Congo wealth lures Africa's power-players

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The Independent Online
IT IS said that the uranium used to build the atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki was dug from mines in the Congo.

Half a century on, as the war in central Africa's "heart of darkness" sucks in more nations, Congo still possesses an awesome potential to cause widespread destruction.

Attention is again focusing on that same mineral wealth, which is seen as the core of the present conflict.

International observers have watched in disbelief recently as African nations plunge into the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The willingness of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad to send their men in to die, propping up Laurent Kabila's year-old regime, and of Uganda and Rwanda (and now, possibly, Burundi) to support the Tutsi-led rebels against Mr Kabila, has surprised many.

But this is not an ordinary war. The conflict is also a power struggle between autocratic presidents, each of whom sees himself as the strongman of the continent. The underlying motive for the struggle appears to be greed.

The three main players, Mr Kabila, Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, all share common traits. All surround themselves with a family clique. Accusations of corruption and nepotism have been levelled at all these regimes, with the gold, diamond and mineral mines of Congo - worth an estimated $58bn (pounds 35bn) - and war-related business deals invariably mentioned in the same breath.

Mr Kabila has never been far from the taint of corruption since he took over the ruined Congo, formerly known as Zaire, barely a year ago.

He is accused of lavishing $500,000 on his mistress as a "wedding gift". Other reports concern crate-loads of newly-minted currency disappearing into the president's private fund and luxury villas being purchased in Namibia. Mr Kabila himself has been touring the continent, soliciting support from Nigeria, Sudan and Libya as well as his four military allies.

Zimbabwe is the staunchest ally. Mr Mugabe has promised to take the war to the rebels in the east of Congo and last week sent more troops and tanks into the country. Sources say the number of Zimbabwean troops has been doubled to around 6,000.

Mr Kabila's backers will certainly demand recompense in the form of trade deals and, in Angola's case, bank on Mr Kabila's future help to crush its own Unita rebels.

Zimbabwe has a more obvious agenda. Even before the war broke out, the country had invested millions of dollars in partnerships with the Kabila regime. Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) this month secured a $50m contract to supply goods and equipment to Congo.

The Wall Street Journal claims the Zimbabwean general in command of the forces backing Mr Kabila owns a trucking company ferrying supplies into the country. The general's brother is reportedly involved in transport deals in Congo and other businessmen have been negotiating for cobalt and copper-mining deals. A Kabila victory is in the interests of these people, some of whom, the paper claims, are related to Mr Mugabe and are linked to his ruling party.

On the opposing side, President Museveni insists his forces are only in Congo to hunt down bases of the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and secure Uganda's borders.

But a row has broken out in Uganda concerning the alleged involvement of the Ugandan army (UPDF) and businessmen in plundering gold and diamonds from Congo. At the centre of the scandal is the president's brother, Major-General Salim Saleh, a wealthy businessman who is also senior presidential adviser on military affairs.

Like Zimbabwe and Congo, Uganda is ruled by a tightly-knit clique, encompassing politics, the military and business. The UPDF acting chief of staff in Congo, Brigadier James Kazini, is a cousin of the president's wife.

President Museveni, under increasing pressure at home, has been pedalling conciliatory messages recently. But political leaders have not forgotten his speech last month when he railed at his enemies in Congo and claimed that: "In some cases ... in order to get the economy going, you need some war."

The economic rape of Congo by outside forces is not a new phenomenon. Belgium exploited the country for decades as the colonial power in the late 19th and 20th century. Now the vultures circling the country are African.

Only six months ago United States President Bill Clinton toured Africa and spoke of an "African renaissance". A few weeks ago South Africa's Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, spoke of his fears for the future of that renaissance and called for a revolt against the "petty gangsters" who aspire to rule in Africa. "It is out of this pungent mixture of greed, dehumanising poverty, obscene wealth and endemic public and private corrupt practice that many of Africa's coups d'etats and civil wars are born," he said.

A central African war could kill any hope of a renaissance in the near future and wipe out any economic gains made in recent years. The non-combatants will suffer most. Already reports of cholera and widespread rape are coming out of eastern Congo.

Women are reportedly selling unprotected sex for 600 Ugandan shillings (30p) in order to buy food and it is feared the war is about to unleash a new Aids disaster.

Before last week's troop escalation Zimbabwe was already spending a million dollars a day on the war, despite the fact its economy is in trouble and the country is facing an Aids crisis.

There is a fear that the leaders of the countries involved in the Congo tragedy are out of step with their own people.

As one Kampala newspaper columnist wrote recently: "In the case of Congo, the patriots are those who oppose our involvement there. If there was ever a time when it was good to be a traitor, this is it."