Britons snared in Africa's Great Game

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The Independent Online
THE FOUR Britons and one American detained by agents of President Laurent Kabila on Sunday claim they were gathering information needed in the event of a possible evacuation of British citizens from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congolese authorities claim they were gathering intelligence that could be used by the enemies of the Kinshasa regime. They put the five suspected spies under house arrest in their hotel and then yesterday expelled the diplomat they said was "guiding" them.

Whoever is telling the truth - the British Government, or an old Marxist reprobate bent on plundering the country he snatched from an old pro- Western reprobate - there is one conclusion that can be drawn.This is that the Democratic Republic of Congo (aka Congo Zaire, aka Zaire, aka Belgian Congo) is once again on the verge of disintegration.

And its neighbours are gathering, either to snatch their share of the spoils of this African Great Game, or to prevent chaos from the war zones spilling across their borders.

Angola is terrified of Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebels finding a friendly government in Kinshasa, which would help it to prosecute its war against the corrupt Marxist regime of Eduardo Dos Santos. Rumours that the United States, which for a while backed UN efforts to bring Dos Santos and Savimbi together, may now have given up on Dos Santos altogether, and started to wonder whether Savimbi might be able to bring peace to the war-ravaged country, will not have eased the paranoia in Luanda.

Paranoia, though, is also the prime mover of Mr Kabila's actions. He is supported by Robert Mugabe - who is proving as loyal a friend to him as he is to the former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has been sheltered at the expense of impoverished Zimbabwean taxpayers since 1991. Mr Mugabe has sent up to 12,000 troops half way across Africa to beat back the anti- Kabila rebels in Congo. It is believed that Mr Mugabe is sacrificing the lives of his troops in the Congo to protect mining interests there granted him by Mr Kabila when he snatched the country from the previous kleptocrat in 1997.

However, Mr Kabila is wearing his crown with deep unease. The rebels - mostly guerrilla fighters who helped him to power, and now feel betrayed by him - refuse to be beaten. Last August, they almost drove him from the capital - before the Zimbabwean and Angolan intervention - and now they are taking huge swaths of territory once again.

In the past five days 4,000 refugees have fled across the border into Zambia from the Congo's mineral rich Shaba province, and among the 4,000 were 600 of Mr Kabila's troops and police. Congo refugees in Zambia now number 16,000, and the stories they tell of the vicious rebel tactics do not speak of an army that is trying to win hearts and minds.

The eight Western tourists, including four Britons, hacked to death by Rwandan Hutu rebels on 2 March, were also caught up in the grotesque and savage conflict. The Hutus were remnants of the interahamwe militia that carried out the genocide in 1994 that saw 800,000 Tutsi men women and children hacked to death. The anti-Kabila rebels are, in part, the Banyamulenge Tutsis who helped to drive the Hutus from Rwanda, brought a Tutsi-led government to power in Kigali, helped bring Laurent Kabila to power in what was Zaire, and were then betrayed by him.

The other major player in the region is the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, who provided a base from which the Tutsis drove out the genocidal Hutus from Rwanda, and now has, according to some reports, seven battalions in eastern Congo assisting the rebels.

Vast mineral wealth is not a necessary prerequisite for a war in Africa, as the recent almost incomprehensible spat between Eritrea and Ethiopia over a tiny triangle of desert so clearly and pathetically illustrated. However, minerals do help and both Shaba and eastern Congo are well blessed. Gold, oil, diamonds and other minerals are extracted here, as elsewhere in Africa, even in the midst of war. But while this is clearly one explanation of the presence of the foreign armies and of Western intelligence gatherers, it is not the only one.

What the West wants for Africa is primarily stability and business opportunities. If it can provide none of this, then it only really matters to Africans themselves, and to those Western agencies who try to provide food and succour to the victims of disorder, corruption and war.

But here, perhaps, is the key to all the interest in the fate of Laurent Kabila. Even if the Britons were simply gathering information for evacuation plans, the future of our relations with Africa hangs to a large extent on the eventual denouement of this conflict. Britain has backed the Ugandan horse and the Rwandan horse, despite the considerable democratic deficit in those countries. In those countries it perceives something like a model it can do business with. If the influence of that model spreads, so business might spread.

If the kleptocratic Kabila model, the Dos Santos model, the Mugabe model, prevails then Africa will fall farther off the map. And none of those leaders, at least, will be at all concerned.