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Mobutu could lose world pariah status

PRESIDENT Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who has been shunned by the international community for the past three years, is making a comeback - thanks partly to the Rwandan disaster.

Although Western diplomats deny that Mr Mobutu is being rewarded for allowing Rwandan refugees into eastern Zaire, his open-door policy towards French troops, the United Nations and aid agencies assisting one million Rwandans around Goma, has helped rehabilitate one of the world's most recalcitrant and manipulative dictators. France, whose troops used Goma airport as a base for their operation in Rwanda in June, has reopened its aid office in Kinshasa and is expected to resume aid shortly.

Three years ago Mr Mobutu's days seemed numbered. Several cities were sacked by looters and much of his vast disparate country seemed ungovernable. He came under strong pressure to introduce political reform and democracy. Western diplomats helped expose him as one of the most corrupt leaders in Africa and his old allies, France, Belgium and the US turned their backs on him.

In 1991 Zaire received from Western donors some dollars 479m (pounds 305m) of which France gave dollars 72.2m. The following year aid was cut completely and in January 1993 France, the United States and Belgium, the former colonial power, sent a memo to Mr Mobutu which said aid would only resume when there was responsible government, the Bank of Zaire was made independent, the economy was reformed and there were moves towards democracy and respect for human rights.

A week later the capital was sacked by Mr Mobutu's soldiers and, according to many diplomats, they were encouraged by the President. Thousands of foreign nationals were evacuated and the country seemed headed for breakdown. One of President Mobutu's tactics has been to create chaos in order to demonstrate that only if he is left alone to rule can Zaire's stability be maintained.

Since then the country has been adrift and the formal economy has all but died.

In June, Kengo wa Dondo was put forward by Mr Mobutu as Prime Minister and elected by parliament, though Etiene Tshisekedi's opposition party boycotted the election. He has no support base in Zaire but is respected by Western governments and represents in the words of one diplomat 'Mobutu's last chance'.

The French decision to resume aid to Zaire is privately regarded as precipitate by the US and Belgium, who want to give the new government six months to prove itself. Paris appears to have abandoned its policy of promoting democracy in Africa and reverted to supporting dictators as long as they are pro-French. The United States, however, is forbidden by the congressional Brooke Amendment to give aid to governments such as Zaire's but Washington is trying to give Mr Kengo some encouragement by receiving him next week when to he comes to New York to address the UN General Assembly. He is not expected to meet the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, but will meet Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, George Moose.

Zaire's access to world financial institutions is also blocked. It is in arrears to the IMF and ineligible to borrow but a Fund spokesman said there were preliminary signs that Zaire was making efforts to rectify its position with the Fund, the Bank and its creditors. 'The effort is preliminary, however. There is nothing clear yet,' a spokesman said.

(Photograph omitted)