S African army trained Zaireans

The Guardian, 8 August 1991

Mark Huband in Kinshasa

THE South African army has confirmed that it trained army units in Zaire earlier this year.

“I can confirm the defence force…was involved in the training an infantry company of the Zairean army in basic infantry tasks, and a limited quantity of equipment and personal gear… [was] supplied to the Zairean defence force,” an army spokesman said.

“This follows assistance rendered to the Zairean navy last year, and is in support of the South African effort to establish and extend diplomatic relations with its neighbours in Africa.”

He said 15 army instructors had been involved in the training between May 6 and June 21. South Africa had also sent some engineers to help prepare living quarters for the advisers. No South African military personnel were in Zaire at present, he said.

Senior diplomatic sources in Kinshasa said South African advisers had spent six weeks at the military base of Kitona “Lower Zaire”. They prepared Zairean soldiers to become instructors for other troops.

Kinshasa newspapers have claimed in the past two weeks that South African and Israeli advisers have also been involved in the establishment of a crack Zairean army unit – known locally as the hiboux, or owls – which has been accused of supporting a campaign of intimidation against opponents of President Mobutu Sese Seko, who has ruled Zaire for 27 years.

The Zairean government has acknowledged that the hiboux group exists, but denies it has any political role.

Claims that Israel and South Africa have joint military training programmes in Zaire appear unfounded.

Israel, which has trained trained army units in special forces, usually presidential guards, in several African countries – notably Cameroon, Liberia and Zaire – has the reputation of keeping a heavy presence in these states. However, its role is much more limited than its reputation implies.

South Africa does not, as yet, appear intent on taking over the type of specialist military role the Israelis have played for a decade.

Zaire is a big importer of South African goods. It sent an envoy to South Africa earlier this year, and is likely to establish full diplomatic links once apartheid has ended.

Meanwhile Zaire’s Prime Minister, Mulumba Lukoji, gave unexpected powers yesterday to a national political conference which began in Kinshasa. He told the conference it would have sovereign status and could, therefore, establish a new government and rewrite the constitution.

Mr Lukoji surprised the 3,000 delegates with the announcement. Opposition leaders had demanded the sovereignty of the conference, but this had been refused by President Mobutu.

Delegates booed the Prime Minister when he made a reference to President Mobutu during his speech, forcing him to change his prepared text and avoid mentioning the man whose 27 years of authoritarian rule have led to the conference and demands for change.

Mr Lukoji astounded delegates when he described himself as the descendant of Zaire’s former Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1960 during the turmoil which preceded President Mobutu’s seizure of power.

But the delegates yelled “resign” when Mr Lukoji referred to the role the government had played in bringing the conference about.

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