On a much publicised visit to southern Africa following Kabila's victory, Clinton was upbeat and optimistic. Democracy was replacing tyranny, autocracy giving way to accountability. Post-apartheid South Africa and Nelson Mandela held the torch for regional prosperity and security. An African renaissance was under way, and America was keen to usher it in.
Over the last three weeks that hopeful vision of the new Africa has been shattered. Bombs on Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and now Cape Town have shown that Africa is on the front line of international terrorism, and that the tide of Islamic radicalism has risen here too.
At the same time, the reality of Africa's fragile regional politics has been exposed. In eastern Africa, reactions to the retaliatory attack upon Khartoum by the US revealed Sudan's isolation; but on Sudan's eastern borders conflict smoulders between Eritrea and Ethiopia, two governments which, Clinton's policy advisors had hoped, would help to stabilise the region.
Talks aimed at brokering a peace settlement in the civil war in southern Sudan have stalled. In Central Africa, rebel forces in the Congo threaten not only to topple Kabila's regime but to suck in the armies of several neighbouring countries into a regional conflict of unprecedented dimensions. In the face of such multiple calamities, optimism about Africa has withered.
While American and international attention has been focused on the East African bombings and their aftermath, it is the crisis in Congo that appears to have the most serious implications for African security. In the past fortnight a rebel army compromising regular Rwandan forces and the remnants of Mobutu's army has taken control of the eastern portion of the country, seizing the important town of Kisangani on the bend of the great Congo river.
Although the Museveni government at first denied any involvement with the rebels, early reports claimed that Ugandan forces were also engaged in fighting around Kisangani, and the Ugandans have since made it clear that they are supporting the rebel cause with military assistance.
As the rebels swept toward Kinshasa from the east, other elements of Mobutu's defeated forces seized key strongholds in the west, including Boma and Muanda and the important oil pipeline to the coast. Already fearing the worst last weekend, Kabila took refuge at Lubumbashi, in his home region of Katanga, and appealed to the others to save him.
The first indication that the other governments in the region would be prepared to prop up his failing regime came from Kenya's minister for foreign affairs, Godana, who warned last week that the rebels might have to defeat the Kenyan army in order to take Kinshasa. While the Kenyans issued threats, Zimbabwe and Angola acted more decisively. Zimbabwean troops were flown into Kinshasa on Wednesday. MIG jets of the Zimbabwean air force bombed the rebels to the west of the capital.
At the same time, battle-hardened Angolan troops entered western Congo from the Cabinda enclave. This support emboldened Kabila to return to Kinshasa, from where he is now rallying local support and insisting that "the rebels will lose the war".
The armies of five African countries are now embroiled in the struggle to control Congo. In the process, two of Kabila's once strongest allies, Uganda and Rwanda, have become his most dangerous enemies. There is the very real possibility of a long-running conflagration, with the control of the country being divided between the rebels in the eastern and northern portions and Kabila's forces in the west and south. Stability seems further away than ever.
How has it come to this? Things began to go wrong for Kabila last month, when he fell out with his Rwandan and Ugandan allies. Since being swept to power 15 months ago by a rag-bag army that was bolstered by regular forces from these two neighbouring countries, Kabila has been unable - or perhaps unwilling - to pay his dues. Although it is not clear what prompted the final break between Kabila and his Rwandan allies, ethnic politics was very much to the fore. With Kabila dragging his feet over the status of the large ethnic Tutsi population living in eastern Congo, the Rwandans and Ugandans decided to act. Eastern Congo has been destabilised over the past decade or more by the impact of wars fought in Uganda, with the Tanzanian-backed campaign to bring Museveni's National Resistance Army to power, and then in Rwanda in the wake of the Hutu genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutu elements.
As a consequence, eastern Congo contains a combustible mixture of heavily armed dissident forces and vulnerable refugee communities. There are fears of another genocide, this time within eastern Congo, as local Bantu peoples turn upon Tutsi communities who they see and fear as the cause of their current misery and a danger to their future security. If such reports are comfirmed in any degree they will serve to escalate the conflict further still. In the fraught politics of the present conflict, Kabila has himself played the ethnic card by describing the rebel forces as a "Tutsi invasion" of Congo.
If Rwanda can best justify its opposition to Kabila in terms of the need to secure its borders from attack, the official Ugandan line is much the same. As Ugandan forces entered Congo through Arua on Tuesday last, riding armoured personnel carriers bought with a loan from the US, Museveni's government claimed only to be concerned to hunt down the soldiers of the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF), a group which has been operating against the Kampala government from bases within Congo. On Tuesday last the ADF was blamed for three bombs that exploded on Ugandan buses travelling to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. But the surface-to-air missiles carried by Ugandan troops are surely intended to redress the balance against Angolan air power.
Angola's intervention, like that of Rwanda and Uganda, can be explained in terms of regional security. Jonas Savimbi's Unita guerrillas have long used supply bases in Congo in their war against the Angolan government, and they were covertly supported by Mobutu's government. The Angolans helped Kabila come to power on the understanding that he would prevent Unita operating out of Congo. The ceasefire between Unita and the Angolan MPLA government has given Kabila more breathing space here than on his eastern frontier, and so his Angolan friends have less cause for dissatisfaction than have his former Ugandan and Rwandan allies. But they also have fewer alternatives. The Angolan government claims that Unita has some 25,000 troops in Congo and greatly fears the consequences of this force being remobilised.
To understand Zimbabwe's role is more difficult. One aspect is certainly Kabila's credentials as an active supporter of Mugabe's own struggle for power in Zimbabwe. But if the bonds of past comradeship linking Kabila to Mugabe seem stronger than those to Museveni, it must also be realised that Zimbabwe's regional perspective is markedly different to Uganda's. A protracted struggle in Congo, with Kabila falling back upon support in his home region of Katanga, would certainly have severe repercussions for the beleaguered economies of both Zambia and Zimbabwe. Mugabe appears to have gambled that a small-scale intervention can be successful.
The conflict in Congo starkly illustrates the lack of agreement among African governments over questions of foreign policy and security. Although regional groupings do exist in east and southern Africa that allow for regular discussion of policy at ministerial level, consensus is rarely achieved. In East Africa the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) provides a forum for the discussion of internal conflicts such as Sudan's civil war, but Uganda and Kenya are bitterly divided over the Congo situation, while Tanzania has tried to remain neutral, even withdrawing its military trainers from Kinshasa when the rebellion broke out. For the 14 members of the South African Development Community (SADC), the Congo crisis has been even more traumatic. After initially meeting to debate the matter and apparently deciding to broker a settlement without military intervention, Angola and Zimbabwe broke ranks to the embarrassment of South Africa and President Mandela, who chairs the group.
There is no doubt that the South Africans had hoped to solve the Congo problem without military intervention. Now that it has happened it is difficult to see how it will come to a speedy conclusion. South Africa's regional influence has been damaged, and with it the hopes of the US and the West that a new age of stability was emerging in Africa. The African renaissance may be coming, but it will not be delivered by the likes of Laurent Kabila. It seems more likely that he will find himself at the centre of a long-running struggle and ruler of a partitioned country.
David M Anderson teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London