Rebellion may signal end of Mobutu regime


THE luxurious Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva undoubtedly provides the 24 hour CNN news channel to its guests. President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire will, therefore, have been able to watch the greatest crisis to hit his country since he took power 30 years ago.

His army has been routed in the east of the country by Tutsi rebels. In the capital, Kinshasa, Tutsi premises have been looted and many have fled. The man the President left behind to keep a lid on things, the Prime Minister, Mr Leon Kengo Wa Dondo, has himself been subject to hostile demonstrations due to his personal pedigree - he has a Tutsi grandparent.

Diamond and copper rich Zaire, the size of western Europe, has been humiliated by impoverished Rwanda, the size of Munster. Tutsi rebels, with the assistance of the Rwandan army, have driven the corrupt and shambolic Zairean army out of the main towns of eastern Zaire. In other of Zaire's autonomy minded provinces, those tired of despotic rule from Kinshasa have taken encouragement.

The break up of Gen Mobutu's Zaire is now a real possibility. Some observers argue against this thesis, saying that most of Zaire's provinces could not survive as independent units. But such rational economic calculations sometimes get lost in the type of mayhem afflicting Zaire.

The Banyamulenge leader, Mr Laurent Kabila, flushed with his fighters spectacular successes in eastern Zaire, has significantly expanded his ambitions. Last Friday he maintained that he was not simply the head of a local rebel group, but of a national movement: "The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the liberation of Congo Zaire".

"We are fighting for a vast movement to put an end to this useless state that no longer exists", he told reporters in Uvira, one of the towns his men captured in eastern Zaire. He wanted to overthrow the irresponsible clique" which held power.

His words will have found an echo elsewhere in the country. Shaba province - the copper rich former Katanga, whose declaration of independence in 1960 sparked the civil war in the then Congo - has been pushing for greater autonomy for some years. Diamond rich Kasai province has refused to adopt the new Zairean currency introduced in 1992. North and south Kivu are now entirely out of Kinshasa's control.

Meanwhile, the man who held it all together since 1965 has been out of the country for seven weeks. Having received treatment in Switzerland for prostate cancer, the 66 year old President is either convalescing or dying, depending on who you believe.

President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga - roughly the "all conquering who leaves fire in his wake" - has said nothing publicly since chaos hit his country. The UN Secretary General, Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali, spoke to him by telephone last week, but there is no information available on what was said.

All he has left in his wake now is a spectacularly impoverished country. Zaire's copper, diamonds and other minerals could make it one of the most prosperous African states. Instead, it is next to bankrupt. Soldiers and civil servants are unpaid and have resorted to corruption to get by. The country's once relatively sophisticated infrastructure has rotted.

The President himself, however, suffers no such impoverishment. He has stashed an estimated £2 billion of his country's wealth in Swiss bank accounts. The scale and transparency of his corruption is breathtaking. His method of government contributed the word "kleptocracy" to the English language.

He has no influential international friends now, but it was very different for a long time. When he seized power in 1965 at the end of Zaire's civil war, he was seen as the man who might bring stability to the diffuse country. Zaire's vast resources and Gen Mobutu's pose as a bulwark against further Soviet influence in Africa ensured Western support.

Arms and other assistance were forthcoming from Western nations, while a blind eye was turned to the massive human rights abuses and corruption.

But the end of the Cold War has been followed by the West's enthusiasm for Western style parliamentary democracy in Africa. Gen Mobutu reacted with little enthusiasm to Western pressure for political reform. But while he resisted the external pressure, the internal pressure was growing irresistible.

Kasai province got away with its decision not to use the new Zairean currency. The army rioted and looted extensively when the state decided to pay them in this new currency, which most considered worthless.

Central authority in Zaire has therefore been weakening for several years, but the loss of control of large parts of two provinces - north and south Kivu to local Tutsi rebels backed by an outside government is the most severe humiliation yet.

With the President out of the country and the Prime Minister's authority weakened by his lineage, the prospect of political stability seems remote.

The authorities in Zaire have shown no willingness to negotiate. Other states in the region, backed by the UN, the Organisation of African Unity, the EU and the US, have been trying to organise a regional summit in Nairobi tomorrow. But Zaire is adamant that it will not have discussions with Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, all of which it accuses of backing the rebel Banyamulenge in the east.

Strong words from Kinshasa this weekend maintained that Zaire would retake the territory lost, and would continue into Rwanda. Zaire's army, however, appears incapable of capturing anything at the moment.

Even if it was to agree to a summit, it is hard to know for whom the weakened authorities in Kinshasa speak now.

The immediate crisis is humanitarian. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus, who have been camped in Zaire on Rwanda's western border for two years, have now fled further into Zaire. Aid agencies cannot reach them, and do not know where many of them are. There are fears that some have already run out of food, and that many more will do so in the coming days.

The international community and aid agencies have been vainly pushing for the establishment of "humanitarian corridors" through which food could be brought to the refugees in Zaire, or through which refugees could be brought to the food in Rwanda.

The long term crisis is political: the fear is that the ethnic patchwork that is Zaire (the country contains over 300 tribes), can no longer hold together. Africa's borders were drawn by colonists, and were never logical. But any effort to redraw borders within Zaire now could have knock on effects in neighbouring Angola, Uganda and Zambia. It is possible that this relatively local conflict on the Zaire Rwanda border could become a broader regional conflagration.