In the convoluted history of Central Africa, the southern Zairean province of Shaba has long been a magnet for mercenaries and swindlers, a center of bloodstained intrigue. Belgian colonizers first exploited Shaba's rich deposits of copper at the turn of the century, in what came to be called the Belgian Congo—the richest European colony in Africa, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." In 1960, when the colony achieved independence, the short-lived secession of the province, then known as Katanga, helped make the Congo a byword for post colonial chaos and savagery—and also black Africa's first Cold War battleground. It was here, in the provincial capital Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), that the charismatic nationalist Patrice Lumumba was famously martyred in 1961, with the connivance of the Central Intelligence Agency and a thirty-year-old Congolese colonel who would soon become President of the country, Joseph Deséré Mobutu.
Two rebel invasions of Katanga, in 1977 and 1978, brought Belgian, French, and Moroccan troops to President Mobutu's rescue, many of them ferried by U. S. planes. These episodes cemented Mobutu's position as an utterly dependent but indispensable asset to the West. In the 1980s Shaba emerged as a key strategic outpost for the Reagan Doctrine. Reportedly, the CIA used an airstrip in the remote Shaban town of Kamina in order to channel covert weapons into neighboring Angola. President Reagan hailed Mobutu as "a voice of good sense and good will."
So it is no surprise that Shaba has emerged as a flash point in one of the great unfolding dramas of the post-Cold War era: Mobutu's struggle to remain in power. He is one of the last five-star despots of the Cold War era: Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga, as he is now called—which translates as "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake." Buffeted by history's changing winds, bereft of his Western backing, embattled by riotous troops and pro-democracy forces, and squeezed for cash to keep afloat his notoriously greedy regime, Mobutu was being tested as never before when I visited Shaba recently, in search of clues to his survival. Despite mounting anarchy and economic chaos, Mobutu was confounding widespread predictions of his imminent demise. I wanted to know how he did it.
"Ethnic cleansing" was the term that Zaireans, diplomats, and aid workers used to explain the cramming of tens of thousands of hungry and destitute citizens into and around two fly-strewn railway stations in the mining towns of Likasi and Kolwezi. They were refugees in their own country, evidence that the time-honored practice of "divide and rule" had been effectively executed. Thumbs were rubbed against forefingers to explain the officially sanctioned looting of the vital state-owned mining installation in Kolwezi, where soldiers, politicians, and all manner of foreign hustlers were operating a none-too-subtle traffic in stolen copper and cobalt and whatever else might earn a few hundred trillion hyperdeflated cash zaires. Three years after Mobutu first promised to share power, amid a wave of popular euphoria over the news of tumbling regimes in Eastern Europe ("Ceausescu! Mobutu! (Ceausescu! Mobutu!" they chanted in the streets of Kinshasa), he seems bent on dismembering the country before the country dismembers him. Talk of the big man's faltering grip, rife in Kinshasa and abroad, had long since ceased in Shaba. "It's important to know that Mobutu is a great strategist," I was told. "He has his ways and means."