Nerves fray as Kabila gets down to business at last

Click to follow
There were more than a few nervous suits yesterday when Congo-Zaire's new political order started its first full day in Kinshasa by "inviting" the business community to a meeting, at just a few hours' notice.

It was impossible to get rich in the old Zaire without participating in deposed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's corrupt, bribe-ridden system. The advisers to Zaire's new leader, Laurence Kabila, know that. So did the hundreds of businessmen who dutifully stood in line yesterday to be searched for weapons before meeting their new political masters.

The fattest cats and the biggest thieves went with Mr Mobutu, who fled Kinshasa on Friday, just one day before the capital fell to Mr Kabila's rebel forces. But Jean-Pierre Bemba, owner of a cellular telephone company, argues that the country's entire entrepreneurial class was tied up with corruption.

The businessmen who remain are afraid of being victimised. Mr Bemba, who supports the new government's attempts to recover billions of dollars stolen from Zaire by the former president and his cronies, suggests that Mr Kabila let bygones be bygones.

"He should not come with the idea of revenge," said Mr Bemba. "He has to accept working with anybody, even if they worked with the old order. In Zaire you could not get anything done or any paper approved unless you gave money to the administration." If they were to arrest everyone involved in corruption, he pointed out, the jails would be full.

In Mr Bemba's case, there is a particularly strong association with the exiled Mr Mobutu. His sister is married to one of the former president's sons. But Mr Bemba has still chosen to stay.

For the moment, the greatest concern of the business community is the possibility of full-scale nationalisation. At a press conference yesterday Deo Bugera, the general secretary to Mr Kabila's Alliance, was short on detail about plans for the resuscitation of the country's economy.

But Mr Kabila, a former Marxist whose professed conversion to the free market took place only recently, has already nationalised the Siza rail network run by the South Africans and Belgians. Other business leaders now fear a similar fate, saying socialist or Communist solutions would be a disaster for Congo-Zaire, a country the size of Western Europe.

A recent document, which purported to come from Mr Kabila's Alliance, outlined plans that would force foreign investors to take Congolese partners, require 15 per cent deposit up front for proposed investment, and a new social obligation for business to fund schools and hospitals. It seems self-evident that Mr Kabila will have to work, whatever the distrust, with existing businesses for the good of Congo-Zaire.

The city's existing political parties fear they will be frozen from power by the new order, despite promises of a democratic election. Mr Kabila has an army but little political organisation. He is under pressure at home and abroad to bring political opposition groups into his promised Government for National Salvation. The problem is that Mr Kabila feels that the city's political classes, like the business community, had sold out to Mr Mobutu.

Whether Mr Kabila, a lifelong revolutionary who was never tainted by the Mobutu regime, will turn out to be a pragmatist or purist, is still unclear. Most observers believe that only a pragmatist has a chance of breathing life into a country rich in minerals and natural resources but devoid of infrastructure - bankrupt and reduced to ruins by the felon who ruled for 32 years.