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
More

But that was before November 25, 1991, when UFERI broke ranks with the Union Sacrée. Mobutu appointed Nguza Prime Minister and Kyungu the governor of Shaba. The violence against the Kasai in Shaba began soon thereafter.

Immediately after Governor Kyungu assumed office, he launched a campaign known as Debout Katanga!—"Rise up, Katanga!" Its motto was "Katanga for the Katangese." In a series of public rallies and radio speeches the governor railed against the "enemy within," the Kasai. Bemoaning the misery of the Katangan population, Kyungu repeatedly blamed the Kasaians. He called them bilulu (Swahili for "insects"). "The Kasai are foreigners," he declared. "The Katangese no longer accept the Kasai here. Their presence is an insult. They are arrogant and don't hide it. It is not possible for the tribes to live side by side." In crude harangues that would have been familiar to Asians driven from Uganda by Idi Amin, Kyungu derided the Kasai as money-grubbing exploiters who were lucky to be allowed to flee with their lives. "The Kasai must go and then the Katangese can have the nice jobs and nice houses," he said.

Then, employing a tactic long used by Mobutu, Kyungu established the JUFERI, a youth brigade in his party, as a vigilante force. Mostly unemployed, illiterate thugs from rural villages, the JUFERI provided a violent accompaniment to Kyungu's menacing radio broadcasts. Attacks on Kasaian homes in rural towns and villages began in late 1991. By April of last year the JUFERI, sometimes backed by mobs of other Katangese, were systematically expelling Kasaians from their homes. Witnesses said the JUFERI were sometimes supplied with gasoline to set houses afire and with beer and marijuana to stoke their aggression. Some Kasaians fought back. The proverbial cycle of violence was set in motion.

Meanwhile, on February 16, 1992, hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets of Kinshasa, a thousand miles away, in support of the national conference on democracy, which Nguza had ordered closed. Mobutu's troops opened fire on the marchers; according to the human rights monitoring group Africa Watch, more than thirty were killed. Mobutu deftly blamed Nguza and soon afterward allowed the national conference to resume. In August the conference nominated Tshisekedi to be Prime Minister again. Kasaians in Shaba celebrated. Reportedly, some marched through the streets of Lubumbashi with leashed dogs that wore ties and signs saying NGUZA. Some threw stones at the governor's residence. The JUFERI, armed with knives and machetes, responded predictably.

Most Kasaians fled to the train station or to the homes of relatives in town. Those I spoke with had no doubt about who was ultimately responsible for their predicament. "It's Mobutu," one of their leaders asserted (few Kasaians were willing to be identified by name). "As President of the Republic, he can't lower himself into the streets to wage war against the Kasai. He needs someone who is malleable. He uses others, like Kyungu—a pawn of Mobutu."

Kasaians were quick to remind me that not all Katangese approve of what is happening: "It's a false problem," I was told repeatedly; "it's a manipulation by the politicians." Nevertheless, Nguza and Kyungu have plainly tapped a real vein of resentment. "Monsieur Kyungu expresses the profound aspirations, the soul of the people," Tshibang Kadjat, a Katangan executive at the mining company Gecamines, told me. "From colonization to Mobutu, all the advantages go to the Kasai."

In fact the majority of Kasaians in Shaba have suffered as much as most Katangese under a regime that has plundered the province's resources for the benefit of a few. But Katangan leaders have made a pact with the devil, calculating that, as one put it, "we have to ally ourselves with the finishing dictatorship in order to resist the permanent dictatorship of the Kasai."

"You know," a Kasaian prosecutor in Kolwezi told me over dinner, "Mobutu is the kind of politician who can profit from any situation to maintain his power. Before, he attacked the Katangese using the Kasai, who were among his closest collaborators. Now he realizes that there were radical political oppositionists among the Kasai. He uses old enmities to destabilize his new enemies. Now he uses Katangese to destabilize the Kasai."

A judge interrupted to clarify: "It was not exactly his goal to dominate the Katangese. Mobutu put Kasaians at the head of many enterprises. But this was so that he could enjoy the riches of the province with the help of the Kasai. Now he says it wasn't he who was the cause of the Katangese's unhappiness—it was the Kasai. If you look at the situation more closely, both Kasaians and Katangese are in indescribable misery. Those who benefited are Mobutu and his acolytes. It's just that most of his acolytes were Kasaians, especially here in Katanga. This is a region that he has pillaged a lot."

Soldiers and the police, who might be expected to intervene if Mobutu ordered them to do so, appear in accounts of the violence only intermittently, most often as criminals engaged in thefts and assaults that provoke reprisals, which merely reinforce the cycle of violence. Lawlessness in general, and lawless soldiers in particular, have been a chronic problem in Zaire ever since independence, when the entire army dissolved in mutiny within a week. Armed shakedowns are commonplace. On a single night in Kolwezi, while driving to and from a restaurant in town, my companions and I were held up at gunpoint five times by soldiers who emerged like apparitions in our headlights, pointed their rifles menacingly at the windshield, and then gruffly accepted yet another proffer of five or ten million zaires—just under a dollar at that week's rate.

The UFERI mayor of Kolwozi, P. Anschaire Moji A Kapasu, told me that the authorities had done "everything possible" to stop the violence. I asked if anyone had been arrested and prosecuted. He looked at me with a blank expression, as if the idea had never occurred to him. "It's difficult in the mass of people to know who struck who," he said. "You would have to arrest the whole population. C'est difficile."

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In