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Involvement in the Angolan Civil War

The Angola crisis, set off by the Portuguese coup of 1974, was a turning point in Zairian foreign policy. The prospect of imminent independence for Angola represented both a threat and an opportunity from Mobutu's perspective. Since 1960 Zaire had had close ties to the FNLA, whose ethnic base was among the Kongo of the area bordering Zaire. Many of the FNLA leaders, including Holden Roberto, had lived in Kinshasa most of their lives. Roberto had quasi-kinship ties with Mobutu through his second wife, who originated in the same village as Mobutu's then-spouse (though she was not Mama Mobutu's sister, as the press often asserted). The FNLA was allowed to run military camps on Zairian territory.

By contrast, Zaire's relations with the Marxist-oriented MPLA had been consistently hostile. Since 1963 the MPLA's main external headquarters had been in Congo. The MPLA guerrilla effort was seriously handicapped by Mobutu's denial of transit rights from its Congo bases into the main part of Angola.

These relationships had developed in the context of the Cold War. The FNLA had received sporadic United States support, which resumed after the Portuguese coup. The Soviet Union had supported the MPLA, although the relationship was in abeyance in April 1974. Zaire's close relations with China, beginning in 1973, and China's anti-Soviet orientation, led to a substantial Chinese military and diplomatic commitment to the FNLA.

The dominant African diplomatic position was that only a coalition among the three major liberation movements--MPLA, FNLA, and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola--UNITA)--could bring a peaceful transition to Angolan independence. While formally supporting the consensus, Zairian diplomacy really aimed at excluding the MPLA from a share of power, thus ensuring a friendly Angolan regime.

In 1974, when Mobutu's strategy took form, he held what looked like considerable advantages. The FNLA, with 2,000 guerrillas inside Angola and 10,000 to 12,000 in the Zairian camps, had the largest military force. The new Chinese alliance could be used to rapidly augment FNLA armaments, and by mid-year a large flow of Chinese equipment to the FNLA camps was under way. The MPLA was divided, and one of its factions might be (and was) wooed away. While Zambia and Tanzania could not be expected to support the FNLA, they might be attracted to some combination including UNITA and an MPLA faction. The lethal competition between UNITA and MPLA forces in eastern Angola seemed to offer a possible Zaire-FNLA- UNITA alliance. The United States had a long-standing antipathy to the MPLA and could be counted upon to mount an effort to block its bid for power. South Africa also was disposed to assure a flow of military supplies to UNITA and the FNLA to prevent an MPLA victory. Finally, Zaire had a long common border with Angola and a large army that it could employ on the side of the FNLA.

Most of the supposed advantages proved illusory. The FNLA and Zairian forces were ineffective in the decisive phases of the war. The Soviet Union, unwilling to see an easy American and Chinese victory, began armed deliveries at an accelerating rate from early 1975. The unforeseen Cuban military intervention began with advisers in the summer of 1975, but involved combat troops in the crucial months of November and December 1975. Meanwhile, the exposure of CIA involvement and especially the full-scale invasion by South African military units in October 1975 led to OAU backing for the MPLA. By mid-1975, the Chinese apparently concluded the risks were too high and pulled out.

Diplomatically as well as militarily, Zaire's defeat could hardly have been more complete. The MPLA was in power in Angola, buttressed by a strong Soviet-Cuban presence, which had been legitimated in African eyes by United States and South African intervention. Zaire again was the pariah state of tropical Africa. The residual costs of the Angolan adventure were illustrated when Zaire was rebuffed in its attempt to join the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), formed in 1980 after Zimbabwe's independence in order to reduce regional dependency on South Africa. Subsequently Zaire's bid to join the Preferential Trade Area (PTA) for Central and Southern Africa was blocked by Angola.

In 1983 Zaire became a charter member of an alternative economic union, the Economic Community of the States of Central Africa (Communauté Économique des États de l'Afrique Centrale-- CEEAC), which brought together the five members of the UDEAC (Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, and Gabon), the three members of the CEPGL (Burundi, Rwanda, and Zaire), and two mini-states, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe. Angola sent a minister to the founding meeting but declared itself unable to join because of the civil war. As late as its sixth summit (in Kigali, Rwanda, in January 1990), the CEEAC had little to show in the way of concrete accomplishments. The conference authorized the free circulation of certain categories of citizens (mainly researchers, students, and residents of border areas) within the CEEAC community, approved measures aimed at strengthening cooperation between airlines, and gave priority to improving the roads linking Burundi and Rwanda to the Congo River port of Kisangani.

In contrast to the snub by the SADCC, a slow recovery of Zaire's reputation was reflected in its election to the UN Security Council in 1981 and again in 1989, with support from the African caucus. Zaire's troops were part of an OAU peacekeeping force in Chad in 1981-82 (and returned, at Chadian invitation, in 1983). Zaire sent 3,000 troops to Chad in July 1983 to support the Frenchbacked government of Hissein Habré. The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement in July 1985.

Data as of December 1993

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