Zaire Table of Contents
On April 24, 1990, President Mobutu Sese Seko announced to the citizens of Zaire that the country was entering a new era. Henceforth, that date would rank as a milestone, along with June 30, 1960 (independence day) and November 24, 1965 (inauguration of the Second Republic). The new era was to be one of multiparty government, replacing the single-party system that had been in place for twenty-three years.
This major reform, which would usher in the Third Republic, was presented as the product of Mobutu's personal initiative. In an exercise in direct democracy or "popular consultation," he had gone to the people and sought their views on the functioning of political institutions. Mobutu claimed that 5,310 of the 6,128 memoranda received, or 87 percent, proposed retaining the singleparty status of the MPR, with some administrative and organizational changes, such as reductions in the number and size of party agencies and the recruitment of new staff. Only 13 percent of respondents called for a multiparty system. But, he said, after much reflection he had decided to go beyond the wishes expressed by the majority of the Zairian people. Thus, he had opted to experiment with political pluralism, establishing a system of three political parties, including the MPR. Each citizen would be free to adhere to the political formation of his choice. Mobutu cautioned, however, that the new multiparty system would have to avoid the errors of the past, namely allowing multipartyism to become synonymous with multitribalism.
Mobutu claimed that the Zairian people had demanded that he continue to preside over the destiny of the country in a broad sense. He would serve as chief of state and as such would ostensibly be above both the political parties and government organs, functioning as the final arbiter or last resort. Because he would be above the parties, Mobutu indicated that he was resigning that very day as head of the MPR, permitting that party to choose for itself a new leader to carry out the changes necessary to its new role. (Nevertheless, following his 1990 resignation, Mobutu accepted the leadership of the MPR once again on April 21, 1991.)
All these changes would require a transitional period of twelve months. According to Mobutu, the deliberative bodies, from the national legislature down to the collectivity councils, had been judged satisfactory by respondents and would remain in place until the next elections. However, the National Executive Council (also called the Council of Ministers), or cabinet, was considered to have resigned. A caretaker prime minister would be named, and this person would put together a transition team.
When Mobutu announced the transition to the Third Republic, he also dealt with several superficial but highly charged aspects of the aftermath of authenticity (see Glossary). Zaire's political vocabulary would be changed, and Zairians would be free to return to the more universal forms of address. Moreover, while the abacost (see Glossary) would remain the national dress and his personal choice, Zairians would be free to choose to wear a suit and tie. The ambiguities of the measures of 1990 were illustrated by the fact that members of the transitional government, sworn in two weeks later, all were dressed in the abacost or its feminine equivalent.
The whole exercise--the three-month "popular consultation" and the speech that summarized the results--was vintage Mobutu. In a masterful ploy, he cut the ground from beneath the feet of those opposition groups--the UDPS at home as well as some of the groups operating from exile--whose demands centered on political reform. He exempted himself and the directly elected deliberative bodies from the condemnation expressed by the people via their memoranda. He placed the burden for dealing with Zaire's enormous social and economic problems on the back of the new cabinet, which he would not head. At no time did he assume responsibility for the country's problems, nor did he acknowledge that his great initiative was really largely a reaction to external events and pressures. He made no mention of the fact that democratization has been a major demand of Western creditors, and that many other African states either had opted for multiparty systems or appeared to be about to do so, partly in response to the same international pressures.
Mobutu's apparent jettisoning of the party-state, ushering in the Third Republic, was a surprise move, the implications and implementation of which were far from clear. It remained to be seen how much Mobutu's personalistic regime would really change. In fact, within ten days Mobutu was already backpedaling.
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents