the mutiny, Belgium sent in troops, ostensibly to protect Belgian lives, but the intervention was seen by many Congolese as an act of unwarranted aggression, perhaps even an attempt by Belgium to reoccupy the Congo. Belgium also played a role in the secession of Katanga. Moïse Tshombe was backed by Belgian settlers and financial interests when he declared the independence of Katanga.
The crisis acquired a broader international dimension when a multinational United Nations (UN) force was sent in, at the invitation of President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, to restore peace and bring Katanga back into the fold. Lumumba's own actions then inexorably drew the fledgling nation into the Cold War and, ultimately, sealed Lumumba's own fate.
The conflict between President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba had several dimensions, including a personality clash, different bases of support, and diametrically opposed conceptions of the ultimate character of the Congolese polity. But international factors helped precipitate the crisis between the two--specifically, Lumumba's policies toward Belgium, the UN, and the secessionists, including his insistence on converting the newly arrived UN forces into a military instrument for bringing Katanga and Kasai back under the control of the central government. Lumumba's greatest mistake, however, was his decision to accept substantial Soviet aid in order to attack secessionist areas. This move brought to a climax the issue of communist influence, which had been a source of growing concern to the West and to more moderate Africans alike.
Indeed, historical accounts of the Congo crisis almost uniformly place it in a Cold War context. In particular, United States policy toward the Congo is seen as a response to a perceived threat of Soviet involvement in the region. (More recently scholars have also demonstrated the involvement of American mining interests in the shaping of United States policy toward the Congo.) Certainly United States opposition to Lumumba and consistent support over the years for his eventual successor, Mobutu Sese Seko, were dictated by Cold War concerns.
The secession of Katanga was finally suppressed in January 1963 by UN forces, but the next year the nation's viability was threatened by "Lumumbist" rural insurgencies in Kwilu and in the east that soon controlled about half of the national territory. Once again, international assistance proved pivotal in the survival of the nation. The rebellion was defeated by the national government only because of support from Belgium and the United States.
In 1965, when the tide had turned against the Lumumbist rebellion but the threat was not over, and national politics was again paralyzed by a rivalry between the president and the prime minister, army commander General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) seized power. He abolished parties, then established a single party, the Popular Revolutionary Movement (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution--MPR). The logic of single-party rule was pushed to its limits in the 1974 constitution, when all public institutions (including the army and the university) became subsidiaries of the MPR. Despite the rhetoric of party rule, however, most observers agree that what emerged was a personalisitic dictatorship, dominated by Mobutu and a clique of close associates.
The chaos of the First Republic obviously provided a justification for Mobutu's coup of 1965, and for his subsequent establishment of a single-party dictatorship. However, as Zairians struggle to establish multiparty democracy in the 1990s, it is important to remember that the legacy of the First Republic was not all negative. When political debate was opened after 1990, a number of politicians invoked the 1964 Constitution of Luluabourg (Luluabourg is now called Kananga) as a model for a new federalist constitutional order.
Once in power, Mobutu reversed the process of territorial fragmentation that had begun in 1960. From twenty-one provincettes in 1965, the number of administrative divisions was cut first to twelve provinces (known as regions after 1972), then to eight, plus Kinshasa, representing a nearly complete restoration of the colonial boundaries. (In the early 1990s, the most populous region, Kivu, was divided into three regions--Nord- Kivu, Sud-Kivu, and Maniema, corresponding to the three provincettes of the 1960s. Under Mobutu the regions, once quasi-federal political units with their own governments, were reduced to administrative subdivisions of the unitary state. Not until 1984, when Mobutu accepted suggestions from external aid donors that he carry out political "liberalization," were the regions given legislative assemblies and a degree of politico- administrative autonomy. The extreme centralization of power under Mobutu, and the abuses that followed from that centralization, led to a push for decentralization once political debate emerged after 1990. The push for democratization is attributable, above all, to the courage of opposition groups and of ordinary Zairians. Yet external linkages were important, notably the publicity given to the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social--UDPS) in Europe and North America.
Mobutu's style of governance reflects both continuity and change. Much analysis has focused on the changes wrought by Mobutu, but outside observers often fail to understand an important area of cultural continuity from which the Mobutu regime has derived much of its power and legitimacy. Mobutu is a president, not a king. He travels in jet aircraft and appears on television. Yet some of his ideas, and some of the ideas that his subjects have about him, are based on traditional Zairian sources and uses of power.
First, it is important to distinguish between the ideology and the practice of leadership. Ideologically, a precolonial Congolese ruler (emperor, king, or chief) was seen as a father to his people. He had a priestly function, as intermediary between the material and spiritual worlds. The symbols of rule expressed his uniqueness; only the ruler could wear the skin of the leopard or the feathers of the eagle, for these beasts were kings of their respective spheres of the animal world.
At the same time, and particularly in the vast equatorial forest (Mobutu's home area), the ruler was an entrepreneur. He built up wealth, which he used on his own behalf, but also on behalf of his people. The successful "big man" (mokonzi in Lingala) built up a community of blood relatives, allies, clients, dependents, wives, slaves, and others. Copper, the symbol of wealth in precolonial Zaire, adorned the chiefs and elders. However--and this point was missed by many analysts until recently--the community was described in terms of genealogy, the ruler being presented (and his rule justified) in terms of his being the head of the family.
This model of the ruler as father (ideologically) and entrepreneur (behaviorally) has carried over into postcolonial Zaire. For example, in reconstructing the army after the mutinies and secessions of the early 1960s, Mobutu behaved very much as the "big man." He tied other officers to him by means of resources, often from his foreign backers, which he channeled to them, meaning that troops loyal to Mobutu were more likely to be paid, and to be paid on time, than other troops.
After 1965, and especially after 1970, Mobutu's relationship with his principal political associates--government ministers, advisers, and high-ranking military personnel--also was based on the "big man" model. Indeed, the term presidential monarch has been used, appropriately, to describe Mobutu. Acting as "Father of the Nation," his self-awarded title, Mobutu presided over a political system that had the formal trappings of a republic but was in reality the personal fiefdom of the president, who used the national treasury as his personal checkbook and disbursed both rewards and punishments at will. Cabinet ministers, for example, were routinely shuffled in and out and political allies exiled or "recuperated," as political fortunes rose and fell--or as Mobutu's whims dictated.
The Mobutu regime also sought legitimacy through ideology. The MPR initially espoused a doctrine of nationalism, borrowed from Lumumba's Congolese National Movement (Mouvement National Congolais--MNC) and other parties of the early postindependence era. By 1971 it was promoting authenticity (see Glossary), espousing "authentic" Zairian nationalism and rejecting foreign cultural influences. The most dramatic symbol of this Zairianization (see Glossary) process was the change of the country's name to Zaire in October 1971 and the gradual renaming of its cities and provinces (later regions). By 1974 the official ideology had metamorphosed into Mobutism (see Glossary), in which the acts and sayings of the leader were glorified, increasingly to a ridiculous degree. To "Founder-President" were added ever more extravagant praise-names: "Guide of the Revolution," "Helmsman" (borrowed from Mao Zedong), "Mulopwe" (emperor, or even god-king), and finally "Messiah." At this point, the ideology of the regime had become so overblown that many Zairians and most foreign observers found it impossible to take seriously. But many of the themes in the Mobutist ideology--the yearning for cultural and economic autonomy and for strong, paternalistic leadership-- resonated with deeply held opinions on the part of Zairians, among both the elite and the general poulace. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this ideology served to justify the domination of the political system by a self-serving ruling class.
Cultural nationalism inevitably brought the Mobutu regime into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, which, along with the state and the business community, made up the "colonial trinity." But the church, whose active following includes 46 to 48 percent of the population of Zaire, possesses worldwide links and a resilient institutional infrastructure and thus was able to withstand the regime's pressures. Catholic institutions, for example, particularly schools and health services were--and remain-- comparable in extent and vastly superior in quality to those of the state.
Although the church had welcomed the Mobutu regime, the hegemonic ambitions of the MPR aroused suspicion, and a conference of bishops in 1969 privately noted "dictatorial tendencies" in the regime. The following year, Joseph Cardinal Malula expressed fears about the regime's intentions at a mass celebrating the tenth anniversary of independence. In the presence of both King Baudouin of Belgium and Mobutu, he denounced political elites for "a fascination with the triumphant and the superficial, and a hunger for the lavish."
The Roman Catholic Church also viewed as an affront the absorption of the jewel of its educational system, Lovanium University, into the secular National University of Zaire (Université Nationale du Zaïre--UNAZA) in August 1971. Even more serious was the regime's announcement in December 1971 that party youth branches had to be established in the seminaries.
Another battle took place over the concept of authenticity. The regime's stress on "mental decolonization" and "cultural disalienation" could be seen as a disguised attack on Christianity as an import from the West. One symbolic accoutrement of the authenticity campaign, the 1972 elimination of Christian forenames, was treated by the church as a particular affront. The church's opposition to the name changes led to a dramatic riposte. Cardinal Malula, archbishop of Kinshasa, became the target of attacks as a "renegade of the revolution"; he was evicted from the residence the regime had built for him and was forced to leave the country for three months in 1972.
In late 1972, the regime moved to monopolize the socialization process, banning all religious broadcasts and dissolving church- sponsored youth movements. The zenith of this campaign came at the end of 1974 when the religious school networks were nationalized, celebration of Christmas as a public holiday was ended, and the display of religious artifacts was limited to the interior of churches. (The school networks were, however, returned to the churches eighteen months later when the state proved unable to operate them effectively.)
Over the following years, the Roman Catholic bishops in Zaire continued to criticize the Mobutu regime. In 1976 Monsignor Kabanga, archbishop of Lubumbashi, issued a pastoral letter denouncing a system under which, "Whoever holds a morsel of authority, or means of pressure, profits from it to impose on people and exploit them, especially in rural areas. All means are good to obtain money, or humiliate the human being. . . ." It was small wonder, then, that the Roman Catholic Church maintained moral standing in the eyes of the population and that Monsignor Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kisangani, was chosen president of the national conference that was convened in the early 1990s to oversee a transition to a democratic, multiparty political system.
Despite the importance of cultural nationalism, over which church and state battled, the primary component of Zairian nationalism was economic and was designed to wrest control of the economy from foreign interests and place it firmly in Zairian hands. As early as 1967, this desire had led to a clash with Belgium over control of Zaire's major industrial concern, the Upper Katanga Mining Union (Union Minière du Haut-Katanga--UMHK), which mined copper and cobalt. Eventually, a compromise was reached under which a state-owned mining company, General Quarries and Mines (Générale des Carrières et des Mines--Gécamines) was created. The settlement proved lucrative to UMHK and brought unanticipated costs to Zaire.
The linkage between politics and the economy became increasingly clear in the 1970s. In 1973 the government seized 2,000 economic enterprises owned by foreigners (but not those owned by Americans) and turned them over to Zairians, mainly members of the political elite. Mobutu was the leading beneficiary. Within a few months, the scope of the disaster of this Zairianization was clear, but instead of turning back, Mobutu plunged forward into the "radicalization of the revolution," apparently inspired by his visit to China and North Korea. "Radicalization" supposedly included the nationalization of trade and the mobilization of agricultural brigades to relieve food shortages. But in its application, the new measure became an assault on the primarily Belgian-owned industrial sector. The effect was to extend the chaos of Zairianization to virtually all spheres of the economy.
As the Zairian economy went into a tailspin, Mobutu finally came to realize the magnitude of the catastrophe ushered in by Zairianization and radicalization. In November 1975, he introduced a new policy of retrocession (see Glossary), under which a substantial portion of Zairianized enterprises were returned to their original owners. Meanwhile, however, almost irreparable damage had been inflicted upon the economy.
The economic disaster resulting from Zairianization was compounded by the regime's insistence on undertaking large-scale industrialization, in the process squandering the country's mineral wealth and neglecting the agricultural sector. To fund its grandiose industrial projects, the regime resorted to heavy foreign borrowing. When the prices of commodities (especially copper), on which Zaire was heavily dependent, dropped drastically and the cost of vital imports, such as petroleum products, skyrocketed in the mid-1970s, export earnings and government revenues dropped sharply, and Zaire faced a grave economic and financial crisis.
Since 1975, Zaire's massive foreign debt has had a major impact on policy, both foreign and domestic. Some causes of the huge debt, such as the rise in the price of petroleum imports and the fall in the price of copper exports, were beyond Zaire's control. Others were not, notably Zairianization and radicalization, the squandering of funds on prestige projects, and their diversion into overseas bank accounts by the president and the elite.
As a consequence of the debt, foreign creditors became major actors in the Zairian political process--and in economic development, thus making a mockery of Mobutu's much-vaunted quest for economic independence. In 1976 the first of a series of economic stabilization programs was adopted under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund ( IMF--see Glossary) and other external forces. During the next eighteen years, Zairian authorities alternately cooperated with and struggled against the international financial institutions. In 1994 this era came to an end (for a time, at any rate) as the World Bank (see Glossary) closed its office in Kinshasa, and Zaire was expelled from the IMF.
In line with the IMF's economic orthodoxy, the "Mobutu Plan of 1976 and each successive was supposed to reduce corruption, rationalize and control expenditures, increase tax revenues, limit imports, boost production, improve the transportation infrastructure, eliminate arrears on interest payments, ensure that principal payments were made on time, and improve financial management and economic planning. But ultimately all efforts at reform or significant change were undercut by the patrimonialism (see Glossary) and rampant corruption that characterized the regime.
Zaire's public and publicly insured debt was rescheduled by the Paris Club (see Glossary) at least seven times between 1976 and 1987. Zaire's private creditors also rescheduled their part of the debt in 1980 and at various times thereafter, and numerous meetings of World Bank and Western aid consortia were held to generate further official assistance, starting in 1979.
When the first two standby agreements with the IMF yielded meager results, the IMF and the World Bank decided in the early 1980s to send their own teams of experts to run key posts in the Bank of Zaire (the country's central bank), the Customs Office, and the Ministries of Finance and Planning. The head of the Bank of Zaire team, Erwin Blumenthal of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), cut off credit and exchange facilities to firms of members of the political elite and imposed very strict foreign exchange quotas. However, Mobutu and his colleagues were able to evade many of the restrictions and to wear down Blumenthal and the other experts. After Blumenthal's departure, the international teams were careful to avoid what one member called the "political hotspots," and the regime continued on its self-destructive course.
In 1981 Zaire began to cooperate with the IMF, laying off large numbers of civil servants and teachers. In 1983 it agreed to devalue its currency by 80 percent and to liberalize the economy. In response, the IMF agreed to a fifth standby agreement, and the Paris Club agreed to roll over more than US$1 billion of debt, with a maturity of eleven years, in contrast to the eight years normally approved for debtor nations. In 1985 and 1987, the Paris Club rescheduled Zaire's debt for ten years and fifteen years, respectively, making it clear that the greater leniency being shown to Zaire was a reward for following IMF guidelines.
Although Zaire appeared to be following the IMF guidelines, benefits were slow to appear in terms of improved economic activity within the country, not to mention improved living conditions. Mobutu, said to be one of the ten wealthiest men in the world, continued to enrich himself at the expense of the people, whose living standards continued to decline.
During the years when lenders and Western governments were somewhat successful in controlling the financial practices of Zaire's rulers, they paid dearly for their success in that they were forced to provide the regime with additional support to compensate for the withdrawn financial opportunities. Belgium, France, Israel, and the United States, among others, provided both symbolic and instrumental backing in the form of military assistance. In the case of the United States, the military relationship increased when the two countries found themselves supporting the same faction in the Angolan civil war in 1975. In 1986-87 Mobutu reportedly agreed to allow the United States to ship arms to Angolan rebels via Zaire and to refurbish the air base at Kamina (in southeastern Zaire), in exchange for increased aid as well as United States pressure on the IMF to treat Zaire leniently. Mobutu and his regime thus benefitted substantially from the perceived Untied States need to assure a stable Zaire and to garner Zairian support for United States strategic interests in sub- Saharan Africa.
Over the years, the Western powers rewarded Mobutu both economically and militarily and for the most part maintained silence in the face of increasing evidence of his regime's abuses. Only since the end of the Cold War has support for Zaire become more conditional. By early in the 1990s, the West had terminated most aid to the Mobutu regime and was putting increasing pressure on Mobutu to improve his human rights record and institute multiparty democracy.
In the early years of his regime, many Zairians gave Mobutu credit for restoring order and securing the country's borders. Increasingly, however, the forces of order have become sources of disorder within the country. Rather than protecting the Zairian people, the armed forces and security forces prey upon them and are perceived, justifiably, as instruments of repression. Examples of their excesses abound. One of the most egregious instances occurred in Bandundu in 1978, when the security forces summarily executed about 500 people following a minor uprising set off by a self- proclaimed prophet. Another occurred in 1981, when perhaps 100 diamond miners were killed in Kasai-Oriental. The incident that gained the greatest international attention and that had the most serious repercussions for the Mobutu regime was the May 1990 massacre of students at the University of Lubumbashi. Up to 100 students were killed in the incident, ultimately prompting most multilateral and bilateral donors to terminate all but humanitarian aid to Zaire.
Just as they have failed to provide internal order, so, too, have the armed forces failed to secure Zaire's borders. In 1977 and 1978, Shaba Region was invaded by Angola-based rebels, who had to be repulsed by foreign troops. In 1984 and again in 1985, another opposition group briefly held the town of Moba on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, again demonstrating the Zairian military's lack of capability--and the government's lack of control of its territory. In 1993 there were reports that the Zairian army had clashed with troops of yet another opposition group, this time along the Uganda border. In 1994 Zaire's border with Rwanda also became a major source of insecurity, as over one million refugees fled from perceived danger in their home country.
In 1977, following the first Shaba invasion, Mobutu responded to Western pressure for reform by paying lip service to the notion of democracy in Zaire. Competitive elections among multiple candidates for the legislature were permitted--but only within the single-party framework, which is to say that the system still offered no real political choice. All electoral choice, or competition, took place solely within the MPR. Nevertheless, by 1980, some of the deputies elected in 1977--The Thirteen, as they were called--had challenged Mobutu's system of rule through an open letter cataloging regime abuses. The Thirteen ultimately evolved into an internal opposition party, the UDPS. Despite being banned, with its leaders largely exiled or under internal house arrest, the UDPS was to prove remarkably resilient and formed the core of opposition to the regime when a political opening occurred in the early 1990s.
In April 1990, Mobutu radically transformed the political environment by announcing the establishment of the Third Republic, ostensibly a new, multiparty system of government. The initiative was presented as a magnanimous gesture on the part of the president, but in fact Mobutu was bowing to renewed pressure for change from Western governments and international financial institutions. In addition, his move was a calculated attempt to quell growing domestic discontent.
It soon became clear that Mobutu's announcement had unleashed volatile forces that he would be hard-pressed to contain. And, in fact, Mobutu proceeded to embark on a checkered course of half- hearted moves toward democratization, interspersed with periodic brutal crackdowns on dissent.
The immediate result of Mobutu's announcement was the unleashing of efforts to publicize existing organizations and to found new ones. Although Mobutu backpedaled furiously, attempting to constrict the political space he had appeared to open up, by December 1990, independent political parties were permitted to register. By mid-1991, over 200 political parties had been recognized. Most significant among them was the UDPS, which had emerged as the main opposition party. Other major opposition parties were the Democratic and Social Christian Party (Parti Démocrate et Social Chrétien--PDSC) led by Joseph Ileo and the Union of Federalists and Independent Republicans (Union des Fédéralistes et des Républicains Indépendants--UFERI) led by Jean Nguza Karl-i-Bond. Opposition activities were spearheaded by a multiparty coalition, the Sacred Union (Union Sacrée).
In August 1991, Mobutu also convened a long-promised national conference ultimately known as the Sovereign National Conference (Conférence Nationale Souveraine--CNS), which was ostensibly designed to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and to manage the transition to a democratic, multiparty political system. But inevitably conflicts arose between a conference determined to assert its sovereign powers and a president equally determined not to cede control of the government, and the conference was very much an on-again-off-again institution throughout 1991 and most of 1992.
Nevertheless, the conference, encompassing over 2,800 delegates, did meet--intermittently--to debate the country's political future from August 1991 until it finished its work in December 1992. In August 1992, the conference passed a Transitional Act to serve as a provisional constitution. That act established a parliamentary system with a figurehead president, a 453-member High Council of the Republic (Haut Conseil de la République--HCR) to serve as a provisional legislature, and a first state commissioner (prime minister) to serve as head of government. Mobutu and the conference also agreed to abide by the Comprehensive Political Agreement (Compromise Politique Global), which included ten principles, the most significant being that no institution or organ of the transition should use its constitutional powers to prevent any other institution from functioning. In essence, all parties agreed to share power and to abide by the constitutional provisions embodied in the Transitional Act.
UDPS leader Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba was duly elected transitional first state commissioner by the CNS on August 15, 1992. On August 30, he appointed a transitional government of "national union," including various Mobutu opponents, but no Mobutu supporters. In December 1992, the CNS dissolved itself and was succeeded by the HCR, headed by Archbishop Monsengwo. As the supreme interim legislative authority, the HCR was authorized to formulate and adopt a new constitution and to organize legislative and presidential elections. But Mobutu refused to accept the authority of the HCR or the legitimacy of any constitution it might formulate, instead reconvening the former legislature, which had been suspended, and entrusting it with drafting a rival constitution more to his liking. In March 1993, Mobutu further undermined the Tshisekedi transitional government when he convened a special "conclave" of political forces to chart the nation's future, including devising a new constitution. Mobutu then dismissed the Tshisekedi government, although according to the Transitional Act he did not have the authority to do so. At his urging, the conclave then named Faustin Birindwa as prime minister of a so-called government of national salvation.
Since that time, Zaire has had two parallel, rival governments vying for domestic and international acceptance. The Birindwa government did not receive international recognition (nor has the government headed by Birindwa's successor). But the Tshisekedi government, although recognized internationally, has from the beginning lacked the power or resources to govern. Indeed, it has never been able to govern effectively because of its inability to limit Mobutu's powers except on paper. The result of this situation is government stalemate, which worked to Mobutu's advantage.
Mobutu has been able to cling to power because of three main factors. First, he has maintained control of key institutions, including the central bank, state radio and television facilities, the security police, and the military, particularly the elite Special Presidential Division (Division Spéciale Présidentielle-- DSP). In fact, control of key military units has been critical to Mobutu's continued exercise of power. He has used those units to obstruct the functioning of the transitional government, to intimidate critical opposition leaders and the media, to promote anarchy and chaos, to disperse popular demonstrations, and to incite ethnic violence. Mobutu has also retained control over the network of diplomatic representatives abroad, in particular Zaire's delegations to the UN and its specialized agencies. Likewise, he apparently has maintained control over the network of regional, subregional, and local administrators in the interior of the country.
Mobutu's position also has been strengthened by his ability-- and that of his allies--to incite ethnic violence, thereby promoting instability, fostering anarchy, weakening the opposition, and undermining mass political mobilization against his regime. Officially instigated cases of ethnic violence clearly occurred in Shaba, where, beginning in August 1992, attacks on Luba-Kasai-- Tshisekedi's ethnic group--were incited by Nguza and other former opposition figures, including the governor of Shaba, Gabriel Kyungu wa Kumwanza. Officials may also have played a role in ethnic violence in Nord-Kivu, where indigenous local people attacked immigrants from Burundi and Rwanda, collectively known in Zaire as the Banyarwanda. Both instances of ethnic tension reflect a history of enmity and resentment. But most observers believe that the recent violence is less historical than the result of deliberate government manipulation designed to divert popular resentment of the Mobutu regime. In the Nord-Kivu case, Mobutu also was able to demonstrate his control of the use of force, sending in the DSP to quell the violence.
In Shaba, however, Mobutu stood aside and let events proceed without interference, no doubt because they appeared to be working to his advantage. In addition to instigating the ethnic cleansing campaign in Shaba, Nguza and Kyungu have raised the specter of Shaban autonomy, at times threatening to pursue it if Tshisekedi were to be "forced on" the nation as prime minister in a political settlement. Observers note that both issues have been used to the detriment of Tshisekedi and the UDPS and to the benefit of Mobutu, who can thus present himself as the only political figure who can hold Zaire together, including Zaire's most vital region, mineral- rich Shaba.
A final factor in Mobutu's ability to retain power is his consummate political skill. Over and over again, he has succeeded in dividing the opposition and in co-opting key opponents. For example, in October 1991, Mobutu appointed Tshisekedi as prime minister of a transitional coalition government, but fired him just one week later following a dispute over the apportionment of ministerial portfolios. When the Sacred Union refused to choose a successor, Mobutu named Bernardin Mungul-Diaka, leader of a small opposition party, as prime minister. Then, in late November 1991, Mobutu formed another transitional government, this time under Nguza. The appointment of Nguza proved to be highly beneficial to Mobutu, in that it brought Mobutu the support of Nguza and his followers while at the same time fracturing the opposition. At the time, Nguza was a Tshisekedi rival in the Sacred Union, but he subsequently left the Sacred Union, after other members termed his nomination as prime minister a "betrayal." He then created a rival political coalition within the CNS, the Alliance of Patriotic Forces. Encompassing some thirty parties, led by UFERI, the Alliance ostensibly remained committed to political change but rejected "extremist" stands.
Mobutu's appointment of Birindwa as prime minister in March 1993 further undercut opposition forces. Birindwa proved to have little difficulty in recruiting ministers for a government. Political expediency aside, co-optation of political figures by Mobutu and Birindwa was facilitated by the disastrous economic situation. In June 1993, six political leaders from the Sacred Union joined the Birindwa government and then left the Sacred Union, claiming that the Sacred Union had become too extremist. They then formed their own coalition, which they called the Restored Sacred Union (Union Sacrée Rénovée). Having joined the Mobutu-appointed Birindwa government, the six could no longer be regarded as ardent proponents of political change. The same could be said of Nguza, given his acceptance of a position as first deputy prime minister in charge of defense in the Birindwa government.
In 1994 Mobutu's tactics of stalling and dividing the opposition bore further fruit. Birindwa resigned as prime minister of the rival, Mobutu-appointed government. The selection of a successor then fell to the new 780-member legislature created in late 1993. That body, the High Council of the Republic (Haut Conseil de la République--HCR)-Parliament of the Transition (Parlement de la Transition--PT), or HCR-PT, encompassed both the HCR and Zaire's former, pro-Mobutu legislature. After five months of political vacuum, in June 1994 the HCR-PT finally elected a candidate from the moderate opposition, Léon Kengo wa Dondo, to replace Birindwa. The election was an affront and setback for Tshisekedi. Although continuing to assert his claim to be the sole legitimate head of government, Tshisekedi was not among the seven candidates for the job of government leader. Instead, he simply called upon members of the HCR-PT to "confirm" his position as prime minister.
Kengo was a founder of the Union of Independent Democrats (Union des Démocrates Indépendants--UDI) in 1990. Although denounced at its founding as "MPR II," the UDI in fact represented a claim to an independent future by politicians and businessmen formerly close to Mobutu. Kengo had been premier twice before, in the 1980s, and was considered an advocate of fiscal austerity as promoted by the IMF. His candidacy in 1994 was put forward by the Union for the Republic and Democracy (Union pour la République et la Démocratie--URD), a coalition including the UDI and other moderate groups within the Sacred Union. The radical wing of the Sacred Union, driven primarily by the UDPS, termed Kengo's selection "illegal and anticonsitutional" and continued to regard Tshisekedi as the country's only legitimate prime minister.
For its part, the HCR-PT claimed to be acting in accord with popular sentiment. But observers note that the HCR-PT's claim to represent popular feeling is questionable, given the swelling of its ranks by members of the pro-Mobutu parliament. In fact, nobody can say whether or to what extent the Mobutists and their allies in Kengo's UDI as well as the other moderate parties really represent a majority of the Zairian people.
Political unrest continued as Tshisekedi attempted to assert his authority and pro-Mobutu forces strove to discredit Tshisekedi. On June 5, Tshisekedi, speaking publicly for the first time in three months in front of a large crowd in Kinshasa, threatened to paralyze the diamond extraction industry if Mobutu continued to refuse him the job of prime minister. He called on diamond workers to go on indefinite strike to halt production and exports of diamonds. The threat was regarded as credible because Tshisekedi has continued to enjoy broad support from the working class, especially in his home region of Kasai-Oriental, where diamond mining is centered. If successful, such a strike would have a major impact on the Mobutu regime, which has come to relay on the diamond industry for revenue since the demise of Gécamines and the copper industry.
One response to Tshisekedi's threat was further harassment and the concoction of what he termed, credibly, "a plot" against him. A week after his speech, Tshisekedi was arrested and detained for ten hours. According to the official version of events, Tshisekedi had been driving within a military camp near the presidential residence at Nsele, east of Kinshasa, in a car containing arms and ammunition. In protest of Tshisekedi's arrest, demonstrators burned cars and set tires alight in a Kinshasa suburb. During the demonstration, one of Tshisekedi's advisers was arrested by the Civil Guard and allegedly tortured.
The demonstration was just one sign that the task confronting Kengo--guiding the country through the transition toward the Third Republic--is a daunting one given the extremely confused political situation in the country and the general state of collapse at all levels. As he said in a brief speech after his election, his priority will be to restore the authority of the state. He also promised to promote "national harmony, reconciliation, tolerance, democracy, and the exercise of freedom." It appeared to most observers, however, that these goals would be extremely difficult to achieve, considering the economic and social situation.
While the struggle between Mobutu and the opposition has dragged on, the nation's economic and financial situation has continued to deteriorate. The country remains heavily indebted and impoverished. A large proportion of its population lives outside of the formal economy, eking out a marginal existence through subsistence agriculture and informal trade or barter. The standard of living for most of the population has continued to decline.
The export-oriented Zairian economy has been in a free fall for a number of years, suffering the effects of monumental, institutionalized corruption, neglect, and mismanagement. The economic crisis was worsened by the rampant looting and rioting by unpaid troops in late 1991 and again in early 1993, which in turn led to the mass exodus of the foreign technicians who had kept the economy going--in particular copper production and economic infrastructure.
Throughout the 1990s, Zaire's economy has been described in only the direst of terms. It has been characterized as desperate, in ruins, dysfunctional. In fact, the formal economy has almost ceased to function. The banking system has collapsed because of the rampant hyperinflation and the drastic fall in the value of the currency. The central bank, which in the past served as Mobutu's personal piggy bank, is for all practical purposes bankrupt. Most other banks have closed, and those that have remained open deal in cash transactions only. The state takes in few revenues: the tax collection system is defunct, few if any customs revenues are collected, most foreign aid has been cut off, and copper production, long the mainstay of the economy and the main source of government revenues, has dropped off significantly. The government has been able to pay its bills only by printing new currency.
The effects of the economic chaos on Zairian society are enormous: unemployment and poverty are widespread, the economic infrastructure has decayed, state institutions have ceased to function, and most state-run hospitals and schools have closed. Civil servants, teachers, and health-care workers have largely ceased working because they have not been paid, and medical equipment and medicine are scarce. As a result, diseases once eradicated have begun to reappear. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sleeping sickness, and malnutrition have become increasingly prevalent. Malnutrition is particularly common among children, as the price of food exceeds the financial resources of more and more Zairian families. The availability of safe drinking water also has become problematic.
Most observers of Zaire's deplorable economic and social conditions marvel at how a land of such superlative natural endowments--enormous mineral deposits, immense forests, mighty rivers, and abundant fertile soils--could have sunk so low. By rights, Zaire should have become one of sub-Saharan Africa's most developed and wealthiest states. But instead it is an impoverished nation in a rich land, with its economy and society in total disarray and most of its citizens (80 percent by some estimates) living in absolute poverty. When ethnic conflict-- which has resulted in the internal displacement of several hundred thousand Zairians in the early 1990s--is taken into account as well, Zaire's characterization as "an African horror story" in a recent article by Bill Berkeley in the Atlantic Monthly appears well founded.
And yet, as press accounts continue to emphasize, Zairians have somehow survived, their ability to do so a reflection of their ability to fend for themselves. In the absence of a functioning government, economy, or social services sector, enterprising individuals have resorted to the informal economy to make a living and to obtain the goods and services they need. In essence, government services--such as health care, schools, road maintenance--have been "privatized." Moreover, a de facto decentralization of government power has occurred. Recognizing the weakness of the central government, which can no longer project its power or offer its services much beyond the capital city, regions and local communities have stepped into the void to provide what order and services they can. For example, local businesses may pay for maintenance of local infrastructure, and local merchants may band together to pay local military and security forces to provide peace and protection.
A less positive result of the individual Zairian's quest for survival is, of course, the widespread corruption that has resulted. Recent travelers to Zaire note the proliferation of "enterprising" individuals and "facilitators" who prey on those entering the country, attempting to extract payment for a multitude of services. Similarly, anyone traveling in Zaire encounters frequent roadblocks set up by security officials who then extort money in exchange for the right to pass.
On a larger scale, the massive official corruption and greed characterizing the Mobutu regime have had disastrous results for the country and its people. In an August 1994 article in the Washington Post, "An African Giant Falls under Its Own Weight," Keith Richburg examines the causes of Zaire's desperate state in the 1990s. He notes that Zaire has not broken up into civil war like Liberia or been overcome by tribal slaughter like neighboring Rwanda. Rather, it has crumbled under the weight of years of rampant corruption, greed, incompetence, neglect, and decay.
Since the end of the Cold War, Africa has appeared to lose much of its significance to the developed world, and African nations generally make headlines only when their situation has become catastrophic. Throughout the mid-1990s, Zaire has occasionally been featured in the Western media, attention focusing on the mystery of how the nation could continue to operate and how Mobutu could continue to survive. But as the status quo continued in Zaire, international attention largely shifted elsewhere.
Zaire entered the spotlight, indirectly, in July 1994 as over 1 million refugees fleeing ethnic violence in neighboring Rwanda crossed the border into Goma in eastern Zaire. In August there were fears of an additional mass exodus from Rwanda into Bukavu, Zaire, when the French withdrew their troops from Rwanda. The number of new refugees into Bukaku remained much lower than expected, however, estimated at about 70,000 at the end of August (but the area as a whole was inundated by a total refugee population of about 400,000).
That Zaire could appear as a safehaven is supremely ironic given the condition of Zaire's economy, society, and polity in 1994. The irony of the situation was further dramatized by the behavior of Zairian border and security forces, who allowed the flood of refugees to pass, but not before robbing them of whatever food, weapons, and other valuables they had managed to bring with them. In addition, there were reports of attempts by Zairian officials to extort cash payoffs to permit international relief flights to land (or to depart), although such flights are supposed to be exempt from landing charges. Zairian soldiers reportedly also helped themselves to relief supplies.
The massive influx of Rwandan refugees poses enormous problems for Zaire, a country already gripped by anarchy and lawlessness and demonstrably unable to meet the needs of its own population, including the many internally displaced Zairians. The area is quite inaccessible and is served by a very limited transportation infrastructure in very poor condition. This situation hampers the ability of international relief organizations, the UN, and foreign governments to deliver the food, clear water, and health care supplies and personnel that are so desperately needed. In addition, security has become a major problem as well. The refugee camps are beset by common thievery as well as attacks by Hutu extremists seeking Tutsi spies. Maintaining control in the camps is the responsibility of Zairian military and security forces, but doing so is beyond their capability, despite the presence of several thousand troops in the area, including 400 elite troops dispatched to Goma in response to the Rwandan refugee crisis. Moreover, the security forces themselves have contributed to the lawlessness in the region by preying on both the local poplace and the refugees. A popular protest erupted in one of the camps in Goma after a soldier killed a moneychanger who apparently refused to comply with a demand for money.
The squalid, disease-ridden refugee camps that have proliferated in the areas surrounding Goma and Bukavu represent public health hazards, as witness the cholera epidemic among refugees in Goma. In addition, they are blights on the previously scenic landscape in these resort areas on Lac Kivu. Some individual refugees, eschewing the camps, reportedly have flooded the towns, pitching tents in the streets, chopping down trees for firewood, using sidewalks as toilets, and grazing livestock on lawns and open spaces. Even if the toll on Zairians were not so great, it should come as no surprise that local Zairians have not welcomed the refugees. To understand why, one need only recall the ethnic violence against the Banyarwanda--earlier immigrants from Rwanda and Burundi--that spread throughout Nord-Kivu in the early 1990s.
Given all of these factors, the refugee influx appears likely to add unbearably to the existing chaos in Zaire. Moreover, some analysts fear the prospect of regional conflict if Zaire were to permit Rwandan Hutu refugees to set up an exile government or stage commando raids into Rwanda. Mobutu apparently met with the new Rwandan government and pledged not to permit such antiregime activities, but there is substantial room for skepticism. Contributing to this skepticism is Mobutu's love of meddling, as demonstrated by his involvement in the Angolan civil war. In addition, Mobutu supported the Rwandan regime ousted in 1994. The Zairian opposition also has accused Mobutu of complicity in ethnic violence in Rwanda in May 1994. Mobutu allegedly allowed arms to be sent to Hutu hardliners who attacked both Tutsis and Hutu moderates; those same Hutu extremists are among the refugees who have now fled to Zaire.
There are also indications that Mobutu might somehow turn the crisis to his advantage. Before the crisis, Mobutu had become a pariah in the eyes of the West. But as the likelihood of Mobutu's overthrow receded, and in the face of the overwhelming human tragedy in Rwanda, Western leaders appear to have become reconciled to the idea of working with Mobutu. Mobutu reportedly played a role in facilitating the French intervention in Rwanda in support of the collapsing Hutu regime, and there are reports that Birindwa's replacement by Kengo was brokered by the French, who wanted to ensure Mobutu's compliance with its Rwanda policy. The United States, too, has been forced to deal with Mobutu and has at last replaced its ambassador, long absent from Kinshasa as a sign of official United States displeasure with the Mobutu regime.
Thus, as the summer of 1994 drew to a close, Mobutu appeared to have profited from the Rwandan refugee crisis, consolidating his political position domestically and rehabilitating his image internationally. Despite the deterioration of Zaire and the deplorable conditions in which most Zairians live, Mobutu appears so strongly entrenched that many observers believe he might succeed in winning the presidential election set for 1995--even if he does not rig the election. Unfortunately, such an electoral result will only bring more stagnation and disintegration to Zaire.
September 9, 1994
Thomas Turner and Sandra W. Meditz
Data as of December 1993
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