Zaire Table of Contents
Mobutu meets with President George Bush at the
White House, June, 1989.
Courtesy The White House (David Valdez)
By most accounts, the United States was involved in both the death of Lumumba and the coup of 1965, which brought Mobutu to power, although the extent of this involvement is not certain. In any case, because of his longstanding relations with the American intelligence community, Mobutu was very aware of United States backing both as a resource and as a handicap.
Zaire generally received firm American support in the late 1960s and found American influence helpful in various economic and political disputes. The promulgation of a generous investment code in 1969 and a moderate political stance lured extensive foreign, including American, investment, and a substantial program of United States aid was continued. Mobutu returned from a visit to the United States in 1970 with pledges of substantial new investment. Relations continued to be warm until the Zairianization decree of November 30, 1973, which led to the transfer of a large number of foreign-owned enterprises, including facilities owned by international oil companies, into Zairian hands. Thereafter, relations were chilly.
But in 1975, the United States and Zaire found themselves supporting the same faction in the Angolan civil war (see Regional Relations , this ch.). The United States, apparently deciding that it needed a stable Zaire for political and economic reasons and sensing the potential for Zaire to support United States strategic interests in sub-Saharan Africa, promoted the relationship with Zaire. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's first official trip to Africa in April 1976 included a long visit to Kinshasa.
The Carter administration, which had declared its number-one foreign policy objective to be the promotion of human rights, posed a problem for the Mobutu regime, with its poor human rights record. For the first time, criticism of Mobutu by members of Congress and by voluntary agencies was met with some sympathy by the United States president. However, the skeptical attitude toward the Zairian government was partially reversed by Shaba I and Shaba II. On the occasion of the second invasion in 1978, President Jimmy Carter supported Mobutu's accusations of Cuban and Soviet involvement, even though no hard evidence was presented. But the United States refused to become involved militarily and sent only nonlethal military supplies, such as medical and transportation equipment. In 1980 the House of Representatives (concerned over human rights violations and the misuse of United States aid) voted to end all military assistance to Zaire; but the Senate reinstated the funds, reacting to pressure from Carter and American business interests in Zaire.
The election of the more conservative Ronald Reagan as United States president was well received in Zaire, and in fact United States concerns about Mobutu's human rights record became muted. Moreover, Mobutu again was seen as providing useful services to the United States in its struggle against the Soviet Union and Soviet allies such as Libya and Angola. The domestic context in the United States had changed, however, in that an increasing number of American groups had become opposed to administration policy toward Zaire.
As United States-Zaire relations became more visible in Washington, Mobutu countered by becoming more active in promoting a positive image of himself and his country. Two Washington lobbying firms with ties to the Reagan administration received hefty contracts from Mobutu.
Nevertheless, in November 1990, Congress cut military and economic aid (except for some humanitarian aid) to Zaire, crystallizing the longstanding division between Congress and the executive branch and between liberals and conservatives on Zaire policy. As it adjourned, Congress denied the Bush administration's request for US$4 million in military aid and stipulated that US$40 million in economic aid be funneled through humanitarian agencies not affiliated with the Zairian government. Its decision was based on human rights violations--the September 1990 Lubumbashi massacre in particular--and accusations that Mobutu's vast wealth was largely stolen from the Zairian people.
By 1992 the United States-Zaire relationship had reached a turning point. The end of the Cold War had diminished the strategic significance of Zaire to the United States, and events in Zaire since 1990 had made it clear that Mobutu's days in power were numbered. In 1991-92, the United States, together with Belgium and France, attempted to promote peaceful political change in Zaire, by pressuring Mobutu to oversee the transition to democratic government and to depart voluntarily. The Zairian opposition, however, still perceived this approach as a continued "propping up" of the Mobutu regime and called for an unequivocal United States rejection of Mobutu, which was not forthcoming.
In October 1992, the United States joined Belgium and France in extending official support to the Tshisekedi government. The United States also reiterated its support for the national conference and its hope that the conference would lead ultimately to fair and free elections.
Since that time, the United States has continued to support the legitimacy of the Tshisekedi government and to insist that the Mobutu government live up to its promise to turn over real power to that government. It has consistently denounced Mobutu's obstruction of the transition process and has refused to recognize the rival Birindwa government. Moreover, the Clinton administration has taken several concrete steps to show its displeasure with the Mobutu regime. The United States has not replaced its ambassador to Zaire, who was reassigned in March 1993. The United States also refused to allow Zaire's central bank governor into the United States to attend a World Bank-IMF meeting and has made it clear that Mobutu is not welcome in the United States. Nevertheless, the United States has stopped short of taking or even advocating harsher measures against the regime, such as the imposition of economic sanctions or the confiscation of Mobutu's assets abroad. As such, in the view of some observers the United States has put only very limited pressure on Mobutu to step down. Many see this policy as an indication that the United States still regards Mobutu as a stabilizing factor, a viewpoint that would explain United States acceptance of Mobutu as part of the transition process in Zaire. The United States-brokered political accord that accompanied the Transitional Act permitted President Mobutu to remain as titular head of state and thus a legitimate institution of government, albeit with limited powers. One unintended effect of this arrangement has been to confer some legitimacy on Mobutu and thus allow him to obstruct the transition process and the functioning of the legitimate government under Tshisekedi.
Throughout 1993 the United States has continued to urge the various political forces in Zaire to continue negotiating, apparently believing that ongoing negotiations will eventually lead to a power-sharing compromise. It appears increasingly likely that the United States would accept a so-called "neutral administration" replacing both the Mobutu-appointed government and the Tshisekedi government.
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents