The Dark Horses of 1994: ZAIRE / Darkness encroaches on Mobutu

IS ZAIRE a country any more? The vast undeveloped heart of Africa which balloons out from the Congo river, renamed the Zaire River, is breaking up. So are the countries around it. Chaos, banditry, starvation and disease are likely to affect people in the whole region, hundreds of thousands of whom are already refugees.

In Zaire the writ of the government has never been strong away from the capital, Kinshasa, but now it has collapsed. It is a collapse not triggered by war but by bad government and the inability of the country's ruler to distinguish between his own security and satisfaction and the country's well-being. The President, Mobutu Sese Seko, now flies by helicopter from his floating palace moored on the Zaire River at Kinshasa to his palace in his home village, Gbadolite. There is nowhere else in the country for him to go but he still has most of the country's cash in private bank accounts abroad.

The southern province, whose secession caused the civil war in 1960, has declared independence again and reverted to its old name, Katanga. The eastern province is cut off from the capital and has the added problem of tens of thousands of hungry refugees from Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi. There are no tarred roads between one part of Zaire and another and many of the river boats, the standard method of transport on the river and its tributaries, have stopped.

Civil war rages in Angola and arms and ammunition move across the border as if it did not exist. There is instability in Congo, war in Sudan, collapse in Burundi and instability in Rwanda.

The country has two governments, that of Etienne Tshisekedi wa Malumba, elected Prime Minister but sacked by President Mobutu in February, and that of Faustin Birindwa, appointed in March. Mr Tshisekedi's government is popular but has no power. It is known as the 'green government' because it now meets under the trees. The chances of a unified government coming back on track and preparing for peaceful, fair and free elections are zero.

Western donors have cut off aid to put pressure on Mr Mobutu. The sanctions have not hurt him at all but helped bring the country to a standstill. The US and France withdrew support from the president last year but when he did not fall, were forced to re-enter dialogue with him. A new currency introduced in October is already worth a thirtieth of its value and it is still falling. Last week fuel prices rose by 500 per cent. The price of fuel affects all commerce in Africa and in particular the price of food in towns. Unlike starving peasant farmers, hungry and angry townspeople are capable of changing governments and 1994 could see the end of Mr Mobutu.

But his departure will not bring a stable peaceful government reunifying the country. There is little sign of a nationally respected leader or party capable of pulling the country together. The aftermath will be bloody and protracted.

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