Conference tries to sideline Mobutu


Mark Huband in Abidjan

The Guardian, 18 April 1992

Zaire’s national political conference believes it  has effectively overthrown the government after declaring its own sovereign status and forcing President Mobutu Sese Seko to accept its decisions as binding.

The conference reopened on April. 6 after  being suspended since January 19 on the orders of the prime minister,  Nguza Karl-i-Bond, who accused it of stirring up tribalism  and overstepping its constitutional  powers.  By adopting sovereign status, which came into force yesterday, the conference has defied Mr Karl-i-Bond’s order that it should refrain from attempting to take over the running of the country.

Determined to speed ahead with its adoption of power before Mr Mobutu’s supporters can halt  it, delegates had by yesterday passed most of the 55 articles governing the conduct of the conference, including the issue of its sovereignty.

This is much further than it has previously been able to go since it was first convened andthen suspended last August.

There has so far been no reaction to the declaration from Mr Mobutu, though he is likely to accept its sovereignty, in keeping with his decision last August to allow it this status.

However, his acceptance will be conditional on him remaining head of state and, more controversially, on the conference refraining from putting his brutal 27-year dictatorship on trial.   It will collapse, as it has done intermittently since  August, if Mr Mobutu feels threatened by the nature of the debate.

The conference decision will further undermine the Karl-i-Bond government, but it is likely that Mr Mobutu is prepared to create another sacrifice in Mr Karl-i-Bond if it means he can retain the presidency.

Mr Karl-i-Bond heads Zaire’s fifth government in 12 months, after four previous prime ministers had failed to introduce satisfied the opposition while allowing Mr Mobutu to stay in power. Mr Mobutu has already distanced himself from Mr Karl-i-Bond by identifying himself closely with the reconvening of the conference at a time when the prime minister still objects to it being held at all.

The ability of the conference to take power for itself relies upon the further discrediting of Mr Karl-i-Bond, as the 2,700 delegates at the conference will opt to support the people who look most likely to succeed in steering the political debate.

By accepting the prime ministership last October, Mr Karl-i­ Bond took the biggest gamble of his political career. A formerly outspoken critic of Mr Mobutu, whose regime had tortured and    imprisoned him before he agreed to take  a string  of top government posts,  Mr  Karl-i­Bond’s acceptance of the prime ministership led to his expulsion from the opposition coalition of which  he was a co-founder.

The coalition, called the Union, brought together eight major opposition parties. Mr Mobutu had tried to split it by offering the prime minister­ship to its leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, who heads the Union Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party. Mr Tshisekedi lasted less than  a week before resigning.

Mr Mobutu’s main aim is to hold on to some personal power. He is unlikely to stop the conference taking over the running of the government if he can remain president. He would be unlikely to hesitate in dismissing Mr Karl-i-Bond if such a move helped him secure his own position and the conference demanded that the prime minister should go.


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