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

On the edge of downtown Kolwozi, past the teeming train station, lies the Gecamines mining installation, a vast, rocky landscape of open pits and coppery waste dumps. In better days this facility produced up to 80 percent of Zaire's copper and cobalt. Belgians built the mines early in the century, and Belgian spies, financiers, and mercenaries known as les Affreux—"the Dreadful Ones"—backed Moise Tshombe's ill-fated secession movement in 1960, hoping to maintain de facto Belgian control over the lucrative mining industry. Mobutu nationalized the mines in 1967. At its high point, in the mid-1980s, Gecamines produced 480,000 tons of copper a year with 35,000 employees, earned three quarters of Zaire's foreign exchange, and educated 100,000 children in company run schools.

Today Gecamines is eerily subdued. A half dozen tense young JUFERI members in jeans and sport shirts guard the entrance against Kasaians. In the two weeks before my visit roughly 7,000 Kasaian workers—half the work force and most of the skilled employees—had been chased from their jobs at these mines. In all, 40,000 to 50,000 Kasaians in Kolwezi have been rendered homeless. The mines still function, I was told, but expatriate company officials doubt that this will last. The production of copper had already declined to 150,000 tons or less in the previous year, because of rampant corruption and mismanagement. A mine collapsed a few years ago owing to negligence. Most of the skilled expatriates fled after the 1991 pillage. The company is bankrupt.

A week before my visit ten trucks lined up along the wall surrounding the plant. Three hundred thieves pushed a hundred tons of copper up to the wall and loaded it into the trucks, and off they drove to the Zambian border and down to South Africa. There is an ongoing traffic in stolen copper, cobalt, electrical wires and pylons, tires, water pumps, and gasoline. Gecamines is being looted down to the ground. Soldiers, the police, workers, company guards, expatriate Greeks, Lebanese, and South Africans—all are collaborating to ransack Zaire's biggest economic asset.

According to company officials, legal authorities, diplomats, and townspeople alike, at the center of the racket is Governor Kyungu. He is said to be getting a $10,000 kickback for each export license granted to truck goods across the border. It is an old story in Zaire. "Who's using who?" a clergyman asked. "Is Mobutu using Kyungu, or is Kyungu using Mobutu? We ask ourselves this question. If you compare Kyungu when he was in opposition, he was a poor man. Now he is very rich."

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