The Enigma

Who is Laurent Kabila? And will he be better or worse for Africa's third largest country?


Jonathan Broder
May 21, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

laurent Kabila finally arrived in Kinshasa, capital of the newly named Democratic Republic of Congo, Tuesday night, and a new era for Africa's third largest country -- and perhaps for the continent as a whole -- officially began.

But what will that era look like? In one American newspaper cartoon, one Zairian says to another: "Things can't be any worse than they were under Mobutu." The other Zairian replies: "I'm sure we'll find out." The French-educated, former Marxist Kabila, 56, remains an enigma. Apart from renaming Zaire the Democratic Republic of Congo (right next door to the Republic of Congo), his intentions are not clear. He was supposed to have established a provisional government by now, but that has not happened. He has promised elections, but not for at least 12 months, and has said that true democracy and a market economy could take as long as five years to implement. The Clinton administration has recognized the rebel regime but is wary.

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Salon spoke with William Zartman, an Africa specialist at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the author of numerous books about the continent, including "Ripe for Resolution: Conflict and Intervention in Africa" (Oxford University Press).

The Western press has given us two ways to think of Kabila: democrat or despot. Which view is more accurate?

Firstly, he's a consummate politician. Leading a movement that resisted Mobutu for such a long time was no small achievement. Most interestingly, Kabila was able to leap in and head the Tutsi coalition in eastern Zaire, whose members had fought against Kabila in the 1960s and 1970s. He also cultivated contacts with Ugandan and Rwandan leaders he had known from their early days as revolutionaries in Tanzania. They ended up backing him because they saw him as their best bet to get rid of Mobutu. All in all, Kabila has great political skills.

Much of what has been written in the Western press suggests he is nothing more than a second-string resistance leader who simply managed to outlast his rivals.

I don't think that's a fair assessment. Remember that all the so-called first-stringers in the resistance to Mobutu ended up either dead or in exile. One way to look at Kabila is to say he survived because he was unimportant. Another is to say he's still around because he has enormous staying power.

There are reports that Kabila was a dishonest and brutal rebel leader in eastern Zaire. How valid are they?

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I don't know, and we'll never find out. But rather than focusing on these lurid and uncertain details of the past, the important thing is to focus on what he achieved. Even though he started out at the head of what was essentially a Tutsi movement, by the time he came a third of the way across Zaire, he was the leader of the whole anti-Mobutu movement. Another important thing to note is that when he liberated an area, he held elections. Agreed, they were by raised hand in large crowds, but they were elections nonetheless. In other words, he did not impose a Maoist-Marxist-style government of his cronies.

In Kisangani, for example, the majority of people elected to the local council were not members of Kabila's rebel coalition. In Kindu, Kabila appointed a governor, but the locals objected, saying he had too much of a past with Mobutu. So Kabila removed him, his own appointee, and put in somebody else more acceptable. One can say this is expediency and opportunism. Well, yeah, but as we all know, an opportunist is another word for a good politician.

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What should we look for from Kabila as president?

He has to form a very broad coalition. That is the big test. If he forms a narrow government, that won't be a good sign. The signs so far are that he's looking to form a very broad-based group.

Who are the people behind Kabila?

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One group are his Tutsi advisers. But he also has around him a group of exiles, none of them Tutsis, who were living in the United States as lawyers and professors and who are now his chief advisors for justice and economics. There are others of different ethnic backgrounds who Kabila has picked up along the way for different reasons. So already, the people around him are a broad-based group that reaches out to a number of ethnicities.

Some experts say he might try to return to his Marxist-Maoist roots.

Yes, but Kabila is open to be influenced in a more democratic direction. And one must remember that in Zaire, there is a vibrant, active democratic movement and civil society. That's one of the most extraordinary things about the country in the wake of Mobutu. Government was so absent that people had to organize themselves. The people now are literally bursting for democracy, which means that Kabila is going to face a lot of pressure for participation in government. From the bottom -- his own people -- and from the sides -- the United States and other Western countries -- there is going to be a lot of pressure on him to democratize.

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Aren't you troubled by the killings committed by Kabila's troops against Mobutu supporters as Kinshasa was being liberated?

Actually, what stands out to me is how little violence, relatively speaking, Kabila's takeover involved. People assumed that Kinshasa would be a blood bath of killing and looting. But very little of that happened. Yes, there have been a few summary executions of Mobutu's presidential guards, and that's not good. But overall, I would say Kabila's troops have shown a lot of discipline.

Could Kabila's past as a Marxist tempt him to turn the country into a centralized economy?

Many of his actions show he's outgrown that. Nothing in the local councils that he's already set up locally indicate a Maoist-Marxist kind of government, and he's made plenty of long-term contracts with free enterprise people.

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What does Kabila's takeover mean for the rest of Africa?

Well, the Sudan government has lost a friend, and the Sudanese rebels have gained a friend -- this at a time when fortunes are turning in favor of the rebels. So Kabila's ascendancy could tip the balance there. Kenya also has lost a friend because Mobutu and Daniel Arap Moi were held together by a common enmity toward Uganda. But that shouldn't have any direct effect since Kenya is over on the Indian Ocean and too far away to matter.

Could Kabila be courting trouble with South Africa by taking over the DeBeers diamond mines in Zaire?

That's interesting. It could influence the dynamics of the region. The chief tendency is for South Africa to dominate the region, which is still happening today even under Mandela. But another dynamic is the wariness of the other states toward South African dominance, especially Zimbabwe and Angola. Together with them, Zaire could become an important counterweight to South African leadership on the continent.

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What will happen to the U.S. in Zaire? Don't ordinary Zairians blame the United States for keeping Mobutu in power for so long?

Yes, lots. But everybody is blamed, France and Belgium even more than the United States. So that shouldn't prevent us from having some influence over events there. But we have to expect that we're going to be preached at. The nonviolent opposition in Zaire is very anti-American. But Kabila seems flexible and we'll probably be able to deal with him.

Does the U.S. have a policy toward the new Democratic Republic of Congo?

Frankly, our whole African policy is in disarray. We have a secretary of State who doesn't know -- or care -- much about the region. And we don't have an assistant secretary of State for Africa in place as yet. Susan Rice, now with the National Security Council, probably will take over that position, and when she does, she will find an Africa bureau at the State Department that is completely demoralized, having been led by (former Assistant Secretary of State) George Moose, who was a complete incompetent. I suppose to be fair, Moose didn't get any support from (former Secretary of State Warren) Christopher. For Christopher, Africa was one of the places you flew over to get to the Middle East.

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Why should the United States care about Africa?

One way to look at that question is how will it harm us if we don't. If, for example, nobody works with Kabila, if we don't try to push him toward democracy, provide him with aid and technical assistance, a large part of central Africa could fall into despair and unrest. And the United States could get pulled in ways that it doesn't like being pulled.

On the other hand, this is a tremendous opportunity to build a center of stability in Africa. Sure, there will be a lot of political infighting as people try to grab opportunities. But there's a real possibility of a big African country taking off and going somewhere. It would have a tremendous effect on U.S. goals for human rights and democratization, not to mention American trade and investment. Make no mistake about it: This is a real opportunity, and people are really ready for it. We would be fools to ignore it. Although it wouldn't be the first time.


Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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