HAVANA -- He was Che Guevara's worst headache. Laurent Kabila, leader of the rebel forces in Zaire, is portrayed as leader of an earlier, failed rebellion, but witnesses from those times say he was often far from the fighting, and had a tendency to issue orders that were impossible to carry out.

Guevara and nearly 100 Cuban officers spent six months in Zaire -- then the Congo -- in 1965. trying to train fighters in a movement begun by members of the government of that assassinated Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The "Simba [Lion] Rebellion," as it was called, sought to overthrow President Moise Tshombe, who was considered little more than a front man for Western mining interests.

Tshombe was ousted, not by rebels but in a coup led by Mobutu Sese Seko. Now, 32 years later, Mr. Kabila and his armed followers are rushing pell mell toward the capital, Kinshasa, to drive out Mr. Mobutu. Given his history, however, many of his former colleagues here wonder if Mr. Kabila is the man to lead Central Africa's largest country -- more than 1.5 times the size of Alaska -- into a new era.

A retired Cuban army general, William Galvin, says that Guevara left the Congo thoroughly disillusioned with the quality of leadership displayed by Mr. Kabila and his comrades. In a recent interview in Havana, General Galvin said that Mr. Kabila did not fight shoulder to shoulder with Guevara. In fact, he was usually somewhere other than the front lines, often attending parties and raising money and collecting more supplies than his forces could use.

General Galvin has written a book on Guevara's African exploits. He has interviewed more than a hundred people and has had access to one of two known copies of Che's diary written after the Cubans withdrew.

"I can tell you that Kabila's organization had a lot of money and military supplies stored in Tanzania. But Kabila and most other leaders of the movement were flying from African capital to capital raising more money and having a good time, but doing little, if any actual fighting."

Another witness from the time, Coleman Ferrer, was stationed at the Cuban Embassy in Dar Es Salaam, capital of Tanzania, which borders Zaire to the east. His job was to provide support to Guevara in the Congo and to keep members of the Tanzanian government informed of Cuban activities.

Mr. Ferrer, also interviewed in Havana, said Guevara and the Cubans found the information they were given in meetings with Mr. Kabila to be totally unreliable -- conditions were much worse than they had been led to believe.

No discipline

"There was no kind of discipline among the freedom fighters, and no kind of discipline among the leaders. Most of them were outside Congo and the freedom fighters found it difficult to follow their orders."

One example he offered as typical was an order from Mr. Kabila to attack a hydroelectric plant at Bendera, despite the fact that it was protected by more than 300 of Tshombe's soldiers and at least 100 Belgian mercenaries. The Cubans, despite their misgivings, launched the attack which, predictably, failed.

According to Mr. Ferrer, Mr. Kabila and other leaders lacked political vision. Since they offered no program other than the overthrow of Tshombe, rebel units often broke down into ethnic groups, each one refusing to fight unless its leader ordered it into battle.

"As I think about it now, the struggle was not against a system, it was not against a government. The struggle was against a man, against Tshombe." Mr. Ferrer thinks that is why when Mr. Mobutu took power in a military coup later that year, he had little trouble consolidating his power. "The same day the radio station announced the overthrow of Tshombe, the majority of the freedom fighters threw their weapons away -- because for them the war was finished at that very moment."

Since his emergence as head of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, Mr. Kabila has declared that there will be no tolerance in rebel-held territories for political organizations other than his own. No independent newspapers have reappeared in eastern Zaire, and Mr. Kabila's forces have been accused by United Nations officials of stopping emergency relief operations aimed at refugees from Rwanda in central Zaire.

Furthermore, he has ignored the political opposition to President Mobutu in Kinshasa, the country's capital, and his organization has signed contracts with foreign mining firms interested in the mineral-rich Shaba region -- which is sure to sow distrust among those who might support a Kabila-led government.

Until the mid-1980s, Mr. Kabila was portrayed as the last remnant of the Simba movement, which maintained a "liberated" enclave inside Zaire that the army was never able to capture, although it is not clear that he ever spent much time there, This time, Mr. Kabila apparently is in the country, wearing a uniform and truly leading the wildfire movement. But if the past counts for anything, Che Guevara's headache could become Zaire's migraine.

Jean Damu, a San Francisco-based writer who is researching a book on the Cuban military brigades in Africa over the last three decades, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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