Zaire’s troubles reach a crucial turning point

Further rebel advances this week reinforced world opinion that an era is ending for Zaire. Faced with a rebel army that controls half the country, including most of its vast mineral resources, as well as a strong political opposition movement that threatens to disrupt the capital, President Mobutu Sese Seko is clearly on the way out. But questions about what kind of government will replace him and whether the United States and the international community can influence democratic development in Zaire remain.
Mobutu is a relic of the Cold War. He grabbed control during the 1960s and has maintained it until now despite gross corruption and mismanagement, largely because America and some European nations supported him. Mobutu defeated a leftist leader in Zaire to rise to power and throughout his reign he supported groups fighting neighboring pro-Soviet governments. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, however, the United States and others have pressured him to make Zaire more democratic.
Unfortunately, Mobutu did too little, too late. While he and his government robbed Zaire of billions of dollars in mineral revenues, the economy declined and remained underdeveloped. Opposition political leaders have been abused and imprisoned. And the international community has turned its back.
Now, two leaders are challenging Mobutu and each other. The first is rebel leader Laurent Kabila. Supported by Rwanda and Uganda, Kabila has in six months shocked Zaire and the world with a whirlwind campaign. His forces now seem unstoppable as they continue to capture huge swathes of territory, slowly advancing toward the capital. The second challenger is Etienne Tshisekedi, a former member of Mobutu’s government who in 1980 called on the president to institute reforms. Since then, Tshisekedi has led the political opposition in Zaire.
What role these two will play in their nation’s future remains to be seen: Unfortunately, neither inspire tremendous confidence that they will truly bring democracy and change. Kabila has already stated that if he overthrows Mobutu, he will rule for a transitional period during which opposition parties will have no place. Tshisekedi, on the other hand, is reputed to be a politician who fosters his own cult of personality. He demands unquestioning support from his followers, declines interviews and rarely seeks advice from others.
The United States and United Nations have called for a cease-fire and direct talks between Mobutu and Kabila, but so far both have remained intractable — Kabila insists on Mobutu’s resignation before ordering a cease-fire and Mobutu, of course, refuses. That may soon change, however. In the past few days both individuals have at least expressed a willingness to discuss the issue face to face. The international community must continue to pressure the two leaders to resolve the war and discuss the future. But nonmilitary opposition parties should also be included in the negotiations and every attempt must be made to help Zaire form a stable, democratic government that will finally allow this vast, resource-rich nation to develop socially and economically. If Mobutu is simply replaced by another dictator, Zaire and Africa will lose.