Zaire: Economic failure looms in Africa’s hollow heart


As Zaire prepares for a political conference, Mark Huband reports from Kinshasa on the domestic plight of a regionally crucial state

The Guardian, 29 July 1991

AT NIGHT the city is ablaze with fires on the stretches of rubbish tip wastelands alongside the boulevards, warming the homeless, the abandoned, the hungry.

Men sit with their heads bowed in cupped hands, silhouettes around a fire which will die before the sun is up.

It is the dry season. The days are overcast. The mosquitoes hover in languid swarms waiting, like everybody else, for the sun to come out. For years it has seemed as though it never will.

As the city grinds along in hopeless desperation, money is worth less by the day, petrol queues stretch along the roads of both the poor and the smart suburbs, and the country at the heart of Africa moves steadily towards collapse.

It takes four months for the copper trains to bring their goods to Kinshasa and return to the mineral-rich south of Zaire. Until last week, the copper and cobalt and zinc which earn 90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange were sent either through the capital or, more often, straight to the markets of South Africa.

Last week Angola’s new-found peace led to an agreement allowing exports to travel directly along the long-closed Benguela railway to the eastern seaboard.

The agreement marks the further economic independence of Zaire’s southern breadbasket, increasing its separation from the underdeveloped regions in the forests of the centre and the north, and from the capital.

Foreign exchange earnings, $1.12 billion last year, are expected to fall to $750 million this year. While there is a shortage of affordable food in Kinshasa, a city of 5 million, there are food surpluses in the hinterland. So rich Kinshasans buy goods flown in from South Africa, further emphasising the gap between the wealthy and the city’s poor, whose average income is $400 a year.

The immediate economic crisis, which has led to inflation of up to 50 per cent a month since the beginning of the year, is traced to 500 per cent pay increases for the civil service last autumn. But the decline of the country has as much to do with its strategic position as it does with economic policy.

Twenty-six years of rule by President Mobutu Sese Seko has made Zaire the key to the future prosperity of much of central and southern Africa.

On Wednesday the country is expected to open a national political conference. Above all else, the conference will face the question whether Zaire could have remained intact without Mobutuism.

Leading members of the opposition have all been members of his various governments and can be tarred with a share of the blame if they accuse him of bad government. His personal stamp on the country is so strong that its identity is synonymous with his personal political survival.

As central Africa’s leading pro-Western country, Mobutu’s Zaire was vital to the United State’s covert war in Angola, providing the US with a military base in the south of the country and a channel for arms to the Unita rebels. Equally, Zaire provided France and the US with support needed in the war between Chad and Libya in the late 1980s, and has played a mediating role in the conflict in Rwanda.

In January, Zaire was chairing the United Nation’s Security Council when vital decisions regarding the Gulf war were taken.

President Mobutu’s regional importance, and the fear in the West that he could at any time have crossed to the Eastern bloc, averted concerted criticism of human rights abuses, the dire state of the economy, and the growing misery in which Zaire’s 34 million people lived.

In 1983, criticism in the US of Zaire’s human rights record went strangely quiet when President Mobutu recognised Israel, though this silence has since been broken and the strings on bilateral assistance have become tighter.

Now the pain endured by the population behind the smoke-screen of its Western-sponsored international role is coming to the surface.

Exposed alongside this has been the inadequacy of the domestic political structure. This is leading to the growing threat of serious unrest which could destabilise neighbouring countries at a time when the potential for growth and stability has never been greater.

In this situation, the Western countries which have benefitted from the role President Mobutu has played are not pressuring him to make changes that they know he cannot make without withdrawing from the political scene altogether.

“The system is changing, and if he doesn’t change there’s going to be violence,” one Western diplomat said, reflecting a common view which has led to predictions of civil war unless the national conference creates a credible leadership.

The southern Zairean view that it has too long supported the economy of the north without seeing many of the benefits is regarded by diplomats as the main dividing line in the country.

The tribal basis of some of 230 political parties formed since a multi-party state was declared on April 24 1990 also threatens division.

Last week’s refusal by the main opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, to accept the post of Prime Minister, is seen as a failure by Mr Mobutu to pursue his traditional policy of divide and rule.

Last Friday he told diplomats that he would now take more drastic measures to ensure his survival.

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