Zaire: An African Horror Story

Observers search for a suitable analogy—the next Bosnia, another Somalia—to the shaky, predatory despotism of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga

The train station in downtown Likasi, a two-hour drive northwest of Lubumbashi, is a crumbling edifice built by the Belgians early in this century. It was part of the sprawling network of rails and roads that linked the Central African copper belt to ports in South Africa and the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola. In more prosperous days a substantial portion of the world's copper and cobalt was produced in this part of the world.

Today the station is surrounded by a dense warren of shanties, a maze of burlap and plastic slung over rickety frames fashioned from scrap wood and rusty bedsprings. Across the tracks and beyond a foot-wide open sewer, row upon row of green plastic tents, constructed by Belgian workers from the relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières, extend to the distant horizon. Each tent is crammed with as many as fourteen men, women, and children. The air is filled with the smells of rot and excrement, and with the cacophonous din of scrap metal being pounded into makeshift pots and pans. Five hours west an equally grim scene is unfolding in Kolwezi. The sidewalks there are piled high with desks, bureaus, sofas, cabinets, and other household goods, all for sale to whoever will buy them. Before relief groups moved in to provide vaccinations and running water, sixty people a day were dying from measles, dysentery, malaria, and respiratory infections.

In both towns the refugees are Kasaians, primarily Lubas, born and raised in Shaba but descended from ancestors who were recruited to the mines from the neighboring province of Kasai. Over the past year, in the worst wave of ethnic violence in the region since the Katangan secession of 1960, more than 100,000 Kasaians have been chased from their jobs and homes by rampaging mobs of indigenous Shabans—or "Katangese," as they call themselves. Most Kasaians have congregated at the train stations of Kolwezi and Likasi in the probably futile hope that one of the infrequent trains will have enough space in its sweltering boxcars to take them and their families away to Kasai at a price they can afford. "We cannot stay, because they will cut our throats," I was told.

The plight of the Kasai in Shaba is less the result of age-old hatreds than of the machinations of government leaders bent on preserving their power. To be sure, there is a history of enmity between the Katangese and their generally better-educated, more successful Kasaian brothers. The Lubas of Kasai have sometimes considered themselves the "Jews of Africa." They predominate among the country's intellectuals, professionals, and entrepreneurs. The Belgians cultivated them as laborers and administrators of the colonial order. Their families were housed by the mining companies; their children were educated in company-built schools and made ready to percolate up through even the most oppressive regimes both before and since independence. Resentment on the part of the Katangese has grown accordingly.

"The Kasai are seen as instruments of oppression—on this all Katangese agree," Muyembe wa Banze, a Katangan executive at Gecamines, the state-owned mining giant, told me. "They seemed to be more attached to the white man—that's what we have seen. They have come from far away and have all the advantages. You'll see that the important positions in society are filled by Kasaians. Mobutu has used the Kasai to oppress the Katangese."

Yet in Zaire it has been only at times of great political upheaval and insecurity, such as now, that resentment has turned to terror. What is striking about the current campaign against the Kasai is how President Mobutu, fighting for his political survival, has managed to exploit well-founded bitterness toward his own rapacious regime by deflecting it onto others.

On April 24, 1990, Mobutu declared an end to single-party rule and the beginning of a transition to democracy. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen, and the Cold War was winding down. Mobutu's Western backers—the United States, France, and Belgium—had let him know that the years of reliable support were over. This, together with mounting strikes and protests in Kinshasa and elsewhere, compelled Mobutu to open a "sovereign national conference" to prepare for democratic rule. Opposition leaders returned from exile. Opposition parties proliferated. A raucous public debate enlivened newspapers long subdued by fear.

But problems quickly materialized—not least in Shaba. Barely two weeks after Mobutu's declaration unidentified commandos went on a nighttime rampage on the campus of the University of Lubumbashi, killing a still-unconfirmed number of students. There followed a spate of armed attacks on the homes of prominent opposition figures. Opposition rallies were broken up. Arrests and killings multiplied. Transition governments came and went. More than 200 mutually antagonistic political parties entered the fray, many backed with enough cash from Mobutu himself to compound hyperinflation.

Then came the "pillage." In September of 1991 an astonishing week-long spree of looting and destruction by underpaid troops of the national army laid waste to major cities across the country. More than 200 people were killed. Much of the modern productive sector of the economy was destroyed. The sidewalks next to major military bases became thriving markets for looted goods. Most press accounts described these horrendous riots as the work of "mutinous" troops. But whether the pillage was aimed at toppling Mobutu remains a mystery; no soldier was ever prosecuted or disciplined.

Meanwhile, the major opposition parties had managed to form a coalition called the Union Sacrée de l'Opposition. Its candidate to lead the transition to democracy was a well-known activist named Étienne Tshisekedi. Tshisekedi is from Kasai. After the pillage Mobutu met with the Union Sacrée and, remarkably, agreed to allow the formation of an opposition government led by Tshisekedi, who was sworn in as Prime Minister on October 16, 1991. He lasted six days. The problem, like almost all problems in Zaire, boiled down to money. Tshisekedi, with the backing of Western governments, sought control over Zaire's Central Bank. This Mobutu could not abide. Control of the printing and distribution of money is a vital tool of Mobutu's; it is not only the means by which he enriches himself but also his means for supporting his friends and co-opting his enemies. When Tshisekedi arrived at his office on October 19, 1991, he found the doors were locked. A replacement moved in three days later. Nevertheless, the Union Sacrée continued to have broad popular support. Something needed to be done to break up the opposition alliance. So Mobutu turned to two men from Shaba: Jean Nguza Karl-i-Bond and Gabriel Kyungu wa Kumwanza.

Whenever Zaireans describe Mobutu's legendary "musical chairs" system of government—the perennial shuffling of his friends and enemies in and out of favor, in and out of money—the first case in point is Nguza Karl-i-Bond. Nguza was Mobutu's Foreign Minister in the early 1970s. He then became the political director of Zaire's sole political party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR). In 1977 he was accused of treason and sentenced to death. He is said to have been tortured. But a year later he was freed, and a year after that he became Prime Minister. Two years after that he fled to exile in Belgium, where he wrote a book exposing Mobutu's corruption. He later testified before a congressional subcommittee in Washington about Mobutu's ill-gotten riches. Then, incredibly, he returned to Mobutu's fold, and in 1986 was sent back to Washington as Zaire's ambassador. Two years later he was the Foreign Minister again.

By 1991 Nguza was out of the loop once more and heading the Union des Fédéralistcs et des Republicains Indépendants (UFERI), one of the three main opposition parties in the Union Sacrée. Gabriel Kyungu, one of his principal allies, appeared more credible than Nguza as an oppositionist. Along with Tshisekedi, Kyungu had produced a scathing public critique of Mobutu's regime in 1980. The two were imprisoned and tortured. Kyungu was one of the first public figures to decry the massacre of students at the university, and he drew crowds with populist speeches in which he derided Mobutu as an hibou, an owl, traditionally associated with black magic.

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