Courtesy Reuters

Critical Countries: Zaire: The Unending Crisis

Karl Marx once wrote that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Zaïre in 1978 appeared an apt illustration of this aphorism, except the sequence was inverted; farce preceded tragedy. The 1977 invasion (hereafter Shaba I), from Angolan bases, of 1,500 raiders of the Front National pour la Libération du Congo (FNLC), lineal descendants of the old Katanga gendarmes, had the appearance of comic opera. They swept through southwestern Shaba with almost no resistance, then inexplicably stopped at the gates of the rich prize of Kolwezi, to evaporate with few armed encounters before the Moroccan-reinforced Zaïre Army.

In 1978, 4,500 FNLC irregulars seized Kolwezi in a well-executed operation (Shaba II) and were driven out only by a Franco-Belgian military invervention with American logistical support. This episode was in every respect a tragedy: thousands of Zaïrians perished, either in the short-lived FNLC occupation, the Foreign Legion reconquest, or Zaïrian "pacification" operations. Nearly all the 2,000 European residents fled, and at least 130 were killed. The mining industry, accounting for 75-80 percent of copperbelt output, was crippled for months. In the short-to-middle run, full operations would only be possible under the protection of non-Zaïrian security forces, adding Zaïre to the depressing list of African states whose survival depends on foreign troops (Chad, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Angola, among others).

While Shaba I appeared only a short-lived episode, Shaba II laid bare the deeper aspects of what appears to be a permanent crisis confronting Zaïre. What had once seemed a powerful and reasonably effective regime is overwhelmed by a deepening social crisis provoked by the pauperization of the mass of the populace, evaporating internal legitimacy and external credibility, a crushing debt burden, and the transparent unreliability of its numerous armed forces. The complex impasse was made more intractable by its internationalization. A most remarkable array of forces was activated: Americans, French, Belgians, Saudis, Egyptians, Chinese, Senegalese, Moroccans, Gabonese, Togolese, Angolans, Cubans, East Germans, Soviets, in one way or

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