Mobutu Flees Zaïre

In the end, he stole quietly away, not quite like a thief in the night but certainly without the noisy flourish that once trumpeted all the movements of Mobutu Sese Seko.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 26, 1997

Mobutu Flees Zaïre

In the end, he stole quietly away, not quite like a thief in the night but certainly without the noisy flourish that once trumpeted all the movements of Mobutu Sese Seko. Beset by failing health and fast-approaching rebels, Zaïre's 66-year-old president fled Kinshasa last week, meekly abandoning the capital of the country he has misruled for most of the last 31 years. No wailing sirens nor motorcycle escorts, not even the usual long black Cadillac, signalled his progress along the banks of the Congo River shortly after morning dawned last Friday. He travelled anonymously, behind the smoked-glass windows of a Japanese-manufactured sport utility vehicle, from his elegant Kinshasa mansion to the city's airport. There, he boarded a private jet, bound first for an isolated jungle palace, then apparently abroad. And when news of his departure finally reached the streets of Kinshasa, there was widespread rejoicing. "We're very, very happy," beamed a youthful Blaise Bomba as he celebrated with a cheering crowd of exuberant young men. "It means a new beginning for Zaïre."

Of that, there is no doubt. But precisely what kind of future awaits the 44 million inhabitants of Africa's third-largest country remains an open question. When Mobutu finally bowed to the inevitable last week, he left behind a destitute land - its mineral riches pillaged by the president and his cronies, its spirit corrupted by three decades of unrestrained kleptocracy. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who declared himself president on Saturday, inherits a shambles: a country with few roads and fewer railroads, virtually no health care, a crumbling school system, a central bank without cash, civil servants who have not been paid for weeks, garbage that has not been collected for months. "Even without a war," noted one Western diplomat, "this is a place that just bumps along on its bottom."

At least in the short term, Kabila holds the key to Zaïre's future. In just seven months, the portly commander of the once obscure Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaïre has led his ragtag army across as much terrain as there is in Western Europe. But late last week, even as his troops marched into Kinshasa after ousting Mobutu, his ultimate intentions regarding the country remained largely unknown. There have been some hints. Kabila has, for instance, vowed to restore Zaïre's old name, Congo. He has certainly shown no reluctance so far in cutting lucrative deals with foreign mining companies - including Vancouver-based Tenke Mining Corp. - intent on exploiting the mineral wealth in Shaba province in southern Zaïre. More importantly, he has begun to surround himself with a core of key advisers who will likely assume major cabinet roles in his new government.

Intriguingly, many of those now making up Kabila's inner circle are young Zaïrean intellectuals, forced into exile by Mobutu. Kabila's foreign affairs chief, for example, is a South African-trained medical doctor, Bizima Karaha. The rebels' justice commissioner is Mwenze Kongolo, a criminologist from Philadelphia. Mwana Mawampanga, until recently an economics professor at the University of Kentucky, is now in charge of economics and finance.

If details are beginning to emerge about the people around Kabila, however, the rebel leader himself remains something of an enigma, an aging revolutionary who fought as a young Marxist beside Che Guevara before disappearing for the next two decades into the jungled mountains of eastern Zaïre. Although it was abundantly evident that Kabila had won the all-important backing of the United States in his struggle to overthrow the autocrat who was once a major U.S. client, it is also clear that Kabila still worries the Americans. "We are at a time of testing for Mr. Kabila," acknowledged U.S. state department spokesman Nicholas Burns last week. "He does not have a track record as a government leader. He has held a variety of political and ideological positions throughout his long career in opposition."

Washington, along with Canada and almost all other U.S. allies in the West, had sought two commitments from Kabila. In the short run, there were intense efforts, led by South African President Nelson Mandela, to avoid bloodshed in the final stages of the struggle. Although Mobutu's three leading generals told the Zaïrean strongman last week that they could not defend Kinshasa, questions remained about the reaction of the notoriously ill-disciplined soldiers in Zaïre's regular army. These troops include 2,000 loyal and well-armed members of the army's Special Presidential Division. "We are at this stage working with all the parties so that we can avoid bloodshed," said U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as she attempted to stay on top of the rapidly unfolding events in the Central African State. "We believe that his [Mobutu's] departure now opens the way for a peaceful resolution of the military conflict." In the end, the rebels' march into Kinshasa met no resistance from Mobutu's men.

In the longer term, Kabila is also being pressured to pursue a course that would eventually lead to democratic elections in Zaïre. As Mobutu was still in the act of fleeing the capital, U.S. President Bill Clinton quickly pledged to "do what we can to support Africa in taking one of the largest and most important nations in Africa and promoting a democratic transition. That is what I think is important."

Even if Kabila were so inclined, staging elections in Zaïre would be no easy task. Merely conducting a census would be a logistical nightmare. Despite the problems, some form of democratic rule would probably be welcomed in the country. "We've lived under one dictator, we don't want another one," said one anxious resident of Kinshasa, a 33-year-old father of two who did not want to reveal his name as he nervously glanced around the capital city's streets, watching out for marauding soldiers. Few others in Zaïre would likely disagree.

Maclean's May 26, 1997