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 another, were drawn into the act. Most of these actors were reacting to stimuli that had nothing to do with Zaïre: the decadent imperialism of the capitalist powers, social-imperialism of the Soviet Union, expansive communist imperialism, in the diverse metaphors of different parties.

In the process, different African crises flowed together. The remarkable scale of the Soviet-Cuban plunge in the Horn horrified Western states and conservative oil powers of the Middle East, leading to a compulsive desire to confront Moscow and Havana on whatever terrain could be found. The specter loomed of an impending Zimbabwe impasse where the West could neither back the unworkable internal settlement, induce compromise on its "Anglo-American plan," nor wholly support the Patriotic Front, opening the way to Soviet-Cuban military backing for the latter with African acquiescence. The continued operation from Zaïrian bases of northern Angolan (FNLA) and Cabindan (FLEC) dissident movements, and the recently resumed flow of arms through Zaïre for the central and southern Angolan UNITA insurgents were deeply frustrating to Angola and its Cuban and Soviet backers. Morocco ventured its units partly in the hope of gaining greater Western support in its own annexation of the Western Sahara, as well as in opposition to Soviet policy. In the esoteric language of international power politics, a cacophony of "messages" were being telegraphed to sundry adversaries and allies, whose only common theme was their utter lack of relevance to the real crisis in Zaïre.

The time has come to peer through the fog of international politics and look clearly at the real dimensions of the Zaïrian tragedy. Contrary to the ill-considered declarations of President Carter and other Administration spokesmen, Shaba II was not spawned in Moscow, gestated in Havana, and hatched in Luanda; while there has undoubtedly been a degree of involvement by Soviets, East Germans, Cubans, and Angolans with the FNLC, the initiative was primarily the Shabans'; and more broadly, its capacity to attract sympathy within Zaïre and abroad derives from the political weakness of the regime and the poisonous social atmosphere in the country. Most African states have clusters of dissidents residing abroad; those who retain a reasonable effectiveness, whatever their ideological persuasion, are not greatly threatened (for example, Ivory Coast and Cameroon on the one hand, Tanzania and Mozambique on the other). The key questions to be explored are why the Mobutu regime is so vulnerable, and what policy responses are appropriate for the United States and Western powers.


As recently as five years ago, Zaïre would have belonged on the list of secure and stable African countries. While the regime has always had its critics, it had real domestic strength and a generally positive external image. Judged against the contrasting experience of the turbulent 1960-65 period, Mobutu appeared to have created a new and broadly legitimate political order. Many of his significant political opponents abroad had returned; while domestic support never matched the self-laudatory Kinshasa propaganda, there was quite genuine acquiescence to the Mobutist framework, and equally tangible appreciation for the elimination of the endemic fear, violence and insecurity of the first republic years. Internationally, Zaïre was no longer an object of scorn and ridicule, but a respected member of the African family of nations. Inflation had been halted; there was by 1970 a stable, convertible currency, negligible debt, and ample foreign exchange reserves. Real wages went up from 1968 to 1971 for the first time since early 1961; the GNP surged well beyond the pre-independence level after years of decline; and even agricultural production seemed on the way up. A massive inflow of Western capital was at hand. When President Mobutu spoke in expansive terms of a rendezvous with abundance in 1980, his vision of a manifest destiny of grandeur and prosperity was quite believable.

The key to this remarkable recovery appeared to lie in the political kingdom. In the collective consciousness, the first republic which Mobutu easily swept away in 1965 had become a veritable Hobbesian state of nature, an unending zone of disorder where life was nasty, brutish and short. For Hobbesian pathology, Hobbesian prescription: a leviathan state was resurrected from the ashes of the first republic. Conveniently at hand was the centralized, authoritarian heritage of the colonial state. To this was added a new political superstructure: a single national political party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR), stretching from the President outward to forcibly embrace every citizen; and an ideology, authenticity (later personalized into "Mobutism"), high in symbolic connotations of Zaïrean culture, though low in specific content.

By 1970, Mobutu had achieved complete personal ascendancy over the system he fashioned. He could free himself from the necessity to listen to advice from old first republic politicians who had backed his rise, ranking army officers, Western diplomats, or international financial advisers. The initial presidential secretariat of young, often radical, university graduate technocrats was replaced by courtiers. The aggregation of personal power was given juridical form in the 1974 Constitution, one of the most remarkable legal documents ever devised. The President headed the MPR, defined as "the nation politically organized"; the state was an appendage of the party. The President presided over the Council of Ministers, the legislature, and Supreme Judicial Council, as well as the party Political Bureau. In effect, the members of all these bodies were named by the President, whose words and thoughts cumulatively constituted the official doctrine of the country (Mobutism), and had the force of law. "Deviationism" was a constitutional offense. Policy pronouncements, formulated in isolation, were increasingly divorced from implementation, and for that matter reality.

The seemingly secure domestic base made possible an ambitious diplomacy. The bedrock support from the United States and - more ambiguously, with many oscillations - Belgium was a point of departure. The investment Klondike of the early 1970s was exploited to obtain expanding state revenues, and a diversity of Western interests tied to the longevity of the regime.


With his Western flank thus protected politically and economically, Mobutu could diversify his image and connections. A pilgrimage to Peking in January 1973 brought a pledge of $100 million in agricultural aid, significant mainly for its symbolic impact. North Koreans were brought in in 1975 to train new army units. A dramatic gesture toward the Arab world was made on October 4, 1973, when Mobutu announced at the United Nations his rupture with Israel (two days before the Yom Kippur War). The regime sought to shed its Western client reputation with more orthodox Third World stances on southern African and North-South issues. In private sessions at the September 1973 Algiers Afro-Asian summit, Mobutu pledged early decisive action to affirm the economic sovereignty of his country, promises fulfilled in the subsequent "Zaïrianization" and "radicalization" decrees of 1973.



From 1973 on, things fell apart, internally and externally. At first, many saw the difficulties as mere short-term calamities of conjuncture. In May-June 1974, the copper price, which had skyrocketed to record peaks in 1973-74 of over $1.40 per pound on the New York market, fell as low as $0.53, then stuck around the $0.60 mark, below production costs for a number of producers in Zaïre and elsewhere. The 1973 oil price rise hit Zaïre hard, as did rising grain prices. In August 1975, the Angolan Benguela railway, the cheapest export route for the Shaba treasure trove of mineral output, was severed for an indefinite period. In 1974-75 there was a $500-million turnaround in the terms of trade for Zaïre, which was a tremendous blow for a three-billion-dollar GNP.

Despite the significance of these conjunctural factors, they were only a part of the explanation. The deepening crisis is also tied to the very nature of the political system, and the escalating inequalities generated by its action. Many of these flaws have been identified publicly by President Mobutu himself, whose speeches at mass rallies are often remarkably candid and lucid self-criticisms of the system. On January 4, 1975, denouncing the personal enrichment of top political officials, Mobutu called on them to repatriate foreign bank accounts and turn their businesses over to the state, announcing he was "declaring war on the bourgeoisie." (Peace admittedly swiftly returned, as a February 1, 1975 speech conceded that stolen property could be kept, if it was invested in the country.) On July 1, 1977, the political defects of the regime were analyzed, and competitive elections promised for a fraction of the party Political Bureau, parliament, and urban councils. "Our system risks asphyxiation," declared Mobutu, "I believe the voice of the people is often stifled."

The most far-reaching critique of all was contained in his address to the MPR Party Congress in November 1977. Diagnosing what he termed the "Zaïrian sickness" (mal zaïrois), the political realm was portrayed as a cocoon of corruption, within which power and authority were transformed into winged wealth.

To sum it up, everything is for sale, everything is bought in our country. And in this traffic, holding any slice of public power constitutes a veritable exchange instrument, convertible into illicit acquisition of money or other goods, or the evasion of all sorts of obligations.

Worse, even the use, by an individual, of his most legitimate right is subjected to an invisible tax, openly pocketed by individuals.

Thus, an audience with an official, enrolling children in school, obtaining school certificates, access to medical care, a seat on the plane, an import licence, a diploma, among other things, are all subject to this tax which is invisible, yet known to the whole world.

Accordingly, our society risks losing its political character, to become one vast marketplace, ruled by the basest laws of traffic and exploitation.

To understand the "Zaïrian sickness" and the broader crisis of which it is a symptom, the nature of the state and its impact on society must be examined. To begin with, the state is very costly; in 1975, its expenditures were 44.3 percent of GDP, and 56.3 percent in 1976. In 1977, the deficit alone was 12 percent of GDP, very high figures for a developing country. While at the peak of the Mobutu years, a respectable proportion of government outlays were for public investment, increasingly these outlays represent mainly state payrolls. Government expenditures skyrocketed from 800 million Zaïres in 1971 to 1.87 billion Zaïres in 1974.1

Some other budgetary peculiarities of the Mobutu regime curtail the public impact of state outlays. Between 15 and 20 percent of operating budget outlays, and 30 percent of capital expenditures circuit through the presidency, without budgetary control. These disbursements are tied to the patrimonial nature of the regime; their exceptional scale has been the target of international critics of Zaïrian finances for years.

The impact of these outlays is problematic as well. A 1971 estimate suggested that 60 percent of the 1971 operating budget was either lost, or diverted to purposes other other than those intended.2 Some 22 percent of the budget is absorbed by the educational system (1975), whose remarkable quantitative expansion is not matched by its qualitative results. The next largest budget item (aside from the presidency) is the army. Despite much costly equipment acquired for it (for example, 17 Mirage jets in 1975), the inability of this 70,000-man force to protect the most critical economic installations in the country was dramatically revealed in Shaba I and II, confirming President Mobutu's December 30, 1974 stigmatization of the security forces as "costly and unproductive." About half the very modest health outlays go to two medical installations in Kinshasa, while 75 percent of the population is not served by public health facilities. Public works expenditures, primarily for roads, are consumed in a still-losing combat against deterioration of the highway network. While a few major links have been paved since independence (Kinshasa-Matadi, Kinshasa-Kikwit), the estimate of usable roads has shrunk from 140,000 kilometers to 20,000.

The corruption phenomenon so vigorously denounced by President Mobutu in his "Zaïrian sickness" speech is, of course, but the local manifestation of a universal problem. The President, angered at the bad press his regime received after Shaba II, lashed out at American critics, reminding them of the ITT, Lockheed and similar unsavory affairs. There is, however, a matter of scale - and here it is beyond dispute that the "Zaïrian sickness" has reached virulent proportions. When inflation took off in 1973, public sector employees suffered a swift erosion in the value of their nominal wages, and the "invisible tax" (graft), which was already widespread, became well-nigh universal.

What has been especially costly to regime legitimacy is the impunity with which members of what are known as the "presidential family," in and out of formal positions in the public sector, have been able to accumulate large fortunes.3 One recent study showed that the Shaba Regional Commissioner was grossing $100,000 per month in 1975, of which only two percent was his nominal salary.4 The size of the presidential fortune as well has been a matter of controversy in and out of Zaïre: a South African publication recently listed his property holdings in Switzerland, Belgium and elsewhere as $25 million, and cash holdings in Swiss banks at about $70 million.5

A dreary example of the impact of the state, both in its formal and "invisible" fiscal drain, lies in the 1976-77 coffee affair. The Brazilian frost in 1975, which caught the market without stocks, drove the New York green coffee price from the $0.60 per pound area, where it had oscillated in the early 1970s, to well over three dollars for much of 1976 and 1977. With reported production in these years of 80,000 tons, the potential foreign exchange bonanza for Zaïre could have been $400 million, all the more precious because the foreign exchange component in coffee production is negligible. This would have largely compensated for the disastrous drop in copper revenues.

However, while coffee foreign exchange earnings did increase from 27 million Zaïres in 1975 to 80 million in 1976, the latter figure should have been 272 million Zaïres.6 The differential is represented by diverse fraudulent trading transactions (for example, under-graded coffee, fictitiously back-dated future delivery contracts) carried out by firms tied to a number of top figures in the regime entourage, including the presidential conglomerate CELZA. The "errors in judgement" that allegedly led to the sacking of highly regarded Bank of Zaïre Director Sambwa Pida in mid-1977 were partly related to central bank efforts to halt this exchange hemorrhage.

The distribution of benefits from the coffee bonanza is quite revealing. The producer price per kilo of dried robusta cherry, set in 1972 at nine makuta (then officially $0.18), was raised to 14.3 makuta in early 1976. When allowance is made for the 50 percent weight loss in further processing, this would be valued at 30 makuta per kilo. Regular export taxes, obviously levied only on that valuation officially exported, would have averaged 1.37 Zaïres per kilo, to which was added an export surcharge of 65 makuta. To this legal fiscal charge was added the "invisible tax" represented by fraudulent export schemes, which was at least one Zaïre per kilo. In the last analysis, this tax was levied on the peasant as the price increase received was less than the inflation rate, and the entire benefit of the world market price surge was diverted to the state and the politico-commercial class.

Two other disabilities of the political system require brief mention. As its legitimacy eroded, there appeared to be a swing to greater repression in 1977-78, betokened by the public execution of 14 accused leaders of a millennial rural uprising in Bandundu in February 1978; these hangings were accompanied by military reprisals in the villages concerned, which took at least several hundred lives. In March 1978, 13 civilian and military figures were executed on charges of conspiracy. Shortly thereafter, an estimated 250 middle-level officers were purged from the army. These were largely from regions deemed suspect, particularly Shaba, Kasai and Bandundu. Finally, the post-Shaba I and II army "pacification" campaigns created for the first time in Zaïrian history a large rural refugee exodus into Angola, which some estimate at more than 200,000.

The heightened repression was really a new departure. While the harshness of the state at the rural periphery had not changed much from the colonial pattern, in its years of prosperity the Mobutu regime bore no relationship to terror-ridden governments like Chile, Argentina, Cambodia, or Uganda. Its pressures for conformity on intellectuals and elites were subtle, and left them some latitude. Possibly the latest amnesty measures suggest a return to a milder pattern.

The personalistic nature of government and the concentration of power in the presidency have left the state prone to colossal policy miscalculations. The most serious of these were the 1973-74 Zaïrianization and "radicalization" measures, and the Angolan intervention. In the former instance, a wide array of commercial, plantation or industrial enterprises were confiscated from foreign owners and distributed to the political class, or operated by the state. Those measures were a calamitous failure; not only did they disrupt commerce and create widespread shortages, but the unseemly spectacle of the race for booty by the political class cost the regime dearly in its legitimacy. In 1976, the regime had the courage to confess the total fiasco of this experiment, and to invite the former owners back.

The Angolan adventure was a second particularly costly blunder, encouraged by the United States. Several Zaïre Army battalions were committed to this battle, and disintegrated before the Cubans in November-December 1975. This action, unpopular in the army and the country, discredited and isolated Zaïre in the African arena, undoing years of careful diplomacy.

These diverse liabilities of the political system have high costs. Most important of all is the mass pauperization, which has reached frightening proportions. The plight of wage earners, whose numbers have stagnated in recent years, is shown in Table I. Since 1976, there has been a further decline of roughly 40 percent, as the 60-80 percent annual inflation rate continues unabated. In fact, comparison with wage movement data for the colonial period indicates real wages are below the 1910 level, and stand at the lowest point since any estimates have been made.

The rural pattern is identical. Table II gives a clear demonstration of the erosion of the real value of commercialized crops. As prices are fixed by the government, the decline in peasant well-being is directly attributable to state action. These figures, however, understate the full dimensions of the agrarian crisis. The experience of the early 1960s demonstrated that a major consequence of sustained inflation is to draw goods out of the countryside, as traders can dispose of their stocks at high prices and profits in the towns. State policy tends to sustain the pattern of the buying monopolies that characterized colonial agriculture; buyers often force villagers to accept well below the official prices if they are to come at all. Ubiquitous rural roadblocks erected by army units, party youth groups, or local officials make it difficult for peasants to carry their own produce to town without losing it. The fiscal impact of the state is very heavy; while precise calculations are not possible, if we add to the legal levies of local authorities, which may amount to 15-20 percent of cash revenues, de facto taxes implicit in export fiscal charges, artificially low prices fixed by government, and the "invisible tax" phenomenon, at least 50 percent of the meager revenues of the villagers are extracted from them. State agricultural services are imprisoned in the mentality of coercion inherited from the colonial period and paralyzed by lack of transport. When the government provides almost no services except primary schools to the village, the cynicism and distrust with which the state is viewed should be no surprise.

These figures make clear why production of most agricultural commodities is well below 1959 levels. Agriculture, which accounted for one-third of GDP in the late 1950s, had fallen to 18 percent by 1975, or less than 10 percent discounting the hypothetical value of subsistence output. The cost of food imports, negligible in 1959, rose to $300 million last year, or one-third of all foreign exchange




(1960 = 100)

Date Wage Index Price Index Real Wage Index

June 1, 1960 100 100 100

May 1, 1964 383 575.9 67

October 1, 1971 960 1,486.2 64

September 5, 1975 1,274 3,099.5 41

March 27, 1976 1,530 5,888.1 25

SOURCE: Union Nationale des Travailleurs Zaïrois, "Position concernant la politique des salaires," 1977, cited in Jean Ryneman, "Comment le régime Mobutu a sapé ses propres fondements," Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1977.



(June 1967 = 100)

Crop 1960 1970 1974

Maize, Shaba/Kasai 114.9 100.7 96

Manioc, Western zone 126.4 75.6 36

Rice paddy 157.9 109.2 104

Beans 137.9 90.7 43.2

Cotton (1st quality) 172.4 85.0 67.5

Palm oil (all except Bas Zaïre) 241.4 79.3 64.8

Robusta coffee, Bandundu 195.4 90.7 64.4

Arabica coffee 202 93.9 52

SOURCE: Guy Gran, "Policy Making and Historic Process: Zaïre's Permanent Development Crisis," Annual Meetings, African Studies Association, Boston, November 1976.

Outlays. Palm oil and cotton, two of the major pre-independence exports, are no longer produced in sufficient quantities to reliably meet the needs of the domestic market.

The centralization of state power in Kinshasa has been accompanied by a pathological concentration of economic resources; the capital is a gigantic suction pump drawing wealth out of the hinterland. President Mobutu noted in the "Zaïrian sickness" discourse that "three-quarters of the money in circulation in the country is concentrated at Kinshasa; gas, food, pharmaceutical products imported from abroad remain at Kinshasa, while the exchange required to pay for them virtually all comes from the sweat of the industrial and agricultural populations of the interior." Of 92 investment projects approved in 1972, some 61 were situated in Kinshasa. Some 90 percent of energy consumption is in Kinshasa and the Shaba copperbelt. In 1972, 303 of 334 Zaïrian doctors, and 40 percent of all doctors worked in Kinshasa.

The catalogue of inequality should also record the high level of remuneration of expatriate personnel. The one percent of wage or salary earning employees who are expatriates still accounted for 30 percent of total wages and salaries paid in the early 1970s. Further, those working for larger companies were protected by indexing from the ravages of inflation, which Zaïran workers were assuredly not.

All of this adds up to a crisis of truly desperate proportions. For the last three years, the economy has experienced negative growth rates (-6.1 percent in 1975, -4.3 percent in 1976, -1.9 percent in 1977), with a sharp fall due in 1978 as a consequence of Shaba II. Inflation continues out of control, fueled above all by huge government deficits, which over the last five years have exceeded revenues by one-third. An enormous external debt has built up: extravagant borrowing for a grandiose development program, many of whose projects have doubtful prospects, was facilitated by aggressive lending by Western banks and contractors in the early 1970s. The result is three billion dollars of foreign obligations, with debt service liabilities in 1977 that were 43.4 percent of export earnings, and 49.5 percent of government revenues. Translated into human terms, the impact is mass impoverishment. Politically, the cost has been an evaporation of legitimacy at home, and of credibility abroad.


How then is a regime so beset with calamity on all sides able to survive at all? While greatly weakened, the regime has some assets, which make it risky to discount wholly its capacity for survival. In the long run, there is the underlying solidity of the resource base, and the ever-flickering hope that the long-awaited upturn in copper prices is just around the corner. Indeed, the economic potential of the country is awesome. Zaïre is the world's largest exporter of cobalt and industrial diamonds (60-70 percent), and has maintained over the years a world market share in copper of five to seven percent. It has very large known reserves of copper, iron, tin, nickel, and a number of rare metals, such as cadmium and colombite. Oil production began in 1975, with 25,000 barrels a day, and there is almost certainly more to be found. The lower Zaïre River contains 13 percent of the world's hydroelectric potential. The agricultural promise is equally impressive; only one percent of the land surface is now cultivated; in the diverse ecological zones, a wide variety of food and industrial crops can be produced, if policies that stimulated rather than discouraged output were pursued.

In the more immediate political realm, the regime still has some remaining capital accruing from what might be called the Spanish civil war syndrome. The 1960-65 years were a time of fear and anguish, which directly touched the lives of most. Though a declining factor, fear of the unknown, of the potential for violence within the society, remains a powerful demobilizer. This, as well as fear of the army, explains why the FNLC invasion did not trigger uprisings elsewhere during either Shaba I or Shaba II.

Second, the regime has been exceedingly skillful at dividing its opponents, and filling political space. This is achieved through continued rotation of top political personnel, and repeated purges of the army officer corps. The MPR, a cooptative and preemptive instrument, smothers the political field. It is virtually impossible for clear-cut political alternatives to emerge within the system. This fact is adeptly used by the regime as an argument for its own perpetuation; the choice it endeavors to present is Mobutu or chaos.

Third, and perhaps most important of all during the years of permanent crisis since 1974, apart from the Angolan blunder President Mobutu has demonstrated consummate political skill in attracting external support, by raising the specters of Shaba separation or Soviet-Cuban scheming. The array of backers that flew to his support, especially after Shaba II, was truly extraordinary: Chinese and South Africans, Saudis and French, Belgians and Egyptians, Gabonese and Americans, Senegalese and Moroccans. Mobutu plays upon the divisions of his external supporters as well as he exploits the rivalries of the Zaïrian opposition: French versus Belgians, Belgians versus Americans. The very bonds of economic dependency have been used with virtuosity. The regime adroitly trades on the premise that its creditors cannot afford either to see it fail, or to see Mobutu fall. Bankruptcy would be as inconvenient for the banks as for Zaïre; at each negotiating brink, a temporizing formula is found, the debt rolled over one more time, while all await the millennium of higher copper prices.


The calamitous difficulties besetting the country, by all logic, should be a potent stimulus to opposition groups, which had been virtually invisible during the prosperous years of the regime. Indeed, in the last two years anti-regime movements have become much more conspicuous abroad, though not at home. However, they remain fragmented, riven by personal, ethnic and ideological divisions. Ultimate change is far more likely to come from within.

The most potent threat is the FNLC, because it is fundamentally a military grouping that has taken on the name of a political party, has had access to sanctuary in Angola, and has been able to acquire arms. However, as a political alternative it is severely hampered by its regional base and its chameleon past, having successively served Moïse Tshombe and European capital, white mercenaries, the Portuguese, and most recently the MPLA. Many secretly hoped it might be an anti-Mobutu detonator, triggering a chain reaction of events that would bring to power not Nathaniel Mbumba, but some other national leader or perhaps a transitional regime, like that of "Field Marshall" John Okello in Zanzibar in 1964.

Antoine Gizenga, Lumumba's Vice Premier, has been at times backed by Luanda and Moscow as an ideological alternative to the present regime. He has led a succession of paper organizations, and speaking in the political metaphors of 1960, continues to insist that he alone enjoys a claim to apostolic succession to Lumumba. Mobutu's scornful characterization of him as "a stinking corpse whom only the Russians refuse to bury" is not entirely unfounded.

The Brussels-based Mouvement d'Action pour la Résurrection du Congo (MARC), led by former Provincial President and Regional Commissioner Monguya Mbenge, has some following in Belgium but little in Zaïre. The eclecticism of its leader is suggested in the dedication of his recent anti-Mobutist book to Lumumba, Kasavubu, Tshombe and Mulele - a spectrum of 1960 political figures that spans the entire ideological range.7

One insurgent movement within the country lingers from the 1964-65 wave of rebellions. Localized in the Fizi-Baraka area by Lake Tanganyika, this group - known in recent years as the Parti de la Révolution Populaire (PRP) - achieved notoriety in 1975 by kidnapping four Stanford students from a zoological research station in Tanzania. Its composition is ethnically restricted to Bembe, though its leader, Laurent Kabila, is a Shaba Luba. The movement now has only a few hundred followers, and has no possibility of enlarging its base of operations.

Otherwise, within the country political structures outside the official framework have been pulverized. In the early years of the Mobutu regime, the first republic politicians, many of whom had regional followings, were gradually replaced in positions of trust and authority by university graduates who had no independent political base. The first republic parties have long since disappeared, and no organization of any sort is permitted outside the MPR framework. Distrust is high, informer nets widespread. In these circumstances, there are many shadowy cliques, usually defined by ethnic affinities, but no organized groups. Yet latent opposition is everywhere, and scorn for the regime is much more openly expressed than it was a half-decade ago.

Repeated purges and rotation in office foster high levels of insecurity in the upper reaches of the state apparatus. Persons who become too conspicuous expose themselves to reprisal. A case in point was the treason trial in September 1977 - on unconvincing charges - of former Foreign Minister Ngunza Karl-i-Bond, which resulted in the death sentence (commuted to life imprisonment, then amnesty in July 1978). His misfortune was to be publicly mooted in the Western press as a potential successor to Mobutu in the aftermath of Shaba I.

Pressed by his Western backers for evidence of political reform, Mobutu was able in late 1977 to devise an electoral formula that permitted a noisy and expensive electoral campaign, yet preserved the inchoate structure of mass politics.The ingenious formula provided for unlimited numbers of candidates within the single-party framework; thus there were 167 contestants for the 18 elected Political Bureau seats, and over 2,000 for the 270 parliamentary places. Each voter could support only one candidate; large ethnic groups had multiple candidates, limiting communal mobilization. The campaign did distract the public and political elite for several months; the winners were generally mercantile figures, in most cases persons who acquired their initial capital in politics. However, the introduction of electoral competition made no change in the exercise of power.

Symptoms of unrest do break through the surface. In the last two years, wildcat strikes have appeared in many enterprises in Kinshasa and Shaba. In February 1977, the normally docile legislative assembly, then composed of appointed members, refused to approve the budget, denounced presidential overspending, the oppressiveness of the regional administration, corruption, and mismanagement. However, these incidents remain episodic spasms.

Formless as political life may be, the social tensions spawned by the growing chasm between the privileged and the impoverished are becoming more intense. The potential for violence is necessarily high; if it occurs, it is likely to have a large element of spontaneity, and to flow along the major fault lines of the society - class and ethnicity. The 1959 Kinshasa riots and 1964-65 rebellions are suggestive of the sorts of assaults on buildings and persons symbolically associated with the system that might transpire. The toll of lives in 1964-65 was many thousands, and the brutalities unleashed demonstrated the force of social animosities already built up, when inequalities were much less pronounced than they have since become.

Regarding ethnic conflict the situation has changed in important respects since the early 1960s. Broader regional alignments have become more salient; this trend is reinforced by the remarkable pace of diffusion of the major linguae francae, especially Lingala and Swahili. In the urban centers, these are becoming first languages for the new generations.

Although the Mobutu regime has laid great stress on combating ethnicity, over the years its regional identification has become more marked. This is not evident in regional breakdowns of ministers or Political Bureau members; numerically, the ruling organs of the state are reasonably representative. However, among the key members of the immediate presidential entourage, and especially the security forces, the Equateur predominance is manifest. This provides an additional focus for animosities toward the regime.

While ethnicity remains a latent mobilizing principle, this does not mean that fragmentation of the country is a real likelihood. There is no serious secessionist sentiment among any significant group. At the level of instrumental politics, the issue is the distribution of social resources, not separatism. Within a context of violent conflict, regional and ethnic affinities, acting in complex and unpredictable ways, would be likely to define in part the lines of cleavage.


The depth of the social impasse in Zaïre does raise the possibility of a dissolution of the fabric of social order, and an attendant political crisis whose ultimate outcome is impossible to forecast. The diversity of supporters Mobutu attracted when Shaba I and II raised the possibility of sudden political changes demonstrates that many are anxious to forestall this plunge into the unknown, even though skepticism about the capacity of the regime to reform itself is quite general. What is at stake for the outside world?

Economic interests - mainly involving debts, investments and resources - are evidently important. The most immediate pressures arise from the debt issue, especially that segment ($700-800 million) owed to Western banks. Repayment is now $175 million in arrears, and payments are being made only sporadically. The continuing need for debate on modalities of repayment, and the unending analysis of the new Citibank syndicate's $220-million loan keep the issue constantly alive. The banks are anxious to avoid any prolonged dislocation of the Shaba productive infrastructure, which generates most of the foreign exchange from which they hope to recapture at least current interest payments. They are resigned to rescheduling formulae, though in 1976 some would have preferred the bankruptcy route. More important than the size of the Zaïre debt per se are the implications formal default would have for other less-developed countries. The debt is spread among so large a number of financial institutions that no single one would be threatened by default.

Investor interests are more complex. The largest single stake, by far, is the $700 million in Belgian holdings. This is almost all pre-independence capital, and the enterprises involved have long been ambivalent toward the Mobutu regime. The roughly $200 million in direct American investment in functioning plant is divided among several ventures. The only really large undertaking, the SMTF copper venture, has 30 percent American equity, but is mostly moth-balled awaiting better copper prices. French direct investment is only $20 million; the biggest French economic stake is the $85-million domestic satellite sale, the costly Voice of Zaïre construction contract, and Mirage jet sales. The major West German involvement is the mysterious OTRAG satellite testing facility, involving broad concession rights over a 38,000-square-mile tract in northeast Shaba, for an annual 25 million Zaïres rental. Reporters who have recently visited this site, the object of embarrassing attacks in leftist publications such as Afrique-Asie, came away convinced that it was in fact merely the commercial testing site it purported to be. Whether a successor regime would respect the unusual degree of delegated sovereignty involved in this undertaking is problematic, and the West Germans have discreetly counseled a firm Western response to the FNLC invasion. The Japanese interests, which total $185 million, much of it in the SODIMIZA copper venture, have maintained a very low profile.

It is worth noting that the large influx of Western capital has been primarily in the form of debt and contractor-financed projects, rather than long-run investment. The really gigantic projects, apart from SMTF - the $500-million Inga-Shaba power line, the $300-million second phase of the Inga dam, the $200-million steel mill near Kinshasa, the $480-million GECAMINES copper expansion - were financed in one way or another through bank loans.

Of Zaïrian resources, only cobalt is currently strategically crucial to the NATO countries. Zaïre has recently accounted for 70 percent of cobalt output outside the communist states, with 90 percent of this coming from the Kolwezi mines. (The price soared from six dollars per pound to $30 in the first two months after the Kolwezi crisis, and may go higher.) The metal is used in superalloys, whose most important single use is in jet engines; with huge orders being placed for new air fleets, demand is currently high. The unusual features of cobalt make it susceptible to political manipulation in a way that most commodities are not: it is essential for a narrow range of purposes, some security-related; there is one major producer; and the metal is traded in relatively small quantities. In an Armageddon scenario, assuming a Soviet client regime in Kinshasa, the Soviet Union could afford to acquire and hold the entire Zaïrian output. While conceivable, this is not very likely. Over time it could be met by substitution, bringing into production very low-grade deposits in the United States, which could be worked if the price were high enough. In addition, the United States has stockpiled about 20,000 tons, roughly equivalent to the amount annually traded internationally.

For the most part, then, these economic calculations played a much lesser role than political motivations in the Shaba crises. The surprisingly forceful gestures of Chinese support were evidently stimulated by belief that the evil hand of social imperialism lay behind the FNLC. Pressures for strong Western action from Egyptians and Iranians were similarly inspired. Anxieties created by forward Soviet and Cuban strategies, especially in the Horn, were probably the most important factor for the several moderate African states that urged Western intervention (Senegal, Ivory Coast, Togo, Gabon).

France has cultivated a close relationship with Zaïre in recent years, particularly warm since 1975. President Giscard d'Estaing has unusual personal influence over Mobutu, which perhaps gives France a particular stake in his survival. The cultural factor is significant as well; Zaïre is the largest officially francophone state outside France (though only a small minority speak French). The current activist phase in French African policy, of which the Zaïre operation is a part, appears aimed at demonstrating that moderate African regimes, within the francophone orbit, can count upon the protection of Paris, a patronage all the more valuable, it is whispered, as Washington is unreliable. Some Belgian officials would add to the list furtive designs on the mineral wealth of Zaïre, still largely under Belgian domination despite the diversification of investment. These paranoic fears of an imminent French lunge into Zaïre, shouldering the Belgians aside, extend back to Leopold II, and resurface regularly - during the Katanga crisis in 1960, the Union Minière nationalization in 1967 and Shaba I. The demonstrated substance of these suspicions is not very great.

The Belgians were very divided by the Shaba II crisis. Skepticism about the Mobutu formula is widespread, and animosity to his regime is found in many spheres. The left wing of the coalition partner Socialist Party is strongly critical, while there are many accumulated rancors in the business community - the Union Minière nationalization, loss to SMTF of a new Union Minière copper development bid in 1970, the Zaïrianization and radicalization measures of 1973 and 1974, among others. Recurrent confrontations between Mobutu and the Church have left resentments in Catholic milieux. While divisions in Belgium are so many that it is misleading to speak of a clear-cut policy, one can say that there is no consensus on strong support for the incumbent regime. The scale of the massacres gave Belgium little choice but to participate in the intervention; however, they visibly sought to circumscribe their role to rescuing their nationals.

American policy came full cycle in a remarkably telescoped time frame. Shaba I had been an opportunity for a carefully limited and measured response, with minimal rhetorical accoutrements and some distancing from the Zaïrian regime in the process of delivery of restricted supply assistance. Between Shaba I and Shaba II occurred the massive Soviet-Cuban Ethiopian operation, and the steady erosion of presidential credibility at home and abroad; the White House was acutely conscious of its image of weakness and ineptitude. The Kolwezi crisis was an opportunity to exhibit strength and decisiveness, presented as a sharp rebuff to Soviet-Cuban African enterprises. Within a week of the FNLC invasion, the White House was committed to the Cuban connection as policy passe partout, explanation for the crisis, and justification for the Western intervention. Remarkably quickly, the liabilities of this policy became clear. It sparked strong reactions from the Congressional Black Caucus, and from Tanzanian President Nyerere, each symptomatic of larger constituencies for the Carter African policy that were being fast alienated. By late June, the tone of policy pronouncements had dramatically changed. New overtures to Angola were announced, which appeared to betoken an abandonment of the post-Kolwezi hard line.

What role did Soviets, Cubans, East Germans, or Angolans play? There is no doubt that the Mobutu regime is viewed in these quarters as an instrument of imperialism, and its disappearance a consummation devoutly to be wished. They are also anxious to see the tenuous authority of the Angolan MPLA regime consolidated; maintenance of the Cuban force is costly, and Zaïrian sanctuary for FNLA and FLEC elements, as well as arms transit for UNITA, make stability for Angola as elusive as it is for Zaïre. The FNLC, from this standpoint, is certainly convenient leverage over Zaïre and its Western backers.

What is frequently overlooked is that it is also a nuisance. The 20,000 Cuban troops and Angolan Army are mainly deployed protecting the Gulf installations, Luanda, the dissident zones of UNITA and FNLA activity, and the southern frontier. In their encampment area, FNLC outnumber Angolans, and constitute a veritable state within a state, a constant irritation. Coping with the perhaps 200,000 refugees who fled the Zaïre Army operations after Shaba I is an additional burden for a regime facing all too many handicaps. Angolans and their allies can have few illusions about the ideological reliability of the FNLC; it is simply not a Marxist revolutionary movement. Luanda has tried without success to bring the FNLC under more sophisticated political and ideological leadership.

It is thus quite possible that both Castro and Carter were at least partly correct in the angry charges exchanged in late May. The FNLC certainly benefited from Cuban arms and encadrement during its participation in the Angolan civil war. There is every reason to believe that supply of light arms and training has continued. The faulty premise is that FNLC leader Mbumba takes orders from his patrons. Both Shaba I and Shaba II appear primarily the initiative of the FNLC. Thus, it may be at once true that FNLC has benefited from Cuban (and East German) arms supply and training, but that Castro tried to discourage the second invasion. Later stages of the Carter rhetorical offensive, which retreated to the allegation that the Cubans were guilty of failing to prevent Shaba II, are consistent with this interpretation.

The two common themes undergirding arguments for active support for the Mobutu regime are the purported threat of a radical Soviet-dominated alternative regime, or the risk of anarchy and disintegration which only Mobutu has the political skills to forestall. The likelihood of a militant Marxist-Leninist regime in Kinshasa is very small. To begin with, there is no Marxist intelligentsia, as in Ethiopia or Angola. A 1975 survey of university students in the Kisangani heartland of Lumumbism provides fascinating evidence on this score. The five African countries most esteemed, aside from Zaïre, were Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville, Tanzania, Zambia, and Ivory Coast, in that order. The three most admired African leaders were Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Senghor, and Felix Houphouet-Boigny.8 It is clear that no ideological structure underlies these choices. An alternative regime is likely to be more assertively nationalist, as was the Mobutu regime itself in its earlier phases. Some 61 percent of the Kisangani students named Lumumba as the most important Zaïrian leader, with Mobutu coming in second with 11 percent.

In fact, no regime, of whatever ideological predisposition, could alter the country's external economic ties very much in the short run. Repudiation of its debts is not practicable for Zaïre any more than it is for equally debt-ridden North Korea. The export commodities provide the revenues and foreign exchange that will be the lifeblood of any regime. These can only be marketed in the West, and the irreversible copper-energy schemes are wholly tributary to Western technology and capital. These shackling constraints would be frustrating to any regime, as they are to the incumbents; only over a longer run period could they be mitigated. Anxieties over Soviet control of the resources and wealth of Zaïre, as well as its strategic location, are at best overblown.

Another argument frequently encountered is that only Mobutu stands between this sprawling country and a return to the disorder of the first republic years. As was argued above, the possibility of intense regional conflict, if a successor junta were unable to fully consolidate its power, cannot be wholly dismissed. If, for example, the FNLC had been able to execute its apparent plan to announce a revolutionary regime in Kolwezi, and appeal to friendly states for armed backing, dangerous scenarios are conceivable, leading to either a costly civil war with high international participation, or de facto separation of the Shaba redoubt.

More difficult than holding the country together will be fundamentally altering the patterns of social inequality that have so rapidly built up, and reversing the trend toward mass impoverishment. The atomization of political forces that has been a secret of survival for the present regime has been very effective. An alternative regime would at once be confronted with the demands of the army - upon which it would necessarily rely - and the entrenched habits of much of the politico-commercial class nourished by the patrimonial politics of the Mobutu era. With one leg shackled by the bondage of external dependency, and the other by the congealing though still-fluid class system, exceptional dedication and consummate skill as well as good fortune would be required for an alternative political formula to emerge from the morass. Among the top figures, in and out of office, both on the civil and military sides, there are a number who could play a leading role, though the fate of Ngunza shows that it is inappropriate to speculate as to individuals. Zaïre is no longer short of talented, able, and well-trained elites. The argument that a mandate of heaven is permanently vested in a single individual has outlived both its credibility and its usefulness.


By way of conclusion, it may be useful to suggest some guidelines for Western policy. In fact the crisis is so profound, and difficulties so immense, that the choices are quite limited, and no policy offers short-run hope of dramatic improvement. Several principles may be advanced, however, which collectively offer a framework for approaching policy choices.

First, it cannot be the task of the outside world to organize the demise of the current regime. The time is past, one may hope, when inconvenient or ineffectual governments are dealt with by unleashing the CIA, as in the days of Mossadeq and Arbenz.

Second, it is not possible, as some would advocate, simply to abandon the country to its fate by refusing all forms of aid. There are several reasons why this option cannot be entertained. The West in general, and the United States in particular, have been so heavily involved in Zaïrian political and economic developments that we bear a share of the responsibility for the present crisis. The Mobutu regime assumed power with full Western backing; the indebtedness occurred with the advice and consent of Western interests. The volatility of Western commodity markets is one dimension of the impasse. In addition, the internal violence that would probably follow the dissolution of the social fabric could trigger large-scale intervention from outside, with all the costs and consequences this would entail. Further, there can be no doubt that the collapse of Zaïre would have major diplomatic repercussions in Africa. The country is so heavily identified with the West in African eyes that such an outcome would necessarily be interpreted as the consequence of reliance upon Western associations.

If the economic collapse of Zaïre is to be averted, the Shaba productive infrastructure cannot be permitted to shut down. As the Zaïre Army is demonstrably unable to protect it against invasion from Angola, the presence of the primarily Moroccan African security force is indispensable until the threat is seen to have subsided.

Some additional financial resources will also be necessary. The long-awaited $220-million bank loan should eventually materialize; it will be directly disbursed by the banks for spare parts and supplies to keep productive enterprises operating, and will not pass through the state coffers. Any project supported should meet the criteria of income effect on the impoverished, as well as productivity.

Donors will need to coordinate their policies, to prevent aberrations such as the French scheme in 1975 to saddle the country with a wholly unnecessary domestic satellite project for $85 million, at a time when the debt situation was already desperate. This too will be difficult; the French have attached higher priority to preserving the incumbent regime than most others, and have been more inclined to indulgence.

Third, although aid efforts must involve continued cooperation with the incumbent regime, as long as it retains power, additional resources will serve no purpose unless they are associated with reforms and controls upon their utilization.

The effort to negotiate reforms, especially when they call into question the patrimonial structures of the regime, is no simple task. President Mobutu is a proud and stubborn leader, quick to take affront, skilled in the diplomacy of dependency. One must recall that he has expelled two American Ambassadors and, in 1975, publicly accused the CIA of trying to overthrow him.

A large role will be played by the team now being recruited for the central bank by the International Monetary Fund, including a deputy director. While the IMF has frequently provided technical assistance in personnel, including central bank directors, for newly established monetary institutions, on this occasion the scope of their mission is much greater. The team, whose recruitment is virtually complete, come from outside the Fund itself. As is customary in such IMF technical assistance operations, they will report to the Bank of Zaïre and Zaïrian authorities. External personnel for other financial organs of the state - customs, finance ministry - are being obtained from other sources.

The corrosion of the administration by the "Zaïrian sickness" has gone so far that there is no other way to limit the hemorrhage of capital occurring both through the Zaïrian politico-commercial class as well as foreign mercantile groups. Though the IMF role is officially technical, curbing exchange leakage will inevitably bring the group into conflict with the powerful political figures who are involved in capital flight. The outcome is evidently uncertain.

Fourth, it would be intolerable to allow external support for Zaïre to preclude any domestically generated political change. The purpose of Western aid should be promotion of the long-term political and economic viability of the Zaïrian polity, not the perpetuation of a particular regime. This is exceedingly difficult to translate into practice, as the regime quite naturally wishes to use the backing received from outside to guarantee its longevity. Yet without this perspective aid risks being a constant hostage to the short-run survival exigencies of a given regime.

Fifth, external assistance must aim at alleviating the distress of the mass of the population. Only escalated repression and terror could enforce further increases in mass impoverishment. There could be no greater indictment of Western policy than to have as its consequence a further lease on life for a given regime, and protection of external economic interests, at the price of further pauperization of the urban and rural poor. This means that some classic formulas for combating the inflation dimension of the crisis cannot be further employed. Wages cannot be further depressed, and prices for peasant output must be sharply increased.

Finally, probably the most effective way to curtail the regional instability that may lead to external intervention is actively to pursue U.S. diplomacy aimed at reconciliation with Angola, and to encourage the current thaw in relations between Zaïre and Angola. In the absence of reasonable political relationships, proxy destabilization campaigns, through external support and equipment to respective rebel forces in both countries, will be a continuing source of disorder. In fact, there is no reason why the divergent ideologies of Kinshasa and Luanda need to make harmonious coexistence impossible. Despite the at least rhetorical Marxist-Leninist commitment of Congo-Brazzaville, relations between Zaïre and its northern neighbor have been remarkably amicable since 1971. (It is worth noting that Congo-Brazzaville played no part in abetting either Shaba I or Shaba II.)The reopening of the Benguela railway would be a great boon to both Zaïre and Angola. Recent indications that Angola may be willing to disarm the FNLC and move the refugees away from the border, in return for comparable Zaïrian moves with respect to UNITA, FNLA and FLEC, may permit withdrawal or at least reduction of external forces from both countries.

The unending crisis in Zaïre is so serious that there can be no guarantee that these policies will succeed. They are put forth as the least unsatisfactory of the choices that are open. They will in the final analysis be justified only if the frightening burden of misery imposed upon the mass of the population is alleviated.


1 These figures are taken from Annual Reports of the Bank of Zaïre. The value of the Zaïre was equivalent to $2.05 in 1971 - and, as of August 1978, to $1.23.

2 J. Ph. Peemans, "The Social and Economic Development of Zaïre Since Independence, An Historical Outline," African Affairs, April 1975, p. 162.

3 A particularly cogent analysis is provided by Jean Ryneman, "Comment le régime Mobutu a sapé ses propres fondements," Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1977.

4 David J. Gould, "Disorganization Theory and Underdevelopment Administration: Local 'Organization' in the Framework of Zaïrian National 'Development'," Annual Meetings, African States Association, Houston, 1977.

5 To The Point, July 7, 1978. These figures refer only to foreign properties; his holding company CELZA, acquired by expropriation of numerous plantations and other enterprises in Zaïre, employs 25,000 persons including 130 expatriates.

6 "Le café et l'économie zaïroise," cited by Professor Kawata Bualum, Elima, November 4, 1977.

7 Daniel Monguya Mbenge, Histoire Secrète du Zaïre, Brussels: Éditions de l'Espérance, 1977.


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  • Crawford Young is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin; he served as Dean of the Social Science Faculty, National University of Zaïre, Lumumbashi campus, from 1973 to 1975. He is the author of The Politics of Cultural Pluralism, Politics in the Congo, and other works.
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