Mobutu's old rival outflanked by rebels

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Time may be running out for Zaire's ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko, but it is running out faster still for his country's legal opposition movement.

As rebels close in from the east and the peace talks in South Africa are postponed once again, diplomats say the opportunities are dwindling for followers of the veteran opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, to grab a meaningful stake in post-Mobutu Zaire. After two decades of sparring with Mr Mobutu, the former prime minister risks losing out to the rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who has seized half the country and is promising to depose Mr Mobutu by force if needed.

Mr Tshisekedi's supporters in the Democratic Union for Social Progress (UDPS) say if Mr Kabila does take power, democracy will have been beaten by force. Some still claim, usually in private, that Mr Kabila is a foreign stooge backed by ethnic Tutsis from Rwanda and Burundi and their allies in Uganda. If he takes over, they say, Zaire will be run by another Mobutu with a different name.

If Mr Tshisekedi does fall at the last fence, his critics will say he only has himself to blame. They claim he has never been able to see beyond the events of 1991, when a largely self-selected gathering of the people called the National Sovereign Convention elected him head of an interim government.

The Convention and its interim government were supposed to prepare the way towards democracy, a transition forced on Mr Mobutu by the West. Instead, the wily President used an outbreak of mass looting in Kinshasa as a pretext to fire Mr Tshisekedi and replace the Convention with another unelected parliament.

This quickly became a talking shop, where dozens of tiny parties were left free to squabble over the future of Zaire's democracy while Mr Mobutu and got on with plundering the country's mineral wealth.

In recent months, Mr Kabila's victories in the east appeared to weaken Mr Mobutu and strengthen parliament. Three weeks ago it nominated Mr Tshisekedi to resume his post as Prime Minister, believing he had the credibility to negotiate an end to the war. When Mr Tshisekedi announced that he was dissolving parliament and going back to the 1991 constitution, Mr Mobutu sacked him again, replacing him with military hardliner, General Lukulia Bolongo.

The stage seemed set for an upsurge in mass democratic action, but in the end, only a few thousand people, mainly students and the well-heeled political classes, demonstrated in Mr Tshisekedi's support. One diplomat said that while Mr Tshisekedi may have been imprisoned twice by Mr Mobutu, he had been a close supporter.

Meanwhile, in eastern Zaire, UN agencies mounted an aerial search for 80,000 Rwandan refugees and accused Mr Kabila's rebels of trying to achieve a "final solution" by condemning them to death.

The rebels said the former Rwandan Hutu troops and militiamen were evacuated from Kasese camp, 15 miles south of Kisangani. "Eighty thousand people are condemned to a slow and cruel death. The expression `final solution' is not exaggerated," said a World Food Programme spokeswoman.

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