It is difficult to believe that the world should have cause to miss the Zairean president, Mobutu Sese Seko. But his serious illness (he has been in a cancer clinic in Switzerland for two months) was the starting point for the present murderous crisis. In his absence, the dogs of anarchy and local warlordism, bred (with Western complicity) by years of Zairean corruption and incompetence, have slipped the leash.
Tutsis, established for two centuries in eastern Zaire, have taken up arms under threat of eviction from regional bosses on the make. They appear to have vanquished a rag-tag and unpaid Zairean army, enlisted mostly for plunder. The defeated soldiers were running amok yesterday in the town of Bukavu. At the same time, reliable reports suggest, the Tutsi military government in neighbouring Rwanda has seized the opportunity to settle scores with the Zairean-backed Hutu killers lurking amidst the two million Rwandans - a quarter of the country's population - rotting in refugee camps just inside Zaire. Many of these Hutu refugees were involved in the genocide of up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the 1994 Rwandan civil war. They fled to Zaire when the Tutsis won. The UN-run camps have since become a base for revenge attacks on Rwanda by remnants of the defeated, genocidal Hutu army. The failure of the international community to deal with this evil presence must also carry part of the blame for the present crisis.
Attacks on the camps in the past week, probably the work of the Rwandan military despite Kigali's denials, have sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, some west into Zaire, and some east into Rwanda. Zaire also blames the Tutsi-run army in Burundi, which is in the throes of its own brutal Tutsi-Hutu civil war. The risk - worse, the likelihood - is that the three countries will become embroiled in the coming months in an uncontrollable medieval conflict between roving rebel bands and unaccountable armies. Some African experts fear that such a war might spill over into Uganda and Tanzania, threatening up to 30,000,000 people.
What is to be done?
The answer should be divided into two parts, present and future. What, if anything, can be done about the present situation? What can the world do, in the longer term, to police, or prevent, the ethnic conflicts which erupt in Africa with such distressing regularity?
In reply to the first question - What Can Be Done Now? - it would be foolish to pretend that the international community will be willing to do much; or that there is much, at this stage, that we can do. Military intervention, Somalian-style, by the UN or anyone else seems inconceivable. Intervention against whom and for whom?
Political intervention is obviously desirable. The US and the EU - and crucially, South Africa - must do all they can to threaten, or bribe, the belligerents to pull back from the abyss now opening before them. But we should not underestimate the difficulties. There is no Zairean government worthy of the name to talk to. Rwanda and Burundi are run by Tutsi military regimes, which have limited sympathy for the plight of Hutu refugees.
On the other hand, the Tutsis form only 15 per cent of the populations of Rwanda and Burundi. Tutsi soldiers cannot expect to rule either country indefinitely without some form of political settlement. Some hope resides in the relative absence of revenge killing by the Tutsis now in power in Rwanda. Further suffering and killing are unavoidable but it would be wrong to give up completely on these two tiny, beautiful, but benighted countries. Zaire - the original Heart of Darkness - may pose much the larger threat. If President Mobutu dies, the virus of anarchy and violence could spread from eastern Zaire throughout that vast country and beyond.
That terrifying prospects bring us back to the second part of our question. What can be done to stop, or police, such ethnic and post-Colonial conflicts in Africa at an earlier, less intractable stage?
Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, was touring Africa this month, peddling the idea of an African-manned, but US armed and financed, permanent sub-Saharan peace force. A similar idea, French and British trained and UN financed, has been discussed ineffectually between Paris and London. Predictably, Mr Christopher's initiative annoyed the French. It also failed to impress African leaders, who were suspicious of Washington's attempt to cut out the United Nations.
The idea remains, in principle, a good one. Once the US election is over and the Clinton administration can mute its poll-driven UN-phobia, the concept should be urgently re-examined. The Americans and Europeans should forget their differences and pool their expertise and resources. An African peace force for Africa should exist under the general authority - if not the bureaucratic control - of the United Nations. If not the UN, who would decide acceptably when such a force should be deployed? Crucially, the South Africans must be involved, for the moral authority and military strength they would lend to the scheme.
It would be unrealistic to expect such a force to be created and trained quickly. But events in central Africa - especially the prospect of nuclear meltdown in Zaire - suggest that time is limited.Reuse content