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U.S. Must Cut Ties to Mobutu

March 16, 1997|Helen Watson Winternitz | Helen Watson Winternitz, who has lived and traveled in Africa, is author of "East Along the Equator: A Journey Up the Congo and Into Zaire" (Atlantic Monthly Press)

OLD FIELD, N.Y. — For too long, the United States has heeded a favorite slogan of Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko: "Without me, there will be chaos." With rebels steadily advancing across the country and with Kinsagani, the country's third-largest city, in danger of falling, the slogan should be rewritten: "With me, there is chaos." U.S. policy toward Zaire similarly warrants drastic--and quick--rewriting.

The United States needs to cut its remaining diplomatic ties with Mobutu, move beyond him and search for fresh solutions to the huge problem that has become Zaire.

The alternative is to continue talking to a failing Mobutu and his corrupt coterie of handpicked officials. They, however, show no meaningful intention of peacefully ceding power, or decisively halting the five-month-old civil war that has dislocated far more than 200,000 Rwandan refugees, as well as countless Zairians, and threatens to destabilize the center of Africa.

In his final struggles to cling to the power he has held for 31 years with U.S. and European support, Mobutu is resorting to grotesque tactics of desperation. He has bombed his own towns in eastern Zaire in vain hopes of discouraging the rebels. He has hired an unsavory assortment of mercenaries, battle-hardened Serbs from Bosnia and soldiers of fortune from Angola, Togo, Belgium and France. To further bolster his dispirited, badly paid army, he has armed thousands of Hutu militia men who fled to Zaire after committing genocide in Rwanda. Nevertheless, he continues to lose ground to the rebels.

Mobutu has lost all credibility with his people, who have watched him rob the nation of its mineral wealth, foster corruption and refuse democratic reform. As if mimicking the sickness of his regime, Mobutu has been stricken with prostrate cancer, and has retreated to France.

The Americans, making use of their special relationship with the dictator whom the CIA helped to install and maintain as a Cold War asset, have been entreating Mobutu to participate honestly in peace negotiations. The result, so far, has been discussions with the dictator's henchmen, starring Honore Ngbanda, known among Zairians as "the terminator," for his role in government repression and killings. Ngbanda also served as Mobutu's envoy to preliminary peace talks in South Africa, which came to naught despite the efforts of George Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and other high-level American diplomats.

If the United States wants to put real pressure on Mobutu, it should immediately withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Kinshasa, the Zairian capital. Ambassador Daniel Simpson cannot, with mere diplomatic suasion, make Mobuto relent. The United States should further try to break the dictator's intransigence by encouraging European powers to step back from their dealings with him. Such punishments, or even publicly making such threats, could force Mobutu to the realization that he must negotiate directly with his military and political opponents.

Whether or not he submits to such negotiations, the United States still could be useful. Its diplomats could begin seriously sounding out the possibilities for Zaire's future by identifying the most likely inheritors of Mobutu's political power, and even planning with them.

They include the increasingly popular rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, of course, as well as members of the country's long-standing democracy movement, among them, the widely known Etienne Tshisekedi. Kabila, who has militarily opposed Mobutu since the early 1960s, is a fait accompli. His army controls at least one-sixth of Zaire and draws ever closer to toppling Mobutu. Young Zairians are joining the ranks of his soldiers by droves. "Liberated" populaces welcome the soldiers and officials of Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire in the belief that they intend to build a democratic government.

U.S. diplomats have spoken with Kabila, or his representatives, but have focused on the hapless request that he declare a truce rather than continue with his spectacular success. Mobutu is enraged at his old ally for dealing, in any way, with the rebels, whom he declares are pawns for neighboring Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. This has made U.S. relations with the dictator even more difficult and has added urgency to the need for a clarification of policy.

Tshisekedi, who has opposed Mobutu since the late 1970s, is the single most popular civilian leader in the country and heads the nonviolent political party called the Union for Democracy and Social Progress. He was selected as prime minister in 1992 by a national conference meant to bring democratic reform to the dictatorship. Mobutu thwarted him and installed his own set of premiers, but Tshisekedi is the one who draws a cheering crowd of tens of thousands at the capital airport.

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