Neighbours on standby for the next disaster

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A LOT CAN happen in African politics in a year, certainly enough to shatter a few myths that African problems are on the wane, thanks to "African solutions" bandied around by Western policy-makers too jaded, uninterested or scared to play a meaningful role in the region.

The standard orthodoxy of a year ago was that Africa's post-colonial despotic order was breaking down, amid hopes of greater stability in this troubled region. But the rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) indicates that there are still the makings of major humanitarian disaster: ethnic hatred, poverty, corruption, an excess of arms and a profound lack of international interest in tackling key issues.

In fact, the deteriorating situation in the Congo represents only the most pressing concern in central and east Africa. Many of the issues confronting this region of 127 million people, which comprises Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Tanzania, Angola and the Congo-Republic, are interrelated. Congo shares borders with nine other states, virtually ensuring that the troubles will spill over, while the colonial carve-up also means that some ethnic groups straddle frontiers.

Endemic poverty in a region where annual income per head is less than $300 (pounds 180) per year, combined with crumbling infrastructure and shaky commitment to democratic values, means that ordinary citizens are at the mercy of rapacious leaders or vengeful armed regimes.

President Laurent Kabila faces an uprising because he squandered the legacy of goodwill which existed after he ousted President Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997. Foreign powers hoping for a change in Congo's fortunes have been disappointed by his failure to acknowledge human rights abuses and to co-operate with investigations of civilian deaths in the refugee camps in the Congo housing Rwandan Hutus in 1996 and 1997. Mr Kabila has marginalised Congo's domestic political elite and concentrated power in the hands of his own relatives and tribesmen.

Yet it took the loss of confidence of Mr Kabila's key foreign backers, Rwanda, Uganda and Angola, in his ability to deliver the regional security they demanded which has once again made the Congo conflict a truly regional issue.

"This time around few people believe that they are not directly involved," says John Githongo, director of the African Strategic Research Institute in Nairobi. "The question is whether the so-called New Breed of regional leaders will keep on invading Congo until they install a dictator that finally suits their interests."

The revolt in the Congo has at least some grounding in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis by the Hutu majority in Rwanda. Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated regime has legitimate worries about Hutu militia attacks from both within and outside the country. The vice-president, Paul Kagame, has made little secret of its intention to strike at its enemies, "wherever they lie".

Other regional players, such as Uganda and Angola, have similar misgivings about Mr Kabila's ability to control Congo's borders. According to eyewitness accounts, Ugandan soldiers have chased rebels from the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) into Congolese territory in the past few weeks. Mr Kabila has accused Uganda, along with Rwanda, of being invaders, although the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, has been active in regional peace talks in an attempt to prove his country's blamelessness.

Angola, which is edging once again towards civil war, is worried that the complete breakdown in basic services and security in Congo will allow Unita rebels to set up external bases and supply lines there once again. Even countries with less obviously at stake in the conflict are worried that the conflict could exacerbate domestic troubles. Congo-Brazzaville, where a former military ruler, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, seized power last November after an Angolan-backed coup, is worried that a deterioration in conditions in Kinshasa, just across the Congo river, will lead to a mass exodus of refugees.

The key question is whether Congo and other countries in the region can ever find a political rather than a military solution. "Hutus, who are the region's single largest ethnic group, have been alienated from the political mainstream," notes John Githongo. "This situation can lead to little else besides continued instability."

No doubt the prospect of yet another messy African conflict will encourage Western policy-makers again to sit on their hands, hoping that regional forces will provide a solution. Recent statements by the UN and the EU expressing concern but nothing in concrete terms seem to bear this out.

"The Security Council is not moving to deal with the crisis," complained the Belgian Foreign Minister, Erik Derycke, last week. Several Western governments, however, are concerned that the complete collapse of Congo could set off a regional conflict that might oblige the West, again too late and at great expense, to intervene.

James Walker is Africa Editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London

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