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.
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