Mobuto Was Chaos

George Wright


As this article is being written in early May, the 32-year
regime of Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko is coming to an
end. A guerrilla offensive carried out by the Alliance of
Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire-Congo (ADFL),
led by Laurent Kabila, has control of 75 percent of the
country, including the major cities of Kisangani and
Lubambashi, and is very close to the capital, Kinshasa. The
ADFL has been effective largely because the Zairean military
has disintegrated in the wake of the rebel offensive, which
started in October 1996. The populace is responding to the
ADFL as liberators, but many citizens still question whether
Kabila can bring peace and stability to the country.
Significantly, the United States has declared that
Mobutu—a long-time client—should step down. In
addition, the international community has been trying to
orchestrate a political transition involving the ADFL and
Mobutu. Another telling sign that Mobutu is on his way out is
that multinational mining corporations, which have been
reluctant to reinvest in Zaire in recent years because of
deteriorating economic conditions there, are eagerly
negotiating new terms with the ADFL.

Mobutu has dominated Zairean politics since the United
States orchestrated the overthrow of Prime Minister Patrice
Lumumba in 1960, soon after he came to power in that
country’s first national elections. The United States
opposed Lumumba’s nationalist and non-aligned policies,
and simplistically viewed him as an extension of the Soviet
Union’s foreign policy. While serving as Lumumba’s
army chief-of-staff, Mobutu carried out the CIA-backed coup
d’état on September 5, 1960, in which Lumumba was
dismissed, and played a central role in Lumumba’s
assassination in January 1961.

Lumumba’s assassination sparked populist uprisings in
different parts of the country, forcing the U.S. to decide on
the best way to contain those revolts. Between 1961 and 1965,
the Kennedy and Johnson administrations supported several
civilian governments to prevent the Lumumbists from gaining
political power, while still backing Mobutu. The U.S. also
promoted a paramilitary campaign which used anti-Castro
Cubans and white mercenaries to defeat the populist revolts.
In 1965, the political strategy was questioned after
President Joseph Kasavubu dismissed Moises Tschombe and
appointed Evariste Kimba prime minister. The Johnson
administration perceived Kimba to be a Lumumbist. Therefore,
a second coup d’état was carried out, putting Mobutu
into power. By 1967 the pro-Lumumbist elements were
effectively suppressed. Since the 1965 coup d’état
Mobutu has been among the most autocratic, repressive, and
corrupt dictators in the Third World, commanding a
kleptocracy that has siphoned billions of dollars from the
national treasury.

In addition to backing Mobutu, the United States
considered him vital in protecting the enormous mineral
wealth (cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold, cadmium, and uranium)
that French, Belgian, South African, and United States
multinationals exploit in Zaire. In fact, the United States
came to the defense of his regime whenever Mobutu was
threatened by militant opposition. The U.S. rationale was
that if Mobutu lost power, Zaire would revert into
"chaos." The U.S. often collaborated with France
and Belgium in those operations, despite competing interests
the three countries might have had at that time. What is
significant about the developments occurring in Zaire now is
that, for the first time, the United States has not come to
Mobutu’s rescue. What current developments led to
Mobutu’s downfall? What does the end of Mobutu mean for


Origins Of Current Anti-Mobutu

The current anti-Mobutu coalition emerged in South Kivu
province in eastern Zaire amidst two intersecting crises. The
first crisis centered on violence perpetrated by Rwandan Hutu
militia forces and members of the former Hutu dominated
Rwandan army in the refugee camps in eastern Zaire against
the current Rwandan army and Zairean-based Tutsis. This
conflict spilled over from the April-June 1994 Rwandan
genocide, where the Hutu militia slaughtered between five
hundred thousand to one million Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus
willing to work with Tutsi political organizations. At the
time, an estimated two million Rwandan Hutus fled Rwanda,
ending up as refugees in internationally supervised camps in
eastern Zaire, Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Mobutu allowed
these armed elements to enter Zaire with their weapons, where
they used the camps to carry out raids into Rwanda against
the Tutsi-controlled Rwandan government that came into power
in the summer of 1994 and increasingly attacked the local
Tutsi population. Throughout this episode, the United Nations
and the major powers were preoccupied with feeding the
refugees, including the killers, but did not search for a
solution to the crisis.

The second crisis was generated by hostility between Zaire
and the Zairean Tutsi population, called Banyamulenge. The
Banyamulenge are relatively prosperous businesspeople and
cattle ranchers whose ancestors started migrating into
eastern Zaire over 200 years ago. Because of their relative
business success and their support for Mobutu’s
anti-Lumumbist counter-offensive in the mid-1960s, Mobutu
supported the Banyamulenge through the 1970s. But in 1981,
the Zairean parliament, controlled by Mobutu’s Popular
Revolutionary Movement Party, stripped the Banyamulenge of
their citizenship, rendering them stateless and, thus,
preventing them from running for national political office.
This decision fed into resentment that eastern Zairean ethnic
groups have against the Banyamulenge, partly because of their
relative wealth, but also because the Banyamulenge supported
Mobutu against the pro-Lumumbist Muelist revolt in 1964.
Growing tensions between the Banyamulenge and the local
Zaireans in the east persisted.

Starting in April 1995, those tensions exacerbated when
Zaire’s Transitional Parliament decided to prevent
refugees from acquiring citizenship. This decision treated
the Banyamulenge as migrants. Feeding off local resentment
toward the Banyamulenge, government officials began carrying
out repression against them, including assassinating and
arresting them and confiscating their land. The Zairean army
and local Zaireans began attacking the Banyamulenge, whom
they held responsible for the refugee crisis in the country.
In response, the Banyamulenge formed militias to defend
themselves. The violence in eastern Zaire heightened in
September 1996 when local opportunist politicians like the
South Kivu deputy governor, declared that the Banyamulenge
must leave Zaire or they would be interned in camps.
Repression by the Zairean army in eastern Zaire added to
violence by the Rwandan Hutu militia, causing the two crises
to appear to meld. These developments also intensified
hostilities between Zaire and Tutsi-controlled Rwanda,
leading to clashes between the two countries.

During October and November 1996, the fighting in eastern
Zaire was reported in the Western media, interpreted as
ethnic conflict which had spilled over from Rwanda. This
assessment was partly correct. However, the Banyamulenge were
viewed as Rwandan pawns, while not having a legitimate
political role in Zaire. Thus Mobutu’s repression of the
Zairean Tutsis was not factored into those accounts. The
focus of the media attention was concern for the hundreds of
thousands of refugees caught in the middle of the fighting.

In response to the humanitarian crisis, the international
community discussed sending a United Nations-sponsored
multinational force to Zaire to protect the refugees and
assist in the delivery of humanitarian aid. At first the
Clinton administration was hesitant to participate in a
United Nations operation in Zaire. The presidential elections
were scheduled for early November, and Clinton was reacting
to the perception of public aversion to the U.S.
participating in United Nations peace keeping or humanitarian
operations, mainly because of the failure of the Somali
intervention earlier in the decade. Nevertheless, once
Clinton won re-election, he announced that the U.S. would
participate in the operation in Zaire. Two days later the
Security Council passed Resolution 1080 calling for a
"temporary" multinational force to protect a
"safe corridor," allowing international
organizations to deliver humanitarian assistance to the
refugees. However, the United Nations resolution did not call
for the Hutu militia to be separated from the refugees and
contained by UN troops. The southern African advocacy
community and international humanitarian NGOs felt that the
only way the violence could be stopped was to root out and
disarm the Hutu militia.

In October, amidst violence in North and South Kivu
provinces, the ADFL was formed with the explicit objective of
overthrowing Mobutu. When the Western media first noted the
ADFL, it was viewed as an extension of Rwandan politics, not
as a Zairean manifestation. This interpretation was
reinforced in early November, when
Banyamulenge—associated with the ADFL—entered the
refugee camps and overwhelmed the Hutu militia and members of
the former Rwandan army. This allowed 500,000 Hutu refugees
to return to Rwanda in late November. Many Rwandan Hutu
refugees also fled to other parts of Zaire. With the return
of the refugees to Rwanda, the United Nations multinational
humanitarian intervention was stillborn.

However, both the composition of the ADFL coalition and
its soon to be evident military thrust challenged the view
that it was a pawn for Rwanda. In fact, the ADFL was a
Zairean-based multi-ethnic coalition consisting of the
People’s Revolutionary Party, headed by Kabila (a Luba
from the Shaba Province); the Peoples Democratic Alliance,
headed by Deogratias Bugara, (representing Zairean Tutsis,
including the Banyamulenge and the Nayamasisi from North and
South Kivu); the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of
Zaire, headed by Massu Nindaga (a Bashi); and the National
Democratic Resistance, headed by Andre Kassasse Ngandu. Rebel
groups representing the Luba from Shaba, the Lumba from
Lubambashi, and the Bashi from South Kivu also joined the
coalition. Furthermore, many deserters from the Zairean army
joined the ADFL, further broadening its ethnic

The ADFL quickly made impressive military gains. The
guerrillas captured the main towns in the east, including
Bukuvu on November 1 and Goma the following day. The ADFL
then moved north to Bunia, west toward Kisangani (the
country’s second city), and south to Mbuji-Mayi and
Lubambashi in the mineral-rich Shaba Province. The objective
was to capture those cities, thinking that would pressure
Mobutu to step down. If he did not step down, the alliance
intended to capture Kinshasa, forcing Mobutu’s regime to
collapse. The ADFL met little resistance from the Zairean
army, mainly because the soldiers were not willing to die for
the regime. As the guerrillas captured each town, the ADFL
appointed new administrators, reestablished order and civic
life (often for the first time in decades), and negotiated
economic terms with local business interests. In late
December, the ADFL captured Bunia, the center of the gold
mining sector. The ADFL forces continued to move toward
Kisangani, the base for the government’s army—300
kilometers to the west, and toward the Shaba Province.

As the revolt in Zaire expanded, central and east African
heads of state became increasingly concerned. The
humanitarian implications were grave: hundreds of thousands
of refugees were in Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Zaire, and
Uganda, and the political implications throughout the Great
Lakes region were potentially disastrous. Already civil
conflicts existed in five of the nine countries that border
Zaire, including the Central African Republic, the Sudan,
Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, all of which could be linked to
developments in Zaire. Clearly, who controls Zaire could
affect events throughout the region. Significantly, the
United States did not want the Sudanese Islamic government to
penetrate into sub-Saharan Africa; therefore, the Clinton
administration fostered relations with Eritrea, Ethiopia,
Uganda, and Rwanda, including providing financial and
military assistance and military advisors.

Angola to Zaire’s southwest is also integral to the
developments in Zaire. Both the Angolan government (headed by
Eduardo Jose dos Santos) and Jonas Savimbi, who heads the
Union for the Total Independence of Angola, were preoccupied
with developments in Zaire. Because the internationally
sponsored peace agreement in Angola was not completely
resolved, owing to Savimbi’s refusal to participate in a
government of national unity with the Angolan government, the
threat of renewed violence existed. Savimbi had been
dependent on Mobutu since the mid-1970s when Zaire sided with
the unsuccessful covert U.S. operation aimed to prevent the
MPLA from gaining control of Angola. Throughout the 1980s,
Mobutu allowed Zaire to be a conduit to supply UNITA with
weapons and munitions, as Savimbi destabilized Angola in
concert with South Africa. Subsequent to the 1992 Angolan
elections, in which Savimbi was defeated by the MPLA, UNITA
used Zaire as a base for its renewed attacks on Angola.
Savimbi understands that, if Mobutu’s regime collapsed,
he would lose Zaire as a base for his machinations. The
Angolan government supports the ADFL as a means to finally
end UNITA’s military lifeline, as well as Zaire’s
support for secessionists in the oil-rich Cabinda Enclave.

On November 5, 1996, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi
fostered an African diplomatic initiative when he held a
regional summit in Nairobi, under the auspices of the
Organization of African Unity, to discuss the developments in
the Great Lakes region. Six weeks later Moi hosted another
summit, attended by the Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia,
Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and South Africa. This
delegation encouraged Presidents Moi and Nelson Mandela to
initiate dialogue with Mobutu and Kabila, leading to a
cease-fire and a negotiated settlement, based on a
power-sharing arrangement involving Mobutu and the ADFL. This
proposal was backed by the United States, which had been
reluctant to take the lead in orchestrating a resolution. The
United Nations Security Council and the Organization of
African Unity also supported a settlement.

Meanwhile, Mobutu, who had been undergoing treatment for
prostate cancer in France and Switzerland for four months,
returned to Zaire on December 17, 1996, intent on finding
ways to maintain control of the Zairean state.

Seeing that his military was not capable of fighting,
Mobutu began a series of maneuvers to shore up his regime. He
requested military support from Moroccan King Hassan, but
King Hassan, who had been a close ally and had come to
Mobutu’s defense numerous times in the past, refused to
provide support. Mobutu did recruit white mercenaries from
Europe and South Africa. He also received military support
from Savimbi, who dispatched guerrillas to fight with the
Zairean army. On January 22, 1997, the Zairean government
declared war against the rebels, claiming it was going to
recapture the "liberated" territory. That effort
was not going to effectively challenge the ADFL.

As 1997 began, international diplomatic initiatives,
focusing on a negotiated settlement, proliferated. President
Moi continued his efforts to mediate the Great Lakes crises,
meeting with Mobutu in early February for a briefing. On
February 18, the United Nations Security Council passed a
resolution calling for a five-point peace plan, which
included negotiations between Mobutu and the ADFL, the
withdrawal of all foreign forces (including mercenaries), and
convening of an international conference on peace, security,
and development in the Great Lakes region. Algerian Mohammed
Sahnoun was also appointed Joint UN-OAU Special
Representative for the Great Lakes. His mandate was to: (1)
promote a peaceful settlement; (2) prepare a conference for
peace and development; and (3) preserve the territorial
integrity of Zaire. The Clinton administration also called
for negotiations between Mobutu and the
"disaffected" groups in Zaire. Moreover, President
Mandela held "proximity talks" involving Kabila and
a Zairean envoy. United Nations Special Representative
Sahnoun and United States Assistant Secretary of State for
African Affairs George Moose oversaw those meetings.
Furthermore, after seeking advice from South Africa in early
March, Mobutu stated that he would be willing to negotiate
with the ADFL based on the United Nations plan. All these
proposals involved a power-sharing formula, which would
preserve Mobutu’s influence in a transitional

On March 15, the ADFL captured Kisangani, putting Mobutu
in a position where he had to seriously deal with Kabila.
South Africa quickly took the initiative to mediate
negotiations when Deputy President Thabo Mbeki met with
Mobutu in Kinshasa on March 23 and with representatives of
the ADFL several days later. Mobutu was also being pressured
by the United States to cooperate. Kabila’s position at
that time was that Mobutu must step down and the ADFL would
be willing to participate in peace talks with democratic
forces, leading to the formation of a transitional government
and elections. The results of the OAU summit in Lome on March
26 assured that negotiations between the ADFL and Mobutu
would occur in South Africa.

Mobutu’s political vulnerability became obvious when
he tried to divide the political opposition in Kinshasa by
appointing his opponent, Etienne Tshisekedi, prime minister.
Tshisekedi quickly dissolved parliament and proposed a plan
that offered the ADFL six positions in a new government. His
intent was to isolate Mobutu and coopt the ADFL, while
maintaining the current transitional political process set in
place in the early 1990s as an attempt to transfer
Mobutu’s power. (Mobutu had refused to accept that
process, and kept control of the military, bureaucracy, and
economic resources.) Two days later Mobutu fired Tshisekedi
and appointed General Likulia Bolongo as prime minister, for
all intents and purposes establishing a de facto military
government. As these developments were occurring, the meeting
between Mobutu’s representative and the ADFL commenced
in secrecy in Pretoria. No settlement was reached; however,
the two parties did agree to: (1) the urgent need for a
political solution; (2) territorial sovereignty and unity;
(3) multi-party elections; (4) peace and stability in the
Great Lakes region. The ADFL captured Mbuji-Mayi on April 5
and Lubumbashi—the provincial capital of mineral-rich
Shaba—four days later. On April 10, the United States
publicly severed support for Mobutu when White House
spokesperson Michael McCurry stated "Mobutism is about
to become a creature of history." McCurry added that it
is time to move "into the next chapter of [Zaire’s]

  • The United States could afford to tell Mobutu to step
    down for the following reasons:
  • With the Cold War over, policy toward Zaire was no
    longer viewed through that filter;
  • The United States could not prevent the ADFL from
    making dramatic military gains because of the
    weakness of the Zairean military;
  • The United States, France, and Belgium could not
    intervene militarily to prevent the rebels from
    winning due to the domestic political and economic
    costs (reports indicate that France, however, did
    provide Mobutu with weapons during this period);
  • The Clinton administration was confident that it
    could manage a political transition in Zaire, while
    getting the parties to agree to political and
    economic terms acceptable to the U.S. The United
    States had already managed political settlements in
    Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa in the
    1990s, and it expects to use the same formula in
    Zaire. Conveniently, in mid-March UNITA finally
    agreed to joining a government of national unity with
    the Angolan government, a development which implied
    that Savimbi would not operate out of Zaire in the

The United States acted on its decision to drop Mobutu
when Clinton’s special envoy, Bill Richardson, traveled
to Zaire to arrange a meeting between Kabila and Mobutu. That
meeting was originally scheduled for May 2, to be held on a
South African icebreaker, the SAS Outeniqua, off the coast of
Congo-Brazzaville. The United States wanted the two parties
to establish a cease-fire, start talks that included
Tshisedeki, and form a transition government, leading to
elections. Many Zaireans expected the United States to ask
Mobutu to step down thus allowing a political transition. The
talks finally were held on May 4 with Mandela mediating.
Mobutu stated that he was willing to hand over power to an
elected government; Kabila demanded that the ADFL assume
power over a transitional authority and Mobutu cede power to
that body. The two parties agreed to meet within ten days for
further talks. The United States prefers an agreement be made
before the ADFL reaches Kinshasa, but all reports as of this
writing indicate that Kabila’s forces will
"liberate" Kinshasa in a matter of days, giving
Kabila more leverage in negotiations.


A Post-Mobutu Zaire?

The optimism the May 4 talks exuded among Zaireans and the
Zairean exile community has not been felt in that country
since the 1960 national elections. The imminent end of the
Mobutu regime breeds hope. But what will the post-Mobutu
Zairean political culture look like? The United States wants
a political transition based on power sharing similar to that
implemented in South Africa. Even if Mobutu disappears, the
U.S. wants his cronies to participate in the transition,
leading to multi-party elections. The U.S. is also trying to
discredit Kabila, to prevent him from assuming power, by
claiming that he lacks experience as a political leader. The
U.S. is doing this because it does not know exactly what the
self-proclaimed ex-Marxist will do once he gets power. The
U.S. ploy is suspect (witness the long list of political
leaders it has supported throughout the Third World. Despite
Mandela’s lack of experience in governing, the U.S. had
no problem supporting his presidency).

Over the past seven months the ADFL, under Kabila’s
leadership, has not only stated what it intends to do in a
post-Mobutu government, but has also given an indication of
how the ADFL will govern. The primary message the ADFL has
propagated is that it wants to eliminate Mobutu’s
kleptocracy, rid the country of all vestiges of Mobutu’s
Zaireanization project, and oppose "tribalism."
Politically, the coalition is committed to multi-party
elections. Kabila has assured the international community
that the ADFL would prevent any regional secession, although
he also claims the ADFL will extend greater autonomy to the
provinces. As for the economy, Kabila claims the ADFL will
pursue free market policies. He has also assured businesses
that the ADFL wants multinational corporations to stay in
Zaire and help rehabilitate the country; negotiations that
the ADFL has already conducted with numerous corporations
reinforce this.

However, a post-Mobutu Zaire faces an enormous task for
the future. The most pressing problem will be establishing a
democratic political system without ethnic bloodletting and
vendetta. In recent African history, the hope of political
change has often tragically reverted to extreme violence;
Ethiopia, Uganda, and Angola are traumatic examples that come
to mind. How the new leadership will address the legacy of
hatred and violence rooted in colonial and neo-colonial rule
will be crucial. This will require an adept political hand,
one that Kabila seems to possess based on his performance
since October 1996. Moreover, if peace and stability can be
achieved in Zaire, perhaps political stability can be
sustained throughout the Great Lakes region, the Sudan, and

The other problem facing Zaire is the reordering of the
economy away from the nation’s wealth being siphoned to
the multinationals and Mobutu. That can be accomplished by
establishing honest, efficient, and accountable politics.
This implies commitment to a national development plan, which
aims to rehabilitate and reconstruct the social and economic
infrastructure of the country. Zaire, rich in minerals,
hydroelectric power, and fertile soil, has the resources.
This also implies that the new regime must foster a populist
democracy where women’s groups, the human rights
community, grassroots organizations, and the rest of civil
society all have a say in the distribution of resources. This
also means that the United States and the international
financial community should consider all of Mobutu’s
wealth as stolen and it should be repatriated to the country.

The problem with that scenario is that Zaire’s
"second independence" isn’t happening in the
1960s and the 1970s, where the Cold War allowed space for
nationalist projects to consolidate (particularly in Cuba,
Nicaragua, and Angola between 1977-1979, despite U.S.
hostility). Instead, it is happening in the late 1990s, a
decade characterized by globalization, structural adjustment,
neoliberalism, and GATT. The U.S. foreign policy imperative
has been to smash any nationalist development project, while
the international financial organizations (IMF, GATT, etc.)
destroy any vestige of national sovereignty, forcing
countries to further integrate into the world capitalist
system and subscribe to the neo-liberal prescription. The
political mechanism for achieving this has been U.S. defined
"democratization," the system the Clinton
administration is trying to drive down Kabila’s throat
at this very moment. Recent history has shown that the United
States will not let up until those goals have been achieved.
If Kabila can prevent the United States from making these
economic and political determinations, perhaps Zaire’s
"second independence" may be the keystone to
African resistance to the "New World Order." If
Kabila doesn’t succeed, things will get worse.