Kabila pays for failure to deliver

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The Independent Online
NOT LONG ago they were hailed as the new Africans - battle-hardened former guerrilla commanders who agreed on regional issues and followed pragmatic economic programmes. Yet the fledgling alliance, much ballyhooed by the West in May 1997, when Laurent Kabila overthrew the cancer-ridden Zairean despot Mobutu Sese Seko, has already unravelled.

Commentators and Western diplomats who optimistically were referring to a confluence of interest in Central Africa are once again scrambling for explanations as the president of the now-renamed Democratic Republic of Congo struggles for survival.

President Kabila faces uprising in the east of his country, as well as localised unrest and isolated incidents countrywide, because he has squandered a powerful legacy of goodwill. The United Nations and the United States, powerful benefactors after Mr Kabila assumed power, have been disappointed by his failure to acknowledge human rights irregularities in Congo or to discuss allegations of civilian deaths in the refugee camps housing Rwandan Hutus in 1996-97.

The domestic political elite, represented by such leaders as Etienne Tshisekedi, has been alienated by Mr Kabila's failure to move towards a new, more open political dispensation, to set an agenda for representative democracy and by the increasing concentration of power in the hands of his relatives and fellow Katangese.

Ordinary Congolese have seen little improvement in living standards or civil rights and the financial and investment community has been upset by a failure to end the old ways of graft and corruption.

Crucially, Mr Kabila's key foreign backers, Rwanda, Uganda and Angola, have lost patience with his failure to deliver the regional security they demanded in return for their support of his rebellion against Mobutu.

In response, Mr Kabila's government has become increasingly edgy, blaming former friends for all the current woes. The information minister, Didier Mumengi, has accused Uganda of sending troops to aid rebels in the north- east near the town of Bunia. This followed earlier complaints that Rwandan soldiers were fighting alongside rebel Banyamulenge (ethnic Tutsis who migrated from what is now Rwanda in the last century) units in Kivu and even supporting rebel attacks near the western oil town of Muanda.

Congolese army general Eluki Monga Aundu said in a recent newspaper interview that Rwanda thought of Congo as a "colony" and described Rwanda as "a toad that wants to swallow an elephant".

Mr Kabila's language left no doubts as to the extent that relations had soured when he called Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda's vice-president Paul Kagame "aggressors" and claimed that his country had been invaded.

But if he was expecting some speedy international support, then the seven- nation summit at Victoria Falls showed the impotence of countries in the region, as leaders of Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, and Uganda met Mr Kabila.

Angola and Rwanda's absence was instructive, particularly as the summit vowed to investigate Rwanda's role in the uprising. The impression given was of a region divided, with those not already directly involved certainly reluctant and possibly unable to intervene successfully in such a complex dispute.

Private meetings between South African and Congolese officials may mean real help for Mr Kabila could possibly arrive from that quarter, but it remains too early to judge Pretoria's intentions.

The Congolese army's counter-offensive since Saturday could result in the government regaining control in the pockets outside the rebellion's home base in eastern Congo. Mr Kabila's army, however, probably cannot remove the Banyamulenge and Rwandan forces from the vital border towns of Goma, Bukavu and Uvira.

He no doubt knows this and hopes that his invasion rhetoric will mobilise international opinion and force Rwanda to pull out.

If Mr Kabila survives the next few weeks, the rebels' appetite for a national campaign may flag. Despite recent statements by Sylvain Bikelenge, the commander of the rebel 10th army battalion, that "Congo needs new leadership", and rebel leader Jean-Pierre Ondekane that "we cannot negotiate with a dictator", the terrain, physical distance and lack of transport links may force the two sides to agree to an uneasy truce.

James Walker is Africa editor at `The Economist' Intelligence Unit in London.