/ 21 August 1998

The last days of Laurent Kabila?

Mail & Guardian correspondents

A last-ditch attempt by a coalition of states to rescue the ailing regime of Congolese President Laurent Kabila may have come too late as anti-government rebels continued their inexorable march to the capital Kinshasa this week.

Despite reports of a ceasefire offer from the rebels and desperate attempts by South Africa to broker a political solution, the rebel column claimed on Wednesday to have captured the key garrison town of Mbanza Ngungu, 80km from Kinshasa, in a fierce battle with some of Kabila’s strongest forces. The fall of the city could be days away.

The Rwandan-backed rebels moved swifly from their eastern bases around Goma when the rebellion started on August 2.

Kabila himself is reported to have fled to Lubumbashi again. The capital of the mining province, Katanga, where he hails from, may well become his heaquarters if Kinshasa falls, increasing the possibility of the dismembering of the huge country.

Sources say that when the South African delegation met Kabila last week, it asked him to treat the rebels as participants in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s politics. Kabila said he was prepared to talk to the rebels but could not do so while the Rwandans were invading.

He said: “Please go to the Rwandans and ask them to stop invading.”

But in an interview with a French publication, the real power in Rwanda – Vice-President General Paul Kagame, made it clear that nobody rules in Congo without his approval. And the Rwandan administration has made it clear that it feels betrayed by Kabila.

The South African peace efforts have precipitated a split in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), with Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tanzania pledging military support to Kabila. While the Zimbabweans appeared to have been first off the mark, Angola has the key role if Kabila is to be saved.

It has troops in Congo (Brazzaville), across a 1km-wide stretch of the Congo River, and troops in the nearby Angolan oil enclave of Cabinda, either side of the decisive corridor from the sea to Kinshasa.

Angola could sucessfully hold this corridor where the decisive battle for control of Kinshasa is likely to take place, 30km from the Angolan border. The ports of Boma and Matadi recently captured by the rebels are both on the Angolan border.

But, with the need to commit its army against Unita, which is capturing towns and launching attacks on a daily basis, how far can Angola afford to get involved in propping up its ally?

The defence of Kabila is a practical necessity for the Angolans – they helped Kabila gain power last year in a bid to close off Unita’s supply lines.

This was not as effective as the Luanda government had hoped, and led to severe criticisms of Kabila – and even rumours over the past few days that Angola was supporting the rebels in the hope that they could do what Kabila has failed to do.

This may be because Katangese militants, whom Angola have supported in the past, have recently joined the rebels.

A government friendly to Unita in the Congo – or chaos in the border regions – would allow much more freedom of action for Unita. It might even allow the re-opening of supply routes through Kinshasa, replacing those now going through Zambia and other countries.

Although Unita have denied contact with the rebels in the Congo, the timing of the rebellion has raised questions about their involvement.

The military aid and support from SADC countries exposed a major rift between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and President Nelson Mandela over armed intervention in the Congo.

The SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security was established as a successor to the Frontline States and is seen by Mugabe as a platform on which Zimbabwe can continue to exercise regional clout, and as a counterweight to South African hegemony.

The way Mugabe has used the organ to prop up Kabila has confirmed the worst fears of SADC members, including South Africa, which opposed the organ being permanently based in Harare.

South Africa denied that Mugabe’s initiative even fell under the auspicies of SADC. Said presidential representive Parks Mankahlana: “There is no way that the people who met at Victoria Falls and Harare can have met under the auspices of the SADC. But I am not saying South Africa disapproves of that meeting and whoever went to it. They just were not SADC meetings.”

In supplying Kabila with troops and weaponry the Zimbabwean leader is marking out a new sphere of influence to compensate for the loss of Mozambique to South African intrusion. He is also asserting his primacy as a regional leader, shunting aside Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfred Nzo’s peace moves in East Africa. Official sources in Harare have been suggesting South Africa is an inappropriate mediator given its support for Rwanda.

Meanwhile, the Namibian government this week maintained a stony silence in the face of allegations by local newspapers that it has become actively involved in supplying arms and logistics to Kabila.

Die Republikein, Namibia’s largest daily newspaper, reported that two Boeing 707 aircraft, bearing the registration marks of an Angolan air- charter outfit, had landed at Namibia’s Grootfontein airbase last weekend to load 21 tons of arms, ammunition and war matriel.

This followed Kabila’s visit to Luanda for a brief emergency meeting with presidents Jos Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Sam Nujoma of Namibia, who is leading the SADC monitoring group. Kabila returned to Kinshasa after the talks in Angola, with the promise of arms to defend himself.

Meanwhile, a representative for the rebels, who now call themselves the Congolese Movement for Democracy (RCD), stated a few days ago that their intent is not necessarily to remove Kabila, but to ensure democracy in the Congo. Kabila has been less than successful as a leader of a country whose need for recontruction is so wide-ranging, and accusations of nepotism and self-enrichment have been levelled at the man.

Kinshasa remains on a razor’s edge, without electricity and running water. The sense of siege is much greater than when Kabila’s rebels marched in last year.

Clusters of uniformed men patrol on foot, clinging tightly to their rifles, uncertain of their future as rebel forces threaten the capital and Kabila’s hold on power. And thousands of fresh recruits, still dressed in rags, mill about on streets whose names still date from the last fallen dictatorship.

“We want to fight to save our nation from the Rwandans,” said Pierre Kunga, an 18-year-old who is one of the hordes of recent recruits who haunt the streets at night but who have not been given arms. “This is no time to debate the flaws of our leaders. Our country is about to be swallowed up.”

Kabila has turned out thousands of volunteers in recent days for what he says will be a “long and popular war” against a Rwandan-backed rebellion. But these new “fighters”, many of them teenagers trained with nothing more than rusty car mufflers to use as mock guns, are unlikely to be play a decisive role.

The leaders of the rebellion are trying to present an ethnically diverse face to the country to avoid the hostility a Tutsi-led regime would attract, but few Congolese say they would accept any government that they believe is installed by Rwanda.

The RCD rebels, despite their professed democratic intentions – the well-worn catchphrase of military intervention in Africa – are backed by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. On the the face of it, the composition and backing of the RCD do not suggest a natural set of Unita allies, either.

Some of these Hutu Interahamwe militias joined up with Unita in Angola last year, together with Zairean troops loyal to Mobutu Sese Seko – mainly his presidential guard. Some of Mobutu’s troops have now joined the rebels, in a strange alliance of forces, which may aid Unita, but the Hutu link suggests that what will aid Unita is instability, rather than a new government in the Congo.

The RCD is led by Commander Jean- Pierre Ondakane, once of the Congo army. He denied claims that the rebellion is led by Banyamulenge Tutsis who first began the struggle against Mobutu. These claims have little credibility, and South African Minister of Defence Joe Modise and Nzo left Pretoria on Tuesday for consultations in Rwanda and Uganda to discuss their part in the rebellion with Kagame and Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni.

Kabila’s enemies are flocking to the rebel standard, whoever they are. Congo’s former minister of foreign affairs Bizima Karaha, a Tutsi himself, has joined the rebels, together with Katangese activist Emile Ilunga, who had backed Kabila, and exiled academic Ernest Wamba-dia- Wamba. Ondakane claims backing from an indiscriminate set of quarters – soldiers from Mobutu’s old army, Katangese, Banyamulenge, even Kabila’s unpaid fighters.

Nzo and Modise meanwhile met the other power in Central Africa, Museveni, on Wednesday. Several reports said Ugandan armour and troops had crossed the border into Congo to back the rebellion. The Ugandan government denied the claim despite its intervention in 1996 along with Rwandan troops.