Jun 1, 1997

Zaire's Bitter Lessons are for Everyone US complicity in decades of dictatorship, plunder of fragile new nation | By Jerry Meldon | published in the Peacework Journal, June 1997


Zaire's Bitter Lessons are for Everyone

US complicity in decades of dictatorship,

plunder of fragile new nation

Jerry Mellon is chairman of the electrical [sic] engineering department at Tufts University. This editorial first appeared in the Boston Globe, May 4, 1997, when the Republic of Congo was still known as Zaire.

William Colby, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, conceded at a 1984 panel discussion on intelligence oper­ations that "the Bay of Pigs was certainly a disaster." But he urged, don't ignore the successes: "Consider our program in the Congo in the early 1960s."

This illustrates the difficulty of defending the CIA: the failures have been bad, but the successes have been worse.

The principal result of that US program in the Congo, the ravaged country known today as Zaire, was seizure of power by Mobutu Sese Seko. Washington supported Mobutu's coup as a way to protect Africa's third-largest nation from becoming a po­tential Russian beachhead. However, the by­product of Mobuto's hold on the country—the stillbirth of Congolese democracy—proved an ongoing disaster for the locals.

With Zaire's rebel forces rapidly ap­proaching the capital city of Kinshasa—and with Mobutu and rebel leader Laurent Kabi­la set to discuss a transfer of power—the lessons to be learned from the United States' mistakes in Zaire could not be clearer. And a nearly forgotten bit of history could not be more relevant.

When Belgium in 1960 relinquished formal control over its colony—then called the Belgian Congo—the country was with­out human resources. There wasn't a single native doctor, lawyer, architect, or military officer resident, and only a handful of uni­versity graduates. The value of the Congo was in its natural resources—copper, cobalt, and diamonds—and despite Belgium's agreement to give up control of the coun­try, it had no intention of forsaking that huge natural bounty.

When free elections brought the left-leaning Patrice Lumumba to power, Con­golese soldiers mutinied, and Belgian min­ing giant Union Miniere bankrolled a se­cessionist movement in the mineral-rich province of Katanga (now Shaba). The vio­lence and instability drove Lumumba to Washington for help.

But in July 1960, when Lumumba arrived, he was greeted coolly by the Eisen­hower Administration. The White House had already targeted two other foreigners who had proved troublesome—Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran, who had threatened US oil interests, and Guatemala's Jacobo Ar­benz, who did the same to the Boston-based United Fruit Co.—declaring both commu­nists and eventually having the CIA over­throw their freely elected governments.

Although the US Embassy in the Con­go had reported that while Lumumba may have been an opportunist, he was clearly not a communist, the Eisenhower administra­tion wanted nothing to do with him. It con­cluded that Lumumba was a "very difficult if not impossible person to deal with... dan­gerous to the peace and safety of the world," according to Undersecretary of State Dou­glas Dillon. John Stockwell, a former CIA Angola task force chief who was raised in the Congo, speculates that Lumumba sim­ply lost his cool after experiencing firsthand the segregated washrooms in Washington.

After getting a cold shoulder in Wash­ington, Lumumba turned to Moscow, which provided him limited assistance. That was all Washington needed to know. Lu­mumba soon fell victim to a CIA-engineered coup led by his erstwhile army chief of staff, Mobutu. Stockwell later recalled how a CIA colleague recounted "an adventure in Lumumbashi driving about town after curfew with Patrice Lumumba's body in the trunk of his car, trying to decide what to do with it."

Lumumba had hoped to use his nation's untapped mineral wealth to raise his com­patriots from abject poverty. Mobutu, on the other hand, chose as his role model Bel­gium's King Leopold II, who for 23 years at the turn of the century treated the Congo as his private plantation, and its citizens as effective slave laborers. In some respects, Mobutu would outdo even Leopold, shar­ing the Congo's resources with Western cor­porations and stashing billions in Swiss bank accounts while his constituents continued to starve.

But Mobutu, although a survivor, also played dangerous games, often at Washing­ton's behest. In the mid-'70s, as Portugal was about to grant independence to neighbor­ing Angola, Secretary of State Henry Kiss­inger persuaded President Ford to oppose the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, the likely victor in a three-way struggle for pow­er. And Mobutu had long had his eyes on Angola's Cabinda oilfields. It only took a few million in cash to persuade Mobutu to funnel CIA support to Angolans opposing the liberation movement. But despite addi­tional assistance from South Africa, those forces, led by Jonas Savimbi, were eventu­ally defeated.

Since then, Savimbi has refused to abide by a succession of peace accords brokered by the US or the UN. He had little motiva­tion to do so in the '80s, when the White House included him in its list of "freedom fighters" worthy of assistance. Indeed, Pres­ident Reagan praised Mobutu as "a voice of good sense and good will" as Mobutu con­tinued to funnel US aid to Savimbi in a war of land mines that has made Angola the prosthetic capital of Africa.

But Mobutu made the fatal mistake of offering refuge and support in Zaire to hun­dreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus af­ter their 1994 genocidal campaign against Rwandan Tutsis, and the Hutus' flight across the border. The anger of Zaire's Tutsi popu­lation, and the long-standing animosity of Mobutu's neighbors in Rwanda, Angola, Burundi, and Uganda, have fueled a pow­erful Zairian liberation movement that has allegedly slaughtered Hutu refugees in its path, and is led by Kabila, a longtime Mobu­tu opponent and gold smuggler.

This time, Washington is not going to come to Mobutu's rescue. Indeed, it's been distancing itself from Mobutu for several years, shutting down its billion-dollar pipe­line to him in 1990, and denying him a visa in 1993. At most, the US is willing to me­diate a safe exit for the man it once herald­ed. Last week, the Clinton Administration urged Mobutu to step down and Bill Rich­ardson, the US ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a letter to Mobutu call­ing for a peaceful transition. "We believe the era of Mobutu is over," said a State De­partment spokesman. "The institutions he has built are crumbling, before his eyes and everyone else's eyes."

The United States has realized, 35 years too late, that the emperor has no clothes—only armor.