Foreigners flee collapsing Zaire


Mark Huband in Abidjan

The Guardian, 23 October 1991

Belgian air force planes began evacuating foreigners from Lubumbashi in south-eastern Zaire yesterday after soldiers ransacked the city following the effective collapse of the country’s crisis government.

The Belgian foreign ministry said that one C-130 transport plane carrying 80 people had already left for Brazzaville, Congo, and that more of the 1,400 foreigners in Lubumbashi would leave shortly. A commercial plane had taken about 130 people to Johannesburg, a spokeswoman said.

The political crisis in Zaire has intensified since President Mobutu Sese Seko sacked the opposition Prime Minister, Etienne Tshisekedi, on Monday. One of the country’s main opposition parties, the Union of Democrats and Independent Republicans (UFERI), appealed to Belgium last night to keep its troops in the country as long as necessary to guarantee the safety of residents and their belongings. It said the government in Kinshasa was unable to maintain public order.

Residents fleeing to Kinshasa said troops firing into the air ransacked Lubumbashi, a copper-mining centre, on Monday night. “They looted everything, all night. They’ve stripped the face of the town and have even taken corrugated metal from the houses,” one witness said.

It was unclear whether the soldiers were demonstrating for or against Mr Mobutu.

Zaire Radio said riots also broke out in the southern towns of Kolwezi, Likasi, and Mbuji-Mayi, and the northern town of Kisangani.

The opposition coalition Sacred Union is believed to be planning to re-propose Mr Tshisekedi as Prime Minister in defiance of Mr Mobutu’s demand for a new name. Mr Tshisekedi was sacked, although he has refused to accept his dismissal, for deleting references in his oath of office which acknowledged the authority of Mr Mobutu and the constitution upon which his power is based.

When Mr Tshisekedi accepted office two weeks ago, it was as the choice of a committee chaired by Mr Mobutu. He thereby implicitly recognised the role of the President he openly despises.

Critics within the opposition say that Mr Tshisekedi should have waited for the suspended national conference to be reconvened, in order to secure the formal backing of opposition delegates. The conference had secured at least nominal sovereign powers, Instead he has taken on the entire weight of opposition to Mr Mobutu and personalizing the battle with the regime.

Mr Tshisekedi’s acceptance of the post also stemmed from pressure for democratic reforms from Zaire’s main foreign donors – France, Belgium, and the United States. This pressure was increased by the presence of 950 French and Belgian troops.

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