EAST SETAUKET, N.Y. -- In the Kivu region of eastern Zaire, 1 million refugees are fleeing warfare and rebellion. As one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in modern history, it is certainly deserving of media attention and of the hand-wringing efforts by the international community to help.
This is just one tragedy, though, in a much larger catastrophe that engulfs the entire country of Zaire and its 45 million people. Zaire, which borders nine other countries and is the vast centerpiece of Africa, is falling apart.
The catastrophe of Zaire has been long in the making, beginning in the era of colonial greed and ending after decades of Cold War strategizing, during which the United States used Zaire as a giant pawn. The troubles on its eastern border with Rwanda and Burundi are but symptoms of the greater malaise that has come to a head under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.
The performance of the Zairian army in Kivu is one such symptom. Its soldiers, men in uniform with a mission to protect the helpless, pillaged the offices and commandeered the vehicles of international relief agencies. They fled before a force of rebels, deserting the key town of Goma, whose airport served as a lifeline for the refugees.
The reaction of Zaire's citizens to the fall of Goma is another symptom. They looted the stores and the dictator's palace there, throwing worthless Zairian currency in the air like confetti and dousing themselves with Mr. Mobutu's imported perfumes.
This ignominious behavior, of army and citizen, is their desperate response to living with a broken economy, a crumbled infrastructure and a corrupt government whose only surviving efficiency is repression. Zairians are struggling along by means of what they call "Systeme D," a phrase taken from "debrouillardise," a French word meaning resourcefulness.
Salaries no longer exist or are rendered negligible because of astronomical inflation. To make ends meet, civil servants sell permits for buildings, teachers sell passing grades, physicians sell medicines from public hospitals, nurses sell beds, police stage robberies. The surprise is not that Zaire is coming undone but that it has survived this long.
Zaire's tortured history began in the late 15th century, when the Portuguese sailed down Africa's west coast and found the Kongo kingdom, one of the great Iron Age civilizations. They forged an alliance of trade and the exchange of ideas with the Africans. Then the Portuguese discovered that fortunes could be made by selling their allies into slavery. Central Africa became a major supplier of slaves and its indigenous civilizations were ruined.
Still, independence, when it came in 1960, stirred hopes that the country would become one of Africa's richest, a nation endowed with minerals, forest, farmland and the immense hydroelectric potential of the Congo River. Instead, Zaire steadily has deteriorated under Mr. Mobutu.
Mr. Mobutu, as any Zairian not in the dictator's pay will say, is the biggest thief of all. Since grabbing power in 1965, he and a clique of insiders systematically have plundered the domain. Mr. Mobutu himself has amassed a fortune of at least $5 billion. He has invested much of it in Europe, as well as in the 10 palaces he owns in Zaire.
He has succeeded in maintaining his "kleptocracy," as Zairians call their government, until now for two principal reasons: his ruthlessness and U.S. support. The dictator grabbed power with the blessings of the CIA, which secured the arrangement by helping to kill Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader in the country and in Africa. Ever since, he has overseen security apparatuses specializing in the massacre, torture and imprisonment of dissidents or suspected opponents.
U.S. actions can be explained by the seeming exigencies of the Cold War. Both Washington and Moscow saw Zaire as a strategic prize because of its central location in Africa and its mineral reserves. Mr. Mobutu could be counted on for his pro-Americanism and his ability to quell unrest. An end was put to rebellions in Shaba province and in eastern Zaire, where followers of Lumumba, bolstered by ragtag rebels, threatened the newly gained U.S. hegemony.
For the next quarter-century, the United States stood at Mr. Mobutu's side, economically and militarily aiding him, and providing him with international legitimacy. When conditions under his dictatorship worsened, U.S. ambassadors would arrive Kinshasa, the capital, with mandates for him to clean up his government and allow his people some freedom. He did neither. The United States rationalized his regime with the increasingly self-fulfilling argument that he was the only person capable of holding the country together.
Mr. Mobutu played the good Cold War soldier, allowing his country to be used as a safe haven and weapons conduit for proxy wars fought in Angola and Chad. At the United Nations, Zaire was the one African country that always could be counted on to back U.S. initiatives.
Earlier this decade, he agreed to a transition to democracy, which he since has thwarted. At one point, Zaire had two governments, one led by an elected prime minister, whom Mr. Mobutu locked out of his office, and another nominally headed by one of the dictator's henchmen.
The time has passed to redeem Mr. Mobutu. He has been in Europe since late summer, under treatment for cancer in Switzerland and now resting in the luxury of one of his estates on the French Riviera.
The Zairian people are left to survive or rebel. The leaders of the Kivu rebellion have made it clear that their seizure of Goma and a strip of territory along Zaire's border with Rwanda and Burundi are not isolated events, that they are in contact with disaffected Zairians in other regions and want, ultimately, to end Mr. Mobutu's dictatorship.
A thousand miles west of Kivu, protesters in the main streets of Kinshasa are demanding the resignation of his latest hand-picked prime minister.
This rebelliousness is reminiscent of the country's mood at independence. But with the Cold War over and the country no longer a geopolitical asset, Zaire may well be left to flounder and disintegrate, on its own for once.
Helen Winternitz, a former Sun reporter, is the author of "East Along the Equator: A Journey up the Congo and Into Mobutu's Zaire."
Pub Date: 11/14/96