Power slips from Kabila in Congo

LAURENT-DESIRE Kabila, the Congolese leader who just two years ago was welcomed by the world as a shining example of a "new generation of African leaders'', is losing his hold on power as his military allies desert him and rebels in the former Zaire gain the upper hand.

Mr Kabila came to power by the gun - ending the 32-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 - and now could be ousted by the same means, unless he agrees to give away vast tracts of his mineral-rich country - a territory the size of western Europe.

This week, growing pressure on the tottering regime of the 57-year-old President forced him to travel cap in hand to South Africa - a country he formerly despised - to beg it to exert pressure on Rwanda and Uganda to get the rebels they back to sign up for peace.

President Thabo Mbeki immediately dispatched his Foreign Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Her mission failed, signalling not only a severe setback for President Kabila but also the likely demise of recent moves for peace in the year-old conflict.

President Kabila and his allies - Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia - are desperate to stop fighting. But according to diplomats, the three rebel groups - who are backed by Rwanda and Uganda - have begun to scent victory.

One of the groups, Jean-Pierre Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), this month boosted its morale by seizing Gbadolite, in the north-west - the former base of President Mobutu, which has a runway long enough to land a Concorde.

The MLC believes it can advance along the Congo river and seize the capital, Kinshasa. The other armed rebel group, Emile Ilunga's Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) - which recently split from a political wing led by Ernest Wamba dia Wamba - is reportedly close to encircling Mbuji-Mayi.

Control of the south-western city would be a huge fillip to the RCD as Mbuji-Mayi provides President Kabila with the diamonds which fund his war effort.

All three rebel groups say they originally entered the conflict because President Kabila was showing the same avaricious tendencies as Mobutu, and none of the "new generation'' promise that the United States and Europe hastily proclaimed after his ascent to power in May 1997.

The rebels' sponsors have different motives - ranging from Ugandan jitters over rebel activities threatening its border, to Rwandan fears of a new anti-Tutsi genocide. President Kabila is backed by about 40,000 Hutu militiamen.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony, was the original site of the scramble for Africa in the late 1800s.

It was Congo that prompted the Berlin conference of 1885 at which European powers drafted the rules for carving up Africa.

A few weeks after the country's independence in 1960, a rebellion in the mineral-rich Katanga province produced the first major challenge to the post-colonial map of the region. Now, nearly 40 years later, the country again looks ready to blow apart the colonial legacy.

Zimbabwe can no longer sustain its support for President Kabila. President Robert Mugabe has sent in 10,000 troops and made himself deeply unpopular at home.

This week, the Harare-based independent Daily News reported that Zimbabwe is spending $400,000 a day on supporting President Kabila - a figure it provocatively pointed out represents twice the sum allocated to Bulawayo's main hospitals for the year. Bulawayo is the chief city in Zimbabwe's unstable Matabeland, power base of the late Joshua Nkomo.

The Angolan government has sent an estimated 3,000 troops to the Kabila war effort but only to thwart the military marriage of convenience between Angola's Unita guerillas and the Congo rebels.

Under that pact, Unita was launching attacks on Angola from bases inside south-east Congo.

Namibia, militarily a tiny country which, from the start, was only a half-hearted ally of President Kabila, has lost 19 soldiers and two attack helicopters. It wants out. Chad, which briefly joined, has left already.

The recent strategic advances claimed by the rebels, combined with the flagging enthusiasm of President Kabila's allies, paint a picture of a conflict which, increasingly, can only end with the partitioning of the Democratic Republic of Congo.