Congo/Zaire: Why the west is alarmed
By Norm Dixon
"We are starting the second phase of our revolution — the reconstruction phase", announced the foreign minister in the new government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bizima Karaha, on May 21. Immediately after Kinshasa's liberation on May 17, the victorious Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) moved quickly to begin to dismantle the corrupt and repressive state machine of the Mobutu dictatorship.
Under the guise of demanding an "inclusive" transitional government and a rapid move to "multiparty elections", the US and other western governments signalled their opposition to the root-and-branch destruction of the neo-colonial political system that brutally exploited the Congolese people and protected the west's regional political and economic interests for the past 32 years.
Among the first actions of ADFL was to erase the symbols of the Mobutu era, starting with the name "Zaire". The rebels reinstated the name Democratic Republic of Congo, junked in 1971 as part of a bogus "Africanisation" campaign. The ADFL also reintroduced the blue with yellow stars post-independence flag and national anthem.
More than symbolic, however, was the disbanding and disarming of Mobutu's armed forces. The young rebel fighters met only sporadic resistance from government troops when they entered Kinshasa over the May 17-18 weekend.
Mobutu's defence minister and army chief, Mahele Bokungo, was murdered on May 16 after he recommended that the army lay down its arms. The killing was ordered by Mobutu's son, Mobutu Kongolo, who denounced Bokungo as a traitor. Hours later Kongolo fled to Brazzaville, across the Congo River, with a barge full of luxury cars.
Fewer than 230 people were killed during the city's liberation, a majority being government soldiers caught looting by enraged and emboldened citizens or in isolated revenge attacks. Government soldiers killed many residents while looting.
Despite the distorted coverage in most of the mainstream media, which concentrated on one or two isolated acts of retribution against former Mobutu soldiers, remarkably few were killed by rebels. Most simply shed their uniforms and refused to fight. (The prize for the most dramatic beat-up must go to the Sydney Morning Herald's reporter Paul McGeough, whose May 20 front page article squealed about an explosion of "hideous revenge killings and frenzied looting").
On May 17, rebel radio ordered government troops to report to the rebels and hand in their weapons at disarmament sites the next day. Thousands of soldiers responded. Former government soldier Albert Karanza told British Guardian reporter Chris McGreal that the process was simple: "I had to hand [my gun] in and give my name. They told me to go home and find another job."
Most of the feared 5000-strong elite presidential guard — widely hated for their brutality, corruption and loyalty to the dictator — surrendered en masse on May 18. Its officers fled to Brazzaville. Some officers who attempted to avoid surrender were discovered and executed (much to the ghoulish delight of the international media scrum).
The 10,000 or so ADFL fighters were well behaved and polite. Kinshasans in their thousands cheered them as liberators and offered them soft drinks, breakfast cereal and even new boots.
ADFL fighters, while preventing widespread looting of shops and homes, turned a blind eye when residents entered the homes and offices of Mobutu and his stooges. "We did not liberate this country to see people behave like thieves", a rebel soldier told the May 19 International Herald Tribune, "but when it comes to Mobutu and his property, whatever the people can take back, they deserve".
The destruction of the dictatorship's army and its replacement by a people's army, and the collapse of the old political system, have opened the possibility of a process of radical political change should the ADFL leaders choose to embark on such a course. It is this that has set off alarm bells in Washington and other western capitals.
As the rebels advanced across the country, the US — as well as the United Nations, South Africa and eventually Belgium and France — frantically tried to engineer a settlement that would salvage as much of the Mobutu state as possible, which so reliably ruled in favour of western economic, political and military interests for three decades.
The US strategy was to pressure ADFL leader Laurent Kabila to demobilise the mass uprising and share power with remnants of the Mobutu regime and the tame-cat parliamentary opposition in Kinshasa as means of hindering any impulse the ADFL leadership may have to put the interests of the Congolese people above those of the west.
The April 28 Financial Times stated imperialism's aim clearly: "The US and other Western powers are anxious for Kabila to win control of Kinshasa as part of a negotiated settlement ... rather than at the head of an all-conquering rebel force, answerable to no one".
Kabila refused to succumb to the pressure, while playing for time by attending meetings organised by South Africa, the US and the UN. Kabila openly criticised the west for its efforts to salvage Mobutuism.
While the rebels' triumphant march into Kinshasa was a blow to the US plan, it has not given up its goal of aborting the chances of radical change.
Washington and its European allies immediately went on the offensive to force Kabila and the ADFL to share power with Kinshasa's professional "opposition" politicians and swiftly hold elections. The US hopes to entrench a political system dominated by professional members of parliament rather than more participatory forms of representation.
Elections held within the shortest possible time would favour the establishment opposition leaders and their party machines, who for seven years have made no dent in Mobutu's dictatorship. The US and its allies would be much more comfortable with these leaders, most notably Etienne Tshisekedi, dominating the post-Mobutu era.
The US issued veiled threats that aid and loans to the new government will be conditional on it following Washington's prescriptions. "The nature of our relationship with the new authorities will depend upon their commitment to democratic reforms, public accountability and respect for human rights", State Department spokesperson Sharon Bowman said.
"This is an historic opportunity to shape the future of the country", Bowman's boss, Nicholas Burns, added.
The US assistant secretary for state for Africa under Ronald Reagan, Chester Crocker, put it less diplomatically: "The point is that we and our friends control the keys to the clubs and the treasuries that Kabila will need to tap if he is going to rebuild the country".
A "western ambassador in Kinshasa" outlined to London Times reporter Sam Kiley on May 20 another fear gripping the western powers: the collapse of its other corrupt clients in Africa.
"What's worrying us is we don't know where, or when, these men are going to stop. Will they try to take on every bad guy on the continent: Is Sani Abacha [Nigeria's military ruler] next? How comfortable is Mr Moi in Kenya?", the ambassador moaned.
So far, the ADFL leadership has refused to be intimidated. Kabila has promised the formation of a "transitional government of public salvation" and a meeting of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution within 60 days. General elections may be held within two years. The former parliamentary opposition leaders may be part of the transitional administration, but they will represent only themselves, not their discredited parties, rebel spokespeople have said.
ADFL secretary general Deogratias Bugera said on May 19 that the Congo would not be "dictated to" and that the rebels have their own model of democracy. Parliamentary elections were possible only once the country's new state apparatus was in place and its shattered infrastructure rebuilt.
Congo's administrative, transport and communication systems collapsed years ago as a result of Mobutu's misrule, making rapid elections impossible even if they were desirable.
"Before elections, you need preparations, you need civic spirit", Bugera explained. A process of political education and organisation was to begin soon with the formation of collectives in rural areas and neighbourhood "cells" in the city which would form the basis of a new system of democracy, he said.
"We must awaken the population politically. It is our first duty. The aim is to avoid the possibility in the future that any one man can confiscate power", he said.
The South African government, in an effort to improve its relations with the new Congo after the damage done by supporting US demands that Kabila accept power-sharing, has criticised the hypocritical push for early elections. President Nelson Mandela, speaking in Zimbabwe on May 21, said: "What is most strange is that some western countries that have supported the most vicious dictators for decades are now, just after Kabila has taken the country for one day, taking it upon themselves to lecture him upon democracy".