PARIS -- To understand what is happening now in Zaire it is necessary to know what happened before. The post-colonial power struggle of the 1960s, and certain ethnic and tribal rivalries that antedate the exploration and colonization of the Congo basin and the kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi, are being re-enacted.
It is possible to interpret events since 1994 as a reconquest of Rwanda and eastern Zaire by those ethnic groups that dominated it when colonialism arrived. The colonial power found it convenient to patronize and rule through traditional rulers and aristocracies. That ended in Rwanda with a Hutu uprising in 1959 and a U.N.-sponsored election and referendum in 1961. Democracy confirmed the overturn of traditional order. Hutus ruled. The old order now has been re-established.
The reciprocal massacres by which the struggle has been conducted since 1994 would seem attempts by both sides to accomplish what history would describe as the final solution.
The actors in the affair are veterans. Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, born Joseph-Desire Mobutu in 1930, son of a cook, became a sergeant in the colonial gendarmerie, and then a journalist for a Belgian publication. When Belgium abandoned the Congo, two anti-colonial activists, Joseph Kasabuvu and Patrice Lumumba, became, respectively, president and prime minister. Joseph-Desire Mobutu, promoted to colonel, became secretary general of the presidential council.
In the political struggle that followed between Lumumba, identified by the U.S. as a Communist pawn, and Kasabuvu, Colonel Mobutu astutely profited, finding support from the CIA as America's man in the Congo. He seized full power in 1965, suspended the constitution, and dissolved parliament. In dealing with subsequent protests he had students shot, arrested union leaders, ended the right to strike, tortured opponents, and forbade political parties other than his own.
The Congo -- renamed "Zaire" as part of the new dictator's "Africanization" of his country -- was a principal source of uranium for U.S. nuclear weapons as well as an immense reserve of other minerals. Mr. Mobutu enriched himself, so that by the 1980s he was plausibly described as possessing a personal fortune equivalent to his country's foreign debt.
The U.S. as late as 1993 defended Mr. Mobutu against liberal pressures arising from the Zairian National Congress, assembled 1991 under international influence to draft a new constitution and prepare a transition to democracy. The U.S. insisted that Mr. Mobutu continue to "share" power, which resulted in his evisceration of the democracy movement.
A patient Marxist
Laurent-Desire Kabila, leader of the rebellion in Zaire, was active in the anti-Mobutu uprisings of the early 1960s, when some 100,000 people died. Those had a regional and ethnic character, as does Mr. Kabila's movement today. Mr. Kabila once called himself a Marxist. A very patient one, he now has his revenge on Mr. Mobutu -- thanks to the new Tutsi government in Rwanda, which has sponsored him, but from which he now is attempting to detach himself.
America's interest in Zaire was fading in the 1990s as the Cold War wound down, and France, for reasons difficult to comprehend, chose to make itself political and moral guarantor of the status quo in Zaire, as in Rwanda. Its economic interest in Zaire was slight, compared with that of the U.S., Belgium or South Africa, and Rwanda is impoverished and without resources.
France's interest seemed chiefly political, to incorporate all the former Belgian colonies into the French-speaking African bloc Paris has led since the 1960s. It was a disastrous decision, which led France to become patron not only of the Mobutu regime but of the Hutu government in Rwanda that carried out the genocidal massacre of Tutsis in 1994.
France's subsequent interventions have been humiliating failures, including its acquiescence in Mr. Mobutu's recruitment of a European mercenary force earlier this year. Cut out of the diplomatic end-game in Kinshasa, the French now fret about a plot to spread "Anglophone" influence, as if the European language spoken by Africans had serious human consequence, and report with delectation that the U.S. Mineral Fields group -- based in Hope, Arkansas, President Clinton's birthplace -- has already signed a billion-dollar mineral-rights contract with Mr. Kabila.
Someone has financed Mr. Kabila's movement, as someone financed the Tutsi movement that invaded Rwanda. Someone paid for the multinational "Tutsi Legion," trained and logistically supported by Uganda, which according to the newspaper Le Monde has backed Mr. Kabila's conquest of eastern and central Zaire.
But no outside force is now in control. The Tutsis in Rwanda, the triumphant Mr. Kabila in Zaire, and the dying Marshal Mobutu, are none of them doing what they are told. Mr. Mobutu refuses to yield. Mr. Kabila rejects mediation or compromise. South African XTC and American diplomatic intervention has been rebuffed.
The Africans are in control of this tragedy. It is a bad and savage tragedy, without catharsis -- like Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." But after the murderous cynicism with which they have been treated by Americans, Belgians and French, who can say now that Africans should not settle their own accounts?
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/15/97