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Zaire's Continuing Chaos: After Mobutu, the Deluge

May 18, 1997|Philip Christenson | WASHINGTON; Philip Christenson served for 10 years as a staff advisor on Africa for the House and Senate foreign affairs committees. He returned from Zaire last week

As rebels and troops from neighboring states continue their rout of the Zairian army, U.S. officials now expect President Mobutu Sese Seko's regime to end in the nezt fews days. Focused on Mobutu's departure, few have asked the obvious question, "What's next for Zaire?" Most assume conditions are so bad that any change will be for the better.

But no one should assume Mobutu's departure will usher in an era of rule of law, democracy and economic growth. The history of Africa indicates Zaire may be on the verge of a reign of terror, with destructive civil and tribal violence, human-rights atrocities and massive refugee flows and at least 1 million deaths.

After an African dictatorship disintegrates and is replaced by a new regime, there are a few months of euphoria in the major cities and among foreign diplomats. But before the regime can consolidate authority, the vanquished and disappointed invariably gather to fight for their share of the spoils and to redress ethnic or personal wrongs. The slaughter begins, and continues until all sides have reached exhaustion. As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote, "They make a wasteland and call it peace."

Levels of destruction are staggering.

After Liberian dictator Samuel K. Doe was toppled in 1990, his country entered seven years of chaos, in which rival warlords commanding armies of child soldiers used ritual human sacrifice and other weapons of terror against the Liberian people. Of a population of 2.5 million, at least 150,000 (6%) have died.

After Siad Barre's government collapsed in 1991, Somalia descended into famine and bloodshed as rival warlords struggled for their share of power and wealth. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that, despite U.S. and U.N. intervention, 240,000 (3% of the population) died in the first two years after Siad Barre's departure. The war continues.

After Idi Amin fled in 1979, Uganda endured eight years of civil war, in which up to 1 million Ugandans (5% of the population) died of violence, famine and disease. Peace has yet to be fully restored.

The sudden collapse of the Portuguese colonial empire in 1975 was followed by 15 years of civil war in Mozambique and 20 in Angola. Of a combined population of 24 million, 1.5 million (6%) died in the post-colonial civil wars. A durable peace has yet to be restored to Angola.

If Zaire suffers the same fate as these countries, out of its population of 40 million, 1 million or 2 million may perish in the post-Mobutu turmoil. There are many reasons to fear this could happen.

Those with the power to start the civil war will find that, once they have taken over the government, they will inherit a collapsed state apparatus without the power to stop the warfare they began. The violent acts of the rebel soldiers--violence is what civil war is about--will inevitably have created new grievances and reignited the long-simmering ethnic and regional antagonisms always present in an African state.

Other than toppling Mobutu, the rebellion lacks political cohesion. The rebel alliance's leader, Kabila, was a minor political figure in a remote region near Lake Tanganika until last year. Neither Kabila nor any other anti-Mobutu leader has a national political organization capable of filling the vacuum left by the collapse of a national government, and they are unwilling to work with other anti-Mobutu elements to fill that void.

The principal rebel army is commanded by an officer cadre of Tutsis from Zaire and Rwandans and Ugandans. According to a recent visitor to rebel areas, this army is viewed by the Zairian people as foreign. They are accepted now because of their role in defeating Mobutu, but it is doubtful Zairians will long accept being ruled by foreign soldiers.

There are, in fact, doubts this army is under Kabila's authority. Foreign diplomats, U.N. officials and private humanitarian relief workers have negotiated with Kabila since the civil war began last fall, yet agreements reached with Kabila have had little impact on the rebel army.

In the past few months, a new element has been added to the Zairian situation: Several thousand well-armed and trained Portuguese-speaking troops have arrived from Angola. These are both Angolan army regulars and soldiers of a new generation of Katangan gendarmes. Angolan generals are playing a key role in the rebel military command. So there are now two essentially distinct armed rebel groups--one sponsored by Uganda and Rwanda, another by Angola. It is the classic recipe for a post-Mobutu civil war.

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