Leading Article: A glimmer of hope for stability in Zaire

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The Independent Online
A remarkable thing has been happening in central Africa over the past few months. A portion of Zaire roughly equivalent in size to western Europe has fallen to a rebel army. Given the continent's post-colonial history, this is not in itself so momentous. But that this huge swathe of mineral-rich territory should fall with minimal bloodshed - that is indeed remarkable, and the implications for the rest of Africa could be huge.

The rebel forces of Laurent Kabila have now taken control of every important city in Zaire apart from the capital, Kinshasa, which remains under the (loose) control of President Mobutu sese Seko and forces loyal to him. America, long Mr Mobutu's ally in the Cold War, has let it be known that he has now served his purpose. By consigning him to the dustbin of history, Western countries are clearly hoping that the country can hold together under a leader more disposed to rationality and decency. The hope in the West is that Mr Kabila can provide that. The pattern of the rebels' conquest has been almost uniform. They have made plain what their next target was, given the Zaire government troops time to flee and then marched into an undefended town. Rape and pillage has been carried out by the forces of President Mobutu before they fled.

The difference in cultures between the rival armies could hardly be larger. The government forces are defending the father of kleptocracy. The primary function of the Zairean economy since Mobutu Sese Seko came to power 32 years ago has been to enrich the president and his cronies. The secondary function has been to enrich those Western mining companies that have benefited from a symbiotic relationship with him.

Frederic Ilunga N'Goy, head of a Zairean company, summed up the rules succinctly this week when he said: "We were all Mobutists so we were all living on bribes." In such a culture, it is impossible to survive without being sucked in some way - perhaps marginally, perhaps profoundly - into the vortex of corruption. Most African people today are victims of such culture. There is one predictable law - oppose the leader at your peril - but most other aspects of life are unpredictable.

The good news for the West is that the Zairean rebels are attempting to impose a kind of discipline on this chaos. The bad news is that the discipline has a heavy Marxist flavour. They want to "divide the spoils of the state among all citizens", and they are renegotiating the contracts signed by Mobutu with the mining companies.

The rhetoric of Mr Kabila has been par for the course, given that his aim is to gain control of wealth and power beyond the dreams of avarice: "First we must liberate the country, and then all parties will be free to contest future elections. The ideology of the Alliance [his Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire] is to give everybody his place, to let everybody do as they please."

Such a libertarian ethos has been voiced by future dictators since the end of the colonial era. However, there is at least some reason to hope that, should Mr Kabila ultimately take power in Kinshasa (Western observers think this could happen by June), his regime might impose order on the country which allows for, to put it no more strongly, some degree of economic improvement and some extension of political liberty for the population as a whole. Given the depredations of Mobutu, this is not to say much, but it is something.

The main concern of the mining companies, as always, is the social discipline necessary to make profits and the government compliance necessary to repatriate them. Democracy is useful to them if it furthers these ends. The main concern of Western governments is likely to be - as always - "stability," which in this context means an end to the fighting and the preservation of Zaire's frontiers.

Of course, Mr Kabila is not there yet, and much blood could still flow. So far, opposition demonstrations have been met by force, but mainly batons and tear-gas rather than bullets. However, government forces could yet run amok. And there is the vexed and complex question of the relations between the Zairean political opposition (led by Etienne Tshisekedi, who has significant support in Kinshasa) and the rebels. Mr Kabila recently rejected without ceremony a Tshisekedi offer of key ministries in a future government.

Yesterday, Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, appealed to the rebel leader to stop fighting and start negotiating over the future of the country. There is little reason for Mr Kabila to respond positively to this appeal. If he wants to be next president of Zaire, that is not the best way to go about it. But he does appear to want to bring the country back into the world. He has already had informal contact with British diplomats outside the country, at his own request, as part of a strategy of building bridges to the West. Most importantly, he has already revealed a taste for power by consent, rather than power through fear. As long as this remains his taste, he should be encouraged.