One dictator replaces another in palace reshuffle in Zaire

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Muharram 25, 1418 1997-06-01


by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 7, Muharram, 1418)

Africa’s game of musical chairs produced another farcical comedy/tragedy when on the weekend of May 17-18, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga, the Zairean dictator, was flushed out of Kinshasa, the capital. His successor, Laurent Kabila arrived triumphantly on May 19 but said little about how he planned to run the country or in what way would his regime be different from the 32-year dictatorship of Mobutu that was marked by plunder and theft.

Kabila’s ascension to power has been extraordinarily quick, thanks to the changing global situation and not inconsiderable help and support from neighbouring countries: Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and Angola. South Africa as well as the US also played a part in facilitating the exit of the hated Mobutu, whose full name translates into the ‘fearless warrior who will go from strength to strength leaving fire in his wake.’

Mobutu has left more than fire in his wake; he has left death, destruction and poverty on a scale that would make Atilla the Hun go blue with envy. For 32 years, Mobutu was the master of Zaire, now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was feted by the US because he was seen as a bulward against communist encroachment in Africa.

A corporal in the Belgian Congolese army, Mobutu rose quickly through the ranks. In 1960, when barely 30, he was elevated to the rank of a colonel and given command of the army. The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) discovered Mobutu and used him against prime minister Patrice Lumumba who was viewed as a communist and allied to the Soviet Union, then a cold war opponent.

With help financial and military from the CIA, Mobutu and his henchmen assassinated Lumumba and plunged the country into chaos. Five years later, in 1965, Mobutu was the master of his country now named Zaire.

An exceptionally rich country, Zaire (Congo) is endowed with diamond, copper and cobalt as well as fertile land for growing coffee, cocoa and timber. Diamonds have been the mainstay of the country’s billions of dollars in income, little of which the people have seen, thank to Mobutu’s grubby hands. All this was also known to his western backers but they turned a blind eye to it.

Details have since emerged that the country earned more than $10.7 billion between 1970 and 1994. In the same period, Zaire was also given more than $8.5 billion in grants and loans, primarily by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These vast sums were advanced to Mobutu’s regimes about which the German banker Erwin Blumenthal had given detailed reports of corruption and misappropriation of funds as early as 1979. Blumenthal, appointed director of the Zairean Central Bank, had alerted his superiors at the IMF again in 1982 but they did not seem to care.

Despite the billions of dollars pouring in as export earnings as well as foreign aid, Zaire’s gross domestic product in 1993 was merely $117, 65 percent lower than in 1958. The country’s external debt in 1994 stood at $9.5 billion and was in arrears on debt repayment to the tune of $4.9 billion. Where did all the money go?

In addition to buying expensive properties abroad, especially in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Brazil and South Africa, he also lavished money on family and friends and used the wealth to buy political opponents. It was not uncommon for Mobutu to charter a French concorde airliner to fly his family for shopping in Paris. This level of profligacy has not been witnessed even among the members of the House of Saud.

Mobutu also stashed away at least $4 billion abroad, mainly in Swiss banks, while his countrymen went hungry. In this he shared something with Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari of Pakistan.

Throughout the Angolan civil war, Mobutu was a staunch ally of the west, especially the US. Former US president Ronald Reagan, known for his cowboy-style rule, called the Zairean dictator a ‘loyal friend’. Millions of dollars from the CIA destined for UNITA rebels through Mobutu, however, never reached their destination.

The end of the Angolan civil war 1994 left Mobutu out in the cold. Communism, too, had died in 1991 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union following the Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan. True to form, America no longer needed its loyal puppet in Africa. Mobutu was ditched the same way as the shah of Iran or Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines had been.

Laurent Kabila, his successor, however, is no democrat or Mr Clean either. He emerged in Lubumbashi, in the extreme south of the country and within seven months, arrived at the gates of the capital. His spectacular military drive was backed by Rwanda as well as Uganda. Zambian and Angolan troops also were involved. Political pressure on Mobutu to quit was exerted by Bill Richardson, an American envoy sent by president Bill Clinton. Additional pressure came from South Africa.

America and Uganda need to tighten the noose around Sudan, in the northeast of Congo. The Ugandan army has been involved in cross-border raids against Sudan while the Americans, in conjunction with the British, have led a shrill campaign against Khartoum.

The new regime in Kinshasa will now be pressured to toe the line. Since Islam has replaced communism as the new enemy of the west, the political furniture in Zaire (Congo) also needed to be rearranged. Kabila’s arrival in Kinshasa can only spell more trouble for the already beleaguered government in Khartoum.

Muslimedia - June 1-15, 1997

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